My grandfather acquired my grandmother in 1912, in Tianjin, Northern China. He named her Esther. I don’t know what she was called before.
The coastal city, which at the turn of the century had been governed by an eight-nation alliance, was still overrun with foreign troops. Contingents of French, English, Germans, Russians and others garrisoned there, protecting their interests, asserting claims over an ancient empire in flux.
My grandfather, Josef Reisz, a solidly built Hungarian Jew with a bristly wave of a moustache, was born in the village of Oslany in 1882. After serving five years with the French Foreign Legion in North Africa, he visited the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and, while there, enlisted in the US Army. By 1912 he had anglicized his given name to Joseph Rice and was stationed with US Expeditionary Forces in Tianjin.
The girl who would become my paternal grandmother was less than half his age and size, fourteen to his thirty years. Her smile was softly inquisitive, her eyes a fathomless brown. This much I know from the few remaining photographs. The story of how she met my grandfather is more tenuous.
Family lore has it that my grandmother was often at her window, waiting, when the soldier with bold, silvery-blue eyes rode past her father’s house each day on his travels to and from his post. One evening, the soldier paused longer than usual beside her open window.
“Come with me,” he may have said, speaking to the girl in her dialect, as his horse fidgeted beneath him, its hooves striking the cobbled carriage road.
Perhaps she laughed at his accent and audacity, one small, pale hand covering her mouth.
“There’s room,” he said, patting the triangle of saddle between his thighs.
With a mischievous backwards glance, lithe and slender as a boy in silk pants and high-collared tunic, she crept onto the stone windowsill. Joseph clasped her beneath the armpits, swung her up and onto the horse as easily as if she were a child, then held her close, one arm a firm brace beneath small, bound breasts. He goaded the horse forward, jabbing its ribs with the heels of his dusty boots.
As the soldier sped from her father’s house, the girl must have felt his metal buttons through her blouse, the coarse black hairs on the top of his hand, his moustache in her hair. She would have smelt horse and sweat, tobacco perhaps, though my grandfather would later say he never smoked. I picture her beaded slippers, dangling then dropping from buckled, misshapen feet, falling to the roadway, left behind.
The soldier rode on. The sun sank in a streaky grey and crimson sky.
Theirs was an unlikely union that would produce three children. The first two were born in China, a daughter and then a son. My father, the last, was born in the Philippines, in 1918, on his mother’s twentieth birthday.
There was no storybook end to match the story’s beginning.
When my father—also named Joseph, or Joe—was in his early teens, the family split in two. Grandfather stayed in the Philippines with the eldest son, my uncle David. Esther boarded the US Grant, an army transport ship bound for San Francisco, with my father and his older sister, Ruth. The family was never reunited. Esther died in San Francisco and my grandfather in Japan. Her naturalization papers list her husband as “missing in Philippines.” His application for a US passport lists his marital status as “separated,” wife’s address unknown.
They are buried oceans apart.
Most of what I know about my grandparents I acquired second- and third-hand. Not from my father, who wasn’t one to talk, or from my grandmother of whom I have few memories, but from my mother, who spent long hours with Esther during World War II, when Dad was a radio operator with the US Army Air Corp in Italy. Esther told my mother she’d been a disobedient daughter, her father’s indulged favorite. She confessed, giggling from behind the fingers of one splayed hand, to ripping the bindings from her feet as soon as her maid’s back was turned. The story of the handsome, foreign soldier at the windowsill comes from Esther, via my mother. Mom once said she imagined getting on his horse was an impulsive prank, one from which there was no going back.
All of them are gone now. There’s no sifting fiction from fact or my own imaginative leaps from what I was told or overheard. Any subtext was likely lost on me. As a child, the account of how my grandparents met seemed more fairy tale than reality. It still does.
Yet this much is known. Whether out a window or through the door, whether with or without her own or her father’s consent, on horseback or by some more prosaic means of transport, Grandmother left her home and family with a man in uniform, a white man twice her age. There are no wedding or honeymoon photos to commemorate the liaison—only the children.
