The table was set for nine. Each person had their own place and their own plate set on the white lace tablecloth. As far as family gatherings went there was always an outstanding and steady supply of homemade food. The boundless array of mismatched dishes lay out on the dining room table without any hungry relatives to appreciate such a display. The dining room was empty, the steam floating out of the warm food the only indicator that people had been home. There is much to be said about an empty table but one would not hear any explanation in this household. Most of the house sat in silence with the exception of the room upstairs.
The white wooden doors did little to contain the sounds of yelling, crying and slamming. The rest of the young kids played in earshot and in surprising discreetness, partially out of fear, partially as an act of obedience. The three children maintained the façade of preoccupation as the youngest sat and observed the family portrait on the wall. She noticed the stoicism of the photo and wondered why her uncle would want such a formal photo of their family. It was easy to spot the underlying pain and discomfort past the neutral faces of her cousins in the portrait. It hung in the corner of the living room with honor as well as with a looming discomfort. Her uncle’s eyes in the shot held a sense of self-importance, control, strong force. She was always internally on guard around him though he never interacted much with her or gave reason for her to think he would ever hurt her personally, still the feeling lingered and the paranoia sustained.
The youngest child looked up as the yelling stopped. The white wooden door opened as the eldest cousin, emerged already trying to pull together an expression of composure. She would never talk about what happened but it was not difficult to piece together. It was written in marks on her and her brothers’ skin, residual redness from a hit, even in the way they carried themselves. It was a different kind of body language. Her light skin made it obvious when she cried and tonight it especially did not help her hide the remnants of what happened. She ran to the bathroom to access the inflictions. After rubbing the drying blood from her nose her light skin turned red, a red that blended seamlessly with her lipstick, culminating just above the ridge of her upper lip.
Grandma called everyone downstairs.
Now that everyone was at the table, it was time for dinner. The food was cold.
They sat around the table in casual conversation, a nonchalant routine they knew well. Though no one explicitly explained what would happen in that upstairs room there was an unspoken understanding, a phantom knowledge. The ghost of knowing hung around dinnertime as everyone attempted to go on. The youngest cousin always had a vague sense of unease when it would happen. She could never figure out why her uncle did this. She never thought the punishment inflicted behind those white doors was deserved. She questioned why everyone else in the family went along with her uncle’s choices. She assumed everyone knew it was wrong and found it difficult to play it off but if that was how her older cousins handled it then how would she not go right along with it. She knew it was wrong but has the youngest who was she to disapprove? What authority could a child in grade school hold against that patriarchal figure in the family portrait? This was not her home and she would not speak out of place.
The older cousin had seemingly been restored back to normalcy. Her brothers resumed their typical apathetic but joking nature. But even on the most calm and typical nights the conversation is riled with reminders of inadequacy, worthlessness. If not with the back of his hand the uncle’s demanded respect through his cutting words. The subtle indicators of the children’s failure came in the form of being compared to other children, ranking who was best at what, being told that you were not enough of x, y, or z, being told you were cleaning the dishes wrong…
As the night progressed, as the adults went to bed to get up early for work and the kids stayed up late, there was a gradual change. There was laughing and playing and teasing. The energy was lighter. The beatings were just what happened. Could something small as the passing of a few short hours ease the weight? It is just how Vietnamese culture is. Could uneasiness simply vanish by not talking about it? It is just how they all acted about it. If they allowed the memory to fade, would it? This is just how things were.
The youngest cousin is no longer the youngest.
A string of graduations, years of teen angst, the development of individual identities.
Parties are void of most of the kids of the family as they are now away at college.
The family portrait gets lost in the move to a different house, one where no one is taken behind closed doors, where the punishment has been grown out of.
Do terrors and tremors of childhood ever loosen their hold on someone? Through the shifting tides and changing seasons, are there still seeds of unease resting in those who can remember the nights food sat cold on white lace tablecloth?