I have a hunch that the stamps in my passport have contributed most of my insights, and prompted most of my questions.
Walking back home from dinner one night, my mom and I hung back, letting my dad and my husband walk ahead of us.
Our bellies full of goodies from my parents' favorite cheapie "tea restaurant," the Hong Kong night squawking and glowing around us, mom was in a good mood and eager to chat.
"So I haven't told you about my mother and father's first home right?"
"The one on Kennedy Road?" I asked.
"No, no. The one before that."
"There was one before that?" My whole life I'd only known about two homes that my mother's family had lived in. My cousins and I referred to the homes as "The One Where Uncle Got His Head Stuck in the Bannister" and "The One With Two Old Pianos."
"Aauuugggh-ah!" There was mom's inimitable gleeful-disgust sound again. "Oh yes! They only lived there for a week! Auntie Pizza Hut hasn't told you this story?"
For those of you just tuning in, "Auntie Pizza Hut" is my aunt (whose name is not really Pizza Hut) who had previously insisted that my mom and their other sister get a Pizza Hut pizza and go sit on the steps of the nullah near their childhood home to reminisce. The nullah (watercourse) was where decades ago a little boy lost his life and his ghost became the stuff of urban legends.
For the record they did go to the nullah for the day, but they did not get Pizza Hut. They got McDonald's.
"No, Auntie Pizza Hut never told me this one. Go on, tell me."
"OK." Mom slowed her pace a bit more as she put the story in order in her head.
"OK. When my mother married my father they had no place to live after the wedding. My mother's family had more money than my father's family, and a bigger house, but it would be shameful if they went to live with the wife's family."
For reference, Creepy Corneristas, my mom's father, my grandfather, was the person who saw the procession of the dead walk through his village as a child.
"So they found a cheap flat to live in on Hong Kong side. Despite being recently rebuilt — I'll tell you why in a second — and quite large, it was affordable.
They moved in, and immediately my father felt uneasy. It was gloomy. The first night, they didn't sleep well. Father saw shadows that shouldn't be there. Mother thought father was being superstitious and silly, but she admitted that something was 'off.' She wouldn't say what.
The next night, they were awoken in the middle of the night by a woman crying. Crying, crying, crying, she wouldn't stop. The sound seemed to be coming from outside the flat, but when they went to look, the sound would move. Louise, it moved to another wall!"
Could it have been a neighbor?
"No! There were no neighbors yet! It was just them in the building! Nobody lived there yet. Or nobody wanted to live there. You know, people in Hong Kong talk, if a building is bad, EVERYONE knows."
Wouldn't your parents know?
"Eh... they might have. But my mother wouldn't be bullied by anybody — dead or alive. So I bet if she knew, she thought it was stupid. It was a cheap flat and she was always practical. I'm sure that my father felt some guilt that he couldn't give his bride a better home, so they moved in."
So then what happened?
"It got worse. The third and fourth nights, they barely slept at all. The crying turned into wailing. The wailing would be outside the flat in the hall, then it seemed to be coming from inside, then it would move to the outer wall of the flat. Father said it shook the walls. Mother was just angry and shouted at the disembodied voice."
I'm sure that helped.
Mom gave me a hard look. "Nothing scared my mother. Well... so she said."
"My mother and father decided to ask the woman who leased them the flat what the hell was going on. The woman came over and listened to their complaints about 'the lady who cries at night.' My father asked if there was something 'wrong' with the flat."
"The woman was uncomfortable with the questions and asked them over and over again, 'You've paid for this month, right? You won't leave, right?'. My mother assured her that they couldn't afford to throw their money away, and said they intended to stay.
Only after that did the woman spill the beans."
Were they ghost beans?
"They're always ghost beans, Louise. At least with us. Am I right or am I right?"
You are right.
"It turns out that the reason that the building had been reconstructed recently was because there had been a terrible fire. A fire that had started in what was now my parents' flat.
