She could barely feel herself, let alone the hand she clutched tightly. Everything hurt. Her legs from sitting in the cramped space, her eyes from crying enough tears to boil several kettles of water, her hands from clutching her sister’s hand. Her sister. Just thinking about her made the room swim before her eyes. She couldn’t let go. Not yet. Not ever. Her sweet baby sister just couldn’t be… she cringed, couldn’t face it, no, no, no, it was all so horrible.
Cress, short for Crescent, had come home with a cough after playing in the streets. So of course their Popo (Chinese for grandma) wrung her hands and after exclaiming “Oyo! “at least five times, brewed Cress ginger tea to soothe her throat. For awhile the ginger tea seemed to work its promised magic because she stopped coughing. But the cough came back. Viciously.
First it was a headache so Popo confined her to bed under a mass of quilts and told her to sleep. She would never get out of bed after that. The next morning, Popo felt her forehead and later said she was amazed her fingers weren’t burnt. She had a fever of 104. We couldn’t take her to the hospital. For one thing, we didn’t have the money. We relied on Popo’s small, emphasis on small, salary of housekeeper for a wealthy white madam. The best hospitals were the ones with white doctors and there was no way they would take someone like us. We were Chinese. So we were the ones who dipped towels in water to bring to cool her small fever-racked body. We were the ones who fed her chicken soup since she couldn’t swallow two bites of rice without vomiting. Cress vomited almost everything she ate. Soon she stopped eating altogether. She regurgitated the rice, then the soup, and after that she began throwing up blood. Running out of options, Popo went to Chinatown and brought back a Chinese doctor (according to her, the real kind of doctor). Thus, Dr. Chi came to our small apartment and poked, prodded, and questioned Cress. Dr. Chi told us it was the influenza. All of a sudden, my heart had stopped. Hardly anyone recovered from the influenza. Those who survived were often left frail and sometimes missing a limb or two.
Suddenly it was Popo and I with a fever. Popo became frazzled when she came home from work to Cress. I worked relentlessly to nurse Cress back to the shining girl she used to be. She began to have trouble breathing, her lips became the ominous color of a cloud heavy with rain, and chills racked her body even though she slept under a mound of blankets so large we could barely detect the lump of life that was her. Soon though we couldn’t do anything more than just hold her small freezing hands. I rocked back and forth, holding Cress’s hand, pretending I was on a swing that could swing so high I could touch the sky and ask the gods to save my sister. I relived memories of me and her, inseparable sisters, partners in crime, sharers of everything in our lives. I told her to remember the first time we went to a soda fountain and tasted heaven in the form of a root beer float. I begged her to think of the blissful hour we spent downtown with Popo, buying whatever we pleased from a set of beautifully bound journals to fresh made donuts from a bakery larger than a whole floor of apartments. I re-acted the multiple occasions Popo took us to the mansion she worked at. We were as “good as little angels” said the old lady of the mansion, to Popo’s delight. What she didn’t know was that we had hidden in our lunchsacks book after book of the wealthy old lady’s library. We were desperate to read, positively ravenous for words, knowledge, stories. We reasoned she would never miss them with books that filled shelves floor to ceiling in a room larger than any we had been in before. Giddily, we stayed up all night reading what we could sitting outside, using the light from a neighbor’s window. Cress lay motionless. I cried.
Two weeks after getting influenza, Cress died. We would learn later that the influenza had turned into pneumonia. Cress had been feebler than ever, barely stirring under her blankets that day, only moving to cough up blood. She sometimes had trouble breathing, gasping for breath even though the window was open and the crisp fresh air of autumn was in the air. These were all symptoms of pneumonia, but Popo and I were no doctors. There was little we could have done.
The day she died, she spoke my name for the first time in days. At first, I thought it was my head being hopeful for some sign of recovery. But suddenly I heard a small breath that murmured my name again. I scooted closer to her bed and looked into her emaciated, ashen face. I was suddenly under her gaze that was so full of life, I couldn’t believe it. A small creature of hope fluttered excitedly in my chest. Cress hadn’t looked like this since she became sick. I opened my mouth to call Popo but stopped mid-breath at the slightest shake of Cress’s head. She beckoned for me to come closer with her eyes, which were still startlingly clear. I sat down on her bed and took her hand. I flinched at the touch, they were colder than ice cubes. Cress began but coughed for several seconds before she gained her bearings again.
“Promise me something,” she whispered into my ear.
“Anything.” Tears were already dripping modestly my eyes. Pitter patter, they danced onto the bedspread.
