Just the Facts, Ma'am
Reading Time: 17 minutes
"Just the Facts, Ma'am" originally appeared in Issue 16 of Tahoma Literary Review. I selected the piece for its heart, its questions, its poetry, its bared, bruised, tethered soul. The work was listed in Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction of 2019, as selected by Robert Atwan in Best American Essays 2020.
—An Elegy x XIII
Two days before Thanksgiving, the coroner of Hamilton County calls to say my absent mother of twenty-eight years was found dead in Cincinnati, Ohio.
All week, I’ve been thinking of what to cook. I’m like Paula Deen, pre-diabetes: butter, cheese, heavy cream, and more butter. Chong Suk Ahn, Mom, never cooked Thanksgiving dinner; I’m not sure my father’s family would’ve known what to do with the pungent heat of kimchi, the slickness of seaweed in the back of the throat or the briny rubber of squid. Holidays were left to my grandmother and aunts who padded around the kitchen in house shoes with white, thin soles and told nosy children to go play. They were a different kind of mechanic; with beat-up tin measuring cups, Pyrex dishes and aluminum foil, they laid out a table as if they had taken apart a luxury car. Turkey, ham, macaroni and cheese, greens, sweet potatoes, potato salad (no raisins), chitlins, rolls, butter beans—the thighs of my corduroys were already rubbing together. Besides a left-hand turkey made of construction paper and glue, I’m not sure mom even understood Thanksgiving. The blacks, she must’ve thought, they get together; they eat lots of greasy foods. They get BIG! They get FAT! My husband get fat! The boy is fat. Eat, eat, eat.
My blood is racing out of my body when the phone rings. Usually, I’d send the call to voicemail but it’s a 513 area code which means Cincinnati. Actually, the blood is rushing into my body just as fast as it’s rushing out; I’m at dialysis and there are about a dozen of us in pink recliner chairs lined against the walls with tubes connected to large machines the size of computers that one only sees in old seventies films. Instead of computer reels, it’s my blood that’s being spun, sent through a filter and cleaned. One of the first things the nurses tell you about this process is that it is indiscriminate: not only are the toxins removed but the vitamins and nutrients as well.
Sometimes when our treatments are finished, we the patients are weak and slow to move. We are zombies, a group of organ failures, we are hangers-on. I see the same people every week but don’t learn their names. This doesn’t make it any less real. Mostly, everyone is older than I am and seem amazed whenever I walk in with my green blanket and paisley printed pillowcase. He’s so young. What did he do to put himself in this place? It’s like one cancer judging another. When my phone rings, I don’t want to answer it. I never talk on the phone while running because I think it’s as rude as those people who chat on their cells in grocery stores. However, I’ve been expecting this—
Hi, this is ----- ----- from the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office. Mr. McCray, I’m sorry to have to tell you this but your mother has passed away.
My blood is racing out of my body…
Actually, the blood is rushing into my body
just as fast as its rushing out…
My mother died in a parking lot next to a metal garbage can; she was a kind of blue when they found her. The blue only the body can make when the heart stops and cells die from a lack of oxygen. Blueberry. The blood has reorganized itself and pooled in different places. I’m not quite sure how to react. I’m sadder about the circumstances than I am about the actual death. No one should have to die outside, overnight. The last time I saw her I had just finished college and was living downtown above a Subway. The commercials weren’t kidding when they said, “Fresh, baked bread made daily.”
In New York, the large rooms and relatively clean hallways would’ve meant a decent apartment but in Cincinnati, outside of the suburbs, it was a place to be feared. Forbidden. My father said nothing but whores and junkies lived downtown. He didn’t know about the faggots, transsexuals and club kids who were also my neighbors. Or, maybe he did. Back then, I used to smoke. I liked going into convenience stores and requesting a pack of Marlboro Lights in a hard pack because I thought it made me sound tough and independent. Thoughtfully scarred. Before the number 4 bus rolled up to take me to my cashier job in Pleasant Ridge, I’d smack the top of the Marlboro box against the back of my hand to pack down loose strands of tobacco, imitating a boy with bad teeth from junior high. Even with his chipped tooth, he was handsome with dark blue eyes and feathered brown hair. His name was John; he had a Mountain Dew, James Dean kind of quality about him. I started smoking because my then-roommate, DeWayne, told me that the supermodels smoked (Naomi, Linda, and Christy).