I don’t remember Esther the way my mother does, but rather as a tiny woman who spoke little English and shuffled on gnarled feet. She contributed bowls of shimmery JELL-O—red, green and orange—to Sunday dinners at our house in San Francisco. She died when I was eleven.
“You mean you’re a quarter Chinese?”
I get that a lot when I tell people about my grandmother. They squint, considering me more closely—fuzzy brown hair, green eyes, on the tall and large end of the spectrum for a woman. They seem surprised, even skeptical, as if I might lie about such a thing.
“You can see it in my eyelids; there’s no place to put eyeliner,” I sometimes say, tugging at the puffy mounds of flesh beneath my brows. As a teenager, I’d struggled to delineate my sunken eyes with a thick, black line like other girls did, but any makeup only disappeared into the crease.
Mother used to say my younger sister was born with a so-called Mongolian spot, a birthmark that resembles a bluish bruise, often at the base of the spine, prevalent in Asian babies and which generally disappears during childhood. I envied my sister that tangible proof.
Esther’s heritage wasn’t visibly evident in my father either. Dad’s skin was sallow, the putty beige of milky tea. He had dark, round eyes, bushy brows and thick black hair that waved nicely when he let it grow. My father was often taken for other things—Latin American, Native American, Filipino, Spanish or Italian—but never Chinese. It is as if, in one generation, Esther’s blood was diluted, blended beyond recognition.
I always wished there were more of her in me.
“Weak genes, I guess,” my father once said, when I asked why we didn’t look more Chinese. He would have shrugged in that way of his, both dismissive and self-deprecating, as if he were dispensing with us all—me, his mother and himself—with one beleaguered slump of his shoulders.
Now that I can’t, I wish I had asked more questions about my grandparents, Esther in particular, about whom the least is known. When my generation—siblings and cousins, descendents of Ruth, David and Joe—is gone too, there will be even less, no fading memories to supplement a handful of photos, letters and government records, the bald facts of birth, death, immigration and military service.
When Esther arrived in the US, the Chinese Exclusion Act was still in effect and would be for many years. The Act restricted Chinese laborers, who were blamed for depressed wage levels, from entering the country and declared them ineligible for naturalization.
Though he must have remembered something of the journey and arrival, my father never talked about it. Not knowing the facts, I’d always pictured Esther and her two mixed-race children detained at Angel Island, along with tens of thousands of other Chinese who were stuck there for long months while a grudging bureaucracy determined their fate, ultimately sending many back to China.
I have since learned that wasn’t so. For though he hadn’t accompanied them to the United States, and had perhaps even sent his wife away, my grandfather’s military rank must have afforded Esther status. She and her children disembarked at Ft. Mason and the family was permitted to stay in San Francisco at a time when many others were not. They never lived in San Francisco’s Chinatown, another of my earlier assumptions.
“Your dad and my mom weren’t even allowed to visit there,” a cousin, one of Ruth’s sons, told me. “Esther forbid it. She looked down on those people. Starving peasants from the South of China who came here to find work. They didn’t even speak the same language as Grandma.”
The other son, my uncle David, would join them in California several years later. He and my father attended UC Berkeley, David becoming a mining engineer, Joe an art and English teacher in several San Francisco public schools.
During my childhood in the 50s and 60s, my grandmother lived alone, in a small row house not far from ours, in the Sunset District, a dense working-class neighborhood, mostly Irish-Catholic, bounded by the ocean and spanning a flat expanse of numbered avenues between Golden Gate Park and the zoo.
My sisters and I would accompany our father in the old Studebaker to fetch Grandma for Sunday suppers. On weekends we played in her fenced yard while he mowed, pruned and checked her cupboards to make sure she was eating. I have vague memories of that stuffy living room, gauzy light filtered through drawn curtains, my grandmother a stooped, shadowy figure, no more distinct than the sofa or chintz chairs are to me now. The wax paper sleeves of the crumbly Ritz crackers she offered us with quaky hands are more vivid, as is a dish of stale candies I coveted.
