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Grace Meadows Hope-Gill

Unlike the death of Walter Cronkite, the death of Grace Meadows Hope-Gill, was much less newsworthy, but like Cronkite's it left an important gap in twentieth century world history. 
Grace's granddaughter, writer and alchemist Laura Hope-Gill explains why here in a biography she was only able to piece together after, she writes, "the tumor removed the censors from my grandmother's brain."  
Written both in poetry and prose, much like the way poet and cultural critic Gloria Anzaldùa recovered her own ancestral story, Hope-Gill uses the very liminal space between these two distinct kinds of narrative writing to try and give voice to the dead. 
I present Hope-Gill's poetic version here first, with links to the prose version embedded in the text to, for a few more moments at least, preserve Grace's long kept secret and equally long kept mystery.  


Family Snapshot 1934, BW Film, Courtesy of Laura Hope-Gill 

My grandmother possessed a box of watercolor paintings of The Forbidden City on postcards she showed to me almost secretly on the white couch after dinner. 
While other details of her life in China shifted and vanished to reappear in a later telling, she told me about brushing the emperor’s niece’s hair in there, inside the grand gates, how she was allowed to pass almost all the way to the center. 
It was as though the city itself had become a mirror of her memory, fading, some parts run across by a finger (pointing: there) and others left untouched, almost fresh or fierce in their vibrancy. 
In the family history there were two time zones -- before the camp and after. Not until the brain tumor was there ever a during which in silence expanded to cover us like the white silk cloud of a parachute arriving a day or so after the white cloud over Hiroshima. 

Prisoner's Badge, The Courtyard of the Happy Way in Weihsien, Courtesy of Laura Hope-Gill

My grand-mother is dead. Right now, this is important because she was in a prison camp in China during World War II. Everyone I talk to doesn't know there were prison camps in China during World War II, and that there were English, American, European, Russian people in them. If it weren't for Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking, even fewer people would know. 
I wrote Iris Chang one afternoon to thank her for clarifying for me why my high school history teacher told me, when I asked why we didn't cover the prison camps in China during our unit on the Second World War, "Because there weren't any." Chang had committed suicide just weeks before. But because of her I know that a code of silence between the U.S. and Japan kept the information out of 89% of textbooks. 
The fact that my grand-mother is dead is important because her story isn’t told anywhere, except in me. There’s a list-serve of other people who were interred by the Japanese at the same camp. But they’re getting along in their years as well. It’s important because I grew up being told in school that something did not happen which did. I look at my culture and I see us forgetting everything, losing our capacity for prolonged fascination. 
I am fascinated by my grand-mother’s stories -- of the scorpion my father picked up near the electric fence and announced to her, "he is my friend," of the sugar cube she smashed with the heel of her shoe so each of her sons could have some, and how my uncle divided his portion in half and told her she needed some as well; of the tomatoes someone mysteriously left on the stoop of their hut and which saved my father’s life, of the Trappist monks who broke their vows of silence to pray out loud near the fences while local farmers rolled eggs through tubes under their robes, of the day the parachutes descended and word of "the bombs" spread, of the white silk underpants a schizophrenic woman had kept clean and safe for three years while waiting for this day and offered to my grandmother, and of the way my 5 year old father, after the bombs, collected firewood in the garden of their house in Canada and piled it up next to the stove. 
These are the stories I did not grow up hearing because even my grand-mother kept them a secret until a brain tumor lifted the censor in her mind that kept them silenced. All I knew was there was a "camp." This found no context in my education. 
At a moment when the youngest survivors of Auschwitz are nearing their seventies and eighties, websites and declarations claiming there never was a Holocaust proliferate. And I want to believe that it takes more than that, more than some text and rumor, to erase history. But I know from experience it does not. All it takes is for people to stop telling the story to make people stop remembering. I know. I grew up without the story that in so many ways makes me who I am. 
Laura Hope-Gill is the Director of Wordfest poetry festival in Asheville, North Carolina where she also directs The Healing Seed, a program for teaching alchemy and creative writing as spiritual practice. Her book, with photographer John Fletcher Jr., The Soul Tree: Poems and Photographs of the Southern Appalachians is now available from Grateful Steps Publishing.