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  • My mother, sisters and I moved to Toronto in 1996, when I was 10 years old. Daddy was to stay in Hong Kong and work while we went to school.

    One of the first things Mummy did when we moved to our new house was buy a fax machine. She put it in the corner of her room; it blinked and told us the time.

    Our first Fax Session was on a Saturday night in September. We had finished dinner and sat around the machine, waiting for the first transmission.

    Dear Jestinfer and my very special Lady, and Jumbo too. Trust that you’ve all had a relaxing weekend after your first week at school. You deserve it! Please don’t give Mummy a hard time. If she calls you to come down for dinner, do it. Don’t make her yell. Make your bed in the morning. Help around the house.

    My father had drawn a fox before the next paragraph:

    Mummy tells me there’s a fox living under the porch. I found out that the fox’s name is Melanie. Melanie is watching you. She lives under your porch. She knows if you're being naughty.

    A drawing of Melanie, wearing sunglasses.

    Please acknowledge receipt immediately! I miss you.
    Love, Daddy
    Hong Kong


    Today, as I think back to the Fax Sessions, I imagine my father as he crafted these faxes, sitting in his pajamas at the dining table, a half-eaten pastry before him.

    Dear Daddy, What did you do this weekend? For dinner we had chicken wings. Jumbo ate a crayon and then pooed blue, and Mummy got mad at us for leaving our crayons on the floor. Miss Dolan liked my book report and she said that my paintings were very sophisticated. Helen the piano teacher is coming tomorrow morning. She wears a lot of perfume and used to live in Russia. Oh well. I have to go, Justina wants to write something.
    Love, Jessica.


    Hi Daddy, this is Justina. We spilled glue on the carpet but cleaned it up before it dried! Don’t tell Mummy! Yesterday was Kenneth’s birthday party. Michael calls you Uncle Orange, I don’t think he can pronounce “Uncle Lawrence”. Jenn’s turn!
    Hi Daddy this is Jenn! Mrs. Edwards says I can graduate to erasable pen in a month, I just have to keep working on my handwriting. We are doing a project called Flat Stanley where you send Flat Stanley around the world, and people write stories about him and send them to you. Will you write a story for Flat Stanley? I really want him to go to Hong Kong. Thank you! LOVE JENN.
    WE LOVE YOU!!!! Jestinfer
    Toronto


    This is how we spent our first few months in Toronto: crowded around the fax machine, creating narratives about foxes and naughty girls and transmitting them to our father, oceans away.

    ***

    Our house in Toronto was bigger than any place we had ever lived. In Hong Kong we had grown accustomed to tuning out all manner of noises: construction, traffic, noisy neighbors. Our house in Toronto was occupied instead by silence, punctuated by the frantic scampering of the squirrels dwelling in our ceilings, and the wind whistling through our windows.

    It kind of terrified us.

    At bedtime my sisters and I would go on "spying" missions. We'd sneak up on our mother as an excuse to be near her and feel safe until sleep took hold of us.

    One day, one of these spying missions, we caught my mother writing a private love fax to Daddy. After a few minutes, my sisters grew bored and retreated to their beds, but I stayed and watched her feed the love fax to the machine, then file it away between some bills. I slithered away before she finished her task. I slithered so fast that the next day I found a foot-long rug burn on my tummy.

    But it was worth it! It was so thrilling to find out that Mummy had private thoughts!

    I seized every opportunity to go through my mother’s drawers and find pieces of her love faxes.

    They were written in her dramatic cursive, but the subject matter was mundane. I had hoped for the stuff of the Judy Blume books that I had taken to hiding under my bed. Instead, my mother’s faxes were about how difficult we were, how long her days were. How hard it was to get us to eat dinner at the same time, how many cartons of orange juice she’d bought that day, how she almost fell asleep at the wheel on our way to school.

    I had lifted a curtain to expose her private life, and suddenly her habits of endless TV, coffee and cigarettes seemed justifiable to me.

    When she found out I was reading her love faxes, she threw them all away.

    ***

    Once I found a photo album in her closet—the only proof that my mother had ever been a teenager. Everything else, she had thrown away.

    In the back of the album was a drawing of her. I slid the drawing out of its plastic casing and examined it to find out who the artist was. Who had drawn such a masterful picture? In the bottom corner, a tiny “Chris T..”

    On the back was a love note: Maria, I can’t stop thinking about you. Maria Maria Maria Maria Maria.

    The page was filled with Maria’s. I went downstairs to the kitchen.

    “Who’s Chris T.?” I demanded. My mother was washing dishes and looked at me over her shoulder.

    “Where did you find that?”

    “In your closet.”

    “Give it to me.”

    “No, you’ll get it wet.”

    The dishes clattered in the sink as my mother reached out and snatched the drawing from me.

    “You’re getting it wet,” I said.

    But it didn’t matter, because my mother was ripping the letter into shreds, and stuffing it down the garbage disposal.

    ***

    My parents sold our house in Toronto the year I went to college. In the heat of August, I packed all of my journals (six volumes) and faxes (two shoeboxes) and letters (three shoeboxes) into a crate. With a giant Sharpie I wrote JESSICA’S, SHIP TO HONG KONG.

    But while I was away at school, my father mistook my box for trash and threw it away. I didn’t find out until I went home that Christmas, when my sisters were pawing through their things and mine were inexplicably gone.

    I couldn’t bring myself to talk to my father for weeks after I found out. He had erased my history! All the field trips, thoughts, menus, crushes, story ideas that I had painstakingly recorded!

    I imagined my journals rotting amidst diapers in some dump in Michigan, because that’s where Toronto was sending its trash at the time.

    ***

    Every time I’m home, I go through my room and reacquaint myself with all my old things. My journals and old correspondences are glaringly absent from my possessions. For a few days I reel. Relations with my father are strained.

    “It’s all just paper,” says my mother at dinner. “Get over it.”

    At night I can’t sleep because of the noise in the living room. My mother is watching something on the Food Network.

    “Can you please turn that off?” I squint into the bright room. Outside the window I can see the glittering Hong Kong skyline. My mother is in her bathrobe and she’s sunken into the couch with a vodka tonic in her hand. I think she’s shrinking; every time I come back she looks smaller and deflated.

    “I’ll turn it down,” she sighs. She doesn’t turn to look at me, just stares at Anthony Bourdain as he pushes his way through a market in Thailand.

    I go back to my room, but the noise is still too much. “It’s really loud. I can’t sleep,” I come back out to say.

    “You know, it just makes the house seem less... empty. It makes it feel like there are people in here.”

    “But there are people in here. And they’re trying to sleep.”

    “But what about when you’re not here?” Her voice trails off. “The house is so empty. I miss you crawling around and spying on me.”

    “You knew?”

    “Of course I knew! Jess, don’t be so sad about your journals and scrapbooks. Daddy made a mistake and he feels really bad.”

    “I know, I know,” I say. “It’s just paper.” “Right. It’s just paper.”

    Maybe it was easy for my mother to throw away all her paper things over the years, because all that paper, all those faxes and that love letter, were evidence of longing, of a very profound kind of half-living that she would rather erase. But lying in bed tonight, I know that it’s not just paper. It’s my childhood and my dreams. It’s me. I’m in the paper scattered in that dump in Michigan, I’m flying about and soaking up rain and buckling under the weight of snow, and Melanie the fox is pawing through the trash, making sure that I don’t do anything bad.
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