“You need to eat something substantial,” our father would say. “Protein. Calcium for your bones.”
“Oh Joe,” Esther would say, unwrapping a caramel.
My father rarely spoke of his childhood in the Philippines. If the topic of my grandfather arose, Dad would say, “He was a monster.” He never offered any further elaboration or explanation, and I never asked. For though he rarely raised his voice and never struck his children, I had learned that no good came of pressing my father for answers.
“Most words are wasted breath,” he would say with terse finality.
There is a formal portrait of my father’s family, taken in a Manila photography studio not long before Esther left for America. So far as I know, it is the last photograph of the family together.
My father sits cross-legged in front of his parents, who are seated side-by-side, their postures stiff and upright. Esther is thirty-one, give or take a year, my grandfather’s age when they met. Gray flecks his thick moustache and thinning hair. His light eyes still shine and pierce. Ruth stands behind her father. David, the eldest son, behind his mother. The five figures appear separate and singular, arms close to their bodies, hands contained, each immersed in their own conversation with the lens.
It’s a handsome family, dressed in coordinating pale linen. Suits and dresses softly rumpled with the heat and humidity. Mother and daughter in pearl chokers, wilting bouquets and matching hairdos—bangs, white center parts, braids coiled over their ears like sister empresses. The three men wear buttoned white shirts, ties cinched at the throat, my father in short pants, one hand clasping a bony knee.
“Sit up straight, Joe,” Joseph might have said to my father, in the moments before the photographer’s light flashed, forever freezing the image. “Straighten that tie, boy. And smile.” Perhaps he cuffed the back of my father’s head.
“You too,” I imagine Joseph saying to Esther, “Don’t look so glum. I see where the boy gets it. Do you want people to think we aren’t a happy family?”
Perhaps he squeezed Esther’s knee, a familiar, proprietary gesture. In the photo she appears to make herself small to keep their arms from touching. She clings to a plump index finger with her other hand, dark eyes tender, eyebrows arched and forehead pinched, mouth on the verge of a pout.
My uncle David, his golden skin burnished by the studio lights, is already assuredly handsome. Hair swept from a high brow, he has his father’s forward, unflinching gaze. My aunt Ruth, the eldest and tallest of the three, smiles sweetly, shoulders soft, slender arms lax at her sides, the hint of hips and breasts in the fit of a sleeveless shift, the curved line of her arms alongside her body.
I knew my aunt much later, as a military wife with four sons and an unexpected, darkly sardonic worldview. She delivered her wry observations with a bland smile, uninflected, as if she were commenting on the weather or that there was too much mayonnaise in the potato salad. Together, she and my father were bookends, bounding a shared story, a shared past. They held their secrets close. I imagine it was Ruth, whose English would have been far better than her mother’s, who helped Esther and her younger brother navigate, and ultimately find their way, in a new city.
“He was a bad man, a very bad man,” Ruth would say of my grandfather. Like my father, she offered no anecdotes that I can recall, nothing to explain why she would say such a thing, so melodramatic in its implications, and so demurely stated that, if you didn’t know her, you would think she was joking. I never thought she was. My aunt’s keen, intelligent eyes spoke of tales too awful to put to words. As a child, I conjured scenes of torture and deprivation, later on, of debauchery and emotional cruelty.
Earlier this year, a cousin who lives in Arizona, one of Uncle David’s sons, paid me a rare visit at my home in Sacramento. We hugged in my foyer. I imagined he felt some of what I did, a momentous sense of belated reunion, two far-flung remnants of a dwindling family come together, if only for a few hours. The resemblance, echoes of his father and mine, of siblings and other cousins, thickened my throat.
“I think I met you once before, at your parent’s house, out by the beach, in San Francisco,” he said. “The zoo was just down the street, right? Your dad let us ride bikes. You were a toddler. You probably don’t remember.”
I didn’t, though I wanted to. That visit would have been sixty years ago.
