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Bye Mom, you broke my heart
On grief and long line of absent mothers
My māma (妈妈) left the country recently. Booked a flight to Mexico with her boyfriend, she said haphazard goodbyes and was gone. It came as a shock all the while leading up to her departure despite how she had been talking about it for years. It was the topic of steak dinner conversations at every Thanksgiving meal I celebrated for what seemed like the first time.
We’re going to go to South America.
How about Thailand?
Somewhere near the sea like Portugal, where the still ocean breeze caresses you after the sun says farewell.
I nodded in silent approval for each new country suggested.
A few summers ago, I was swept away from my hyper-romanticized European daydream in Paris by the force of the pandemic, where I was studying abroad at the time. It set me right back to where my life had both ceased and begun: my childhood bedroom in my mom’s house. Up the winding steps, taking a right to the end of the hall was the very quarters I slept in every night from ages 11 to 18. I’d memorized that path in the morning light — my mother hustling me to get to school — or in the darkness, drunk at 3 AM, on my tip-toes as each stair creaked softly beneath me. When I returned, it was as if nothing had ever changed. My suburbs remained still, seemingly untouched by time. My grandma used to eagerly wait my arrival. When are you coming home, she’d ask every time I called her. Soon.
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I lived with my mother that summer playing house. She would scurry in and out like a teenager, going back and forth between me and her boyfriend, me and her boyfriend, and me and her boyfriend. That was the summer before my pó po (婆婆) passed. My mother and I met each other often with silence, unsure of what to say. When she returned home, she flipped through missed mail, tossing over the envelopes with haughty legal jargon she didn’t understand so I could translate. Then it was tidying, complaining about what a mess I’ve made of her house, and taking afternoon naps.
On occasion, we would go to the mall and spend hours in the women’s clothing section at The Bay. I’d pick out pieces for her and she would try them on. I hated the mall but it was one of the only things my mom and I knew how to do together. I’d adopted her frugality and neither of us could stand wasting a penny. We bonded over the sale section and 50%-off-the-original-price tags. We knew a good deal when we saw one. We were needlessly parsimonious and derived pleasure from our resistance to capitalist consumption. This was one of the few things that we could see eye to eye on.
When she left, my rollercoaster of emotions moved from indifference to avoidance to grief to a blazing, forsaken rage.
Where the hell was my mother? And why did she leave me?
An excerpt from my dear friend, anger:
it is only now i am realizing how bitter i am about it. not at her, not at me, but at the situation that took us apart. i am so angry that she was born into poverty. i am so angry that communism took everything away from my grandmother. i am so angry for every child that died due to lack of medication in my ancestry line. i am so angry that my grandmother was always angry, i have her anger, i hold her anger, i am the result of her anger. my mother, so desperate to fill the wounds, the craters of despair caused by poverty, learned to work. learned, no, out of sheer fear. she came home usually after 10 pm or 9 pm if i was really lucky, exhausted. so tired. and i’d watch her crunch numbers on her calculator at the dining table. where is my mother. why is my mother always away from me. why did it have to be this way.
i am so angry, they took her away from me, i don’t know who they is, i hate them, i don’t understand why. now i have to do this alone. alone. alone. alone. alone.
I wish we could have had moments together. I wish I had more memories of us to cherish from when I was young. I have learned to forgive my mother for her absence because I understand that it was not a choice. Miserliness runs deep in my bloodline carved deep from the wounds of poverty.
I’m sitting in my gu ma’s (姑媽) kitchen right now. My duty today, as assigned by my family, is to Photoshop a picture of my yi yi (爷爷) and print it out in an 8” x 10” frame for them to display in ornate frames around the house. He’s around 70 in this photo, the corners of his mouth upturned softly. His shirt is a soft blue-green flannel pattern. His left shoulder is just cut out of the original photo. I’m editing more flannel fabric to centre him in frame. Over my shoulder, gu ma watches me edit the photo on my laptop. She looks at her digitized father with reverence; her eyes gleaming. Once, she recalls, he telephoned my dai gu ma from Canada and told her how delighted he was: he held the three different currencies in his hand — Canadian dollar, American dollar, and Chinese Yuan. He had never had so much money in his life.
I want to cradle my yi yi and my mother and my father and my pó po and all my family — scoop them all up in a little bundle like a bouquet of flowers. They are so tiny and I am a giant and I look down on them lovingly and tell them its okay, you’re just a child, you’re just a child, just be. It’s okay just to exist. You don’t have to sacrifice everything for your kids for you are just a child too. You don’t have to work until your bones ache anymore. Just rest now. I guess somewhere in that bundle my inner child is there too. And I’d say I’m sorry for all the hurt you have endured. And I will protect you, for you are just a child.
My mother left and in place of my mother is me, as a 23 year old adult, holding the hand of my inner child. Cause my momma never had the momma that she needed and neither did my pó po. And my maa maa (嫲嫲) never really had a momma for long at all cause she lost both of her parents in the Second Sino-Japanese War. A long line of absent mothers come before me. So I’m stepping up to the plate.
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