Pen Pals of the Pandemic, Unite!

May-lee Chai

My father at nearly 90 years of age can no longer safely live on his own so he has moved in with me, into my apartment in San Francisco. We’ve sold his home, auctioned off the lifetime accumulation of his possessions, boxed his books, stacked the remnants in storage.

Then the pandemic hits and we can’t go to movies or museums or anything to break the tedium of being confined together in my small, studio apartment.

Sartre thought he was being clever but not literal when he wrote No Exit, putting three narcissists in Hell made up of a single room with an unlocked door that none of them dares to open.

Then fire season hits Northern California early after a freak dry lightning storm and we find we are trapped in my extremely tiny studio apartment, unable even to open the windows because of the smoke.   

Chairman Mao once wrote that it’s always darkest before it becomes completely black.

The sky in San Francisco turns completely orange.

In the two years before my father moved in with me, he experienced a number of health problems including internal bleeding, polyps, a broken back, anemia, weight loss, low-blood oxygenation requiring him to be on an oxygen tank, depression, and anxiety.

I fly back and forth from San Francisco, pack up his books, sell his house, and move him out.

I have him visit some of the nicer senior centers that I’ve found but he refuses to move in. “Death houses,” he calls them.

So we’ve settled in together.

To pass the time sheltering in place, I decide to video my father talking about his memories.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know what I remember.”

“It’s okay. We’ll go in steps.”

I want him to tell me the family stories, the ones he’s told me at random all the years I was growing up.

For example, when I was born, he told me I turned blue in the hospital room after being pulled by forceps from my mother after 22 hours of labor.           

My father said to the doctor, “She looks cold.”

The doctor said, “Mixed blood.”

My father told me he said to himself in shock, Mixed blood! There’s no such thing as mixed blood!

My apartment is small and extremely messy. I have to move chairs and piles of books and cardboard boxes of stuff in order to clear a space for my father to sit in front of my one nice scroll painting of a squirrel and a pumpkin. I clip a lavalier mic I’ve ordered online to my father’s lapel. I’ve convinced him to put on his teaching clothes, his suit jacket with a crisp button up shirt rather than the sweats he has taken to wearing day in and out.

“Tell me about when I was born,” I say as a prompt.

“I don’t know,” he says.

“You know what the doctor said? After I turned blue?”

“Oh, that doctor. That doctor was a drunk.” My father shakes his head, recalling.

I set my iPhone up on an endtable, propped up with books to the right height.

I hit record. “Okay, go.”

Always get the last word.

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“Go? Now?” My father blinks at me.

“Yes, go. Start. Start talking.”

My father faces the camera. “Back in the 1960s many people were opposed to interracial marriage. When I first started my job at the University of Redlands in Southern California, the president did not like that I wasn’t married. He told me I better not date any students. I said, ‘No, Doctor Armacost. Of course not.'”

I turn off the video for second. “Okay, that’s great. Now can you tell the story about when I was born?”

“When you were born?”

“Yes. Remember you said the doctor said I was blue because I was mixed blood?”
I start the iPhone recording again.

My father blinks into the camera. “Tell me when you are ready.”

“Okay, start now.”

“Now? You want me to go?”

I turn off the iPhone. “When I say start–“

“When you were born–“

“Wait, wait!” I turn on the video recording again.

My father stares at the phone.

“You can go. Now!”

“When you were born, the doctor wasn’t very good. He was in fact an alcoholic. I later learned that he had to retire and he died of cancer a few years after that. So when my son was born, I made sure we had a better doctor. I didn’t want that doctor anymore.”

I turn off the iPhone. “Okay, we can try again another time for my story.”

My father leans toward me. “Redlands was very conservative. When I interviewed there, I was from New York City, I had no idea. But I had to move there. I knew if I stayed home, I’d never be able to get married. My best friend in Taiwan sent his sister to New York, and his family wanted me to marry her, but Nai-nai really quickly fixed her up with someone else. I didn’t even know what was happening.”

I’ve heard these stories, the ones where my grandmother finds something wrong with every single woman that my father dates or else she fixes the girl up with someone else behind his back. There was the Jewish girl he liked at the advertising agency where he worked. When he introduced her to Nai-nai, my grandmother said she liked her but insisted that she’d have to convert to Christianity. (“I knew I couldn’t ask that,”my father lamented.”Her mother was a Holocaust survivor!” ) Then he dated a Japanese girl he met in his French class. Nai-nai said, “Who do you think her parents were praying to God to win the war?” Every girl sent from Taiwan to meet him, Nai-nai fixed up with other men.

“So I took the job in California,” my father says.

