By knowing the mother,
One knows her children.
By knowing her children,
One comes to know her.
Such is their unity,
That one does not exist without the other.
Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu
I never knew what time Afong, mother’s helper, awoke. It was 1962, Taiwan. I was four, and I knew it was time to get up when Afong clanked the teakettle in the kitchen. Afong came from an indigenous tribe in the Yu Mountain, a nun brought her to my grandmother when she was twelve. My grandmother taught her reading, writing, and sewing. Afong became well versed in Taiwanese cuisine. She splayed out full course Taiwanese breakfasts every morning: tender tofu with bonito flakes, miso pork, spicy anchovies, garlic spinach, green tea on rice porridge. Mother was used to a breakfast with many small dishes. But when she visits me next week in New Orleans, 1985, she will not have such luxury. I have grown accustomed to cereal and almond milk, coffee. I have high fiber breakfast cereal, Brazilian coffee beans in the pantry. What can I offer her for breakfasts? I am at a loss. She never had coffee. I scribbled tea pot, tea leaf strainer, loose green tea: Sencha and Jasmin, teacups on my shopping list. I will walk to Williams Sonoma four blocks from my office on Canal Street at lunch break.
My studio apartment was a guest house nestled behind an old mansion, shielded by two old Magnolia trees, on Magazine Street, in the Garden District. Mother will come to love the century old architectures adorned this vicinity. She loves old, antiquated buildings, tea pots, and paintings. She is in an old house herself, an isolated huddle of three hip roofed red brick bungalows passed down to her from my grandmother. Mother and Afong sealed off two of them for lack of use. They are surrounded by rolling green mountains and a patchwork of rice fields. My efficiency might constrain her. I looked around me: a one square foot porcelain sink, two burners stove top attached to the skinny oven, two chairs and a green open front school desk made up the kitchen/dining/study, a shower by a commode sheltered by an indigo canvas curtain, a bed, a small drawing pad and a large coffee mug filled with pencils and pens on top of a wooden bookshelf, a lamp. The only latticed window shaded by an ancient magnolia tree. I cleaned and dressed the murphy bed by the stove last night; it will be my bed while mother sleeps on the queen bed next to me. (Well, that is my apartment in New Orleans, USA. And I will get the tea gadgets today.)
This old guest house apartment is two blocks from the Audubon Zoo. Cannot be more convenient. Audubon Zoo ranked number two in the US, and it will be a treasure for mother in the afternoons. The landscape of old oak trees and hanging Spanish moss at the zoo entrance will charm her. (Get her a streetcar pass, a zoo membership, and a map of the city. I penciled that in my little notebook.) An initiation to the crescent city for mother: ornate wrought iron fences, spikes of churches, wrap around porches, spicy seafood gumbo, shrimp etouffee with andouille sausages, paper thin fried catfish, infinite variations and energy of Jazz, and maybe, a touch of twisted, unforgettable black magic. (Oh, mother, 1985, and you are at your splendid prime of fifty-two.)
I have not seen mother for five years. We talked over the phone, 你 好 不好? How are you? 生日快乐Happy birthday. 新年快乐 Happy New Year. I called her at seven in the evening and seven for her in the morning.
“International long distance phone call is expensive.” Mother said.
She set a timer and hung up when her little timer beeped. She wrote to me more than I wrote to her. She scribbled complicated Han Zi (Chinese Characters), started from the top right corner of the paper, from top to bottom, from right to left, on special grid papers from craft shops. Writing Han Zi had become formidable tasks as the year increased and my schedule condensed. I am not ready to give up that mystic pleasure of making the artworks of characters, the metaphorical serenity of putting words with a pen on paper; but I prefer the flowing English lettering left to right; especially the swift typing on a keyboard. (I am conformed to the modern expediency.)
Should I wait for her to visit the Japanese grocer together? I have a rice cooker, four pairs of chopsticks, and four rice bowls just to declare that I am Asian. But I do not own a wok. The air of stir fry can asphyxiate us in this tiny apartment. We should steam or bake, but not stir fry. I wonder what she eats now that she is by herself? Afong keeps the vegetable garden on the side of the bungalow, I am sure they eat plenty of vegetables. We can steam vegetables. Sauces are important, mother makes luxurious, delicious sauces. I have a quart size saucepan. I keep brown rice, spaghetti, she might want sushi rice, soba or udon noodles, I saw frozen udon at the Japanese store. Does she appreciate frozen food? Had she been exposed to frozen food? I eat frozen food, frozen vegetables, frozen bread, frozen chicken. They are convenient. When I work late for a new computer system installation, I have peanut butter on wheat bread and orange juice. She does her grocery daily with Afong, chooses fresh everything from the open market with white tents. Clean air, colorful, fragrant produce, throngs of people, greetings and discussions of the crops, socialize. Here, she does not know anyone here but me. It is daunting that she will only have me. I am only one person to fill her life.