I do remember his father, who would visit us when he was in California for business. As kids we’d called him Uncle Brown Bear. I’d thought it was because he was large and brown, and I attributed gruff, bearlike attributes to him. Later, I learned the nickname was a reference to a goldmine where he’d once worked, the Brown Bear Mine. My father would have encouraged the misunderstanding.
In anticipation of my cousin’s visit, I’d brought some of the old photos down from my office. We sat at the dining table and looked through them. My cousin paused at the family portrait in which his slender, teenage father seems cast in our grandfather’s image, as confident as my own father is woebegone.
“It’s a shame the family couldn’t have stayed together,” my cousin said. “But Esther was always so delicate. Life with our grandfather, out on the farm in the Philippines, was too much for her. I suppose it was better for her here, in America.”
It is true that there is a melancholy frailty to Esther’s expression. And yet, my mother, never prone to be complementary of anyone, especially not another woman, used to describe my grandmother as plucky and entrepreneurial, a survivor. I have trouble reconciling my cousin’s perspective with my own. Esther worked several jobs to support her family after she arrived in the US. She wore a hairnet over her permanent wave and packed coffee in a factory on the wharf. She sewed underwear in airless rooms with other immigrant women, their voices a jumble of unintelligible tongues. “She was admirable really,” my mother used to say, “Especially considering her upbringing, a pampered daughter used to having her way, servants at her beck and call.” Like thousands of other immigrants, Esther had done what she had to do to make a home for herself and her children in a new land.
I wondered what my cousin thought of our grandfather, if he’d heard him described the way I had, as a monster, a bad man. I didn’t ask. We’d only just met and I didn’t want to risk losing this new connection. If there were sides to be chosen—as I’d always believed there were—I imagined his father, my uncle, would have been on one side, my Dad and Ruth on the other, aligned with their mother.
Mixed in with the family photos were three pictures of a beautiful dark-haired bride in creamy white satin and lace. The groom wears a white Yarmulke. Years ago, when I asked my mother who they were, I was told the young woman had once accompanied my grandfather on a visit to San Francisco. They had both stayed in our home. I was too young to remember. The young woman was the child of one of his maids in the Philippines. In one photograph from that visit, I am a chubby, curly-haired baby on my grandfather’s lap, gazing wide-eyed at his unruly white moustache. I’d always assumed he must have been in ill health by then, and that she was a travelling companion, an employee. No other explanation was ever offered.
My cousin held the bride’s photo. I asked if he’d ever met her.
He had. She’d accompanied our grandfather to his childhood home too, in New Mexico. My cousin turned over the photographs. I’d never paid much attention to the inscriptions written on their backs, though it had always seemed odd, even irritating, that this wedding of two relative strangers had been memorialized with such care.
“The Bride herself,” my grandfather wrote on the back of one, as if announcing royalty, and, on another, “The new couple leaves the Canopy in the Holy of Holies, in our Temple.”
The obvious, the reason these photos belonged with the others, asserted itself. This dark-haired woman was family too. The maid’s child, yes, but also my grandfather’s. My father’s half sister and therefore my aunt. Words that had never been used to describe her, not in our house.
Like the stubborn tumblers in a combination lock clicking into place, it occurred to me that my father’s half-sister, given her apparent age, might have been born the year Dad left the Philippines for America. If not that year, then the year before, or after. Perhaps, like Esther, her mother was in her early teens when she was conceived.
The subtext of dozens of dismissive comments and side-of-the-mouth conversations between my aunt and my mother about “the maid’s daughter,” became clear.
Whatever her reasons, Esther would live the last thirty-eight years of her life with an ocean between her and the father of her three children. She would never remarry.
In 1963, two years before Esther’s death, my grandfather was interviewed for a US military newsletter. He was eight-one, living in Japan. The article described him as the oldest army vet in that country, a retired Captain, and reported that the “old soldier,” strongly devoted to his Jewish faith “lives like Moses,” eschewing alcohol, tobacco and gambling. He had reportedly finished a 450-page manuscript recounting his life experiences. “Someday,” he is quoted as having said, “I hope to have it published. Right now, I want to stay with my daughter and two grandsons.” The daughter he referred to was the young bride from the photographs, the two grandsons, cousins I will never meet. There was no mention of a first wife, the woman he named Esther, their three children together, or his many other grandchildren.
