Fire Escape's 2008 Short Fiction First Prize Winner

First Prize Fire Escape's 2008 Short Story Contest

Threads of Memory by Teresa, Vietnam/America, Age 19

It's a perfect memory, one told to me by my grandmother as she gazes at me from behind thick lenses that distort her wide brown eyes. She tells a tale that could easily be mistaken for a bedtime story, if I were still a child. But instead, my grandmother is the one tucked into a standard-issue hospital bed, frail against white sheets. The door is open and I can hear the squeaky shoes of the nurses. My grandmother lies back, and tells me a story of a life far removed from the scent of disinfectant and mass-produced meals.

I often tell stories about my grandparents, about how one chilly night, they leave the portable heater on for too long and burn through the carpet. It is a brush with death, one of the many examples of recklessness that have become increasingly frequent in their old age. But my grandmother tells a happier story.

Her story takes place on a sunny, Disney-perfect day. She is babysitting me, her pudgy pigtailed infant granddaughter.

Here my grandmother's story zooms into a world that I do not recall. She says that she carries me into the residential streets. In my childhood recollections, I do not see my grandmother ever venturing out onto the sidewalk. But her story continues. She carries me to the marketplace. It is filled with crowded stalls, where Vietnamese is the only language and haggling is a way of life.

"I took you to buy sweets," she tells me, the ghost of a smile on thin chapped lips.

No Grandma, I want to say. There is no marketplace near our home – just chain link fences and an old playground. You're remembering another time. Somewhere in Vietnam, you must have taken a child to buy candy. Back then you were not reliant on a walker or a wheelchair. A walk down the street reaped the greetings of familiar faces, scents and sounds. Do you remember the uneven roads, the baskets of steaming corn, the women swathed in silk making their way to morning mass? They are images from a world I've never seen.

The grandmother I know was never strong enough to carry me. She does not know the streets where we lived, the corner drugstores blocks away. Grandma, you never left our home. You lived with us during my childhood and sat quiet and delicate at the dinner table. You called me into your room to thread needles when your eyesight dimmed.

Now in this room of dull linoleum tiling and decaying lives, dementia nibbles at the fabric of my grandmother's history. There are times when she does not remember my name, when she asks my twelve-year-old brother when his wedding is.

"Who is it?" she asks when I come to visit. I like to think that it is her eyesight that hinders her from recognizing her own granddaughter.

"It's me, Mai Linh," I say clearly, and most of the time she smiles in recognition.

At the nursing home, everything is cream colored. It is a dull existence, and I wonder if my grandmother replays these confused memories in her mind. The last time I visited, she was alert as she told me of her extravagant wedding and her youthful beauty. The memory seems right. Hearing fact from her mouth is rare nowadays.

I think of the story she told me, and the fact that she called me Mai Linh while she was speaking. In essence, it is nothing but the story of a grandmother who loves her granddaughter. And because of that, it is a real memory, tangled but true.