There was a long five-year blank that needed to be filled by noises. How can we start our conversation? How can we converse late into night? How can we rebuild our intimacy? I can start by asking her for details of her friends. I do not know them well. I had wondered how she decided to marry my father. I knew my father’s books captivated her, and she started writing to him. And then what happened? Wasn’t he old for her? She can step back in her memories and take me with her through the years. Any new extended family gossips? I focused on building my life in America and neglected the relationships in the old country. My cousins do not understand my infatuation with America. Alex, this American man I met at work, was impressive. He not only codes the coolest data base schema at work, but he also knows how to cook delicious pasta, bake bread, clean dishes, scrub bathrooms, make his own bed, do laundry. The Taiwanese boy I knew depended on his mother for everything. Alex and I take turns to cook for each other and share our thoughts on books and latest movies. He gives me space and time when I journal or draw and consults the weekend schedules with me. The Taiwanese boy tallied my habits that I needed to change to fit into his family. He often emphasized if we were married, I must bear sons for him. And that conversation stirred up a feeling of disgust in me. These intangible emotions overwhelmed me, and I do not have words for them. I could not describe what I have no words for. I wished I could explain that I am not as rebellious as my cousins complained. I feel comfortable and relaxed when I am with Alex.
I will take off the first week when my mother arrives to help her get acclimated, show her French Quarter, get Muffuletta from that Italian grocery, and eat in the courtyard in front of St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. Sun light, horse buggy, pigeons. Let salted olive oil smear her chin, let that first taste of brined Italian meat exasperate her tongue, let her messy pudgy little fingers throw crumbs out to the hungry pigeons. Take her to Bourbon Street at night fall, sit in the dimmed jazz hall, order a double Hurricane so that she understands, experiences the swoon of Jazz. Afong made 酒黏 (a fermented rice dessert with grain liquor) in winters, repellently sweet with Osmanthus flowers. After a warm bowl, mother played 南胡 (a traditional Chinese string instrument), and she sang, and she sobbed. Tears trickled on her oval smooth smiling face with a delicate frown. Overjoyed.
We should take a trip for mother to experience the expanse of this county, very different from the small island that she traveled from the North end to the South end in eight hours of ride. But where? It is a big county. And how? Yes, we can fly into Charleston, South Carolina and then drive to Savanah, Georgia. Mother was a first-generation Girl Scout leader in Taiwan. A visit to Juliette Gordon Low’s Birthplace in Savanah is momentous. She will cross the largest salt-water divide to explore the American South where her daughter has lived and thrived in the last five years.
Take her to my office, show her my computer, the system diagram on my wall, my affirmation quote: “A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Single Step” on my printer stand, my view of the glistening Mississippi River curve from my twenty-first-floor corner office window.
Should I hug her, kiss her when I pick her up from the airport? Or bow to her? I clung to her and wept when I left five years ago, but I am independent, hardened now. I hug my American friends, my Chinese friends I nod, or shake hands. She said she is taking English lessons at a church with an English nun, does this English nun teach her the American etiquette of hugging and kissing on the cheeks? The nuns I had at school were severe. They gave me icy stares when I talked in class.
Should I talk to her in the Taiwanese dialect? Or Mandarin? My parents wanted to make sure I was bilingual, and they split the responsibilities: father conversed with me in Mandarin Chinese, mother, Taiwanese. Every object, every action, had an echo, an explanation. The two etymological stems depended on each other, complimented each other. Taiwanese is an ancient dialect, left alone on this small island from seventeenth century, never evolved. It has eight tones, eleven vowels, poetic expressions in daily conversations. Mother labored over the elocution with me, fine tuning my tones, sharpened my melodic phrasing of ancient idioms. She worked on instilling a sense of Taiwaneseness in me, was always reminding me not to forget my Taiwanese root. My father was nonchalant about his roots, never reminisces his Northern origin, but then, he was careless about everything. Father did not have to claim his Northern Chinese birth. His look, his gesture, his accent stated his inheritance. He could not escape his long face, long nose, large Mongolian eyes, his clean, crisp, ending rhotic Beijing inflection. After he journeyed South, for him to restart his writing career, he changed his name to 亦南 (tranquil life in the South). His new name intended for a life destined to the South, like an outcast on an exile from his Northern County. Twenty years older than mother, he follows her, always lets her have her way. Had he given up on life? Or was he trying to survive? drawing his breath in one at a time. She had become his breath, his oxygen.
He handled his paint brushes with sighs and doubts, as if they carried the tormenting ghosts from his past. Out of his paint brushes came resigned big glissando of dark ink; patches of the reluctance of fate; gloomy rocks and galloping water. Mother was very deliberate with her paint brushes. She traced every petal with care, every leaf with concentration. Her paintings were delicate and finite, with spring flowers and trees. I wanted to bring their paintings with me, but my belongings already crammed my luggage. Like everything in life, to move forward unhindered, one must shed the weight, travel light. Each generation has its own burden.
When I graduated from Tulane University three years ago, my mother sent me a small scroll, a long strip of 12×36 Xuan paper etched in tiny Han-Zi, each character the size of my thumb tip, each painted with the care of engraving. It was a prose by 苏轼 (Su-Shi), his famous 赤壁赋 (Chi-Bi). In my father’s handwriting, his chap at the end in red ink.
