Vietnamese is a tonal language. This means with a switch of the tongue or a stress in the throat, the simple word for Mother, Ma, in Vietnamese can turn into the word for ghost.
My mother was born well-off. A fancy fisherman’s daughter. The youngest girl in a family of six located on the beautiful beaches of Southern Vietnam. Maids in the house, silks on her skin, prestigious school books stacked on her desk and bounties of food in her stomach.
The Vietnamese war is historically a hundred years old. The Americans intervened and it quickly worsened. Her oldest brother was drafted. He was returning home after a long absence for a short, well-welcomed break. A few of his platoon followed. My mother adored him. She was younger than the age I was when my father died. He played with her on the sandy beaches, and doted on her like my oldest brothers had done endlessly for me. She told me he was the one who taught her how to hide mischievousness behind duty.
There was so much excitement on the day he returned. He paused in playing with my young mother to look over his shoulder. I imagine her laughter was an amplified, brutishly free version of what it is now.
A few feet away his platoon mates were tossing a live grenade. The pin was pulled. My mother says he ran fast towards it. Yelled at her to run faster away from it. His whole body jumped on top, and his separated, scattered body, splattered away.
She told me this story devoid of tone. She told me this story when I told her I hated my brothers. She told me this story with her eyes afar and her voice even.
In our culture, every piece of the deceased has to be collected and buried, otherwise they cannot have safe passage to the afterlife. There is a window of time, starting from death, that their passage must be completed, otherwise their souls are stuck tormented on Earth for the rest of time.
This day was the day my mother found out how long it took to collect pieces of a favorite brother shredded by one, singular explosive. This day was the day my mother discovered that love meant picking up bloodied, squishy flesh between her fingertips.
His platoon mates lived. Everyone else on the beach lived.
Months to a year later her father traded all they ever had for safe passage on a docked American merchant ship. The conditions of this were that they could not leave until signaled, and that once signaled, they must immediately leave.
My mother told me they waited weeks on the boat. Rationing. Restless. Her second oldest brother, now the eldest, decided at week three it was all bullshit. He left the boat, saying he would return shortly. He was a rowdy soul who missed running, playing, and the debauchery of chasing women.
Within three hours of her eldest brother leaving, the alarms sounded. The Viet Cong had arrived. The boat left port within minutes. The passage to America was long and arduous. It would be years until my mother would see her brother again, and even longer, still, until she would enjoy a life that resembled anything of her childhood before death.
Her father grew angry. Dissident. He was an old-world, hardened Vietnamese man, heavy on traditions and culture; transplanted into an ever-changing, ever-confusing American world. My mother was fighting a war for feminism she didn’t even know existed. She says if you look closely at her body you can still see the fissures of the bamboo that once struck.
My mother’s mother had lost all six siblings before puberty. Fought for her life, seeking refuge in a mountainside while she watched her own brothers and sisters waste away from famine. One night she fell asleep with a family, and the next morning crawled out under decaying corpses, an orphan.
I don’t know more of her story. But it seems, from my mother’s blood, we are women cursed with the loss of those who we chose to love most.
I was the fifth child my mother and father had. I was the first child my mother did not want.
Before I could remember, my obsession was words. By the time I started kindergarten I read more, faster, and with more vigor and interest than anyone my teachers had seen. I was a Vietnamese American child, speaking in two tongues but consuming only in one. By the time that I was seven I had amassed so many Accelerated Reading points they wrote my name in the newspaper.
I told my mother. It’s going to be on Sunday.
That’s great, baby.
The days before my parents got into a fight. She left home and returned a week later.
I never saw the feature.
My teachers used to write letters to my parents. Paragraphs that had to be stapled to my report cards to obsess over my excellency.
It seems, for every singular word my mother didn’t read about me, I had to read ten thousand more.
When I was nine I looked for a deeper connection to my beautiful mother. I snuck into her nightstand drawers. Found her Danielle Steele. Her collection of Scottish Highlands smut. I traced their embossed covers, studied the Fabio men, long-haired, willowy white women. I opened each book, fingered the spines and read faster than all the records I had beaten at school.
