From Anne of Green Gables (the Kevin Sullivan production of 1985):

Marilla to Matthew, while discussing Anne’s invitation to the Christmas ball: “Remember, in the beginning, I told you not to put your oar in.”

I should have remembered about the oars — and the fact that oars can propel one forward, or backward:


Image courtesy of National Media Museum, UK

I thought I would have a chat with the Bride-of-the-Century about being kinder to her mother.  This is the mother who went into debt to give her daughter the Wedding of the Century and then could not understand why said daughter ignored her on the wedding day.  This is also the same mother who routinely got the cold shoulder for inexplicable reasons, along with the “dumb as shit” eye-roll treatment when she and BOC got into (usually pointless) arguments.  Anyway, I didn’t get very far.  BOC went running to Mom to complain that I was “freaking her out” by wanting to have this talk, and furthermore, this future conversation was ruining her upcoming spring vacation.  Mom of Diva told me in no uncertain terms that really, I had no business trying to have a conversation with her daughter, and that she would never do this sort of thing with my daughter without clearing it with me first.  BOC is TWENTY-EIGHT years old this year, gainfully employed, a wife, a mother (unfortunately to budding Diva #2, but that’s another post). Who knew I could “freak out” both mother and daughter?   I genuinely thought I had been in BOC’s life long enough — watched her grow up and all that — that I could offer some minor words of wisdom.  I thought I could help.

I could not, of course.

BOC’s life is one of drama, and where there is none, she manufactures it.  We are all expected to be spectators, and I should have known all that based on her wedding production.  It did not occur to me that Mom was not only willing, but was in fact an absolutely essential participant.  I used to rag on BOC’s Dad for his seeming unwillingness to rein her in; I now realize that it truly was more than his life was worth to even attempt to interfere in the incredibly entwined mother-daughter relationship.  It is a dysfunctional relationship, but one that both need in their lives.

I regret all the times I told The College Kid that she had to babysit Diva #2, had to go have dinner, had to participate in some event or other . . . .  not because those things were not important, but because I should have let her to manage her own relationships.  I hope she would have done all those things anyway because she loves her godmother, but nevertheless I should have trusted her judgment, young as she was.

Now I sit in the back row, or perhaps I am actually up in the gods, but I am at least much more removed than I used to be.  The view from here is just fine, and of course too far to toss an oar.

Letting Go, Again

I am very slow to acknowledge the end of a friendship.  I think I know what the other person is thinking or feeling, and of course I don’t know anything.  I attach different meanings to the silence, a very silly exercise in futility.  In my own life, I never say to someone, “I know how you feel,” because that phrase (along with “I will pray for you”) is both presumptuous and meaningless.  So why do I try to figure out why my friend is silent?

Martha and I met the first day of medical school over “Petunia,” our shared cadaver in gross anatomy lab.  She was older than the rest of us: she really had been at Woodstock, she had a daughter in grade school, and she was divorced.  She had done this and that, and finally ended up in medical school, determined to go into Ob/Gyn.  She was hard-working but not academically gifted, and spent part of the four years on probation.  But she did graduate, and we both ended up in New England for residency.

We bonded over Petunia and late-night study sessions and nasty attendings and nastier residents.  She was my best friend.  After medical school we managed to stay in touch through the occasional letters and emails, phone calls, and visits.  Then she stopped.  All my communications went unanswered for several years.  I did not know she had moved state again, that her email address had changed, that her phone number had changed.  But one day, she picked up her phone and actually answered the voice mail I had left awhile back wishing her a happy birthday.

We talked, and it was as though we picked up right where we left off.  She said she had been “very bad” about keeping in touch, and I did not push for a better explanation. Sometimes there just isn’t a better explanation, and if you don’t want a real answer, you shouldn’t ask.  But I confess I was hurt: she had managed to keep in touch with some of the other women in our medical school class, and in fact was renting a house with them for our class reunion.  Why was I not worthy?

She has stopped again.  It has been a year since I wrote to her, a year of silence.  I know where she is, I have her contact information.  I will be on a 2-week break near her neck of the woods, and I have been debating whether to try to get in touch with her.  Until today.  Today, my massage therapist (who is also a good friend and a very smart woman) told me something pretty simple: I cannot act based on how I think someone else will react.  Silence is just silence, but if I must have some sort of explanations, I should think about the nature of relationships and how people manage them: sometimes, the “I do not have the time” becomes “I cannot be bothered” becomes “I will not be bothered.”  The friendship is a burden and has been one for a long time, though I had been too obtuse to recognize it.  What I need to accept  is that I no longer serve any function in her life: she has others to love and care for, to love her and care for her.

I love The Parting Glass,  the traditional Irish farewell song.  So, in honor of what once was, I remember the best of times, and joy be with her always.

My Mom, the Pope, and Me

I have been reading the Pope’s encyclical letter Laudato si´: On Care for Our Common Home.  I am not Catholic (nor do I subscribe to any particular faith or religion), but this particular document is one for this age.  I have not read all of it.  It is slow going because in true historian fashion, I write margin notes as I read.  And as I read, I realize how very privileged I am:

45. In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty. In others, “ecological” neighbourhoods have been created which are closed to outsiders in order to ensure an artificial tranquillity. Frequently, we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called “safer” areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live.

