Other Peoples’ Memories

I have other people’s memories. No, it’s not like I’m some sort of psychic or telepathy or any sort of crap like that, It’s just that when I think I know someone or connect with them, (“rapport” I think they call it) I can access their own memories as easily as I can my own.

Don’t get me wrong, I mean I know it’s a pretty screwy notion and all, but I believe it. It’s like a piece of them is now with me. Okay, I know it’s not like I believe what I see in my head is just what they see or nothin’ but I still think it’s genuine.

Take last summer for instance, I had to go hang out at my Uncle Gene’s house. He’s great. A total goofball but a swell guy and all. He’s bald as a ping-pong ball and built like a freaking tank. He used to be a Marine and some big football player and a general hard-ass of sorts, but now he’s this big, old nice guy. Anyway, his wife, my Aunt Jeanne, is Korean.

I know what you’re thinking, Big Whoop. No, I don’t think having a minority in the family makes me cool or anything. IN fact, I never much liked her. I mean she smiles real nice and is a helluva cook but I just never got to know her. I mean criminey, she is all of four-eight with the hair and smokes like a chimney and has these perfect dragonlady fingernails. Which is to say, she kinda gave me the creeps.

Anyway, I just got back from Leavenworth the night before where I floated down the Wenatchee on inner tubes with some friends. We got ahold of some beer and drank our butts off and got sunburned as we coasted downstream. It was great. Scary thing is, I guess two folks in a raft drowned upstream the same day we did that. And they were real rafters “lifejackets and all”, not some goofball high school kids like us.

Anyway, I thought I’d crash at Uncle Gene’s instead of driving all the way home to Salem. Like I said, he’s a great guy. Besides, I know where they keep the spare key and don’t mind if I just show up. So, I roll in about four a.m. and am trying to sneak in to crash on their sofa when I hear, “Good morning, Francis!”

And I just about crap my pants. It’s my Aunt Jeanne and she’s already up, having a cigarette and a cup of coffee. Cripes! I was half-asleep and who the hell is up at four a.m. anyway?

Aunt Jeanne’s pretty cool about it, “Good Morning, Francis.” It’s like she was expecting me or something. And she said “Francis.” My full name is Francis Xavier Richman. But no one ever calls me Francis. It’s always “Frank” or “Franky”, but never “Francis.” Sounds like some sort of candy-ass guy who thinks he’s some sort of Renaissance man. I generally hate Francis, but it ain’t so bad coming from her.

So once I collect myself and by the time I sit down and say hello, she’s already cooked up a ham and egg sandwich on toast for me. Man, that was a good sandwich. Like I said, she’s a helluva cook. And then, she pours me a cup of coffee. Jeesh! I’m sixteen! What do I need coffee for? It’s like drinking bitter, hot, three-day old Coke. So I put about a gallon of milk and six spoons of sugar in it.

You know what’s really good in coffee? I tried it once on a camping trip. Take a cup of coffee, and it can be the hottest, nastiest, battery-acid cup of joe you ever tasted and pour in sweetened condensed milk. Woah, Betty. Now that is good.

Anyway, so I’m sitting there with Aunt Jeanne, drinking coffee while she’s smoking. Neither one of us are saying a word, so I get ancy and sick of the silence. So I ask her what’s new. And we small talk. God, I hate small talk. It’s just there so you don’t have any dead air. Right then and there I vowed never to ask someone “What’s new?” It’s a total cop-out for genuine conversation or something of interest. If I ever do ask it, you can hit me.

On top of that, by this time, I have really got to pee. Weird how coffee does that. Beer, too. Anyway, I figure I’d better go, but before I do, I wanted to know where she was from.

At that point, she coulda been Eskimo for all I knew. Anyhow, she tells me that she’s Korean, but that she was born in Japan and how the Japanese hate the Korean’s guts and vice-versa. And that she lived in Japan during World War II and Korea during the Korean War. And I’m thinking, “What lousy timing.” and knowing I still gotta pee. But I’m getting interested. So I continue to ask more questions. And she talks. And pretty soon I forget about peeing.

Seems that during the War, her family lost everything they had. And I mean everything. She had to quit school in the 3rd grade to work to help support the family. Everyone except her brother, the only boy, cuz Koreans figure that’s something special. Anyhow, she tells me how she only had one pair of shoes until she was seventeen. She only had one blouse and skirt that her mother sewed by hand which she made from a dyed rice-sack. And she’s not lying or anything. Boy, that just killed me. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg with her. These people were poor.

Her mother used to boil chicken bones trying to make something like soup. And those bones were the trash someone else threw out. They didn’t even get to eat the chicken. And they couldn’t get rice, which is sorta like potatoes to us. They could only get the hard husk which they’d boil to make soft enough to eat and then make a cake out of it and fry it in a pan. And this is what they lived on.

One time, when she was just a kid, she worked in a light bulb factory wrapping that little filament around the thing so the light bulb lit up when you turn it on. When it came time for lunch, she pulls out this tasteless, nasty hunk of fried-rice husk and is about to try to choke it down when she sees the girl next to her has this big old bowl of white rice and fish. I guess Aunt Jeanne just about fell over in the face of that and suddenly couldn’t conceive of eating that hunk of husk. So she leaves work and instead of walking the four miles home, spends her entire weeks wages on a bus ride home. Or at least as close as the bus got to home.

When she gets off the bus, she’s really lightheaded and then she passes out. When she finally wakes up, it’s like three or four days later and the entire family is gathered around her and they’re all moaning and weeping because they think she’s dead. I guess she was in a coma or something.

Like I said, that’s just the tip of the iceberg with her. Boy, that just about killed me. I had no idea her life was like that.

I found out later that the day before I got there, she had just gotten word that her father had died. Only, he had died two years earlier and it took the letter two years to catch up to their new address. But that’s another story.

Now, though, when I think of Aunt Jeanne, I don’t see a cigarette-smoking dragonlady. I see a little girl who has taken just about the worst shot life can muster and is still smiling. But I guess that makes me a little sad, You see, I know how she feels, the hurt, the fear. Because I have her memories.