Once again, the column I started to write has morphed into something else. It started with finding pieces to a puzzle I have wanted to fill in regarding the stories of my maternal grandparents who lived primarily in Los Angeles. It started again, with middle-of-the-night news of a fire destroying my brother Damon’s Ventura home. What started out with a joyful find; started again with a devastating loss.
Just a couple of weeks ago, though now it seems weeks and weeks, I opened the door to my parents home and immediately Mom called out, “Arianne, there’s a big, big surprise here.” For the most part, I like to look at the world through “the glass is half full” eyes, but during the past couple of years, some surprises have not been kind. Although Mom’s voice had a lilt in it, I still approached the table with a bit of trepidation. She was sitting with my brother Damon, and they were both grinning. There was a large box on the table.
As I peered into the box and took a look at its contents, I too, had a grin on my face. Mom’s cousin had sent puzzle pieces I have wanted for many years to help me learn my maternal grandparent's stories. This box contained some of my grandfather’s paperwork, and it only seemed fitting that finally, parts of his story were coming home.
The paperwork is well over a hundred years old, the pages very fragile. We decided to keep the handling of them to a minimum until we have museum quality storage sleeves and boxes. But what we do know is that much of the paperwork is sheet music for each of the instruments in a band. Some are printed copies, others handwritten in a fine script. Mom said her father had beautiful penmanship. Grandfather Chan was in vaudeville. I have been able to hear his voice by watching a scene in Humphrey Bogart’s film “Across the Pacific,” and if I squint my eyes and cock my head to the right, maybe I see my nose for a brief second. I see my sister’s eyes in every photograph I have seen of him.
It’s hard to uncover complete histories for this set of grandparents, as they died before my mother reached adulthood. She lost her mother at the tender age of five, and her father died when she was fourteen.
What in fact is known is that China Alley’s prominent businessman Sue Chung Kee had three children – Y.T., Florence, and Bessie. My grand-uncle (my maternal grandfather’s brother) married Florence, forming strong family roots to both sides of the Alley, as his brother-in-law, Y.T. Sue established his herbalist business across from his father’s mercantile shop. But knowing these few details is not having the full picture. Over the years I’ve poked and prodded, trying to find out more about my maternal grandparents, but for the most part, I have come up with a blank page. So I treasure the nits and bits that provide pieces of this puzzle.
Although Mom and her parents primarily resided in Los Angeles they spent time in Hanford, where my grandparents taught English to the Chinese at a place called The Mission, which was located where the old Imperial Dynasty and Chinese Pagoda parking lot sign once stood on Green Street, across from Kings Hand Laundry.
Grandfather Chan owned a ranch located on Excelsior and 6th Avenue, where they grew Robier grapes. When in season, once in a while Robier grapes are available at the Thursday Night Market Place, and when this happens my mother buys some, “just because.” I, of course, enjoy them as all the fruits of the season but focus even more on tracking and writing about the twists and turns, branches, leaves and fruit of our family tree.
Its poignantly ironic that on a recent trip to San Francisco, Steve and I made a point of locating my great-uncle’s home in Chinatown, and then less than forty-eight hours later we received news of Damon’s home burning to the ground. From gain to grief. What was lost was found, what was a home suddenly and utterly gone.
In her youth, Mom was also in the entertainment business. When she was working, her father would visit her on the set and they would have lunch together in the commissary. Mom remembers that her father always ordered Welsh Rarebit – a popular dish from across the pond – consisting of a melted sauce mixture of cheddar cheese, beer and seasonings served over toasted bread. A comfort food.
In honor of the strength and resiliency of my tribes, I stirred pots and toasted bread. Not quite the comfort food I generally stir up, but it was consoling in its own way.
On automatic, I stepped into the kitchen, pulled out the requisite pots and pans, and began to cook. It would be a tribute not only to the pieces of a puzzle tree, but to strength and resiliency of family clans. As I stirred, I thought of Damon stepping away from the ashes of everything he owned and into his future with all the strength and positive intent so characteristic of him. I can’t help but think that perhaps our clan bird is the Phoenix. Neither can I help missing Dad with the sharpness of new grief and the deepest possible sense of the loss of his steady comfort.
Here’s our recipe for Welsh Rarebit. This time I used white cheddar, because that what was I had on hand and served it over a toasted ciabatta roll.