We moved to a house next to a multi-use trail that runs along a natural creek.  The city owns much of the open space, and property owners observe an easement  along the creek itself.  It is a natural area, or as natural as is possible in middle of a small city.  A couple of months ago, I watched a hawk eat his meal on the roof of a not-quite-finished house in our very small subdivision.  Earlier in the winter, we followed a tail-less fox on our bikes: he ambled along looking like a rather large corgi from behind, and we were happy to note that he looked healthy.  I am delighted by the many dragonflies zooming through our neighborhood; I am hopeful that they (or even better, their larval stage) are doing their best to control the mosquitoes.

The real estate agents tout the wonderful location of our neighborhood, and it is indeed wonderful.  From a historic point of view, it is also a surprisingly diverse area.  Within a 1/2 square mile of our house are wood-framed 1890s to 1920s farm houses, minimal traditional 1930s and 1940s cottages, tiny brick post-war houses, expansive mid-century architect-designed ranches, less interesting 1970s and 1980s condominium complexes, and late 20th-century and early 21st-century post-modern homes.  Many of the houses verge on the decrepit, but gentrification marches on.  Even run-down shacks start at $300 thousand, and people are apparently quite happy to snap them up and turn them into their “open concept hardwood floors granite countertops stainless steel appliances minimum 3 bedrooms 2 bathroom large yard” dream home.

This is my neighborhood.  If I congratulate myself on being “green” because I can (and do) walk/bike everywhere, the Pope reminds me it is because I can choose to be green.  I have the economic wherewithal to choose to walk, to bike, to have expensive LED bulbs, to have high-efficiency plumbing and mechanics, to have solar panels, to have environmentally sustainable wood floors, to have a finished basement to escape the worst of the summer heat because I also choose not to have air conditioning.  And outside my door, I can enjoy a protected green space.  I use the trail everyday, and while I see the low-income apartment complex a couple hundred yards down the trail from my house, I also know its days are numbered.  The diversity that interests me on my walks is disappearing, and I am of course a contributor.  It is all very safe, very sanitized, very middle-class, and I am guilty of complaining that I still do not have the promised landscaping around my new house.  Luckily, I have the Holy Father and Mom (who would be appalled to know she had anything in common with a celibate white man who lives in a marble palace) to chastise me.  Who knew she would be the Pope’s enforcer in reminding me to be humble?

I sweep the (sustainable bamboo) floors everyday, and because I am compulsive, I do it on my hands and knees.  It is how Mom used to clean her floors, so it is how I do it.  It is actually quite efficient, and I can wipe down pretty much the entire house in about 20 minutes.  I hear Mom telling me not to be afraid of manual labor: “Do it right,” she says, “and no shirking.”  And she reminds me that our fortunes were built, quite literally, on the back of her grandfather, the day laborer who started the upward mobility of his family by hauling salt for a living.  I may have three degrees, but the floors still need to be cleaned.

I clean the floors, and most days I cry.  “Don’t cry,” Mom says.  “If you keep crying, Ah-ma is going to lecture me on how I didn’t raise you correctly to appreciate and understand the cycle of life.”  Remember your roots, remember your privileges, remember to be humble.

Wedding Industrial Complex

Not to be confused with the Military Industrial Complex, although one could be forgiven for confusing the two. For about a year, I have had a second row seat to the planning and implementation of the Wedding of the Century.  It has been fascinating in an appalling, watching-a-train-wreck sort of way.  I should not be surprised by anything I hear, yet I continue to be.

The Prelude:  The proposal in a boat, on a lake, with his-and-her families (sworn to super secrecy so as to be able to surprise the bride-to-be) gathered to watch on the shore.

The Ring:  OK, no snarkiness here.  It is a family heirloom.

Destination shower, destination bachelorette party, destination wedding.  And lest anyone balks at travelling the distance for just the ceremony, the beach barbecue the day before, and the swanky wedding reception and dinner with band and booze.

Eleven bridesmaids (and presumably eleven groomsmen), not counting the new-to-me entity of the “Junior Maid-of-Honour” (and yes, there is also a senior Maid-of-Honour).

The $3000 dress …  although I acknowledge that in this world of Say Yes to the Dress, it is probably a very low price for the Dress of the Century.  I still think the required alterations ($500) should be included in the cost of the dress.

The Veil, at $1500.  MOB showed me the picture, and I remarked astutely, “It’s a wedding veil.”   “It has hand-made lace,” she said.  I looked for it, and finally spotted the 6″ wide border of lace.  Well, of course it has hand-made lace, because why else would anyone pay $1500 for a few yards of netting?

The Wedding Planner.  I’m going to assume it was NOT her fault that the invitation to the destination bridal shower arrived two days before the event . . . .

The other (many) Invitations, including the announcement several months beforehand to prepare guests for the official wedding invitation.  I’ve never received one of those before, so I learned something new.

Someone cleverer than me said this, and perhaps it is as true as anything else:

The way we marry is who we are.  

Let Go

I wonder if Mom remembered the last time she hit me.

I spent much of my childhood in fear of my mother.  I understand, and have understood for a long time, why she had such an awful temper.  Life was hard: she and Dad were starting over in a foreign country with three kids in tow, she did not speak the language, and there was very little money.  It was a brave venture, and doubtless all sorts of people thought it quite foolhardy too.

Many years ago, The Teenager asked me if Mom hit me with a stick, and I think she was quite surprised when I said yes.  She did not understand sticks, or being hit, because of course she couldn’t even remember the two times she was spanked.  Mom’s weapon of choice was a bamboo switch, but bamboo was not ubiquitous in America.  Much to my dismay, she found a big plastic ruler to replace the bamboo switch; I believe it was one of Dad’s engineering yardsticks.  I hid the ruler, thinking no ruler, no beating …  but of course she found it.  The ruler broke during one of the beatings, but she continued to use the broken pieces into my teenage years.  The last time she hit me she could not find the ruler, so for the first time I could ever remember, she used her hand.  She grabbed me and twisted my cheek so hard she left a bruise.  I did not cry, I had learned not to cry a long time ago.

She never touched me again.  I think it was because maybe for the first time in her life, she felt my physical pain.  There could be no distance between her hand and my flesh.  It took me twenty-five years to forgive, twenty-five years to let the anger go, twenty-five years to say good-bye to the child I was.  In true Mom fashion, she never asked why I left and stayed away, and why I came back.  I’m sure she thought me the wayward daughter, and was waiting for me to come to my senses.  She was waiting for me to hui niang jia. 

Secrets We Keep

In my life is her life:  I have Mom’s bad lipids, her crappy feet, and her uneven temper.  And now, I have her “secret money.”

A long time ago, Mom told me all Chinese women keep a hidden nest egg, usually made up of personal jewelry and secreted money.  It had nothing to do with a good marriage or a bad marriage, or no marriage at all — it was an invisible assertion of an independent identity and a way to pass that independence on in the female line.  Mom started giving me the jewelry decades ago, and handed me the final pieces a few years ago.  In my wilder moments I think I should sell off that stunningly ugly relic of 1980s excess, the krugerrand-inspired gold coin pendant with its diamond-sprinkled surround, and then I am discouraged and think I will leave it to The Teenager to dispose of later.  In Mom’s defense, the pendant was a gift from the mother of a young man my parents hosted for a year while he attended an American community college.   This distant cousin of mine may or may not have gone to classes, but ultimately it was not my parents’ business to monitor his movements.  They housed him and fed him, and did their best to be the benign aunt and uncle, while secretly shaking their heads over his lack of academic ambition.   Just waiting to inherit his millions, they said.

Mom’s mother also had a stash, and she willed it to her two oldest daughters.  It was a very modest legacy, but it came in handy at a time when every dollar counted for paying off the remaining mortgage on the house.  I know Mom wished she had a secret account to pass on to me, but she thought she had many more years left to make it happen.  I found her small stash yesterday, and I just know she put it where she put it because it was the one place where only she would go, and the one place only her daughter would go after her death.

I am sure Mom used the money mainly for miscellaneous household expenses, but I also know it was more than that.  She never told Dad what she was doing, and I think Dad does not remember the 200 dollars that Mom once stuck in the pocket of a little-worn coat, and then forgot about it for the next couple of years.  Yesterday, Dad claimed ignorance about the stash: “It’s between the mother and her daughter,” he said.  “She was your Mommy.”  Dad, like Mom, was not much into giving comfort, but it is enough.

Mom’s Dream

“If you tell her you got in, you are going to medical school,” DH said.

In my life is Mom’s life.  A few months before she became visibly sick, she told me something that had everything to do with why I became a doctor.  “I was so tired of being poor, I looked for a medical student to marry,” she said.  “But medical students or doctors marry into other doctor families, so I knew I was never going to be able to marry one.”  How galling for one with as much brains and ambitions as my mother, to know she could not become a doctor herself and to think she needed someone else to take her out of poverty.  She married Dad (and as a school teacher made more money than he did as a young civil engineer, she pointed out), but never forgot the Doctor Dream.

Not son number one, not son number two.  “My own daughter,” she would tell me at the end as I helped her eat, bathe, change, use the toilet.  I am haunted by the thought that the faith she had in medicine was shattered in her last days.  Mom used to ask me what it was like being a doctor, and I would tell her honestly that frequently we don’t do anything except delay death.  We patch patients up, and hope that they are reasonably comfortable in the time they have left.  She never believed me; the harsh realities of modern medicine did not exist in her world.

“Can’t they cut it out?”

“No medicine for it?”

“No cure?”

And in the end, there was nothing.

She passed away 30 minutes before I got there, and I’ll never know if that was because she didn’t believe in me anymore, or that she was my Mommy, trying to spare me the pain.