In 1965, as Esther lay feeble and dying in a hospital bed at the Presidio in San Francisco, letters flew across the Pacific, from my aunt to my grandfather, informing him of the gravity of Esther’s illness, and from my grandfather in response, recounting the details of his own ill health and promising to visit as soon as he was able.
“I took her away from the Chinese middle ages and brought her into a turbulent Jewish life,” my grandfather wrote to Ruth. “The outcome could have been easily foreseen by a more discerning person . . . but life has to go on.”
Life did go on. His letter was written a month before Esther died.
In a junior high school English class, my father assigned his students an essay about the person they most admired. One girl wrote about her revered grandfather, Chief of the Manila Harbor Police, a position Joseph Rice held after he retired from the military. By the particulars included in the essay, Dad recognized his own father.
When I heard this story as a child, I was proud. I thought my distant grandfather, a near mythic figure in his French Foreign Legion and US Army uniforms of centuries past, was so famous that even a kid at my Dad’s school knew about him. I hadn’t understood my father’s commentary on the incident. My older sister had. What he’d said was that it wouldn’t have surprised him in the least to discover that he was related to half the urchins swarming the docks in Manila. When my sister reminded me of his words, I could see my father saying it, with that wry half-smile that never reached up into his eyes.
I don’t know that my grandfather was a bad man. Only that those were some of the words used to describe him. There are others. Orphan. Adventurer. Soldier. Distinguished veteran. Gifted linguist. He died in 1970. The death certificate lists the Filipina daughter as his only next of kin, with instructions to deliver his body to her. I assume he is buried in the Philippines, perhaps in a Jewish cemetery. I may go there one day, to search for his grave.
After Esther died, my father cleared out her small house in the Avenues. I recall admiring her wardrobe, pining after a pair of fancy, brocade slippers and a set of silk pajamas with braided frog fasteners that would have made the perfect Halloween costume. I struggled to shove my flat feet into the tiny shoes and to wriggle into her pants. At eleven, I was already too big for my grandmother’s clothes.
Aside from the photographs, there are no mementos of Esther that I know of. No carved figurine or jewel box to hold in my hands. No touch to remember her by. I wish I had known how important that would one day seem. I wish I had insisted on keeping those beaded slippers, even if they didn’t fit.
I do have my eyes. One of mine, the right eye, is more deep-set than the other, making it appear even smaller. I notice it most in photographs, where it makes me look sleepy or lazy, as if I can’t be bothered to open it all the way. In photographs Esther seems to share this asymmetry, though it’s her left eye that is more hooded than the other. I imagine that in this small way we are mirror images of one another.
With words and photographs, military exploits and world-travels, my grandfather, Joseph Rice, shaped his own narrative, the ways in which he is remembered. Who knows. I may one day stumble upon that 450-page manuscript with further details of his exploits. My illustrious Hungarian grandfather’s life writ even larger.
Esther left a fainter trail and, so far as I know, no words of her own. Here are some of mine. Strong. Brave. Resilient. Beautiful. I want to believe they are true. That there was once a willful Tianjin daughter who left her father’s house with a dashing soldier, anticipating love, adventure, freedom, a new life, and, at least for a time, finding it. I want to believe she had a say in choosing her name. Esther. And those of her children. Ruth, David and Joseph.
There is no one left who can say it isn’t so.
DOROTHY RICE, a San Francisco native, now lives in Sacramento. At 60, following a career in environmental protection, Dorothy earned an MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside, Palm Desert. Her first book, The Reluctant Artist: Joe Rice (1918 – 2011), a memoir/art book, was published by Shanti Arts (2015). Recent work appears in Jellyfish Review, Literary Mama and Brain Teen 2016, among others. (@dorothyrowena)