Last Sunday was my mother-in-lawÕs birthday. Born in rural China, she came to America as a match made bride at age 21. Some Chinese immigrants came from sophisticated cities like Shanghai, but my mother-in-law was a peasant girl.
Now 83, she has lived most of her life in San FranciscoÕs Chinatown.
She is slim and graceful, with an unlined face and hands more youthful than mine. She gets a lot of exercise, teaching tai chi every morning and then walking with friends. After lunch, she takes a bus downtown where she spends much of the afternoon window shopping.
She speaks English, but not much, considering how long she has been here.
For her birthday, my husband and I decided to take her on a boat ride, not on a San Francisco tourist vessel, but on a boat from our world, a river boat, an inflatable raft.
First we brought her to the town of Lotus, on the South Fork of the American River, where we have our cabin. We took turns steadying her as she walked across the gravel to our front door. ÒI not used to this,Ó she said about the uneven walkway, which surprised me because she balances beautifully for tai chi.
We gave her our bedroom, which looks out on trees. ÒNo curtain, someone look inside,Ó she said, so my husband nailed sheets over the windows.
Meanwhile, she deposited several items of food in the refrigerator, I guess in case we failed to feed her.
A few hours later, as is his custom, my husband served a three-course feast.
She slept well and the next morning she was still saying ÒyesÓ to the birthday boat ride. Bob and I have taken many people on the river, most of whom havenÕt rafted before, so we know they ask a lot of questions.
But Oanh Yan asked very few: She just dressed and packed. She put on enough layers for a cold day in San Francisco, despite my husbandÕs repeated notification that it would be 90 degrees. Although I filled a cooler with goodies, she brought a plastic bag with water and a snack.
ÒI get seasick?Ó she asked. My husband said Òno.Ó I felt proud of him as he tenderly spread sunscreen on her face. Then we drove to the river.
Unlike every other person weÕve ever taken, my mother-in-law didnÕt say a word about life jackets. She didnÕt check that we had them, and when we put one on her, she didnÕt tug on it to make sure it was snug. As she watched us prepare the raft, she said only, ÒWhere I lean my back?Ó
My husband, who had been hauling and inflating with patient good humor, stopped what he was doing and looked at me.
I looked back. Everything was ready, everything was tied. We hadnÕt thought about her back. SheÕs had surgery once.
ÒA folding chair?Ó he murmured.
ÒIÕll get it,Ó I said. Twenty-five minutes later I was back from our cabin with a low-slung lawn chair.
It was not easy getting Oanh Yan into the boat, down steep cobble, over the big inflated tube and into the lawn chair, but after we accomplished this, she looked like a queen.
We shoved off into big water, relatively calm, but moving.
We had, of course, chosen the ÒquietÓ part of the river, but it still has small, Class 2 rapids. My husband and I took turns rowing and honing a new skill: avoiding all splashes.
His technique was to tug on the oars at the exact moment when a wave crested. Mine was to turn the boat backwards, so IÕd take the hit. Whoever was not rowing sat behind Oanh Yan with one hand on her life jacket and the other steadying the lawn chair.
She was not aware of our hands or our special maneuvering. She seemed different from most of our passengers, but it took me a while to figure out how.
She never expressed any fear at all. Her face was as calm as if sheÕd been sitting in front of her television. She knows that people can fall into water, drown even, but those facts were totally out of her awareness. She wanted to make sure she had enough food for the two-hour trip; she knew we would handle the rest.
As we passed other rafts and colorful kayaks, I asked my husband to pose a question to her in Chinese. What were the rivers like where she lived in China many years ago?
ÒNot same at all,Ó she said. All the boats were for work.
By the end of the trip, Bob and I had learned to avoid splashes very well, but then I noticed something. Oanh Yan was beginning to look toward the patches of whitewater we carefully avoided.
ÒShe wants it!Ó I whispered to Bob. ÒHit the next one.Ó
I watched her smile. I wished the trip werenÕt over.
Then I thought about Oanh YanÕs larger trip. She arrived in America on a crowded boat, with a husband she barely knew. Sixty years later, sheÕs on another boat, rafting the American River.
The second boat ride came in part from her son, his passion, his skill. But it came in part from her own doing: her healthy regimen and her spirit of adventure, which I havenÕt acknowledged often enough.
Eighty-three years. What a voyage.
Ñ Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected] Her column appears Sundays.