The Back Room

Backlit oleander and cup.

Oleander Oyster Organza

Patty Chang

Outside my bedroom window was a large elm tree, its trunk much wider than my grasp, even as an adult. My room was always partially shaded from the setting sun, and the tree provided shelter when I would splay my body naked on the windowsill, pushing my limbs against the edges of the frame. I didn’t think much about the tree; it was always there with me, and I assumed it always would be. Sometimes it was pruned back and looked like a chicken bone. Because its roots grew wildly through the sewage pipe, my dad would often have to rent a metal snake to clear out the roots clogging the toilet. The snake would come through the front door into the blue bathroom and wind down the toilet, twisting and turning its way underneath the lawn and the tree out toward the street. After I left home, my parents cut down the tree and didn’t tell me. I came to visit one day and it was gone. What happened to the tree? We cut it down so the disease wouldn’t get it. I felt the shock of its absence. The entire tree had been removed, not even the stump was left. The ground around it was composed of small mounds sinking into the earth, uneven and undulating, like the site of an extracted tooth. 

Some plants I think about. I wonder in my mind how they are doing, holding a part of my brain to remember if I watered them, whether their condition is better, worse, or the same. Are they growing? Do I need to tend to them in some way? Should I be pruning them or adding more soil? Each plant needs to be considered and this takes time. 

We recently made a map of all the plants in the front yard in order to install a drip irrigation system, because the sprinklers water indiscriminately. We tallied forty-three plants plus a row of hedges which count as one plant in our appraisal. In addition to the plants in the courtyard and the trees in the backyard, each of these forty-three individuals has a life to be considered and nurtured and encouraged and held in the mind. An entire population to remember. I sometimes feel it is a full-time job on top of all the work to be done in the house to keep things working smoothly. Shopping, planning, preparing, cooking, cleaning (not to mention eating) takes up so much of the day.

When I try to remember the yard at home, it is hard for me to separate this living map from memories of my childhood yard, which changed as I grew up. There used to be a grass lawn. There has been a heart-shaped pond outside the kitchen window for a long time, but I don’t remember when it was dug out. Surrounding the pond are white irises, which may not have been there before. Directly to the right of the garage door, covering the water spigot, is a pineapple guava; I learned it was a pineapple guava from the Scandinavian college student hired to build the redwood deck in the backyard. We never ate the fruit, which I see for sale at the farmers market now. Another plant I remember is the white oleander outside my parents’ window, which sat next to the fuchsia, which sat next to a hose. I remember oleander because I pretended to make tea with it and my father asked very calmly if I also drank the tea — which is when I also discovered that oleander is poisonous. Outside my bedroom window facing the elm were bushes of jasmine and juniper whose smells made me nauseous.  

There was definitely dirt, especially after the grass died. Somehow a lone palm tree was planted next to a quince tree, a Ponderosa pine tree, a Santa Rosa plum tree, and bamboo. The stump of the palm tree after it was hastily cut down, like the core of a pineapple sticking up from the ground, is more vivid in my mind than the tree itself. This motley sensibility, the sensibility of orphans, seems to have been passed down to me.

In high school, Mike asked me, do you believe everything your mother tells you? I hadn’t thought about it before, but the answer was yes, and I was very embarrassed about that.

My grandmother came to live with us in Moraga in the 1970s. I can’t remember when, but she was there. She slept in the bedroom nearest to the front door and across from the bathroom. This seemed the most exposed room, closest to being outside.  

She wore traditional Chinese shirts and pants with knots for buttons. Usually blue. The texture felt like polyester. A thick polyester. Her hair was white, cut just under the ears, and she used bobby pins to hold it back. She spoke in Ching Tien dialect which is not the language spoken by the rest of the family, only my dad. I understood it enough to know what she was saying to me. Mostly she told me I was a good child, when I did what she asked. I remember threading her needles and accompanying her on short walks in the suburban neighborhood. There were no sidewalks and we lived on the dale of a hill: one side was a steep drop, the other a steep climb, the middle a flat stretch of six houses. Because of her bound feet she could only walk six house lengths before we turned around and walked back. She used a cane but not for walking that I can remember. The memory of the cane only comes back to me when I see her shooing the horses from our yard after they broke through the fence to drink from the tire swing. The horses came from the ranch on the hill beyond the house. The ranchers came to repair the fence and to get the horses, and they never returned. 

I remember boredom, lying on my back on the carpet underneath the front window utterly void of any thought, feeling, desire — consciousness not feeling like a gift, nor very useful. The window was covered in homemade curtains with a layer of sheer polyester fabric. When thinking about this fabric, I could only remember the Chinese word, “sha,” and had to look up names of sheer fabric in English. Even the term “sheer fabric” only comes to me after thinking about it for days. Organza, organdie, chiffon, georgette, gauze, voile, muslin, lace, tulle. My mom always called it “poly-oyster” and I imagine this pronunciation still today.

When you shave your body hair, it will grow in thicker.
Don't wash your hair at night because you'll get a cold.
If you don't wear socks in the kitchen you will get arthritis.
The cat likes to be vacuumed.                                       

Lead image: Photo by David Kelley as part of the project Gait Remains Partially Impaired Gate Remains Partially Repaired, 2005.

The Back Room