In 1937, at age 25, my grandmother fled Peiping, China after the Japanese Invasion, escaping by foot, ox cart, boat and train, through cities in lockdown and bombed-out countryside, spurred by the fear of never reaching her final destination: Kansu district, China. She had left her career as curator of Oriental Art at the University of Michigan and traveled by ship to Peiping to study Chinese textiles. Nine months after her arrival, when the Japanese attacked China, she ignored the United States Embassy’s evacuation orders and traveled instead to the Kansu district in the innermost part of the country to discover its rare ancient tapestries. What she hoped would be a exploration of art and culture became a brutal three-month journey that shaped the rest of her life. When she returned to Ann Arbor, using journal entries and her still-sharp memories of China’s landscape, she drafted a non-fiction manuscript. “The Height of a Mountain,” her 450-page final draft, won the 1939 Hopwood Award for non-fiction. Preserved in the Special Collections Library at the Hatcher Graduate Library, it has outlived my grandmother and exists to tell the story she cannot.
I sit at a desk in the Special Collections reading room, waiting for the librarian to return from their archives with my grandmother’s manuscript. Sunlight pools on the empty desks that surround me. Here on the eighth floor, I can see all of campus, my home of three years, the tips of brick University buildings, the top of the bell tower, the expanse of the Michigan stadium, declaring its spirit with a large block ‘M.’ After a few minutes, the librarian approaches my desk and sets a silver-bound manuscript in front of me. I take a breath and open to the first page. I read and re-read the words stamped on the page. The Height of a Mountain by Barbara W. Tinker. Seeing my grandmother’s name in crisp ink, I feel as if we are meeting for the first time.
My grandmother died when I was two. Everything I know of her, I know from stories. When I was younger, I learned that she, a white woman, married my grandfather, a Black man, at a time when interracial marriage was illegal in 27 states. They met in a library and connected over their love of poetry. They were determined to stay together, despite the intolerance and violence that targeted interracial couples. From my father’s stories, I knew my grandmother taught English to highschoolers by day and crafted works of fiction by night. She demonstrated unfailing kindness to most, saving a fierce tongue for racists and silent bystanders. She struggled with money management. She took her children to the library every week. I knew that she turned a blind eye to my grandfather’s alcoholism and raised the children her daughter had out of wedlock. From photographs, I had memorized the curl of her dark hair, turned white with age, swept in a chignon at the nape of her neck. Her lips, always pressed together, the corners barely lifted in a smile. Her thin nose. Translucent skin. And her eyes — my eyes — hazel, rimmed by a band of dark green.
These images flood my mind as I flip to the second page. Here, she has typed a Chinese proverb:
“You can never know the height of a mountain until you have climbed it.”
With that in mind, I turn to the first chapter and begin to read.
Her tale began with a choice: faced with the invasion of the Japanese army and a mandatory evacuation notice, my grandmother elected to disobey the warning and escape to the interior of China to pursue her studies. Her 1,500-mile journey took her through rural villages and cities in danger, hiking up mountains and rowing across rivers in tin canoes. Some days, she walked for miles on end, finding no friendly faces or food to eat along the way. Other days, she encountered hundreds upon hundreds of Chinese citizens, waiting in train and bus stations in an attempt to flee to safer cities. The threat of war followed her everywhere she went. Twice she was interrogated by the police. Her travel companion, a fellow scholar, was kidnapped and tortured by Chinese interrogators who assumed him to be a spy.
Countless times, in various cities, my grandmother and her companion were told that the Japanese were set to bomb the location they were in, that the city had gone on lockdown and that they would probably not make it out alive.
Yet she stayed, despite offers from other European and American travelers to help her leave the country. When asked why she was putting her life at risk, she said that she was in search of old cloth: “Old Cloth—with a weft of romance and warp of magic that could draw me thirteen hundred miles across land and sea, war and hardship, to unravel its secrets.” Her desire to understand this art form entranced her, blinded her perhaps to the toils she would face. But there’s coyness in this statement. What, in this art, kept her in the country?
