Tag Archives: Family

The Family Chain – Friday Fictioneers

Copyright C. Hase

Copyright C. Hase

The Family Chain

The gaping hole in our backyard was my father’s retirement fund. There was gold down there somewhere; his father and grandfather had sworn on it.

It started with ten grand pirated from my college savings for digging equipment and from then on yielded a steady -20% return on investment until his bankrupt deathbed.

“I failed,” he told me. “Finish the work. Find my gold.” And I felt the heavy chain being passed to me.

I waited until after his final breath to put down that chain forever. I couldn’t let him see me do it. It would have killed him.


Jasper’s Lamp – full story

This past Wednesday, I did a Friday Fictioneers story called Jasper’s Lamp. It’s a creepy story about five generations of women and their relationship to a lamp that has something growing inside it. The problem is, that the Friday Fictioneers stories are 100 words and I wanted to say more about it. So I wrote this one to tell the whole story. It’s a bit long, but if you like creepy, then enjoy.

lamp

“I brought it,” my mother says, and with those three innocuous words, a shiver of terror goes down my back. This is the moment I have been dreading since my grandmother showed me the lamp and told me it would one day be mine.

“I don’t want it,” I say. “How dare you bring that thing here?”

Her eyes are filled with the wearied horror that comes from years of caring for a monster. “Look, I promised my mother I would do this. Throw it away if you want. I don’t care. I’m sorry to do this to you, Sarah. God knows I’m sorry, but now I’m done. I’ve fulfilled my promised. I brought the papers too.”

With that, she stands up and walks to the front door. “I don’t want it!” I shout after her. I know it is useless; the front door clicks shut.

I go to the door in time to see her drive away. The lamp is sitting next to the door, covered loosely by a canvas bag. I am tempted to leave it there, but of course that is impossible. What if Evelyn, my daughter, sees it? What if the wind blows the bag off and the neighbors see the monstrosity that is underneath?

It takes all my willpower to knowingly bring that thing into my house; to actually put my hand under the glass globe and lift it, holding that terror so close to my body. A folio bound with a string is next to it, and after I bring the lamp inside, I get the papers and bring them into the kitchen.

They smell old, with a mustiness that reminds me of sickness. I make some coffee and then open the folio. My mother has told me about these papers, which my grandmother collected as a history of the lamp and an ongoing record of it. She loved it, my mother said, although I cannot understand why.

The papers on top are a bundle of yellowed, type-written transcriptions of an interview between my grandmother Ursula and her mother, my great-grandmother Celeste.

Ursula:  Tell me about my father, Jasper.

Celeste: Jasper, he was quite the dashing young man. He was dark-skinned, and my parents didn’t approve of him, but he was a romantic. Always talking about places he’d been all over the world. He said he’d take me with him sometime, but I didn’t want to go. Getting malaria in some sweaty, God-forsaken jungle, no thank you.

Ursula:  And when did he give you the lamp?

Celeste: The lamp. He sent it to me, if you can believe it. I don’t how it didn’t break, but he packed it tight into a crate with straw and paper and bits of rag. It was an oil lamp back then, not the electric lamp you’ve made it now.

Ursula: Can you describe the lamp?

Celeste: Describe it? You know damn well what it looks like! Fine though, I guess it has changed over the years. When I first opened the package, it was a brass oil lamp, with a glass chimney and underneath, a large glass globe. Inside the globe, there was a single eyeball floating, about as big as a cow’s eye. Gave me one hell of a fright. I found the note he sent with it. ‘I need you to look after this for me. Promise you will, it’s important. I’ll be back for it soon, but for now, keep the lamp burning. Keep it warm!’ That’s all he said, no ‘I love you’ or anything.

Ursula: And that was the last you heard of him?

Celeste: That was it. He was heading for Indochina when I said goodbye to him for the last time, but that note and the lamp was the last I got from him. Five months later, you were born. I did as he asked though, taking care of you and the lamp, keeping it lit, although I covered up the bottom most of the time. I couldn’t abide that big, staring eye just looking, always looking. I kept expecting it to fall apart, just decay, but as you know, it didn’t.

Ursula: When did you first notice it growing?

Celeste: you were about three at the time. You were toddling around and you grabbed at the skirting around the lamp and yanked it off. You screamed when you saw the eye first, but then you couldn’t keep away from it. You named it George, I remember. It was then I noticed it was growing, that there was more flesh behind it and another eye growing next to it, though at that time, it was dull and undeveloped.

Ursula: What do you think about the lamp?

Celeste: [sighs] I didn’t like it and I still don’t. It still gives me the creeps and if you didn’t have such a connection to it, I would order you to destroy it when I die. But Jasper’s last letter to me made me promise to take care of it and I did it for him. You can do what you like with it. For years, I kept imagining he’d come back and take it off my hands. I don’t suppose he will now though.

The transcript ends there. I heard hints of this from my grandmother, but not everything. The next thing in the folio is a battered,spiral-bound notebook. On the cover, it says, “The Book of the Lamp, by Ursula McIntyre-Willis”. I didn’t know about this.

June 5, 1958: I’ve decided to call the thing Jasper instead of George. Not that it’s Father, but I never met him and this is all I have from him. Sometimes when I look into the lamp, I can imagine those eyes speaking to me as they look unblinkingly into mine. I can almost understand, but not quite. It’s frustrating. Both eyes are full size now and a body is growing behind them.

I flip through a few pages. My grandmother Ursula has made detailed notes about its development and her feelings about it.

August 19, 1961: The body is taking on a definite shape now and I can see a head forming around the eyes. Last night I had the insane thought to open the globe, even though I knew it might endanger Jasper. I pried off the lamp part, but the globe is totally sealed, as if it was made whole. I don’t know how they did it. I will replace the lamp with an electric one, I think.

July 29, 1964: My husband Randy tried to smash the globe with a baseball bat. He’s always hated Jasper,  but the bat didn’t even make a scratch. He knows not to try to touch Jasper again though. I made sure of that.

February 3, 1968: The kids never want to go near Jasper. I don’t care about Brody, but if Rose is going to take care of him after me, she needs to love Jasper as much as I do. An hour a week in the closet together should help their relationship. If she looks into Jasper’s eyes, he’ll speak to her.

March 28, 1970: I got the good idea to record my mother’s recollections of the lamp. She never loved him as much I did. I’m glad she let me take care of him.

July 2, 1973: The area over his eyes has been thickening for almost a year now. At first, I thought they were fading, but now I see it is the eyelids growing. Last night, I saw my dear Jasper’s eyes for the last time. Now they are shut and he is sleeping.

November 6, 2003: I am going into a nursing home tomorrow and I can’t keep Jasper anymore. My heart is breaking, but now it’s Rose’s turn.

At the top of the next page, my grandmother has written my mother’s name: Rose Willis-Hunter. But the pages afterwards are blank. At the back of the notebook, I find a letter from my mother to me. It has been crumpled up, but then smoothed out again. It is dated June 20, 2007, the day after my grandmother’s funeral.

Dear Sarah,

I feel like I’ve been living in a nightmare most of my life and the last thing I want to do is pass it on you. You were there for the reading of the will, but there was a secret clause about it. She left it to me along with her papers and a book of things that the thing inside has supposedly told her. She wants me to pass it on to you when I get old.

My darling Sarah, forgive me. I will keep it away from you as long as I can, but you have no idea what it was like living with her. She broke me, slowly but steadily. I hate that thing, but I can’t destroy it and I can’t abandon it. I dream about my mother even now and about that thing she loved. The hours she locked me in the closet with it before its eyes closed changed me somehow. I hate it and I hate myself for being so weak.

Your mother,

Rose

At the bottom, in red pen, my mother has scribbled, I threw this letter away, but decided to show it to you anyway. It was a moment of truth I don’t think I can bring myself to repeat. I burned the book of things it told her. I made the mistake of reading it and I may be weak, but I couldn’t let that survive. I left the notes she made of its history, so you’ll know the truth and be warned.

I close the folio and go out into the hallway, where the lamp is sitting. With a deep breath, I pull off the canvas bag.

The monster, Grandma Ursula’s Jasper, lays curled up inside. It is more developed than the first time I saw it, that time when Grandma brought me up to her secret library when my mother was away. This is Jasper, she said, as if introducing me to a friend. One day, he will be yours to take care of. Now, I can see a whip-like tail curled around the bottom, curved spines along its back and its hundreds of little legs curled up, each ending in a single claw. Its closed left eye is pressed against the glass now. I have a sudden image of it opening and I throw the bag back over the lamp. Somehow, I get the lamp down to the basement and bury it behind boxes.

I go out to do errands and come back that afternoon to find, with horror, my 8-year-old daughter Evelyn reading the papers about the lamp I have thoughtlessly left out on the table.

“What’s this?” she asks.

“Nothing,” I say, grabbing them.

“Do we have this lamp?” When I don’t reply, she continues, “Where is it? I want to see it.”

It’s like I don’t have a choice. With mute horror, I lead her downstairs and move aside the boxes, aware that I am continuing the chain. Show her now and she will be revolted by it, I think, to comfort myself.

“So this is Jasper. Wow, he’s so cool,” she says, gazing into the globe.

“It’s just a thing and it’s not cool.”

“But great-grandma Ursula called him Jasper,” she says. “He’s almost done, right?”

“Done?” I ask with alarm. “What do you mean?”

“Well, from the notes on the table, he’s been growing for years. So when he’s finished growing, he’ll wake up, right?”

“What makes you say that?”

“I don’t know. I guess I just assumed.”

“Look, Evelyn. Don’t come down here, okay? This thing is evil. I’m going to get rid of it, okay?”

“But I want to be there when his eyes open,” she says and my mind revolts at the smile on her face. Not for this! I want to shout. Not for you, Jasper. You can’t have her.

I lay awake in bed that night, thinking. I am all by myself since my husband left two years ago and I need to do something to stop this. I need to destroy the lamp, carry it to a dump, drop it into the ocean, anything to get it away. I fantasize about doing it, day after day, while I keep the basement door locked and an eye on my daughter. But I feel that time is running out. It’s almost done,” Evelyn said, and I feel it too. So I keep on, think about destroying it and do nothing and hate myself for doing nothing, around and around, in a maddening spiral.

But I have to do something. I have to. Before the eyes open.

lamp 2


Playing Chicken on Christmas

Christmas chicken

How does this happen every year? I’m standing on a suburban street with the Christmas stars burning overhead as my parents hurtle towards each other in their cars, going 88 miles per hour as if they want to go back in time and fix the whole big mess they’ve gotten themselves into. And I’m standing between them, like I’m the Hulk or something, hoping they’ll come to their senses and not kill me and each other.

Where to begin? Part of it is the eggnog. Mom makes it virgin but then Dad adds a nip of brandy to it; Grandma Helen splashes in some bourbon and Uncle Murray ends up dumping in some vodka, ‘cuz he’s got no sense. And then of course, you get the years when the dog or the baby drool in it, but you can’t blame them because Uncle Bert keeps putting the bowl on the floor. Anyway, it ends up one potent, disgusting mix, but we all drink it anyway ‘cuz it’s tradition.

Then there’s the board game tournament. I don’t know who came up with this particular tradition (that apparently God Himself couldn’t set aside for one measly year) but they were no friend of our family, it seems. Monopoly, Scrabble and Spades are the staples but sometimes they throw in a kid version too for the littler ones. By this time, all the adults have had a couple glasses of eggnog or a few slices of my cousin Jewel’s rum cake, which is more rum than cake. We argue for fifteen minutes about house rules, and keep arguing as we play. Uncle Murray always cheats, Aunt Pat always yells at him for it, and Mom yells at everyone to be civil. Dad keeps quiet but as the stress mounts, I can see his hands twitching for the smoke he hasn’t had in six years.