The last time I saw my mother, I was looking out a spotted bus window, turning down Sycamore and my hands were stained with nicotine.
My mother did not die in a parking lot next to a metal garbage can. When the coroner called, I wrote down the wrong address; this explains why I can’t find it on Google maps. Currently, I live in Georgia and when I send a friend to see the last place my mother lived out of some macabre sense of wanting to know her, she says there’s nothing there. This matches my feelings of abandonment and I tell her I will double-check. Apparently, I am not the Nancy Drew of death. The address is wrong; therefore, my imagination is incorrect.
My mother died in a small, single room apartment above a downtown restaurant called The Sports Page on Main Street. I wonder if she might have smelled fresh, baked bread made daily. The owners were nice enough to let my friend into the apartment to go through her last belongings. They say my mother was quiet and primarily kept to herself. This is not how I remember her. They say, she was never a problem except when they needed to collect rent from time to time. She had a boyfriend; they say he was not good to her. What my friend finds is a disheveled spaceship, not the clean, antibacterial future that’s always portrayed in the movies. There are a couple pieces of clothing strewn across the room but most of her things are in trash bags. My friend says there is nothing of value in the room and notes several strange collections: on a table there is a line of used syringes, on the wall, she has taped handwritten notes on receipts, old lottery tickets and candy wrappers to create a sort of mental collage. It reeks of anarchy and lunacy, but I read somewhere that this is a way of making meaning, of trying to organize schizophrenia.
When I was little, I used to watch her standing at a bureau and furiously scribbling her notes on paper until she filled every inch, not just horizontally but in the margins and along the edges. She’d do this until she needed another white sheet and off she went—documenting an invisible life—at least not visible to me. No one understood her manifesto, but she would send my father to Kinkos to make 100 copies. No, 150. No, no, just get 100. Her mind was racing down a runway as she told my father what color paper to ask for. Yellow, this time, D-wight. No, green. Get green. The next day she would take me to Fountain Square, the heart of downtown Cincinnati, to hand out her notes to anyone who would receive them: men layered in suits and trench coats and women in heels and poufy eighties blouses. After they realized the green paper was just gibberish, they tossed it in a nearby trashcan. Mom would fish it out and begin again.
What she had to say—that no one understood—was too important.
My blood is racing out of my body…
The first time I spoke with the coroner, I was taken aback even though I knew what he was going to say. I had received an email from my publisher the day before saying the coroner from Hamilton County called their offices and needed to talk. It could only mean one thing. My father had passed away in 1996 and I had not spoken or seen my mother in years. Often when people would ask about her, I lied and said she was dead. This was easier than flipping open the latches and unlocking compartment after compartment that was our relationship. In the truest sense, I meant it; sometimes, I felt like a sociopath. This is why I cringe when people speak of Mother’s Day or talk irreverently about motherly things. I can’t even feign to know what this feels like. So, when the coroner asks if I wanted to have a service for my mom, I explain that we were never close and that I hadn’t seen or spoken to her in decades. In essence, she did not belong to me. He explained that if I did not claim the body, she would be declared indigent and the state would dispose of her body.
Actually, the blood is rushing into my body…
The coroner can hear the dilemma in my voice. In my head, I’m working out the math of how much this will cost. What am I willing to pay? Loneliness has always been the issue for me. The sort of gnawing that has propelled me into monumental and disastrous decisions. The idea that a person, regardless of being my mother, does not have anyone to claim them, their memories, the very idea of their existence, is heartbreaking and cruel. If I claim the body, it is like saying I forgive my mother. When I was nine, we stood in the street outside of my grandmother’s house and she was getting into a cab for the airport. I cried for her not to go. At that point, I had never cried for something so much. My father just hugged her and walked away. His eyes were already red. I howled in the middle of the street when the cab pulled away.
My blood is racing out of my body…
I ask the coroner if I can have after the holiday,
Thanksgiving, to think about claiming her body.
Luther sings “A House is Not a Home” and I’ve finally decided on my Thanksgiving menu. Two days ago, this would have been my biggest decision. Traditional or nontraditional turkey. Now, in between prepping courses, I am thinking of my dead mother. I should be measuring butter and not her significance to my life, her contribution to my DNA. I decide on a nontraditional turkey of orange and sage. I’m forty-something and say things like, Don’t you think that’s an interesting flavor profile? When the phone rings, I am in the middle of deciding between classic mac and cheese and potatoes I saw Ree Drummond make on The Pioneer Woman. Appropriately, they are called funeral potatoes because that is what Mormons take to funerals. I am not Mormon but definitely a convert of any starch involving cheese, sour cream and butter. It’s a 513 area code and I want to ignore it and chop pancetta for brussels sprouts or jalapeños for southwestern stuffing.
Luther is singing
about houses and homes and phantoms and chairs and—
Hello? It’s the CFO of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church of Cincinnati. When he found out my mom was dead, he told the restaurant owners, her landlords, that the Catholic Church had a small amount of space to bury people who no one claimed or didn’t have families. His number found its way to my friend who went to inspect my mother’s apartment, she left him a message and he found his way to me. Apparently, it takes legwork to even discern if I had a connection to Chong Suk. In a previous conversation with the coroner, he said it took real effort to find out if my mother had any living relatives and my name popped up on a terribly old government document. If it wasn’t for the internet and my first book of poetry, he might not have found me. Poetry really does change lives.
The Catholic CFO has the kind voice that men who have dedicated their lives to God possess. If there was a recipe for his voice it would contain equal parts humility, strength, Brylcreem, and a healthy dash of conservative, midwestern pragmatism. She was well-known in that part of town and when he found out that she was dead he went to the head of the neighborhood church and said, You know the woman in the green sweater who always walks up and down the street—she’s passed away.
He was sad to hear it and offered to ensure her burial. Somehow, she had bargained her way into heaven. This made me grateful that even though she kept to herself, she was not alone. Despite her schizophrenia and delusions, she had made real connections and woven herself into the neighborhood. By pacing up and down the sidewalk, she had laid claim to Main Street. The crazy woman in the green sweater—she told strangers her name was Ann.
In order for the funeral home to proceed with my mother’s cremation, they need her social security number. In the garbage bags leftover in her apartment, there’s nothing that could adequately identify her. No purse or paper bag crammed with official documents. All her clothes come from the free donations handed down to churches languishing in bins. She has an outfit with a navy-blue skirt and a pinstripe nautical top. Maybe you could say she was a patriot, the way immigrants are patriots: immensely devoted, appreciative and romantically wistful about home. At the social security office, the agent asks me a round of questions that prove I’m like an empty hanger swinging in my mother’s closet. I don’t hold much: Yes, I’m an only child, her last address was in Cincinnati, she was married to my father, Dwight McCray. The agent tells me she’s found two social security numbers. I ask, how is this even possible but, in my imagination, it makes sense. There has always been more than one woman—and not because she’s schizophrenic. There was the whore who used her pregnancy to travel abroad, the broad who knew she wasn’t meant to be a mother and the mom who fled domesticity and preferred unmedicated madness. At the end of the session, the agent tells me she’s not allowed to give me either number—even if it is my mother. I feel rejected twice.
Chong Suk Ahn loved candy. Her sweet tooth ranged from chocolate, caramel, and nougat to hard candy, jellybeans, and licorice. Milk Duds, Milky Ways, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, any chocolate. My father said her family was so poor, she gave them the money she made from fucking American GI’s. I doubt if there was extra for sweets.
When dad got off work in the evenings, she would ask, Did you bring me anything? It was the last exchange of something resembling love that passed between them. Despite the years of her screaming and punching, he’d reach into his pocket and slide out a Snickers bar. Is this how he wooed her in Korea? Did she allow her mind to drift between tricks and imagine America as a land of chutes and ladders, a candy land of swizzle sticks and peppermint on every corner? My mother was sweetest when she shared her candy—even the smallest bit. You could tell she used to have siblings. Here, eat this, she’d quickly say and pop something delicious into my mouth.