I think back to my own travels. At age 17, I had left my small-town Michigan upbringing for village life in northern Belize to volunteer in an empowerment program for children. Upon my arrival, I discovered not just tropical blue waters and coconut trees, but also streets filled with garbage, men with invasive eyes who catcalled me on the streets and a home with no running water. Even after my naïve expectations shattered, I stayed and came to love Belize and its people, especially the children, with their fruit-stained fingers tangling in mine, giggling and whispering “I love you” when I walked them home from class.
Perhaps my grandmother felt the same sense of love for the Chinese land and people. The way she wrote about the land revealed her awe and attraction to it: “We started across the valley following the highway as it rose to a ledge above a rocky canyon. The sun came out and sparkled at us from the waterfalls tumbling through the pines to the brook that raced at the foot of the cliffs.” Later she wrote that “wild flowers in a profusion of colors lifted eager heads to the warm light. Even the weeds blossomed into gay life.” And her descriptions of the people she encountered, written with such poignancy and honesty, expound on the genuine friendships she formed and the kindness she found in many who crossed her path. When I flip back to the first pages of the manuscript, I can retrace her decision to travel to Kansu, how she claims it was to find these rare fabrics. But this beautiful, old cloth is only mentioned in certain chapters of the manuscript, whereas the descriptions of the land and people infuse every page. It wasn’t just the interlacing gold and scarlet threads or stoic visages of emperors that kept my grandmother there. In the art, she found reflections of the country she had grown to love.
Hours pass, and I immerse myself further into the manuscript. Page by page, I resurrect my grandmother anew, reshaping the stories I knew of her. The tone of worship in her pen as she wrote of Chinese art takes me to stories my father told of how she decorated the walls of their living rooms with prints cut out from art history books. No matter where they lived, she created a miniature art museum for her family. You have to know that art was the center of her heart, my father often said. Because of his mother, he was never for a moment without art. And because of that, neither was I.
But at what cost? With her interracial marriage and family and subsequent social isolation, my grandmother sacrificed the career in art that brought her to China. She clung to art, brought it into her children’s lives — but never in the same immersive way as she experienced in China.
She also sacrificed China itself. Her love of China, its people and art inspires every word I now read. I think back to her last apartment in Detroit, the place she lived before she died. The apartment overlooked the Detroit River, and I was told that she loved to watch the boats passing by and imagine where they were going. I think it reminded her of the boat journey to China, my father had told me. She wanted nothing more than to return.
Did she live with the regret of not returning, to China or to art? Or did family fill this loss? Curiosity inflates me, but I’m not without resources for further investigation. My grandmother wrote almost every day of her life. This manuscript is only the beginning of what remains. In the belly of our basement, in a plastic bin, my father has stored hundreds, even thousands of her hand-typed pages. When I told him that I was coming here to read her manuscript, he encouraged me to take these other works.
“The whole box is yours.” He said to me over the phone as I walked down the cascade of steps from Angell Hall. I pressed the phone tighter to my ear, careful not to lose control of my feet. “You can read the stories yourself. Maybe someday you can edit, even publish them.”
I stopped at the bottom of the steps. “Really?” I asked.
He paused and cleared his throat. “Really.”
Maybe I’ll never truly know the complete picture of my grandmother, the joys that shaped her and sorrow she kept buried. But I can revisit the stories of her life anyways, the way I read favorite books, relishing the same details while discovering new ones. Even as I finish “The Height of the Mountain,” there is so much more to imagine, recreate and build upon from her life and work. And I’ll have my entire life for that.
A fiery sunset gleams in the window as I leave my desk and present the manuscript to the librarian. “Shall we re-archive this material, or leave it on hold for you?”
“Leave it on hold, please,” I say. “I’ll be back.”