A Short History of My Family
Troy falls. The city burns, and only the great hero Aeneas escapes. Everyone he knows is dead, and he himself wants to die.
He lives. The gods have a plan for him: he will found a new homeland, an imperium sine fine—empire without end. He will wander, he will go into the west, he will battle, and he will suffer, but he will be great. Virgil compares Aeneas to a flaming arrow, shot toward the west, burning and burning until it transforms into a shooting star.
Aeneas sets sail. He is blown around the Mediterranean and lands in Italy. His sailors mix with the local people, and Aeneas himself marries the beautiful Latin princess Lavinia. He defeats one of her jealous suitors in battle and founds Rome. His son, Silvius, is a king and a father of kings.
Julius Caesar conquers Gaul. Caesar, who traces his descent to Aeneas, is accompanied by his nephew, Vibius Crispus. When Caesar returns to Rome, he makes Crispus the governor of the province. Crispus suppresses a Gallic revolt and fights off an invasion of German barbarians. He encourages his soldiers to mix with the Gauls, and he himself marries the beautiful daughter of a Gallic chieftain. His son succeeds him as governor of the province.
William, Duke of Normandy, invades England and becomes its king. He gives estates to his bravest knights, including Richard de Crispian, descendant of the Roman governor. De Crispian’s estate is on England’s western frontier, and he subdues the rebellious Welsh tribesman around his lands. Crispian’s people mix with the Welsh people, and Crispian himself marries a beautiful Welsh princess. His son later serves on the curia regis, the king’s council.
John Crispin, third son of Sir Henry Crispin, sails west for Virginia. When Indians attack his plantation, Crispin raises a posse and punishes the attackers. To make peace, he marries the chief’s daughter, a beautiful Indian princess. His son gains great fame as an explorer, and translates for the English as they move westward.
Justin Crisp, my father, a recent graduate of New York University with a degree in classics, accepts a one-year contract to teach English in the New Territories of Hong Kong. He teaches afternoon and evening lessons at an English center. His students are teenagers, college students, and adult businessmen. He mixes with some of the local people, including my then-nineteen-year-old mother. He knows her by her English name, “Alison.” His contract expires in June, and he returns to the United States to attend graduate school. On December 26, I am born.
My mother and I live on the Butterfly Housing Estate in Sha Tin, Hong Kong. She sleeps on the top bunk. I attend and am removed from several schools. I am a good student—my best subject is English—but I fight. When I am six I slap a boy who calls me gwailo. He punches me back so many times that the school punishes us equally. I have ten more fights, and I win two of them. Every year, usually during Lunar New Year,I receive an envelope from my father containing a birthday card and a check for $125. My mother also receives an envelope.
In March my mother becomes very ill—meningitis. She believes that she will die. (She stays in the hospital for three months, but she does not die.) She tells me to go home and bring her the green folder wedged in one of the kitchen cabinets. The folder contains the old envelopes and my father’s phone number. I bring it to the hospital, and she calls the United States and tells him that she is dying.
He flies to Hong Kong, and I meet my father. My mother thinks that he will offer to take me back to America.
He sees that she is not dead, and he seems confused, but she assures him that she will die. She sends us to buy a place for her at the mausoleum in Sha Tin.
We make an appointment and arrive early. The Temple of the 10,000 Buddhas is next door, and he wants to see it. We walk up the hill, past the rows of statues, and he asks me what each one means. When I don’t answer, he speaks slower. Later, I translate for him and the mausoleum director, and he realizes that my English is not the problem.
After he buys the plot, we have coffee in a shopping center. He tells me that this coffee is different from American coffee. He tells me about his family. I have two or three half-siblings. He tells me that he is one-sixteenth Cherokee. I nod, and I promise myself that I will look up what this means. I take him back to his hotel on Hong Kong Island.
He leaves a few days later—he is a high school Latin teacher and only has so much leave-time. He does not offer to take me back with him. My mother is
disappointed, and at the time, I was disappointed too. I had several different emotions, none of them good or worth naming. I even cried.
But after doing my research, after many nights at my mother’s bedside struggling through the Aeneid, after making so many connections and guesses that feel so right that they must be true—after all that, I regret my tears. I understand my father. There was wisdom in what he did. He realized—he must have realized—that I could not retreat east with him across the ocean, because the arrow of our history flies westward.