“Go,” she drew a breath, “go to school. I can’t,” she drew in a sharp breath, “can’t do it. So you do it for me.” She squeezed my hand. It was the kind of squeeze that meant everything was going to be okay. Everything was far from being okay.
“No!” I sobbed. “Don’t go, don’t go. I can’t. Really. I love you Cress, what do you think you-?”
“You promised.” The words came out harshly, and struck daggers into my heart. Tears streamed down my face. They formed pools on the hollow spots between Cress’s face and neck.
“Promise…” she said, losing grip.
5 years later,
“Good morning Ms. Minturn.” I nodded to the formidable socialite sitting in the lounge chair. I took a seat beside her in an equally comfortable chintz chair.
“Here already dear?” she chirped. “Well, I wasn’t expecting you until 9 o’clock. No matter. Are you ready?” she peered over her glasses to take a look at me. I nodded and began reading.
I was still the same little girl at heart I was all those years ago, filled with an unquenchable thirst for books and the knowledge in them. It turned out that Ms. Minturn had watched me and Cress steal book after book but said nothing, for reasons she never expressed aloud. Soon after Cress had died, Popo had gone too. The doctors said she had died peacefully in her sleep from a stroke. My mind felt like it was in heaven already while I walked on earth numbly. The next morning after I was orphaned with no family at all left, I dragged myself out of bed even though I felt as good as dead myself, to go to Ms. Minturn’s mansion and let her know Popo would no longer be able to come work. Ms. Minturn and I talked from morning to night. When I left the mansion that night, I was going to school. Ms. Minturn would be my teacher.
Ms. Minturn was a stringent mentor. Although she never raised her voice, every time I didn’t finish my work to be the very best it could be, I was thoroughly ashamed just by the look of disappointment etched onto the lines of that face. I had finished coursework for almost every college course from calculus to quantum physics. I was fluent in three different languages (not including English and Chinese)- Latin, Greek, and French. Whatever Ms. Minturn could not teach me, she would invite a colleague of hers from her glory days as a English Literature Professor at Stanford. I would then impress them with my wit and cunning. Not one professor yet had passed up the chance to teach Ms. Minturn’s protégé. Ms. Minturn had been a highly respected professor. However, this was just a sliver of what Ms. Minturn and I had accomplished.
We were the masterminds behind the push for desegregation of Asian children in schools. We frequently visited Washington to lobby the cause. Ms. Minturn called them our “little excursions to the countryside” to anyone who asked and indeed, they were. We went to visit the country’s best doctors who tested my intelligence. Science deemed me equal to the white race. We dined and lunched with prominent senators and Supreme Court justices. They could not mask their humiliation when they asked Ms. Minturn if I spoke English. At the end of our conversation, they could not deny the fact that I was not “smart” enough to go to school with white children. However, not even freely discussing politics with me as well as any highly educated person could change their pompous views. I was not permitted to go to school with white children since they intended to “save white children from being affected by association with pupils of the Mongolian race.” That was their justification quoted word for word. Ms. Minturn would purse her lips and shoot them a look that made them as worthy as their racist views. They pretended not to see and wipe their brow with linen monogrammed handkerchiefs.
The environment for change was hostile, racism was rampant. Chinese children were not permitted in San Francisco schools in 1859. A family challenged that law in 1884, and the California Supreme Court guaranteed the right of children born to Chinese parents in California to a public education. However this was unacceptable to the local government. In order to avoid integration, the San Francisco District set up a separate Chinese Primary School. This was the grade school that I went to in 1935 (they changed the name of the school to Commodore Stockton School). We were forbidden to speak Chinese at school and were physically punished if we did. Popo had taken me out of school after she found me sucking on my bruised hands a teacher had thoroughly whacked at with a ruler after I had accidentally called Cress in Chinese on the playground. Popo bought books with her salary so Cress and I could learn by ourselves after that. The the Supreme Court had ruled in 1896 in the case Plessy vs. Ferguson “separate but equal” facilities did not violate that Constitution so San Francisco’s government was not doing anything wrong in the eyes of the law. They were not doing anything wrong because forcing innocent children into an abusive and poor education was saving white children from mixing with an “inferior” race.
31 years later..
Arms pulled me out of oblivion. Elated cheers and the pop-pop of champagne bottles sparked the air like firecrackers after all these years of darkness. Music dripped from the speakers like twinkling stars. A federal court had just ordered for the desegregation of public schools in California.
I could just see Cress’s lopsided toothy smile. My face hurt from smiling so much. I laughed because somewhere Cress was laughing too. I gulped down more champagne. I could hear her voice.
“To Cress,” I whispered. Tears slid down my face. “See? I promised.”