“Then I met Mama. Of course she wasn’t my wife yet, we just met, but after we were engaged, I told the president I was going to marry her, and he said, ‘Oh you couldn’t find any Chinese girls?’ Because Mama was a Caucasian. And I said, ‘Oh, but President Armacost, you said when you hired me that I couldn’t date any of the students, and the only Chinese girls are students.’ And immediately the president changed his tune and said, ‘Oh, Carol is a great girl!'” My father laughs. “He changed his tune really quickly.”

“Why can’t you tell me this story when I’m videoing?” I ask.

“What?” he says.

This is how the videoing goes all summer.

Every morning, my father tells me his dreams.

I notice that I am never in them.

My father’s dreams are a litany of his work life. “I was going to a conference in Los Angeles. And the President came up to me in the parking lot and asked me if I could take these two people with me. I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. I can’t fit them in the car with the kids!’ I was so worried, I woke up.”

Or, “I was going to a conference and I suddenly realized I’d left my briefcase at home.”

“I was at an international studies conference, talking to James and Hong, and suddenly there was a big commotion. People were running, and I stood up to see what they were doing. Then I woke up.”

I wonder what it means that in my father’s subconscious he is always away from his family, at work, traveling.

I usually never remember my dreams, then I slept in late one morning, and the light coming through the blinds in my apartment became part of the dream. I was in a large, spacious, light-filled room that I understood to be my apartment although it is nothing like my actual cramped, tiny apartment when there is a terrible loud knocking sound. I open my door and my brother and his wife are standing outside on the steps, all four of their children in tow. My oldest niece, who has graduated college and married, is now a child again, staring at me angrily. I almost don’t recognize her child-self, and then I do. “What’s wrong? What’s the matter?” I ask, embracing her and pulling her inside. My brother and the others follow, and I realize with a start that they are moving in.

I wake up in a panic, my heart thumping from the adrenaline, and I cannot calm myself for an entire hour even though I know it was just a dream, just a dream, not real, even while I doomscroll through Twitter trying to distract myself.

When I was a teenager, my father was often gone, traveling for work, away at a conference, and my mother, who suffered from mental illness, would cycle through various moods, periods of mania and then depression. I was the one who took care of my younger brother, prepared all the meals, did the backbreaking labor required on the small farm that my parents had bought back when my mother had insisted that was what she wanted and my father had thought that would at last make her happy.  I escaped when I was eighteen. My mother has been dead for more than two decades, but I know what will haunt my subconscious until the end of my life.

Because we can’t go to theaters, I try subscribing to an online streaming service.

Watching the movie Trumbo, about the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter, my father remembers someone from his past.

“They should make a movie about poor Gene,” he says.

“Who’s he?”

“She was my office mate at Fairleigh Dickinson. Gene Weltfish. Boy, she really suffered. She was like this guy, Trumbo, she was accused of being a Communist, and then they fired her. She was at Columbia. Couldn’t get a job for ten years. She was blacklisted.”

I start typing in names in Google. I am shocked both at what I find and that I’d never heard of her before.

My father says that they had shared the same office, his desk on one side, hers on the other. He was still finishing up his degree and teaching politics. He was fascinated by all the Native American artwork on her wall and asked where she had found them. That’s when she revealed that she was an anthropologist, had studied for her Ph.D. at Columbia with Franz Boas, one of the most renowned anthropologists of his generation.

“Columbia?” my father had exclaimed. “What are you doing at Fairleigh Ridiculous?” Then she told him what happened to her.

“She said she was lucky that the president had hired her. He liked that her Ph.D. was from an Ivy League school. He didn’t care about McCarthy,” he says.

“I remember Gene was very nice to me. She always brought her lunch to our office. She used to say I was too thin and she’d give me half her sandwich. She’d say, ‘You need to eat more. I don’t need this, you need this.’ So I’d take the sandwich but then later I really just gave it away to a student. I didn’t know what it was in those days. I’d never seen egg salad before.”

In fact, my grandfather was making all my father’s food. My father would head back to Manhattan on the weekends where Ye-ye had made all my father’s meals for the week, neatly stacked in boxes for my father to take back to New Jersey. This is why, my father says, he never learned to cook.

“When I told Gene I’d accepted the teaching job in Redlands, she was very happy. Gene said, ‘I know you’re going to find your wife in California.’ She was a very nice lady. It’s too bad what happened to her.”

In 1943 the U.S. Army recruited Gene (née Regina) Weltfish and her colleague in the Anthropology Department at Columbia University, Ruth Benedict, to co-author a pamphlet that would show that race was socially constructed. The military was afraid that white American soldiers would balk at teaming up with “colored” allies in the Pacific theater, specifically in the Philippines and Solomon Islands. Weltfish and Benedict co-wrote The Races of Mankind. As proof that race was a social construct and not a biological reality with set innate characteristics, they cited a U.S. Army study showing Northern Blacks had scored higher on IQ tests than Southern whites. The authors used this example to demonstrate that intelligence tests measured access to education, which was more widespread in Northern states, rather than innate, immutable “racial” characteristics. In 1953, Senator Joseph McCarthy cited the pamphlet as an example of “un-American activities,” and called Weltfish before the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security. (Benedict had passed away in 1948 and was thus spared the inquisition.) 

