My grandmothers were two of the strongest, smartest women I have ever met. Both were immigrants to the United States, one from Ireland and one from China. Both dealt with adversity through compassion and strength. Both married men they loved. Both lived long and productive lives. The way their lives ended, however, differed greatly. Although my Irish grandmother died of a long and dreadful illness, she was always surrounded by loving family who attended to her every need right up until the end. My Chinese grandmother, on the other hand, complained of isolation, loneliness and abuse right before she died. She was depressed and miserable and felt useless and alone. It was a horrible and undeserved way to end the life of a beautiful (inside and out) woman. I felt guilty and devastated by the experience. I felt like I had not done enough to protect her or save her. I felt like I had failed her when she had always been there for me. For a little while, I crawled into a shell and let that eat away at me and, finally, I decided that, if I could, I would make something positive out of the darkness using my favorite medium - film.
Once Upon A Time...
This is actually how it all began...with a movie. My grandmother told me she had been forced into a nursing home against her will and that she was miserable and alone and nobody would help her. I began taping an oral history of my grandmother to distract her and give her (and me) a fun project to work on. My grandmother was an artist born to a very wealthy family in Shanghai, China, who came to the United States in the 1940’s to attend Columbia University. The Communist Revolution happened, her family lost everything and, like many lucky and wealthy Chinese at the time, she was able to stay in the United States. This came with a high price tag – she lost her wealth, her education was cut short and she would never return to China or see her parents again. One day, I asked her to describe her life in one sentence. She said, “The opposite of a fairy tale.” She then broke down and told me that she was being abused, emotionally and financially. So began a dreadful roller coaster ride that ultimately involved social workers and even the police, where I felt frustrated at every turn, trying to help her but coming face-to-face with the not uncommon roadblocks that impact the ability of the elderly – particularly Asian American women – to obtain help. Following her death, I decided to create a film to try to shed light on this issue, using my grandmother’s story as a starting point.
I remembered back in the 4th grade, my teacher showed my class a movie I believe was called "The Mailbox." In the movie, an old woman lives alone, every day hoping to get a letter from her children or grandchildren. Every day, she goes to the mailbox looking for such a letter. Every day, she is disappointed. Finally, one day, there is a letter! Her daughter's name and address are in the return address block of the envelope! The old woman is so happy, she starts to cry. She runs inside and grabs the letter opener, literally shaking with joy as she rips the envelope open. The excitement is too much and, before she can read the letter, she dies of a heart attack. The camera pans to the contents of the envelope and it is a formal letter from the daughter telling the mother they are going to put her in a nursing home.
That movie had a significant impact on me as a 9-year-old. I vowed my older relatives would never suffer the way the old woman in the movie suffered. It became my mission to fill my grandparents and elderly great aunt's mailboxes with letters. For the rest of their lives, I wrote them a letter at least once a month over a period of decades. That was how much impact a short film had on me as a 9-year-old. I thought what if I could do the same thing to another child with another movie and perhaps prevent even one elder from being abused? So began the genesis of a movie. I decided to start by creating a short fictional film focused on (1) changing community attitudes about elder abuse, (2) making Asian communities more accepting of survivors, particularly when women are the victims and (3) educating viewers on how to prevent and address elder abuse through easily accessible, entertaining and creative storytelling.
The Journey Begins...
I received a very generous grant from the Asian Women Giving Circle to begin this short film and the first public reading of that screenplay will be on August 18, 2015. I invite anyone reading this blog to please come and give their feedback - positive or negative or in between! It's all welcome. The start of this journey has been made possible by my amazing grandma; the Asian Women Giving Circle, Larry Lee (the Executive Director of the Asian Women's Center who helped me tremendously in researching the topic of elder abuse; the help of the established and talented screenwriter Aaron Woolfolk, who took my rough draft screenplay and re-structured it and walked me through what a screenplay actually is; Erin Quill who provided me with an incredible star-studded cast for the first reading of the piece; all the incredible actors generously donating their time to give voice to this piece and start us out on the road; and, of course, my incredible significant other, who has supported me through all of this.
So the journey begins! I hope you will join me on it and I will continue to blog about the progress of the project!