“He labored over this before he had to correct his vision with glasses,” she wrote.
I stroked my hand over it, a luxurious touch of Xuan paper, a yellow teacup stain on one corner, rolled in an earthen toned silk Furoshiki cloth. The prose, an “Adoration of Earth” during the poet’s banishment to the frontier from the emperor’s court in the capital.
“A graduation gift for you, the cloth and the print.” My mother wrote.
“如子.” She starts her letter with my name, “Like a Son.” My father was careless when he named me. He said he planned to rename me when I started school, but that never happened. With a name as such, I realized my father had wished for a boy. He could not love me the way I am. He was a responsible parent. He nurtured me and educated me, but he could not indulge me with an unfathomable love like my mother does. I prefer a girly name: Pearl, Jade, or Lily. But I stuck with “Like a son.”
Now in America, I designated myself a new American name. When I applied for my social security card and driver’s license, I changed my name to Rose; a beautiful, sophisticated emblem of affection. My father was old and preoccupied, my mother young and naïve. Anyone who knew them recognized Afong managed the diapers, bottles, and spooned mashed rice porridge into my mouth. Between one Chinese Literature professor- my father, and a painter- my mother, my allergy problems were treated either like a cold, or a flu, with grotesque, foul smelling black herbal soup and plenty of rest. It was until I came to America that doctors diagnosed it as seasonal allergy and I got the treatment to end my suffering.
Deep inside them, they suspected I meant to leave for a faraway land one day. At five, I walked along the river, on and on I walked, passed different villages, came to the start of the river. Hungry, tired, sun drenched. The search team carried me home in a police car. Asleep. I did not see the band of curious neighbors or my parents’ faces of relief. I took coins from my mother’s purse and put them in my piggy bank so that I had enough savings to buy train tickets. Home was confining, boring, repetitive. When I was young, in my folly of infantile, I wanted to be different, to be out of the ordinary, to stand out in the world. Like a colorful flag blown in all directions on the beach, a yellow plane on the soft breast of the desert plain, a white boat on the dark blue ocean. Distinctive, solitary, eye catching. My parents burrowed into the idea of homes: comfortable, mundane cocoons of homes. The war forced my father to leave his home in Beijing. He was a landlord and an intellect; the Chinese Communists were ready to execute him with a bullet in his head. My mother had never broken off. Now she is coming to visit me. She is trying to break out of her cocoon by visiting her daughter in a distant foreign land. I will introduce her to Budweiser, to bloody grilled steaks, to raw salad with red wine vinegar, to pasta with Bolognese sauce, to pepperoni pizza with cheesy crispy crust. I will convert her to an American with my spell and magic wand. And then she will not want to go home, she will not want to be confined, demure, smiling her insignificant smiles, gentle cough to hint her existence.
My heightened senses of new adventures to America soon rescinded to the banal of student’s budget, routines of homework and exams. The same time my mind scattered all over like the beads of mercury with work and home, I discovered St. Louis cemetery where I ventured on weekend mornings with my drawing pad and pencils. A rare space of silence in this big metropolis. Mother and I will not join a cemetery tour like the regular tourists to New Orleans. I will take her there myself. In orange dusk, step on the fallen yellow leaves and black tree branches; pass through the marbled, ornate sculptures, observe the artistic engravings. Not out of morbidity, but to experience death inches away. It was not possible for my father to be buried in his hometown. He crossed the ocean, built a new home. Yan-Ming Mountain in Northern Taiwan, facing China, was his last resting place. Mother was silent after father’s funeral; she grew passive and withdrawn. I was away in college, Afong told me mother stopped tending her garden, or seeing her friends, took long naps in the afternoon. She refused to come to the phone when I called. Afong called the herbalist, moved mother’s recliner to the garden under the shades of magnolia, fed her small cups of chicken broth with herb. When I was home in summer, I played loud music, painted funny cartoon characters to show her, took her out to movies, parks. It was hard to tell when she slithered back in her molasses speed to her routine, but she was tending her flower garden and visiting friends when I left the island to come to America. Here, eight years into her widowhood, when she walks in the cemetery with me, she may articulate nothing. But to be with her daughter: the extension of her life, she may breathe in insights that she did not see before.
I cannot wait for mother to sleep next to me in my small apartment next week.
Catherine C. Con, English Literature (BA) Fu-Jen Catholic University, Taiwan. System Science (MS) Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge.; a Computer Science instructor, University of South Carolina, Upstate. Published in Emrys Journal, Tint Journal, The Bare Life Review, The Petigru Review, HerStry, Shards (shards.glassmountainmag.com), Dunes Review, Emrys Journal Online (Medium.com), National Women’s History Museum, Catfish Stew, Change Seven, Longridge Review; nominated for 2020 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers; selected for “2020 Local Authors” by Greenville County Library, South Carolina. Finalist for the Anne C. Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction.