Summary: Chapter Four

The narrative resumes a month later, at the time of the Full Moon Festival. Ruth is organizing a dinner for her extended family, and includes Art’s parents, Miriam and her new husband, and Miriam’s two young boys. Ruth is not excited about this arrangement, because Art’s parents have always preferred Miriam and continue to have a close relationship with her. Ruth’s cousins, Billy and Sally, come with their respective spouses and children. Although there are a few tense moments, the dinner goes well, and Ruth is moved to see her family and friends gathered together. Ruth presents her mother and aunt with a photo of the two of them as young girls but is surprised when LuLing refers to Precious Auntie as her mother instead of the woman Ruth has known as her grandmother. Ruth is confused. She knows Precious Auntie as the nursemaid who cared for her mother, endowed her with many superstitious beliefs, and killed herself when LuLing was fourteen. She cannot understand why LuLing is now referring to Precious Auntie as her mother and worries that this is another symptom of LuLing’s mental confusion. This worry worsens when LuLing gives Ruth a pearl necklace that Ruth had actually given her mother as a gift years ago. Ruth remembers the necklace because she has always felt badly about it. Though the pearls are fake, LuLing mistakenly assumed the necklace was expensive and has taken a lot of pride in it. Now she makes a show of giving it to Ruth while Ruth quietly burns with shame.

Summary: Chapter Five

When Ruth and LuLing attend the follow-up doctor’s appointment, LuLing is diagnosed with dementia. However, LuLing does not understand the diagnosis or what it means. Over the next three months, Ruth has her mother join her and Art every night for dinner. She observes LuLing acting angrier and more erratic, which makes everyone around her uncomfortable. Ruth and Art have a vacation to Hawaii planned, but Ruth feels like she cannot leave her mother. Art suggests that Ruth hire a house cleaner and a nurse to help LuLing, but Ruth feels frustrated that he focuses only on the pragmatic details of the situation and not on her emotions. She feels less and less connected to Art and worries about the fact that the two of them have never gotten married.

Ruth lies to her mother, telling her the house cleaning is free. Most of the housekeepers quit quickly, and Ruth ends up spending a lot of time at LuLing’s house helping in their wake. Finally, Art leaves for Hawaii alone. Ruth is grateful for the time to gather herself; her work and health are suffering because of the amount of time she devotes to caring for her mother. She is scheduled to pick up LuLing for dinner, but LuLing does not answer her calls and is not at her house when Ruth arrives. Ruth learns from the downstairs tenant that LuLing wandered off wearing only pajamas. Alarmed, Ruth phones the police but is embarrassed when LuLing returns almost immediately. Ruth is concerned about her mother’s deteriorating condition and calls Auntie Gal, who offers to have LuLing come and stay with her.

Summary: Chapter Six

Ruth walks to the beach and reflects on a traumatic experience from her childhood. When Ruth was eleven, she and LuLing moved from Oakland to Berkeley and rented a bungalow from a young couple named Dottie and Lance Rogers, who lived in a larger house on the same property. At this time, Ruth was often frustrated with her mother, especially living in cramped quarters, and annoyed by her mother’s frequent requests that she contact the spirit of Precious Auntie. Ruth became fascinated with observing the relationship between Dottie and Lance, and also developed a crush on Lance. She was delighted when Lance and Dottie invited her to watch The Wizard of Oz on their new color television. LuLing was hesitant, but Ruth manipulated a supposed message from Precious Auntie in order to make it seem that Precious Auntie approved of the activity. LuLing allowed Ruth to go, and while at the house, Ruth used the bathroom immediately after Lance and accidentally got some of his urine on her when she sat on the toilet.

A few days later, Ruth attended a health class which provided some limited information about puberty, menstruation, and how babies are conceived. When Wendy later told her that pregnancy results from a man urinating inside a woman, Ruth believed her. Realizing that she had been in contact with Lance’s urine, she became terrified that she was pregnant. She considered killing herself but eventually confided in Wendy. Wendy told Dottie that Ruth was pregnant with Lance’s baby. Ruth was astonished that Dottie was protective of her and angry with Lance. She heard the couple fighting later that night, and Lance drove away. The next day, Dottie asked her some questions, preparing to go to the police and charge Lance with rape. However, as Ruth explained the details, Dottie realized her mistake with horror. Shortly thereafter, Lance returned to the house, and Dottie moved out. When she next crossed paths with him, Lance invited Ruth into the house. At first, he acted friendly, but he eventually became aggressive and tried to sexually assault her. Ruth got away but could no longer bear to live near Lance. Pretending to be the spirit of Precious Auntie, she wrote a message urging LuLing to move to San Francisco. LuLing trusted this message, and mother and daughter moved to San Francisco, where they have lived ever since.

Analysis: Part One: Chapters Four–Six

The New Moon Festival dinner highlights how Ruth struggles to straddle different value systems and the consequences of her lack of insight into LuLing’s past. Ruth is conspicuously the only one amongst her cousins who is not married and does not have children, and this worries her. Ruth also has to find a way to integrate Art’s non-Chinese family into the traditions of her own. Some of them are more open-minded than others, but many are guarded. Other than her mother, Ruth does not spend much time with other Chinese-Americans. Her partner and close friends are all Caucasian. While this might reflect Ruth’s identity as part of a multi-cultural society, it also highlights another way in which she feels disconnected from her mother. LuLing’s identity is rooted in her Chinese heritage, but her daughter does not have the same sense of belonging.

Because Ruth has not read the manuscript LuLing gave her years ago, she sees LuLing’s comments about Precious Auntie as possible signs of dementia. Even the short initial section of the manuscript refers to LuLing as the daughter of Precious Auntie, but Ruth has made no effort to fully translate the document. Thus, she is confused when LuLing comments at dinner that Precious Auntie is her mother. The information she misses by refusing to engage with her mother’s life story foreshadows how readers will later learn that LuLing once refused to read the manuscript Precious Auntie gave her and remained ignorant with terrible results. This incident also shows the consequences of long-kept secrets. Because LuLing has kept her mother’s identity a secret for so long, no one believes or understands her when she openly starts to speak the truth.

LuLing’s deteriorating condition highlights the fragility of Art and Ruth’s relationship and their different values. The relationship has largely worked due to Ruth’s independence and willingness to put the needs of Art’s family ahead of her own. With the increasing burden of caring for her mother, Ruth can no longer attend to domestic responsibilities in the same way. If anything, she now needs Art to help her, but he acts unable to do so. Because Ruth has not previously shared her emotions and needs with Art, he cannot anticipate what is making this situation challenging for her. He tries to focus on tangible actions that he thinks could save Ruth time, but he doesn’t realize the complex layers of emotions and guilt that she feels. What Ruth is really mourning is the belief that LuLing is someone she can depend on.

Ruth’s stress about her mother’s deteriorating condition brings up memories of past stresses, including a foundational trauma that marked her transition from childhood to adolescence. LuLing did not provide her daughter with any sort of sexual health information. Additionally, Ruth’s school gave her obscure and incomplete sexual education, which only rendered her more confused. This lack of transparent information about how her body works left Ruth vulnerable to misinformation. Ruth’s mistaken belief that she might be pregnant with Lance’s child also shows the toxic impact of secrecy. Ruth absorbed the message from her mother that shame should be kept to oneself, and by the time Dottie got the full story from Ruth, the damage was already done to Dottie and Lance’s relationship. Ruth seriously considered suicide when she thought she was pregnant, but she was still not able to talk with her mother about what had happened, demonstrating the depth of their commitment to secrecy.

While Ruth was never able to communicate openly about what happened, she secretly asserted agency over the situation in order to get what she needed. After Lance tried to sexually assault her, Ruth needed to protect herself and move far away from Lance. To ensure this result, she played to LuLing’s greatest weakness: her reliance on Precious Auntie’s “ghost.” LuLing believed so strongly that the spirit of Precious Auntie gave Ruth valuable information that she obeyed Ruth’s words without question. Ironically, LuLing was more attentive to the requests and needs of a ghost than those of her own daughter. This was partially because LuLing was so driven by guilt that she was desperate to atone in any way she could. The reliance on the supposed voice of Precious Auntie also hints that LuLing wrestled with fearfulness and confusion about how to provide a good life for her daughter. If she were more confident in herself and her choices, she would not have clung so desperately to instructions from a spirit. Ruth learned that she cannot get her needs met by asking openly. Her inability to tell LuLing what happened to her foreshadows how, decades later, she finds it so hard to explain her grief and sadness to Art.