Looking to Mao’s Ex-Wife for Advice on the Proper Way to Honor the Dead
BY DA’SHAWN MOSLEY
I’ve looked everywhere for the photo of you at his mausoleum standing beside his statue, but I can’t find it. Maybe the Chinese government has it. I still don’t understand why you were banned in the first place. Two million or so people got to visit before you did, and most of them never met Mao. But you were his wife. They didn’t have to endure what you did. For all it’s worth, I’ve heard about the way he acted toward you. I’ve read about the failed pregnancies, the affairs, and the one daughter who managed to survive.
But none of this mattered in the end. You still wanted to see him after he died. You still felt the need to say goodbye, and after all the appeals and the public support, you got your wish. Didn’t your daughter’s daughter grow up to write a book about her grandfather? Because she wanted to show that he was a loving man, and did this by revealing his romantic affairs and your heartache? And now there’s a hall in Yongxin to remember you. Your daughter was there when it was dedicated in your memory. I know you’re humble, and you don’t like to talk about the hall, but do you enjoy it? Is the hall, a memorial of sorts, fitting?
When I was young, I wanted a memorial for my father. I began to notice that the few memories I had of him were starting to slip away. I needed something tangible to jog my mind and keep any more from escaping, and who knows, maybe lure others back to me. My grandmother bought me a photo album the size of an atlas—navy blue with its front cover, back cover, and spine laminated. She filled it with every picture of my father she could find. The photos spanned the time from when he was a little boy until just weeks before his death. My grandmother told me to keep up with it, and I wanted to, Zizhen. I really did.
Eventually, I’ll have to tell my grandmother that, while helping my aunt move our belongings out of our old trailer, I neglected to grab the scrapbook from the top shelf of my bedroom closet. The floor of my room was covered with clothes I had outgrown and miscellaneous items I didn’t need. I was leaving all that behind. When I looked at the mess, I thought I’d already taken everything valuable.
In another photo album of mine, I’ve found a picture of my father holding me in his lap, but it’s only one picture. It’s not a culmination of the twenty-one years he lived, including the three years I spent with him before he was shot and killed in front of that convenience store. My mom said the day it happened, I started crying and wouldn’t stop. Not until his funeral when her mother, a superstitious woman in her late thirties, passed me over his casket in front of everyone in the church. According to my mother, passing me over my father’s casket “silenced me.”
Of course, it would be difficult to pass over him now. He’s buried in a cemetery in Sellers, South Carolina and I’m at a boarding school three hours away. I can’t visit his grave as often as I once could. There’s no longer just the separation of this life and the afterlife. There’s physical distance between us. I remember when my grandmother gave me a brown leather belt that belonged to my father and had his initials on it—C.L.B. for Cedric Lafon Burch—before my cousins, my brother Tyrell and I vacationed in Myrtle Beach. A week later, when we were back in Greenville, South Carolina, my grandmother asked where the belt was. I told her it was in my bag. I had yet to unpack. She walked into her bedroom and returned with the belt in her hand and told me I had left it on a nightstand in the hotel room. She told me I wasn’t getting it back. Instead, she would keep it. I just wasn’t ready for that kind of responsibility.
Seventeen years old, a senior in high school applying to college, and I’m still not ready. I’m young and foolish. I know I’m the eldest of my father’s two sons, and it’s my responsibility to carry on with his legacy, to make sure his name is never forgotten and his story continues to be told, but I don’t think I can. Sure, I was always around him as a little boy, but that was a long time ago. How can anyone expect me to remember those days?
He Zizhen, when you were finally allowed to visit the mausoleum, they made you promise not to shed a tear or make a sound, and afterward you returned to the safety of your home. How did you handle emotions in the face of a memorial? How did you honor the man that you loved, looking down on his crystal coffin, unable to see yourself in its reflection, attempting to insert yourself back into his life? Because there was the divorce, and how could you forget it?
If there’s one thing I need you to teach me, it’s the proper way to honor the dead when detachment is in the equation, when it’s dominant and visible and there. Because sometimes, I manage to convince myself that I haven’t forgotten anything about my father, as if I could return to the old trailer at any given moment and find the scrapbook still sitting in the closet. It’s like a dream because then I’m jolted out of it. Awakened and holding the one photo of my father and me, staring at it not because I miss him, but because I don’t know who that man is. Maybe I don’t even know the kid sitting on his lap.