By the time the games are over, it’s about 8pm on Christmas Day and everyone is just about sick of each other. That would be a great time to call it quits or watch a movie or something, but tradition is the rule of law in our house, and what comes next is Christmas carols. You’d think this would calm everyone down but nope. Mom wants to only sing religious songs and Jewel wants to sing Rudolph. No one else cares, but soon we’re all shouting at each other to calm down.

Mom blows up when she’s stressed but not Dad. He’s like a sponge and I can see it all working on him, twitching him up good. I swear this is the only day of the year he regrets quitting smoking. I see him working up and every year, I try to think how to stop what’s coming and every year, I just can’t.

The next tradition is dancing, although it never lasts long. The problem is that after all the stress, my mom really wants my dad to dance with her and calm her down. Stress makes her lonely. Dad’s the opposite and although he’s a good dancer, stress makes him want to go away and be alone. She yells at him for ruining the holiday, accuses him of not liking her, stuff like that, and I wonder if I’m the only one who sees what’s going to happen—maybe they all can too, but no one can stop it either.

At a certain point, my dad snaps, just starts yelling. He storms outside and gets in his car. Mom bursts into tears, then gets real angry and follows him.

And here’s the part no one really understands, at least I don’t. Dad takes off in one direction, Mom in the other. They go up to the stoplights at each end of our road, then turn around, like they’ve reconsidered and are going to make up. But they come at each other and just floor it, like all the stress of the day is going into the gas pedal.

Every year, I consider letting them just have at it. They would swerve at the last minute. They wouldn’t crash into each other. Except there’s that tiny spark of fear in me that this year, the stress and eggnog will be too much and they just won’t and I’ll be an orphan. So I run out in the road, pleading for them to stop.

Sometimes they stop in plenty of time. Sometimes they swerve, lose control and hit a snowbank. Mom got a slight concussion one year, but that’s been the worst of it.

So now I’m watching the headlights of Mom’s Sonata and Dad’s RAV4 bearing down on me but I don’t see my loving parents behind the wheel; I see all the stress of trying to make everything perfect and keep every tradition to the letter all come down on me and I hope it won’t kill me this year. But then I hear the screech of brakes and both cars come to a stop. A little closer than I’d like, but still in the safe zone. They get out, Mom crying and even Dad looking a bit misty-eyed. We all hug and everyone apologizes and we all go inside.

Playing chicken on Christmas is a tradition in our family, even if it’s not one people talk about. It’s one I’d kind of like to change, but maybe it’s got its place as a safety valve for the stress. And as long as it doesn’t kill anyone, I guess that’s okay.


Untainted

I wrote this a while ago, but hesitated to post it, since it is very different from the sort of thing I usually write. Incidentally, I’ve noticed that when I use first-person point of view, people sometimes think that it’s a true story. So, let me clarify that this is not about me and it is fiction.

mother and child

I have no father.

It’s not just that my mother is divorced or that he died; I’ve never had a father. She told me that when I asked. Some kids have one, but not you. Oh well.

When I told my Grade 5 teacher this, he joked that I was immaculate. I had to ask my mother what that meant. She didn’t know either, but we found it in a dictionary. It meant perfect. She laughed and said fat chance. Still, I liked the idea of being immaculate. Maybe there was something about having a father that made you less than perfect.

I had had a vague idea of sex since early elementary school, but in Grade 7 the health teacher laid out all the gory details for us, complete with blush-inducing diagrams. I confronted my mother with this newfound knowledge, laying out my case like an adolescent pedagogue. If she didn’t know the meaning of immaculate, she might not know about the sperm and the egg and fallopian tubes and all that. “So, you see, I must have had a father,” I said, in conclusion.

“I can’t explain it to you,” she said, taking a long, uncommonly slow sip from the coffee mug she held in her hands.

“Don’t you remember it?” I asked, still pushing headlong for an explanation. I didn’t know much about sex at that point, but from what I’d heard, it seemed like the sort of thing you’d remember.

“Don’t do this right now,” she said from behind her mug, where she continued her never-ending drink of coffee.

“I just want to know if I have a father or not,” I said, standing up to look at her over her mug. I saw a tear leak out of her right eye and run down her cheek. That sobered me instantly. My mother never cried. Ever. At least I’d never seen it before. I sat back down.

The mood had gotten uncomfortable and I was about to slink away to the TV when she put down her mug and wiped her eye. “I was raped when I was in university,” she said. I had never heard that word spoken by anyone I knew and it was scary to have it suddenly leap into my life, even into the sanctuary of my kitchen. “I didn’t know who it was and they never caught him.”

I didn’t know what to say. My youthful brashness had been sucked out of my body.

“My friends wanted me to get an abortion. They assumed I would. I almost did.”

“Why didn’t you?” I asked quietly. I almost touched myself to make sure I was still real, still alive.

“I was too scared. I was petrified both of getting an abortion and having a baby. I kept putting off the one until the other happened on its own. I was going to give you up for adoption, but when I saw you, I couldn’t.”

“I see.” It was all I could manage. I escaped soon after that to try to numb my thoughts with some electronic entertainment. It didn’t help. It was like dancing along happily, only to find you’ve been dancing on a paper-thin wafer of glass, over a yawning chasm of What Might Have Been. I could be dead now. I would never have known if I was. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.

It took me four days to work up the courage to ask the question that kept pounding against the inside of my skull. We were washing dishes after supper and suddenly I had to get it out.

“Mom, do you regret having me?”

She looked over at me and fairly attacked me—wet, soapy hands and all—in a crushing hug. “Never,” she said. “Never, never, never. I regret a lot in my life, but not you. You are like a strong tree that grew up out of a pool of poison, untainted by the evil of that night.”

I never forgot those words and they carried me through the inevitable pain and confusion that came with the knowledge of my origins. I may not be immaculate, but untainted is just as good.


Being Home for Chuseok

I remember our first year in Korea, long ago in 2002. We came in late August and a few weeks later, we found out that we had a few days off, for a holiday called Chuseok. I remember that a Korean woman at church was arranging a trip to an amusement park for a lot of the foreigners because, she said, “it must be so hard to be away from your family on Chuseok.”

A traditional Chuseok scene

A traditional Chuseok scene. The message says: “Wishing you a Chuseok as bountiful as the full moon.”

Hard to be away from my family on Chuseok? Not particularly, since I had just found out about the holiday a few days before.

But for Koreans, Chuseok is a big deal. It is one of the two biggest holidays of the year, along with the Chinese Lunar New Year. It falls on August 15 (according to the lunar calendar) which means that it always coincides with the full moon.

There are several traditions at Chuseok. The main activity, like Thanksgiving, is to get together with family and eat a lot and hang out. For this reason, men and children love it, and women usually dread it. They see it as a time of pretty much non-stop cooking, which it is for them.

People dress up in hanbok (traditional Korean clothes: see the above picture), sometimes play traditional games, and also give gifts. Gifts are usually given between families, however, or to co-workers, and are usually gift sets of food or other things.

The other traditions are cleaning the graves of ancestors, along with memorial rites. As well, the whole family gets together to make songpyeon, which are steamed rice cakes with sugar and sesame seeds inside. They are steamed with pine needles, which gives them a bit of a different taste (although not much).

Songpyeon made by hand are not this neat usually.

Songpyeon made by hand are not this neat, usually.

For me, as a foreigner, the main thing I notice about Chuseok (besides the days off work) is the traffic. It is getting better these days with better highways, but still Chuseok traffic is usually a nightmare. I took several buses over to the central part of Korea yesterday and got to the bus terminal several hours early to make sure I could get a ticket.

The thing about the traffic is that because of the geography and population distribution, the traffic is usually only horrendous in one direction. At the beginning of the holiday, everyone is trying to leave Seoul and go south, so if you go north, it’s not that bad. At the end, everyone is trying to get back up north to Seoul, so it’s reversed. Luckily, we live in the south, so we can usually avoid the worst of it (I saw on the news that two nights ago in Seoul, there were hundreds of people waiting for buses and the buses were delayed up to 3-4 hours).

In any case, Chuseok for us is just a time off work, to relax, and travel, perhaps. I hope you have a happy Chuseok today as well.

chuseok3


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