A woman had died in that flat, in that fire. She had been a young woman, about to be married. Since the flat had been rebuilt, two other people had moved in and moved out within months. Everyone complained of a crying woman."
"SERIOUSLY. It seems that people believed that the ghost of the woman was crying for the husband she would never have. My father told me that the presence of a newlywed couple must have caused her so much pain, it drove her mad."
What did grandma think?
Mom watched the cars zoom by at the crosswalk where we were standing for a moment. Her mouth open, debating a half-formed thought.
"You know, it's weird. Mother was the most skeptical of us all. She openly said that father was 'crazy' for believing in ghosts. But... she hated that apartment. And would never explain exactly why. She would just say it was 'bad.' She intensely disliked talking about it. Sometimes I wonder if she thought ghosts were a nuisance, and saying she didn't believe kept them out of her hair. She was a mystery."
So how did the rest of the week go?
"After the woman left — I guess that was the fifth day — it got quiet. Eerily quiet. Yet they couldn't sleep that night. There was tension in the air. It was like someone was watching, my father said, watching and waiting."
Despite the warm night, goosebumps sprung up on my skin. I remarked to my mom that the silence was even worse.
"Aauuugggh-ah, I know. But then the sixth night the wailing was back, and it was LOUD. The walls shook, and they heard some knockings too. My parents stayed up all night — afraid, baffled, bargaining with the ghost, and then with each other over whether or not to leave.
Mother didn't want to leave and lose their money, while father felt that living with such an angry ghost was far more harmful than losing their cash. When daylight came around, they decided they would try to stay.
Can you imagine? My mother was so stubborn, and my father... well, I don't know what he was thinking. I guess he wanted to be a good husband. I would have been OUT OF THERE.
Anyway, the last night came, and that's when the shit really hit."
What sort of shit?
"It was like that James Brolin movie with Superman's girlfriend —"
"You know! That haunted house movie...the horror..."
The Amityville Horror? Like THAT?
"Yes! The wailing got really loud that night, as soon as it got dark. It was like the whole flat was vibrating. They heard knockings again, and strange shadows would dart here and there. When my parents would try to escape the wailing in another room, it would follow them.
Father said that the wailing sound changed too. It sounded angry. Now instead of a crying sound, it was almost shrieking at times. It was unrelenting.
Finally, they couldn't take it.
Mother was actually the one who broke down and said they could never raise children in a home like this, and moreso they couldn't go on torturing the poor crying woman. It wasn't fair TO HER. Even though she was afraid and frustrated, I think my mother felt for that ghost woman.
So they grabbed their few possessions and left that night."
Did they ever go back?
"I think they sent for their furniture but that's it. They lost their money, but never looked back. Oh! You know that torn up couch from their house on Boundary Street? That was from that flat. You sat on it!"
I asked my mom if my grandparents were ever bothered by ghosts again and she said that aside from a few encounters my grandpa had, they lived out their lives fairly ghost free.
"One night, Auntie Pizza Hut, my mother, and her dog were at the dinner table in my parents' house. My mother and her dog had dozed off and my sister was reading a magazine. She looked up from her magazine and saw father, he was wearing his pajamas. She heard the scuff of his slippers. He walked through the kitchen into the living room. Then the sound of his footsteps stopped.
When she went to look, the living room was empty."
This story wouldn't be so weird, if it wasn't for the fact that my grandpa had died a few days earlier.
"Grandma's dog didn't wake up? Notice a ghost?"
"Why should he? It was just grandpa walking around the house."
And it was that little bit of "ghostly logic" that charmed me, made me realize how proud of my family's ghost stories I am.
In the stories my mother has told me, a ghost is never just some scary thing. Each spirit has a story, a reason, a soul. From the nullah baby to the poor crying woman, no ghost is denied humanity. My family may be telling ghost stories, but they are also telling the stories of people. I never want to forget that.
So as a nod to my family's stories and beliefs, I want to thank the ghosts for letting me tell their tales. If spirits live on on the breath of the living, as my mom says, I hope that we honored their lives with sympathy and respect.