It had been over a year since James C.T. Wong last saw his only niece Su Lin, turn her back on him, as she disappeared down the stairs of a New York subway station after he had testified in the inheritance suit she had brought against her two half brothers, Nathan and Paul. Her case had been thrown out by Judge Black in part because of his statements. He had tried to contact her afterwards by phone, email, and letters but there was no response.
“Give it up Jimmy,” Ruth his wife counseled. “You’ll never be able to change Su Lin’s mind. Our friends in New York say that she’s been complaining bitterly to anyone who’ll listen that you took the side of Nathan and Paul and sunk her case.”
“But I had to testify. I was subpoenaed,” Jimmy protested. “I only said what I knew to be true. I couldn’t lie under oath even if I wanted to.”
Poor Su Lin, he thought. She has always felt like she was getting a raw deal. She has a victim complex. It probably started when she was young, and my brother left her and her mother behind in Shanghai when he went with the government to Chungking during the war. There was no way to communicate and he didn’t know if they were alive or dead. He fell in love with Er Mei there and he took her as his second wife. All legal at the time, though Su Lin doesn’t see it that way. And then after the Revolution, a further dislocation with the move to America.
“You know my brother C.L., when he was very sick, asked me to keep an eye on his children since we didn’t have any of our own,” said Jimmy. “And even after we moved out west, Su Lin and I always spoke at least once a month. Now she’s ignoring me.”
“Su Lin has a long memory for slights both real and imagined,” Ruth said. “She’s in her sixties now and won’t change. I think she became more sour and bitter when her husband discarded her for that younger trophy wife seven years ago. So there are some real reasons that she’s the way she is.”
“I owe it to my brother and to Su Lin to keep trying,” Jimmy said. “She’s only got her son, who she doesn’t see that often since he’s overseas, and Nathan and Paul as family. When she gets older, it’ll be terrible to be all alone just nursing her resentment and anger.”
And after the war, C.L. came back to Shanghai with Er Mei and baby Nathan, Jimmy thought, and found Su Lin and Zhu Li alive and they all moved back to the family home. Er Mei always treated Zhu Li with the respect that she was due as C.L.’s first wife, and Zhu Li accepted Er Mei since that was the norm. But Su Lin always felt that she and her mother were shunted aside, now that a son was born. When they moved to America, with no servants, Zhu Li welcomed Er Mei’s help, and the wives seemed to get along. And then Paul was born while she was in grad school.
“You’re an honorable man to keep trying, Jimmy,” Ruth said. “I just hope you won’t be terribly disappointed if all your efforts are wasted.”
“We’re retired and she’s my only niece, what else is there to do?”
Finally after another nearly six months, Jimmy found a reply to one of his emails: Uncle stop trying to contact me since you sabotaged me.
At last a reply. It’s a start, thought Jimmy. At least she called me uncle which means she still thinks of me as a relative. He thought long and carefully about how to reply. Email, phone, letter? He decided on email as the least provocative: Su Lin. You’re my only niece, the daughter of my elder brother. If you decide you want to talk anytime, I’m here to listen. He sent it off with his fingers crossed.
“Congratulations Jimmy,” Ruth said, “you got Su Lin to reply at last. Do you think she’ll actually phone you? You’re inviting her to blast you over the phone.”
“That is my hope,” said Jimmy. “To give her a chance to pour out her anger. Maybe afterwards she’ll be calm enough to just talk things over.”
“Well, if she does call I hope you’ll be able to take the heat. If it gets to be too much you can always turn off your hearing aid.”
For what seemed to be a long time, there was no reply. I wonder if it’s because she’s thinking of how to tell me off, he thought.
“Uncle, I asked you not to take sides, but you chose to help them and hurt me,” she said without a preamble.
“Hello Su Lin,” Jimmy said in a neutral tone and waited.
“Discovering that stock was a windfall. Father bought long before the war, long before he met Er Mei and probably just after he met Mommy. So they had no claim to it. It should have all been mine. But you had to meddle and testify.”
Jimmy held his tongue and did not reply.
“It was unfair from the start, the way father set up his will to divide his estate evenly three ways. I was his first child born of his Number One wife and I should have had more. At least half. And the stock discovery would have been a small way to correct his mistake. But you had to take Nathan and Paul’s side.”
Oh Su Lin, thought Jimmy. If my brother had done it the old traditional way, everything would have gone to Nathan as his first-born son. You don’t see how lucky you are that my brother was westernized enough to do what he did. But he held his tongue.
“Right after the war when father came back with Er Mei and Nathan in tow, Mommy and I were pushed aside because he had a son. It was so unfair to Mommy.”
Jimmy had to speak in defense of C.L. “Your father always took your mother to all social functions as was her due as his Number One wife. Never Er Mei. He always was very careful to honor your mother.”
“Then why didn’t he do the same for me?”
Jimmy sighed but said nothing.
“You think I’m being greedy about the money. It’s about more than the money. Mommy and I had to go through the war in Japanese occupied Shanghai. Thrown out of our home so that it could be used by Japanese officers, and put into dingy, cramped housing. And then father comes back with a new wife and son and everything is supposed to be all right? It wasn’t all right.”
Jimmy thought about what C.L. experienced in Chungking, the frequent bombings, the constant worry that the war was not going well, the meager rations, the stress of not knowing how his wife and daughter were doing. And then he met Er Mei, so much his junior, but such a comfort, and he married her rather than taking her as a concubine.
“It was a different time and different circumstances,” Jimmy said.
“You’re making excuses for my father.”
“Su Lin,” Jimmy said carefully. “If it’s about more than the money, please tell me what it is that you want.”
“It’s about being treated fairly,” Su Lin said. “It’s about poor Mommy being confronted suddenly with a second wife. It’s about father treating me as second best because I wasn’t a son.”
Second best? thought Jimmy. He paid for your education at Vassar and told everyone how proud he was that you did so well.
Su Lin continued, bringing up every small detail through the years where she felt she had been slighted by her father in favor of his second wife’s family. She has a fantastic memory for injuries, thought Jimmy, that she’s been storing for all these years. I never realized she felt so much this way and C.L. certainly didn’t. And then when her husband divorced her it must have just recalled her feelings of when her father returned after the war with a second wife and child. She needs to let it go somehow and get past this. It’s not healthy to have so much bitterness and anger inside.
He waited till she paused and then said quietly, “Su Lin, I just never knew you felt so hurt. I’m sorry that you’ve felt so much pain.”
“No one knew and no one cared.”
Jimmy refrained from saying ‘well I care.’ “What happened, happened,” he said. “There’s no going back to change the past. But you and I are living in the present. Can’t we focus on that to make it the best that we can?”
“Easy for you to say, uncle.”
“I’m not saying to forget all that happened to you, because you can’t, you shouldn’t. What I hope you will be able to do someday is to change your reaction to the past. To be able to become more happy in the present.”
He waited for her to say something and when she didn’t, he carefully continued. “Think of Nelson Mandela. If anyone ever had a reason for exacting justice or revenge, he did. But instead he was able to bring about reconciliation and peace not by hiding the past but by acknowledging it and then moving past it with his former enemies. He didn’t insist on his pound of flesh.” He waited.
Su Lin continued to be silent.
“I’ve missed our past talks, Su Lin,” he said at last. “I’ve been worried about how you are. I’d like to hear your voice again.” He waited for her. Finally he cautiously said, “Perhaps we can talk again from time to time?” And waited.
Finally Su Lin said, “I’ll call you when I’m ready, Uncle Jimmy.”
“Thank you, Su Lin. I’ll be here.” ‘Uncle Jimmy,’ he thought. Well, maybe that’s a start.