"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 could.
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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