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Death as a Doorway into Memoir

For Judy Fong Bates, the death of her father by his own hands when she was twenty-two, is a painful shame that hangs over the days of her adult life. The prologue of A Year of Finding Memory opens with this startling, but somehow serene, statement.

“Not long after my father hanged himself in the summer of 1972, I found a small cardboard box far beneath his bed.”

There is a once-upon-a-time tone to these words, as if Bates is floating in a fantasy far away. Indeed, much of her childhood is filled with stories her parents told her about the many relatives and hardships of war that happened in faraway China. She is six when her mother brings her to small town Acton, Ontario where her father, already sixty-four, ekes out a living of drudgery washing other people’s dirty clothes by hand, a business her educated mother hates. Constant bitter arguments ensue, against the back drop of racism, isolation, humiliation, hopelessness and homesickness. A worthless dog life, her father complains endlessly. Any extra pennies are sent back to relatives.

Bates was not able to talk openly about the way her father died – her anger and sadness, the lashing out at inconsequential things—not until she and her husband make a trip to China to look for answers. There she finds welcome, connection to the centuries with age old Eastern rituals, and connection to a sister she hasn’t seen in fifty years. There, her parents are remembered, and to her surprise, respected. Those extra pennies from Gold Mountain (as the West was known in China) kept many of them alive during the starvation and brutalities of the Cultural Revolution.

Towards the end of her year of finding memory, she says “I … watched my parents grow into fully fleshed human beings” and discoveries of history and family “have turned my doubt and arrogance into a richer sort of knowing.”

But still, she cannot reconcile the diminished man she knew as the father who took his life and the sharp-tongued bitter mother with the people they were before they emigrated. “I am left aching to know the man and woman who knew each other before I was born.” In the end, although she is left with unanswerable questions, her memories have been enriched and enlightened. Her heart has found some solace.

A death can be a doorway into the most complicated parts of oneself, and into all sorts of other things that happened in the larger world. Balancing these two worlds can make for a very rich memoir. The Year of Finding Memory by Judy Fong Bates exemplifies how this can be done. Please enrich your life by reading this memoir.

Judy Fong Bates

Judy Fong Bates

DT   When you started writing The Year of Finding Memory, did you know right away you wanted to open with your father’s suicide and the contents you found in the box under the bed?

JFB   No. The manuscript went through several drafts before I came to that decision. I actually had two writer friends suggest opening with my father’s suicide. After thinking about it for some time, I decided to follow their advice and re-wrote the opening.

DT   What other openings did you consider?

JFB    For one, I began with my arrival in Canada with my mother, and another with my father’s arrival in Canada. To name just a couple.

DT  Talking about the circumstances of your father’s death was not possible for many years. What changed?

JFB   the two trips to China changed my perspective on my parents’ lives, gave me a depth and understanding that had been absent. I found myself with a window into a story which had been closed to me for many years.

DT   I am grateful to you for revealing the many stories of your and your parents’ lives – both the little pleasures and the huge tragedies. How do you feel to have researched and written your parents’ lives, the ghosts of which are part of you?

JFB   The story of my parents is a pioneer story, perhaps not like the ones belonging to the early French/Anglo/Irish settlers, but they nevertheless played a role in Canada’s story. They are not big players like Samuel de Champlain, Tommy Douglas, Laura Secord or General Wolfe. Those powerful people will be remembered and written about. But Canada would not be where it is today without ordinary people like my parents who did all the little things that are also a part of nation building. I like to think of the powerful people as the bricks and the people like my parents are the mortar – the mortar that holds the bricks together. As a writer, the stories of those ordinary people are what interests me. In the case of my parents, I wanted their story told and I knew that if I didn’t write it, it would be forgotten.

DT   Did the writing of this memoir have a healing effect?

JFB   There probably was some, but in my case, it was time that healed the wounds left by my father’s suicide. When I started to write this memoir, time had given me enough distance that I could approach it with love and compassion. Healing might have been a byproduct, but my primary goal was always to tell a story.

These flowers are for all those who have ached to understand their parents’ lives.

A Bouquet of Stories

A Bouquet of Stories

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12 comments on “Death as a Doorway into Memoir

  1. As always, your memoir pieces are very interesting, often touching, stories…good inspirations for thought and possible pieces of my own. Thank-you.

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  2. Writing about writing is not an easy thing. You did a nice job here. Well done – Carol

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  3. A difficult story to write, but an important one.

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  4. Thank you for forwarding this Diane. Elizabeth Pitura

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  5. Diane, what a powerful opening to a memoir. Judy’s story will be a comfort to many, I’m sure. My own paternal grandfather came to Canada, alone as a teen, from the Ukraine and sent back money to relatives until the day he died. He was suffering with lung cancer when he took his own life. So sad, and yet I can’t imagine how much he must have suffered. He eased the burden of so many before he succumbed to his own. I’m proud of his generous, committed and hardworking spirit.
    Blessings ~ Wendy

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    • Such a bittersweet story about your grandfather, And with similarities to Judy’s father, sending money home … a lifelong desire to help those left behind. A powerful legacy. I’m grateful to you for letting me know him in this way.

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  6. Thanks for this post, Diane. Such a familiar story of immigrants making sacrifices to help those they love. It is a trauma that is often overlooked as the whole idea of leaving everything one knows to emigrate is supposed to be one of bettering oneself and one’s loved ones. This memoir sounds as compelling as the opening line.

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    • So true, Cynthia. Leaving family behind in circumstances of war and hunger can be devastating. Therefore, scrimp and save to send money home to make their lives a little better. These heart aches are, as you say, often overlooked. Something to be aware of as we get ready to welcome Syrians here.

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