“I have an idea,” Irene said, and her own words seemed to string themselves together and hang in the air. “A reunion, not just a visit. China, the mainland—a tour. You, me, the girls. This summer.” It was impossible. They were all too self-reliant, too far-flung, and Irene couldn’t pull them together; she needed more weight. “And Ma.”
“Ma?” her sister said. “You want to vacation with Ma?”
“The past is the past. She’s turning eighty this year. We have to celebrate somehow.”
“We never have before.”
“But eighty is a big deal. And really it’ll be for all of us. Just us girls. It’ll be fun.” Like something she’d seen on TV. Women laughing over jewel-colored drinks. Women sharing deodorants and secrets, caressed by chiffon and a breeze.
“China isn’t known for fun.”
“We should see for ourselves,” Irene said.
China was the regime that had run their family out more than fifty years ago. China was Red Guards, starving masses, rolling tanks. China was men licentious like her father, women embittered like her mother. But what had Irene really seen? Like anyone else, the headlines: China had reformed, kaifang, opened up. Hanging peppy banners over its grimmer features and proclaiming itself open for business.
Never mind the headlines. America was Meiguo, the beautiful country—but China at heart was still Zhongguo: the central nation, the origin of everything from paper to pasta, the archetypal birthplace. This Irene had always known, without having to look.
She said, “Don’t worry. I’ll plan everything. I’ll start tomorrow—New Year’s Day!” Before her sister could argue, Irene hung up.
The stillness of the house now felt different—a note of anticipation amid all the absence.
Perhaps her only legacy would be that she’d given her daughters what she’d never had: a home. They considered it their birthright, like clean water, fresh air, a stable society, citizenship of a country utterly safe from invasion. Now her daughters were taking off, as of course they should—but grief had skewed their trajectory. They were trying to leave it behind, to outdistance her, when what they all needed, now more than ever, was to be together.
Irene couldn’t bring their father back, but if she could gather them all for this tour, together they might recover a missing link. Not some notion of their laojia, their ancestral home—but a new understanding of an old truth, old as civilization itself. A truth about death and life, about generations, about permanence. Then, and perhaps only then, could she and her daughters come back home. Jia—family, house, home. In Chinese, it was all one word.