Ruth goes grocery shopping and reflects on her childhood filled with frugality and practical necessity. Back at home, she tries to focus on her work even though she feels unmotivated. Over the past fifteen years, she has contributed to almost thirty-five books, mostly in the realms of self-help, wellness, and New Age philosophy. She sometimes feels sad that she does not get much credit or recognition for her work, even though LuLing takes pride in her daughter’s career. Ruth does not like conflict or confrontation, partially because her mother often gets in arguments and fights. She has also often been embarrassed by her mother’s poor English skills. She finds LuLing’s difficulty with English surprising because her mother’s sister, GaoLing, came to America at the same time but speaks much better English. Because household tasks take longer than expected, Ruth is running late when she goes to pick up her mother. LuLing is healthy for a 77-year-old woman and does not go to the doctor frequently, but Ruth is concerned that she has recently grown forgetful. However, it is hard for Ruth to gauge changes in LuLing’s moods because LuLing has been angry and depressed for all of Ruth’s life and has regularly threatened to commit suicide.
LuLing lives in a modest home with a tenant who rents the downstairs unit from her. Ruth is concerned when she arrives because the tenant comes out and complains about LuLing behaving strangely and abusively toward her.
LuLing is a skilled calligrapher and painter. When Ruth was a child, LuLing worked as a teacher’s aide and supplemented her income by doing Chinese calligraphy on signage for local businesses. LuLing tried to teach Ruth to write in Chinese and told Ruth about how she was taught to write by a woman named Precious Auntie, who had cared for her as a child.
Ruth now observes her mother showing signs of confusion: she has misplaced her purse and cannot remember the correct time of the appointment at the doctor’s office. Ruth reflects on the complex relationship between her mother and her aunt. The two women are only one year apart in age and married a pair of brothers after immigrating to America. LuLing married Edwin Young, who was the elder brother and a medical student, while GaoLing married Edmund, who attended dental school. It seemed that LuLing had the brighter future ahead, but Edwin was killed in a hit and run accident when Ruth was only two years old. Edmund has become respected and wealthy, especially since he inherited most of his father’s money, and Ruth and LuLing received only a small inheritance. LuLing set this money aside and eventually combined it with years of saving to purchase the house where she still lives. During Ruth’s childhood, LuLing often expressed her frustration that she ended up with so little money and lived a life that was much more difficult than the life of her sister.
Ruth and LuLing arrive at the doctor’s office, which specializes in providing services to Chinese patients. LuLing’s forgetfulness leads Ruth to repeat herself about the death of her beloved cat, even though she shared this news with LuLing months ago. The doctor reports that LuLing is in excellent health but becomes concerned when LuLing evades basic questions he asks her. As the conversation continues, LuLing becomes more confused and erratic in her responses, and eventually Ruth speaks with the doctor privately, admitting that she has noticed signs of mental confusion in her mother for months. The doctor suggests running additional tests and returning for a follow-up appointment in a month since several conditions could be causing LuLing’s confusion. That night, LuLing has dinner with Ruth, Art, and the girls, but the dinner is unpleasant because LuLing keeps scolding Ruth about the girls’ behavior, and the girls are irritated by her presence.
As a child, Ruth changed schools frequently, causing her to be friendless and lonely. One day, when Ruth was six, her mother embarrassed her by scolding her on the playground in front of other children. Ruth defiantly threw herself down the slide and broke her arm. To Ruth’s surprise, the accident made the other children much nicer to her, and it also caused her mother to treat her with more kindness. Awed by how much better her life had become, Ruth stopped speaking. She believed that if she spoke, things would go back to normal. Her mother encouraged her to write rather than speak, and this also gave Ruth positive attention from the other children at school. Ruth was surprised by how her mother asked for her opinion and perspective in a way that she had never done before. One day, Ruth realized that her mother believed Ruth could communicate with the spirit of Precious Auntie. LuLing became very eager for Ruth to ask the ghost questions about whether she forgave LuLing and whether the curse had been lifted, but Ruth didn’t understand what her mother was talking about. LuLing promised to one day return to China and find the missing bones of the spirit.