Evidence of Existence

I am on a decluttering spree, and I am almost done cleaning out and reorganizing the linen closet. I’ve refolded the towels, separating the solid-colored bath ones from the printed beach ones. Once I find a basket to hold the hand towels, I should be able to check the linen closet off my to-do list. On the bottom shelf of the closet is a small suitcase, one that is only as wide as a school backpack. I think it is time to throw it out.

I pull out the blue leather suitcase that was manufactured at least 30 years ago. There is a zipper, but no shoulder strap to carry it with or handle to pull it with. The suitcase had belonged to one of my grandmothers. I brought it back home with me after I attended her funeral in 2004.

When I was a young child, I often visited temple with this grandmother. She was the former mother-in-law of the mother who raised me. She had only one child, a son, who, similar to my biological parents, had died in the civil war in our native country. She, my mother, and I had come to the United States together as refugees, but when my mother and her new husband decided to move out of the state, my grandmother stayed behind.

Throughout my childhood, I overheard bits and pieces of my mother’s frustration over her mother-in-law. To her, my grandmother was never satisfied with how much my mother had done for her. My grandmother was overly critical of her. She blamed her for the car crash they both had been in during a visit. She also complained to friends and neighbors that my mother was not dependable and had not invited her to move with us, forcing her to be family-less. I don’t remember this grandmother having been especially gentle or having ever bitten her tongue, so I am sure that there is some truth to my mother’s description of the old woman. But I do remember her treating me well enough when we did live together and on the few visits we saw each other. I think this was why I brought her suitcase that carried her most prized possessions with me after her passing. That, and because she had left behind no children to claim it.

I dust off the suitcase. The zipper takes a bit of work, but it finally opens. The last time I opened the suitcase and perused its contents was when I brought it home. Resting at the top is an 8×10 photograph of the Buddhist monk at the temple she and I regularly attended. I remember this monk well — he and the elderly parishioners were fond of me, frequently asking me to dance Apsara for them and rewarding me with a quarter each time I fulfilled their request. There are framed photos of my grandmother with a shaved head and garbed in white sheets — she had eventually completed many rites and earned herself a Buddhist nun status. Visiting temples and fulfilling boun became her mission. She took pilgrimages to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and temples in India.

I lift up a thin, narrow photo album, where the sleeves are plastic and compartmentalized to hold individual photographs. I see pictures of more Buddhist monks and the interiors of temples; the colors in the photos are varying shades of orange. I see a couple of pictures of my grandmother in her younger years, when her hair was black and cut short around her ears. Her face had been angular then, but later it filled out when she started gaining weight and became diabetic. I flip through more pictures of temples and monks, and then I see a picture of me. In the photo, I was about three years old and was practicing the Apsara dance. Besides this newly discovered photo, I have, maybe, only three other ones of when I was around that age. I slide the photo out from the album sleeve for safe-keeping.

Tucked in a folder under the album is a certificate recognizing my grandmother as a United States citizen. There is an address book in a corner of the suitcase. I pick up a wallet and flip through her photo IDs. She must have saved every single picture ID she was given in the U.S., even the expired ones. There is also a framed professional photo of her taken with a man, a woman, and a young boy. She is sitting in a chair, with these unfamiliar people staged standing behind her. She appears to be the matriarch of the family. This must have been one of the families she lived with after my parents and I moved. I wonder if the boy, who is probably around my age now, has come across a copy of this picture recently. If he has, does he remember who she was?

Except for the photo of me as a tiny dancer, I repack my grandmother’s belongings — everything that proves her once existence — into the suitcase. Then I set the suitcase back on the bottom shelf of the linen closet.