A Family Portrait by Jennifer Crystal Fang-Chien



A Family Portrait

jchien@leland.Stanford.EDU (Jennifer Crystal Fang-Chien)

This is the story I will tell you.

My parents met as exchange students from Taiwan.
In three months, they fell in love and married. Three years
later, I was born in Tennessee. When I was five
years old, my dad got a job offer in California, so we
moved. We've been there ever since. As a family, we get
into fights now and then, but everything's generally

This morning, the half-sun lit you in
this dim chamber (it smelled like you, like
roses pressed and dried between two pages of
an ancient text) and in the darkness of
your hair, masking the violence of a step-father and
self, you teased out this woven story.

This is a story I will not remember.

My mother said she used to love my father
because he would take her to visit the Washington
monument, take pictures of her on a leafy
lawn, cook dinner, and drive her to work in
the hard-snowing winters.

Within a few years, they started fighting. One time,
in the middle of an argument, my father hefted my baby
basket and threw me down the stairs. "Take her back!" he
said, but to where one couldn't guess. Later he
took the basket and drove off in the car. But I wouldn't stop
crying, so he had to bring us back.

"It's okay," you said, brushing my hair softly.

Occasionally, my father shoved my mother to
the floor; she'd sit there sobbing, and I felt so helpless.
Sometimes she'd start hacking with a kitchen knife at the
locked bedroom door. When they threw furniture, I would hide
in my room, hearing the noises of a marriage collapsing, and
I'd pace nervously, imagining the damage. Eventually I took
part, fighting over how I did the dishes, I nearly
brained my mother with a ladder -- she escaped with a
bruise on her shoulder. I threw ceramic figurines. I uprooted
and strangled her prize pansies.

We always had a hard time explaining the black ink on
the sofas or the water-damaged floor or the crashing noises
late at night.

The morning sun lit a framed family
portrait. Gentle mother, stout father, and
obedient daughter -- all dark haired and hard
working. An upstanding American family.

Withyour hand on mine, I tipped the portrait

-- © jennifer crystal chien
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