Chong Suk is both lighter and heavier than I imagined. The uncertainty of her weight has me off balance; I have never carried someone’s remains before. Her cremated ashes are in a sturdy white cardboard box. At the funeral home, the attendant had asked me if I might be interested in a little urn or vial so I can take bits of her wherever I go. This is actually a thing. I tell her no, that I’m sprinkling the ashes on my father’s grave. He was the one who loved her; he can have all of her. I give a nervous giggle.
My best friend has agreed to drive me to the cemetery. It is a blustery and damp day and I’m never quite able to find my father’s headstone even though I’ve been multiple times. Slogging through the mud in the cemetery is like storming the beaches of Normandy. When my friend finds Dwight Richard McCray, she calls out to me and then leaves. In the movies this is such a somber and cathartic gesture: spreading someone’s ashes, releasing them and allowing them to be free. What they don’t show is how insanely secure the ashes are in a thick plastic bag within the sturdy white box. If you didn’t come with scissors, one is shit out of luck in terms of making this an elegant endeavor.
After saying a private adieu to my mother and father, wishing them love in the afterlife, I spend five minutes fidgeting with her heavy but not so heavy ashes until finally I just use my teeth. I rip a hole in the bag like an unholy Cerberus and there is a little bit of mom in my mouth. At first the ashes are slow to fall and fade onto the headstone but about halfway through the pour picks up. Standing on top of a hill that overlooks the highway, the wind whips the ashes onto me and I awkwardly step back so Mom can stick her landing. My friend offers to drive me to the nearest restroom, but I decline and ask to be dropped off at the hotel. I’m literally covered in my mother. So far, I’ve only cried once and now is not the time. Months later, her death certificate arrives and for the social security number, it’s all nines.
Chong Suk made two dinners: one for her American family and one for herself. The American dinner usually consisted of meat breaded in flour, Lawry’s seasoning salt, black pepper and then fried. She presented paper towel lined plates of golden chicken or porkchops. In an effort to bridge the nations, my grandmother taught her how to fry chicken. Along with this meal, she usually prepared the unnatural orange macaroni the fat child liked and maybe a canned vegetable, peas or green beans. For herself, she made a meal of white rice and kimchi which stunk up the refrigerator and fascinated me. During the day, I would sneak fingerfuls of the hot stuff and do a silly little dance at the heat of eating it. And yet, I’d always go back. If she splurged, she bought herself dried fish which the boy stayed away from. She did this separation of selves every day for years as if she were keeping something close that refused assimilation. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown out of my palate for Kraft macaroni and into her palate for bulgogi and bibimbap.
After our Thanksgiving dinner, my husband Mike and I decide to curl up on the bed like two overfed dogs and watch a movie. I wonder if this is what my grandmother felt like looking at the wreckage and droppings spilled on her Thanksgiving table: slightly comatose but hazily satisfied. I am the inner spoon because I control the remote and Mike fits snuggly around me. We are going to watch Crazy Rich Asians which has been getting a lot of buzz and also because Henry Golding is so handsome. I’m not lost on the fact that my family can be described with both the words crazy and Asian but not rich. When I’d ask my dad about mom’s family, he would say she had several brothers and sisters. Some were like her, mentally ill, and some were not.
I barely remember my mother’s younger sister visiting from Korea. I know she loved to chase me around the house because that’s what I loved, and she also loved to laugh—big and out loud. My mother was never so happy. While my husband and I are watching Crazy Rich Asians, I sob at the end of the Mahjong scene. The look on Wu’s mother’s face as she proudly greets her daughter and thrusts an unapologetic glance toward Michelle Yeoh says, You may think I’m low-class but I don’t regret the decisions I’ve made. My husband reaches to console me, but it has been days since the news of my mother’s death, and I haven’t felt much. Maybe it’s watching an Asian mother being so fiercely protective that has me unzipped. I think of her unclaimed body in Cincinnati. If I don’t claim Chong Suk, no one will; however, she will never have the chance to claim me.
