Oars

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:

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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.

In Penitence

When the Teenager was in elementary school, we took her to London with us.  On one of our long walks, we saw a traffic sign:  Changed Priorities Ahead.  We were quite amused, and posed the kid in front of it.  We had certainly changed our priorities when she came along.

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In less than two weeks the Teenager becomes a College Student.  She is excited, she is terrified, she is firmly ensconced in her own world.  Changed priorities indeed!  I confess I am feeling quite detached from all this, partly because I do not have particularly high opinions of this college even though I have a degree from it.  The Teenager wrote the move-in date on the calendar and added the comment that we will be, officially, empty nesters.  The truth is that we have been empty nesters for a while now: the Teenager occupies a room in the basement, but she does not actually live here in any real sense.  We have all been moving on.

I used to make her clean her room, clean her bathroom, change out her bedding, sweep the floor underneath her chair, put away the dishes, all the usual “clean up after yourself” things that parents try to instill in their offsprings.  A few weeks ago I ran out of breath.  Really, if I still have to remind her to do all these things, then I have failed, at least for now.  So at least for now, I just do it, whatever “it” is.  As I write this, I hear the train, and it reminds me that more of my life is behind me than before me.  A year from now has as much reality for me as a day from now, and I just need to get on with life.

I remember all the times I watched my mother clean the kitchen floors. She did so everyday, and she continued to do so until the day she went into the hospital.  I watched, and I did not help, because like all teenagers, I had so many other things to do!  And if she wanted my help, wouldn’t she just have told me to do it?  I know now that she had run out of breath.  When I visit Dad, I clean her floors: it is the first thing I do when I step in the house.  In penitence, I clean the floors on my hands and knees, as my mother did, as my grandmother did.  And my daughter watches me.

Mom’s Summer Quilt

I do not remember ever being hugged by my parents (or any of my relatives, for that matter); that would break with tradition and social/cultural practices.  Mom told me once that words were words, gestures were gestures, and I should “just know” that everything my parents did was because they love us.

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Mom made all her house dresses: A-line, gathered neckline, raglan sleeves.  It was a simple and easy pattern she found years ago, and she stuck with it, never varying it except with the pattern of the fabric.  I don’t think Mom ever saw a floral fabric she didn’t like; they were the one frivolous expression of her inner life.

I brought a bunch of her house dresses home.  I am wearing one now, a green floral affair soft with age and wear, and immensely comfortable.  Mom, who weighed 110 pounds, always thought she was a size 12, so she made her clothes with generous amounts of fabric.  As I cut up some of her more beloved dresses to make the summer quilt, I see the thinning of the fabric where she sat, the small patch to repair a rip next to a seam, the little bit of adornment she allowed herself in the tiny pleats at the neckline.  And when I hold the fabric to my face, I can still smell her, the particular mix of laundry detergent and the cupboard where she stored her everyday clothes.

The hugs I never had?  I have them now.  I know you loved me, Mom.

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.

In Mom’s House

It is quiet, it is sad.  I say Mom’s House because Dad moves through the rooms like a ghost.  He is profoundly deaf, but he chooses what he hears in his head, and he hears Mom.  I hear her too:  she tells me to top off the countertop water boiler through the day, to make sure the dishwasher door is ajar because otherwise the mold will grow, to open the family room blinds in the morning so the room isn’t so gloomy, to sweep the kitchen floors after every meal so the ants won’t visit, to make sure Dad eats because he is helpless without her.  And I hear her telling me not to cry.

She was never a touchy-feely Mom; it was not the traditional Chinese way, and it certainly was not her way.  She was never one to throw away a compliment or a word of comfort; she had a spine of steel.  So when she tells me not to cry, I know that is the best she can do.  She told me that once almost forty years ago, when she was ready to board the plane to visit her mother, and I started bawling …  and she told me that again 6 weeks ago, as I sat by her on the hospital bed.  That was after she shocked me by telling me I looked pretty.  Even rarer than the comforting word, she had never told me I was pretty, or smart, or accomplished.  Not when I won a national piano competition, not when I entered Stanford, not when I graduated from medical school.  Everything was as it should be, and that was what it was.  So it was at the end of her life: daijobu, she said.  “It’s OK, it’s done.”  Plain, to the point.

Dad has the TV on, and it is at normal volume.  There is nothing wrong with his eyesight, and subtitles are the norm for shows he watches.  For years, the TV blared twelve hours a day.  The neighbors are only 10 feet away, and I know they could hear every single program Mom and Dad watched.   Mom said it was because Dad couldn’t hear, which is true, but the sound was for her, to fill the silence that had become Dad’s world.  I leave Dad to it.  He counts the hours, the days, the weeks, and soon, the months.  He tells me he has lived too long: he has had more years than his mother, his father, his grandfather.  He wants to be with Mom.

Mom is not here bustling around, cooking and cleaning, bullying Dad, telling me about the latest medical news she has read or heard on TV.  She is not around to warn me about the dangers of exerting myself too much on a run or the evils of drinking alcohol or eating too many sweets.  She is not around to tell me to have a chat with my brothers about high blood pressure and obesity and diet and exercise.  She is not around, but I hear her.  This is her house.