“That's Papa!” Recognition bursts forth in a flurry of English and Cantonese as warm as the California sun streaming through the living room windows.
"I recognize our father immediately," Susie Poon says as she stares at a weathered black and white image of a young Chinese man. The man is Chan Ka Yik, Melville Jacoby's roommate while the latter was an exchange student at Lingan University in Canton during the 1936-37 academic year.
Poon and her sisters, Emmy Ma and Eva Cheung, their husbands, and three generations of my own family pass ancient photos around the room. The pictures show a prized water buffalo and grinning friends on balconies, boys jumping into swimming holes and old men steering sampans, classes arranged for group photos and candid snapshots. They contrast an elaborate family compound in Guangxi with peasants toiling in the countryside. And they feature handsome young men in three-piece suits, their smiles filled with excitement, adventure and friendship crossing two cultures, two continents, and two countries.
(Before you continue, why not make a donation to support this project?)
These were simple, timeless moments of peace. These were moments before war, moments before revolution and exile. Before life and death.
These were moments we all recognize. These were moments that have been and moments that will be.
"Mel looked like a movie star," Emmy says, echoing a sentiment many express when they see pictures of my cousin (twice-removed).
But the star today is my grandmother, Peggy Cole, who holds court with a folder full of letters, a pile of photos, and a sheet of notes to which she refers while recounting the adventures Mel, Chan and their classmates took together. Many of the tales she shares she heard from Mel's own mouth when he returned home from his first trip to China and visited his adoring cousins. The others she pieced together from letters and memorabilia she inherited from Mel's mom, Elza.
For the first time in half a century our two families connected. As we exchanged memories, new stories took shape.
Chan emigrated to the U.S. more than a decade after Mel's death. As he fled China, Chan reached out to Elza to vouch for him with immigration officials. In the letter he sent his beloved roommate's mother, Chan described how Mel's death was not just a loss to her family, but a loss of his own "good friend," telling her.
"I shall never forget our friendship and what we had done in Lingnan and my country."
Indeed, it seems that friendship continues.