Chong Suk’s last photo (or the last photo I saw of her) was a Polaroid someone had taken, and she had taped to her bedroom wall. A reminder, perhaps, that she existed. A photo of the photo was taken on an iPhone and sent to me where she materialized, à la Star Trek, from pixels to person. A woman I hadn’t seen in decades; she was seventy-one. In the photo, her eyes are black and hollow. She masks any thought besides a slight smile she thinks might be pleasing. The hair that I knew snowing its way toward gray is all city winter and it suits her. She has tied it in a top knot and manages to look both girlish and weathered. She is holding her thin arms out in front of her with her fingers laced together. The word demure comes to mind.
In the scoop-neck blouse she is wearing, one can see the strong bones of her clavicle; it lends itself to this idea of vulnerability. There is a perfectly placed stain that hangs between the two bones in the shape of a paisley or a teardrop that could easily be mistaken for a necklace. Enlarging the photo, the mistake is clear, and so is the sad, spectral quality of her face. The black and white top looks paper-thin, rayon maybe, something one might wash in a sink. She has on light-colored mom jeans; they are a little too high on the waist and too baggy for such a slender frame.
This is not the woman my father and I knew; in his mind, time is divided into two eras: when she was and wasn’t sick. The time before her illness was like a tether or a charm he held in his fist. She existed in Technicolor bliss, free of dementia and strife. She curled her hair in seventies butterfly wings that framed her face Farrah Fawcett-style, wore makeup that highlighted sculpted cheekbones and the sharpest jaw. On weekends, they played tennis with wooden rackets and went grocery shopping with their overweight son. When things went sideways, father spent most of his days at work while I was captive to landmines of anger. I tried to sidestep her mania, but I could only be invisible for so long. I held my breath and my father told me to play outside until he got home. Every morning, we left for English-speaking lives and left her to be feasted on by ghosts.
Dear Chong Suk, Mom, I want to ask you about death. I want to know if there is an afterward and which version of you might be there. Are you walking up and down streets of gold, pacing and talking to yourself? Are you kicking the shit out of dad because the life he gave was not the life you wanted? Tylenol, Excedrin, Bayer—nothing could keep the past at bay. The soldiers, they come, and they go, and always in searing color. The gray netherworld, the waking dream of narcotics, wears off in the past, the present and in the future. Men are always outside your door; they need a mother—and a whore. In Cincinnati, we lived next to Calvary Cemetery. You’d close the bathroom door, turn on the water, and speak in a language I thought belonged to ghosts. Could you be any more magical? I kept waiting, waiting for some validation, some proof that you might take up an umbrella, open it up and spin a beautiful portal out of raindrops.
After your death, Aunt Goot wrote, I wasn’t sure what to write inside the card because I wasn’t that close to your mom but I thought she was a nice person / everybody’s got fault and I’m pretty sure she loved you / sometimes she was on planet Earth and sometime she was on Mars… but I remember her showing you love. My aunt writes me this in case I might’ve forgotten, and I had. I remember her showing you love.
Unfortunately, I have my own narcotic in the form of an iPad. While watching the movie trailer for Mary Poppins Returns, Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins sings, Nothing’s gone forever, only—out of place and I begin to weep. The wind that’s returned to this old London town, shot beautifully in leaden hues of grey, stir all the graveyard bones inside me, encourages all the ghosts to play. Nothing’s gone forever, only—
I remember her showing you love.
My blood is racing out of my body…
turn this house into a home
The woman in the green sweater;
she told strangers her name was Ann.
Reprinted with permission of the author
McCray had this to say about their piece:
There was too much between my mother and me: a language barrier, cultural differences, and mental illness. After writing my first book, I felt I understood her, but poems are like valves—either opening or closing a subject. I avoided writing for months because I’d have to unpack memories that had been compartmentalized to make life tidier. In thinking of her death, I wanted to stick to the details and thought of old cop shows where the detective says, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” While writing, it occurred to me that facts/details, the very nature of relationships, always move toward being metaphor.
Sjohnna McCray is the author of Rapture, which won the 2015 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets.