A Short Story
By Sarah Leck
“Child, look how cute your cousin’s son is!”
My mother held a phone to my face, hers beaming with familial pride. On the screen was a picture of a boy about a year old with cherubic, pink cheeks, smiling guilelessly.
“Yeah, he’s cute.”
I meant it, but I could tell my response wasn’t to her satisfaction. She frowned and took her phone back, squinting while swiping through more baby pictures. I knew what she wanted of me, the eldest daughter in a traditional Chinese and Christian family. I felt the weight of her expectations bearing down on me every time we spoke, every time she talked about someone’s children getting married and having babies, every time I returned.
I didn’t miss this – the way the air hung heavy with expectations and words unspoken, not unlike the overwhelming heat and humidity that pervaded my home country. My family had a way of sweeping issues under the proverbial carpet or having them exist only as whispers behind closed doors when the children were asleep. Everything we’d learned about debate, discussion and opinion exchange stayed in school, never given voice at home.
I was back for 5 days in March, a break from the usual July trips that coincided with my sister’s birthday and summer break in Japan. My mother had asked me to go home for Christmas last year, but flights were too pricey. Neither was I ready to see my parents so soon after they’d just visited me in May.
“Your mother misses you, you know.”
“You should call home more often. Ma keeps asking us about you.”
I had made no plans save for a dinner with my best friends. I knew what my role was every time I returned. Though the timing was unusual, the expectations would be the same. There was the usual twinge of guilt for thinking this way – they’re family, after all. I pushed that out of my thoughts and braced myself when I stepped off the plane, as the familiar heaviness wrapped itself around me and squeezed.
“What are you doing?”
Her voice stopped me midway through buttoning up a shirt, and I whirled around in surprise. I hadn’t noticed her coming into the bedroom I shared with my sister, all stealth and suspicion. There was an edge to her voice, a sharpness that warned me I’d done something wrong in her eyes. I hadn’t, I didn’t think, and my mind raced through the possibilities of what I could have done to light this spark of displeasure within her. I settled on the only thing I could imagine would.
“I’m going out to meet with friends, I told you this already.”
I was certain she’d probably just forgotten I’d told her and was annoyed. I looked down, back to the buttons of the short-sleeved, yellow plaid I shirt I was trying to fasten. Making sure the right buttons were in the right holes of the right row was something I still struggled with.
My mother grew up the third of five children, on a farm 5 hours away from the nearest city in rural China. I only have snapshots of memories from when I was 4 when we visited her childhood home before it had burned down. Playing with bugs in the yellow leaves that’d piled up on the ground. Watching my late grandfather till the land behind water buffalo. Eating dinner in a dark shack lit by a single lamp, wondering why there was nothing but static on the TV. Wanting to use the bathroom but afraid of the absolute darkness that lay in wait outside.
She used to tell us stories of how she never had enough to eat. When they fell on hard times, she’d have to sneak into other people’s farms and dig up potatoes to feed her younger siblings. While she lay out dishes heaped with food for us, she’d go on about how she carried her younger sister on her back when she toiled in the fields. She told us of how she loved eating plain, steamed rice with a single egg broken over it and a few drops of soy sauce, of how she walked for hours to and from school and studied by candlelight.
My siblings and I used to always complain that she cooked too much food at every meal, that she was trying to stuff us like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. The ladle wouldn’t pause, and she continued heaping food onto our plates anyway.
“Be grateful for everything you have.”
This was part of the ritual at dinner time. We couldn’t, wouldn’t start dinner without everyone at the table. Hands held, encircling the dishes my mother had cooked, my dad would say grace and list things to be grateful for – a job, plentiful food, a roof over our heads, his children. The food would come, and we’d try to reason out of eating more than we wanted to, using information from nutrition classes.
“Eat what’s on your plate!”
This was one of the things that just Were. Our father’s words had silenced us, but we sulked quietly and tried to put food back onto the shared dishes in the middle when he wasn’t looking.
It was only after I had stopped eating dinner at home regularly during my high school and university days that I realised I hadn’t noticed or understood the things my mother had done. I hadn’t been grateful. This sense of remorse and regret gripped me even more keenly in the first few years I lived by myself.
23, and I didn’t even know how to fry an egg.
The more I missed my mother and her food, the less I talked to her – I barely called home in my first year away. I knew she worried, but I wasn’t a child anymore. I needed to learn to live by myself. I thought it best if she learned to live without me, too.
Bright colours weren’t really part of my wardrobe, and this shirt wasn’t exactly new, a hand-me-down from someone’s son or daughter from church. But I was excited – my first short-sleeved button up shirt! I could hardly contain my glee when all of us had sifted through the plastic bags of clothes we’d been given, and there it was. The shirt had been folded neatly, but you could tell from the slight pilling underarm and the faded colour that it’d been well worn. I had pulled it from the heap, unfolded and pressed it over the front of my body, holding its shoulders to mine to check the fit. I didn’t realise I’d been holding my breath until the shoulder seams of the shirt met the edges of mine perfectly, and I let my breath out in a whoosh.
The trick to asking for things from my parents was not to show that I wanted it too much, play it casual, be nonchalant. Suffering made you stronger, they said.
“This shirt looks pretty good.”
I held it up to my mother and showed her how it fit me. She looked away from a skirt she was assessing, frowned and squinted at me. She refused to wear the prescription glasses she believed made her look like an old lady.
“Don’t you not wear clothes with colour?”
“I could try. I need a new shirt to go out in.”
“Is that so…”
“Let her have it. Weren’t you saying she wears too much black?” my father suggested from behind the day’s papers, barely pausing to look up.
Nobody said anything.
My face twitched as a smile fought to break across it, and I hopped over little piles of re-wanted and still unwanted clothes. I was going to the cinema with friends in a few days – this would be perfect!
“Child, is there anything you’d like to eat tonight?”
“I’ll eat anything you feel like making. Don’t worry about me.”
Friday evening, my third day back. I’d been home all day reading, only going out to wander in the park nearby, a park that looked nothing like what I remembered of it from childhood.
Being at home felt like my life had been put on hold, and I’d stepped back in time. Everything was still the same, and yet nothing was. My mother still wouldn’t let me into the kitchen, even though I’d cooked for them in Japan. I noticed how white my father’s hair had become, and I implored him to shave his beard, something that hadn’t been there 2 years ago.
“It doesn’t suit you, dad! You look so much older with it.”
His eyes twinkled as he laughed at me, “But I am old.”
I smiled along with him, even as I acknowledged the truth of what he’d said and my throat constricted.
My mother still dyed her hair black to hide her age. She still wouldn’t wear her prescription glasses, so one of us still read her text messages for her. She still cooked too much food, though it was significantly less than before. She was only cooking for two, most of the time; my siblings were a rarity at home, even if they all slept in the same apartment. But I saw how much more prominent the veins on her hands had become, how much less she ate than I remembered, how soon she went to bed after the 10PM news segment was over, sometimes even before.
Unlike me, she called her mother in China every day. They spoke in a regional dialect I didn’t understand, and neither would anyone outside their village. That didn’t deter her from asking my siblings and me to “talk” to our grandmother when we were around. She’d put her mother on the loudspeaker and feed us lines to say until we eventually squirmed out of this awkward charade of a conversation. I never figured out what it was they talked about, and I still don’t know how they can talk for hours every day without fail.
Grandmother is fast approaching a century old. Sometimes I imagine her sitting by a kerosene lamp on the first floor of a new, half-built four-storey mansion, the blanket silence of the countryside broken only by the crackling, staticky voices of her daughter and grandchildren from thousands of miles away. Outside, the wind rustles the leaves of trees in the yard, whispering secrets from foreign lands. The chickens stir in the coop, dreaming of corn and seed. Pearlescent drops of condensation slide leisurely down the handle of the groundwater pump, before dripping onto the slowly growing puddle.
Like me, she lives by herself.
Whenever I did call my mother, we’d go over the same questions with each other – have you eaten? How’s work? How’s the weather? I’d ask her about things happening back home, most of which I’d already heard from my siblings. She’d ask me if I got enough sleep, if I ate enough, whether I had any friends. Our conversation would be over in 10 minutes, and I’d hear the phone being passed back to dad and my siblings if they were around.
There would be no buttons for me to fasten.
I was jerked backwards as the shirt was ripped off me from behind, buttons straining before giving in to my mother’s rage and breaking, landing silently on the rug. She was still pulling the rest of the shirt off my arms and I let her. I stood there in my undershirt and jeans, dazed.
“You’re a girl, so be like one!”
She ripped the shirt apart.
She was a strong woman, lean and wiry from the work of taking care her family of 5. Putting out and taking in loads of laundry on bamboo poles, walking to and from the wet market carrying heavy loads of groceries by herself, sending children to and from school.
I was only 14.
I watched her tear sleeve from shirt and said nothing, even as my insides writhed in anger and fear, tears threatening to bubble out in steaming rivers. I wanted to shout at her. I wanted to make her look at me and tell me why she was doing this. I wanted to pound my fists on her and bruise her and cry, “Why can’t you love me like this?”
I left home without a word.
4.30AM, I was just about to head to the airport to catch my flight back to Japan. My brother was waiting in his girlfriend’s car below the apartment building. My dad was reading the papers as he drank his coffee – milky now, no longer black.
“Have some waffles before you go, you’ll be hungry on the plane. I got them from that corner shop downstairs – you still like them, right?”
My mother came out of her bedroom, eyes watery even after all these years, all the goodbyes. She pressed a red packet with money into my hands – for luck, for a safe flight.
“Child, you’re grown up now. Don’t always eat out. Learn to cook. Always be thankful. Call home more often…”
“Yes, ma. You should take care of yourself too.”
Families like mine never expressed our feelings – there were no hugs, no words of love, no tearful goodbyes or joyful reunions. I touched her hand briefly and turned to pick up my bag.
“I’ll text you guys when I land.”
I came home hours later and found her kneeling on the floor praying. The buttons were still on the rug though all traces of the former shirt were gone. The light from the setting sun streamed in through the lace curtains of my bedroom onto her upturned hands, which seemed like they were trying to hold on to the dying embers of the day. Dust motes twinkled around her like falling snow.
“What are you doing?”
A heartbeat, then she stood up slowly, seemingly fatigued. Her face was drawn, eyes red and swollen. She wiped the tears from her face with both hands.
“Can you be like a girl?”
Something squeezed inside me and my voice cracked.
“Ma, I am one.”
Every day in Primary School, my mother and I would hold hands & walk to school together, about 15 minutes away. When classes were over, I’d find her waiting for me outside the school gate and we’d walk back home the same way, always holding hands.
There was a park on this route and sometimes I’d run ahead, past the playground that I rarely ever played at (I was an indoors kid) and the duck pond I almost never visited (it was a breeding ground for mosquitoes, dangerous in an area with dengue fever). I’d hop from dry twig to fallen leaf, relishing in the crunch underfoot at every step. She’d tell me to stay where she could see me, and I’d oblige, always turning around to make sure I could see her too. When she got close, I’d hold her hand again, feeling the skin on the back of her hand smooth from hand-washing all the laundry, the bump of her wedding ring that’d warped into a triangular shape around her finger, the warmth in her grip, safe and sure that nothing could ever hurt me.