My face went flush. I could hear someone coming up the stairs. I shoved them back into the stacks they belonged. Ran into the master bathroom. Felt the porcelain of the toilet on my forehead. Perhaps a million or more words I had ever read by this time. But never those ones. My mother, too, was a reader. Like me. Different, but the same.
Nightly I would peak at what my mother was reading before bed. Wait until she fell asleep or forgot. Read all the pages. Attempted to understand.
Anything that was my mother’s curiosity was mine. An unperceived, perceptive child.
It is easy to say you love your mother. It is easier, still, for some to say they don’t.
My mother has done my hair a total of three times in my life. The first time I was six. She burned me with a curling iron three times: above the ear, on the side of my ear, and behind my neck. She was curling it because my father’s sister asked her why she never did it. She told me I fidgeted too much and lacked obedience.
The second time I woke up early, for the first time in my life, for the first day of third grade. I begged her. With tears in my eyes. She said no. I said, in front of my father, all of the other mothers do it. She yanked me up the stairs. Pulled my hair aggressively and taut into a pony tail. I can feel the memory of how hard she pushed the bristles into my scalp to smooth it out. Her upper lip was curled and I refused to look in the mirror. The redhead who sat next to me had a fishtail braid, tied with a yellow sunshine gingham ribbon. Her name was Lauren. I pulled my hair out before recess.
The third, and final time I watched her get ready for work. I was in sixth grade. It was the night before picture day. She had rollers in her hair. I told her she was beautiful. She was in a good mood. I told her I wanted to look like her. She preened. She took her leftover rollers and pinned up half my hair. Make sure you sleep still otherwise they will fall out. I nodded. Ok, you know how to do the rest, right? I nodded.
In the morning, we took them out together. I was so happy I could’ve cried. My mother and father told me I looked beautiful. A boy named Wendell told me I looked like a Castlevania character. I didn’t shower for days, trying to keep the feeling. My mother keeps this photo next to my brother’s Air Force one on her car dashboard.
I moved away at eighteen the second I had the chance. I felt vindication. Then guilt. Then shame. Then, only sadness.
There are few things in my life I have found more complicated, more confusing or more painful than the relationship with my mother. I have written one hundred and thirteen letters to my father. Less than a fraction to my mother.
There are always less words to the living.
My mother and father never taught me how to ride a bike, drive a car or race a scooter. There was no participation in bake sales, open house nights or parent teacher conferences. Your report cards were your own secret and dinner was a possibility.
Family time was waiting until 3am when dad came home from work, and attempting to not fall asleep before school.
My mother and father taught me ingenuity. Creativity, strength, the power of sheer will and belief. The lengths a child will go for time and attention.
My mother taught me charm. The magic in the right outfit, the sparkle in a proper lipstick on the right night. She taught me how to make men happy, and, conversely, without control, how to drive them insane. The latter, still, twenty-six years later I struggle with.
My mother taught and guided my sexual spirit. My mother taught me that anything that was not an astounding YES was a resounding NO. My mother taught me that a boy who wanted to dry hump me at seventeen was not a boy who was to be kept or kissed.
My mother taught me that her love for me as a whole was confused, but her need for me to be protected, vigilant, and strong were unquestioned. My mother taught me that my sexuality was mine alone to explore, and there would be no person who could stop or press it. My mother taught me that a colorful life will be lived in between shades of various grey, and that people have varying palettes.
My mother taught me that loss is life, and not living is weakness.
My mother may not have taught me many things, but her lessons were the foundations of thousands more. My mother taught me that, despite her best efforts, if she could not break me, nobody else could.
My mother did not teach me how to be a girlfriend, a wife, or a mother. My parents did not teach me how to be in love, or how to be loved. Only how to stay. How to fight. How to make the walls shake. How to make love. How to scream. How to cry. How to laugh. How to be impulsive. How to break plates. How to buy many fancy cars. How to make a lot of money and do many grand gestures.
My therapist is teaching me how all of these, individually or as a whole, does not equal love. My therapist is teaching me how all of these, individually or as a whole, is not the epitome of love.
My therapist is teaching me how, my story, and my mother’s, does not have to end without love.
My therapist is teaching me how my mother has taught me one of life’s most important lessons: what was once loved can never be lost. That the child can still live, even while the adult forgives.
Happy Mother’s Day, Ma.