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SHJ Issue 9
Spring 2014

I Didn’t Know

John Griswold

A white marble statue the size of a cat, demure as a cat, squats on a shelf by an east window, smiling under dust and the ink my childish pen traced in its contours.

Cracked with water-swollen wedges from one of five stone mountains (the one they call “Heaven”), carved with an iron adze and chisels by a craftsman at Non Nuoc, it sits now, amused, surrounded by my son’s Babar, Nessie, George, Elmo, and a Harrod’s bear in a Guard’s bearskin hat.

I didn’t know for a long time that my mother bought the little statue in Ben Thanh in 1963, expatriated it to southern Illinois locked in a cabinet of wonder the size of a coffin that also held old leis, a tiger-skin pocketbook, a concubine’s wooden headrest, a Thai Ramayana rubbing of a demon seducing a maiden, a junk made of the amber and ebony horn of water buffalo, silk kimonos for man and wife.

A thousand petit treasures in the trunk, amid other clutter in the closed-off bedroom with her other curations: a grocery sack of my Kodachrome father (gone), chintz china of my father’s mother (dead), the treadle Singer of her own mother (dead), the horsehair blanket her daddy (dead) lay across his lap in his Ford motorcar. All the exotic dry rot without context or catalog, jewel-headed insects in a black widow’s web.

She smiled when I begged to see, pleased at my interest, happy to help me hold ivory chopsticks, proud to tell old stories, how Vietnamese on the street asked to touch my sister’s golden hair, how her maid Phuong, a clever girl but confused, had asked, “Madame want soup? Madame want soap?”

My mother served all memories, savory, sweet, or bitter, equally. How a man in the market had had his nose cut off by Communists, you could see into his skull; how the Saigon nurses couldn’t contain their pleasure that I was born a boy; how she was there when Thich Quang Duc immolated himself in protest; that the human body, anyone, everyone, melts like butter if there’s enough heat, she said. I didn’t know that about democracy.

Oh, people are all alike, she assured me. Old Man Poorson in his market on our street (where I bought firecrackers she forbade) cheated his people on loaves of bread—let alone meat! Pulpit penitents, tears running down their cheeks—all cheating bastards, she said, those men bawling in church on Sunday (while my friends and I giggled over new lyrics to old hymns) and balling their secretaries Monday noon in the Herrin Motel. She didn’t much care for the manager of Woolworth’s either but made me apologize to him when I stole a little View-Master Jesus on a keychain. If you held it to the sun, He gazed upon you. I was four, and my cheeks burned from it. She smiled down at me with compassion and mercy.

My mother made me laugh, impressions of a schizophrenic cousin, doing the bickering voices; hulking across our living room like a local boor, my school’s principal; her mimicking wheedle-dee-dee of the American consul in Saigon, who counseled with the voice of Slim Pickens to return home to our compound near Ton Son Nhut after my father tried to slap me from her arms.

The bull dyke who lived next to us in Saigon, a woman ex-Marine, no b.s. there, boy, she told me she would have whacked your father in the head with a Griswold cast-iron skillet while he slept.

I didn’t know that so my mother told me and we laughed.

She smiled when she packed me off to show-and-tell at Bible camp with her white marble Buddha, a rare appearance for the little guy, in on the joke I didn’t yet get. Her daddy had been an alderman in that church, but my mother resigned as secretary due to their complete and total hypocrisy, jerks who looked down on a single mother when it was your father the one ran off with that whore. Now hurry or you’ll miss it entirely. As long as it was on the way, we drove past that woman’s house to see was his Chevy in her weedy drive.

I didn’t know that he didn’t even know that woman anymore or that that car had been sold down the river long before. He had taken another post with USAID, in Kabul, learned some Pashtu, moved in with his secretary, discarded his memories of Southeast Asia (the pet monkey, the state dinner where they served chicks baked in egg cups, the impotent .22 he hid in a nightstand drawer, his wife and newborn son) and replaced them with Khan and his tribes. My father, not one to keep photographs, worked, fucked, ate, and unsentimentally moved to Jakarta, Beirut, Paris.

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know, grape Kool-Aid and sandwich cookies, then the women helped me lift the Buddha onto the folding craft table like a baby at a baptism. “Oh, me,” they said with rictus grins. The next kid showed off the crucifix his daddy cut from sulfur coal, as black as sin and twice as oily.

I didn’t know better than to draw on the Buddha, so it got buried for safekeeping in the trunk mysterious with camphor and cedar. For years I contemplated it from the outside. In my mind the trunk became something like the portmanteau Joan must have carried into battle, the carriage trunk Marie’s footmen dropped to mutton stares, the kind of trunk Miss Havesham folded dowry into, Amanda Wingfield dragged up from the plantation, Amelia Earhart dragged down to the coral. The sort wheeled along platforms by Polish beauties as the Germans hit town. A trunk that someone like, oh, Margaret Bourke-White, Clare Boothe Luce, Pearl S. Buck, or Martha Gellhorn Hemingway skycapped on Pan Am when winging far away.

I didn’t know why my mother became a recluse in the detritus of memory. Her humor seemed intact. When I released the dozens of cats held captive in our bathroom while we ate, they piled over each other coming out the door, claws and tails and terrified eyes, cascades of frantic cats suddenly freed like a river from a feline dam, and my mother laughed and laughed.

“Stampede!” she yelled, apparently delighted at the surreal anarchy of the world. Every spring they died of feline distemper, lay wrapped in newspaper like cold fish while we dug together in the side yard, furtive as grave robbers. Our shovels grated on previous years’ delicate old bones.

I didn’t know, but my mother told me, that she had always done what she liked, laughed how she got a pilot’s license in secret when Daddy wouldn’t let her enlist, how he forced the annulment with that first man, but anyway she’d worked for Life, had a master’s, taught in West Palm Beach, had two other husbands, and now threw rejected washing machine baskets high into railcars on the siding of a filthy factory at sixty-two years of age. There was something funny in that I didn’t know.

When we took her from her house and put her in a home, she smirked and nodded with palsy. Mute and demure. I knew it all along, she seemed to imply. Cleaned out the debris, piles of old news, cat-pissed divan, lamps cancered with rust, ruined beds clothes sacks piano pots and that trunk, which I broke open with a knife, the key long gone, to find the Eternal within. It rests now, for a mote in its geologic mind, on my shelf in the sun.

I didn’t know until I was thirty-three and my mother’s brain had gone smooth that it’s not the Buddha at all but smiling Quan Am, she “who-listens-to-the-world’s-cries,” bodhisattva of compassion for those who suffer, because they remember, because pain is supremely democratic, because they hold back to pass on bitter wisdom; for those who, afraid of impermanence, need something cold and heavy to hold, to hoard, to treasure, to lie inside, to prove they’re still alive.

What did I know about
a woman


—“I Didn’t Know” is from Pirates You Don’t Know And Other Adventures in the Examined Life by John Griswold. Copyright © 2014 by John Griswold. Reprinted with permission of the University of Georgia Press.


SHJ Issue 9
Spring 2014

John Griswold

Photo of John Griswold

is an assistant professor in the MFA program at McNeese State University and the editor of the McNeese Review. He is the author of the novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and of the nonfiction narrative, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He lives in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Additional biographical details at:

Griswold’s blog at Inside Higher Education:

The Education of Oronte Churm
“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury