"Ssss!" Sweet Ma countered with irritation. "That was said to
guests who are foreigners. They expect inflated talk. They have no shame, no
propriety, no standards of excellence. Besides, any schoolgirl can play that
easy song, even you, if you practiced a little harder." And then she poked the
side of my head for good effect.
Sweet Ma said that my father did not need to inflate her worth,
because they had a complete understanding. "Superfluous words are not necessary
when the marriage is balanced, in perfect harmony," she told me. "And that is
because our union was fated to be."
At the time, it did not occur to me to question what she said,
and my brothers had no opinions on love, or if they did, they would not share
them with me. I was thus left to assume that a good marriage was one in which
the husband respected the wife's privacy. He did not intrude in her life,
visit her rooms, or bother her with questions. There was no need to speak to
each other, since they were of the same mind.
But one day my uncle and his family came for a visit several
months long. My cousin Yuhang and I kept each other company morning to night. We
were like sisters, although we saw each other only once a year. On that
particular visit, she told me that she had overheard her parents and their
friends gossipingwhich, at the time, was the only way anyone learned the
truth. The gossip had to do with the union between Sweet Ma and my father. It
had been agreed to before their births. In 1909, two comrades from different
life circumstances vowed that if the revolution to end the Ching dynasty
succeeded and they were still alive to see it, their families should be united
by marriage. Well, the Ching was overthrown in 1911, and the comrade with a son
had a reputation so high it was said to have reached the heavens. That would be
my father's family. The other had a daughter, and his household clung to earth
like the rotted roots of a tree about to tilt over with the next small gust.
That would be Sweet Ma's household. When the poor comrade with the daughter
ran into the rich one with the son, he mentioned their earlier vow, incompatible
in status though their lives were. It was widely known, the servants said, that
my grandfather was a man of high morals for forcing his eldest son to marry a
girl so plain, so lacking in any charms that would compensate for her
embarrassingly meager dowry. No wonder the son took on a concubine as soon as he
Of course, Sweet Ma reported things differently: "Your mother,"
she said, "was the daughter of a concubine to a family of only middle status.
The concubine had given birth to ten healthy babies, all boys except one. That
one girl, while weedy in looks at age sixteen, held promise for being as
baby-prolific as her mother. I suggested her to your father, and he said I was
wife enough. But I insisted that a stallion must have mares, and mares produce
broods, so he mustn't be a mule."
According to Sweet Ma, the relationship my father had with my
mother was "very polite, as one should be toward strangers." In fact, my father
was much too kind, and my mother learned to take advantage of this. The way
Sweet Ma described it: "She was a schemer. She'd put on her rose-colored
dress, twirl her favorite flower hairpin, and with eyes dishonestly lowered, she
would raise that simpering smile of hers toward your father. Oh, I knew what she
was up to. She was always begging money to pay off the gambling debts of her
nine brothers. I learned too late that her entire family was a nest of snake
spawn. Don't you grow up to be like them, or I'll let the rats in to chew
you up at night."
According to Sweet Ma, my mother proved true to her breeding and
excelled at becoming pregnant every year. "She gave birth to your eldest
brother," Sweet Ma said, counting on her fingers. "Then there was your second
brother. After that, three blue babies, drowned in the womb, which was a shame
but not so tragic, since they were girls."
From Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan. Copyright Amy Tan 2005. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Putnam Publishing. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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