Despite the fact that the pamphlet had been commissioned by the U.S. military, and according to Weltfish was used by the U.S. “in the de-Nazification program in Germany,” McCarthy viewed The Races of Mankind as socialist propaganda. Weltfish was fired from her teaching position at Columbia and unable to find another academic position for nearly 10 years.

Finally in 1961 she was hired to teach at Fairleigh Dickinson, where my father became her office mate in 1962. She worked there until her retirement in 1971. She died in 1980.

Racism is as American as apple pie.

Resistance to racism is also as American as apple pie and egg salad sandwiches and my grandfather’s home-cooked Chinese meals in my father’s erstwhile fridge.

It amazes me that a woman like Gene Weltfish can suffer so much and still be kind enough to offer half her lunch to an immigrant, that McCarthy and his hearings could not, did not break her.  There is victory in endurance. We are all playing the long game.

So that his muscles do not completely atrophy, I try to take my father out for a walk every day. I drive him to a secluded area in the city and let him slowly push his walker up and down the sidewalk while I stand guard in case he falls or some crazy racist comes by shouting about the “China virus” or god knows what.

When I was a small child, my father used to walk behind us as my brother and I raced up and down the sidewalk on our bikes. I don’t remember my father on a bicycle so he must have just followed behind on foot. In my mind I am whizzing along at a breakneck speed, the training wheels shooting sparks, the wind in my hair, yet my father is always there behind me if I need a push or a hand to steady my bike. Either he could run really fast in those days or I was a lot slower than I imagined.

Now I pace beside my father as he pushes his walker up and down the sidewalk, glaring at any of the maskless assholes who still pop out of nowhere from time to time.

I’ve read about people getting into fistfights over masks, knife fights even, and I hope I will not be one of those people, but when a maskless jogger goes huffing by my father and me, trailing droplets, I am tempted to give chase, to throw one of my father’s canes in his direction. In my imagination, despite my injured discs and my bad knees, I can catch this man and berate him until he cries.

What will I be like after this nightmare is over? The pandemic, this administration. Will it be over? And what will replace it? I know better than to think any political problem is ever really over. There will be new problems and variations of the same ones that we and everyone else have been grappling with forever.

When I take my father for his walk, we must pass through the lobby of my building, and if anyone is there, my father cannot restrain himself from speaking to them, mask or no. I cannot stop him. He’s from that friendly, used-to-talking-to-strangers-in-person generation.

“Are you all right?” he asks. “Do you think we will survive this virus?”

I have become a very judgmental person and I can judge anyone based on how they answer. The kind and worthy respond with patience. They assure my father that we will be all right, that he will be all right, which is what he really wants to hear. The distracted and busy respond with surprise that anyone is speaking to them as they rut through the packages strewn about the lobby floor, looking for their latest Amazon purchases. They barely respond at all. “I’m fine,” they say, flipping boxes around to check the labels.

And the truly abhorrent retiree on the 5th floor, who said, “It’s a hoax” and then muttered, “Commies,” under his breath as he thought the elevator doors were shutting, he can go burn in hell.

Occasionally, my father wakes up in the morning suffering from a panic attack. He is worried about the future, the election, his own body. During the videoconference with his doctor, she recommended writing letters to share his thoughts with local and national politicians. “This might help mitigate the sense of hopelessness you feel,” she says.

I am organizing to get the vote out with my friends and neighbors, so I order some extra postcards and stamps for my father. Now my father and I are writing to strangers across the nation, reminding them to register to vote.

I finish a Zoom conference call with a student and fold up the screen that I put behind my ergonomic desk chair so my students can’t see my father sleeping in his easy chair behind me in my apartment.

I step over my father’s legs and carry the screen to its place leaning against one of my bookcases.

When I turn around, my father is awake.

“I had a dream about the election,” he says. “Trump is in prison. He is asking everyone, ‘What happened to my base?’ And they say, ‘This time the women did not follow their husbands. You lost the spouse vote.'” My father laughs uproariously in his chair. He pumps his feet into the air, one after the other, doing his ankle exercises. Ankle, ankle, right circle, left circle.

I’m glad he remembers his chair yoga. Usually I have to remind him to keep moving, but now, buoyed by his vision for the new year, he pumps away of his own volition.

This, I realize, is what hope looks like.

May-lee Chai is the author of eight books and is a recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Prose (2006–7). Her novels include My Lucky Face (1997), Dragon Chica (2010) and Tiger Girl (2013), which won an Asian/Pacific American Award in Literature. Her memoir Hapa Girl (2007) was a Kiriyama Prize 2008 Notable Book.

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