Oct/Nov 2020 Spotlight

What My Father Tells Me

by Georgia San Li

What My Father Tells Me

The glimpses in memory mingle with
silver light welling up in my eyes, as if
reflecting the lake we cross, my father and me,
rocking gently from side to side in
a passenger ferry along the route he took as a boy,
when it was not the longer way home,
the first time he shows me where he is from.

The reminiscing falls like a sheen of warm mist
and kisses my face. I know little about my grandfather,
too little, I think. And this morning I tell myself what I know,
gathering up my father's voice in my arms
before I can no longer recall the sounds, re-envisioning
what I know from what he tells me.

"Your grandfather, my father, is the first son, and thus inherits
the family home and the lands, and
on his way to the terraces carved into the mountains,
he reuses a long branch he keeps to clear leaves
where mounds of grass like quiet turtles rest
in the shush of the glimmering trees."

Pointing to the blue clay tiles, my father tells me,
"Look for this from the village over there. People in the village know
this house, our family, so you will not be lost as you may fear."
He slides open the screen door of my grandfather's study.
"Your grandfather studies Chinese philosophy."
An abacus sits on a polished wood desk, and in long ago memory
my grandfather's fingers play across its beads for me.

"Your grandfather hosts discussions with heads of family," he tells me,
"at a place where trees stood before the war, where his boy hid,
so happy and dreaming, his mouth watering for
a table his mother arranges, a table of feasts for their world."

"Listen, your grandfather wrote this," he tells me.
And as if hiding there, too, I see the sheaves,
the papers kept under knees until shaken
loose in the light for the reading. He reads:

In the grass mat, I live seated in green pastures,
In the red wine, I am a red rose in deep love.

"Your grandfather names his grandchildren," he tells me.
"And beginning with you, this includes daughters, my offspring,
you see. This way the branches reach out to two sisters, extend from two brothers,
names written like permanent rings.
And thus, ours has more pages in it."
And I imagine the terrace of names in those books, and
though I have never seen them, written in brushstrokes
of horsehair and earth's mineral ink,
I can feel the branches in my arms grow lush with its leaves.

"What is your name, you ask?"
"What you are asking is 'What does this mean?,'" he tells me.
"The character for the daughters of your generation is
Pure, so you are Pure Heart, your sister, Pure Mind,
your brother is Wellspring of Loyalty.
And Park, your family name, means tree."

"After the truce, the village built a blank monument,
to be carved with names of families from here who are philosophers," he tells me.
"This is our hope against war in the future. One day, go there to see.
Juris Doctor qualifies for this purpose, so your name, Pure Heart, is there, too.
Your sister's and brother's names are inscribed also, and
remember there should be others, although now only our two generations live.
Remember also your cousin, a philosopher of music, and
I say to your fourth uncle, "Your son should be there!"
Who would have dreamed that our voice would ring freely, singing
our anthem to the mountains from here."

Like his father, he names his grandchildren.
And my brother says, "Apba, can you believe this: A grandson is coming," and
together they look over the shape of his head, the sonograms,
like poetry, the proof. "When you have decided"—his entreaty—"please tell us his name."
And our father ponders this overnight, under the moon
on a Tuesday, and after he wakes in the morning,
he says, "Take me out of this bed, I will eat at the table, have red wine with my son."
He has arrived at the name, at the future, I think, and we hear, rejoicing,
his name is Light Hearted.

And after our father is gone, this baby leaves, too.
I weep blinded over the days, the weeks,
over the years, and still
I listen for what my father tells me,
as his girl, so happy and dreaming,
he is with us, lighthearted,
living in there.


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