妈妈

image by Peachyeung316, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

i.

 

“I tell you, ah girl,” said Auntie Mel, “once you give birth your entire world will change. All the things you thought were important—career, money, even your husband lah—become secondary. Motherhood will become you. Listen to ah yi.”

My mother couldn’t help but chime in. “Yeah yeah. Once I had you everything else melted away.”

“Yeah,” said our grandmother, our Ah Ma. “Like when you burnt the porridge pot.”

Ten years ago I never thought I would be pregnant. I didn’t even think I’d be pregnant ten months ago. But somehow I got knocked up and John and I decided, hell, we’re having this kid. It was a terrifying realization—one I wasn’t even sure for which we were fully prepared. What did we know about children except for the fact that we were once children ourselves, and that everyone around us has at least one now: fat fist-clenching, spit-spewing, shrill, needy babies. It was almost surreal watching people my age become mothers and fathers—like seeing someone you knew from high school become prime minister or an Internet celebrity. It felt like parenthood wouldn’t happen to us. Yet it has. Well, almost.

The baby shower was put together after two months of meticulous planning by my sister Jeannie. Jeannie was Head Prefect at an all-girls Catholic school; she was top of her first-class honors course; she has four different dish towels for separate, distinct uses; her children were enrolled in a dozen extra-curricular activities that she charted in a color-coded Excel timetable tacked onto her Samsung smart fridge. Say a bad word about her family and she will come after you with her bamboo broomstick. I wanted to be like Jeannie. She knew how to make sure things didn’t fall apart. I’d never seen her cry. Meanwhile, I’d lost my car keys twice this week alone.

Our mother had thought she must’ve gotten the wrong baby home the day Jeannie was born. “She doesn’t even look like us,” Ah Ma had said. “She’s too thin. Her forehead is too high.” But Jeannie was everyone’s favorite, even mine. 

So I was grateful when she interrupted their prattling with a loud, disapproving click of the tongue. “You’re scaring her lah,” Jeannie said. The group of women—aunties, grandmas, female cousins—rolled their eyes while wry smiles slowly transformed their collective countenance. “She’s not like you, so old-fashioned. So dramatic!” Jeannie looked over to me, winking. “She’s a free spirit.”

Auntie Mel frowned. “Eh, free spirit also must be a good mother, you know. I was also a free spirit. You all don’t know this about me. In the 80s, I was a go-go dancer. Really! Don’t laugh. You should have seen the tips I got.”

“Since when were you a go-go dancer?” said Ah Ma. Upset.

“In the 80s lor.”

Ah Ma could barely begin to understand. She began to worry about a non-problem. Her wrinkled eyes wrinkled further. “But why? Why were you a go-go dancer?”

“Don’t worry, 妈妈. I received my calling. The world of chartered accounting was beckoning my talents.”

We were all laughing, much to Ah Ma’s chagrin, which slowly and reluctantly gave way to quiet amusement. She couldn’t stay mad at her children. She would let her nostrils flare, her voice rise a hysterical octave, but the anger caved to deep, all-consuming love.

Surrounding me were mountains of large, wrapped gifts (probably some complex, maternal contraptions meant to lighten my burden but will instead drive me insane); little gifts, dainty, expensive things (yellow and purple baby clothes, a silk swaddle blanket). In the corner of the room I saw a stroller, a built-it-yourself jungle gym. I got a little anxious: I couldn’t even install a shelf from Ikea. But I let myself worry about that later. Maybe John will make it his weekend project; John didn’t own any tools.

Gifts to prepare me for motherhood. Or rather, to prepare me for the duties of cleaning, dressing, feeding my baby. To dispose of their nappies and bring them on evening walks, to shield them from rays of the falling sun. To teach them new words, colors, shapes. But not to deliver me the manual on how to be a good parent. A decent parent. Sufficient. Never. Those things you learn on your own. 

 

ii.

 

Jungian theory suggests that the mother archetype is present in all of our collective consciousness. The mother: all-giving, all-nurturing protector. I think of all the great mothers: Mary, who gave birth to the messiah. Nammu, who gave birth to earth and sky and rain. Nature herself, the goddess of natural creation, of life. Maia, whose name is literally μήτηρ, or mētēr, or mother, or midwife. 

“But not Emma Bovary,” said my mother. “She was not a good mother.”

Four years before I was expecting Kelly, I visited my brother’s wife, Rebecca, at the confinement center, which is basically a six-week long stay at a hotel and spa for postpartum mothers. What you can expect is around the clock care from nurses, midwives, even doctors, a meticulous tending to so that you know what you can eat, what you can do. What to be and how to be it. Many women raved of its success—a maternal rite of passage indiscriminate across cultures. I watched as a caregiver, in her early 60s with silver hair, applied a ginger salve onto Rebecca’s swollen feet and rubbed it down with her oiled hands, gentle, supple, experienced, providing some relief. On the bedside table sat a cup of herbs infused with hot water, aromatic and overwhelming.

“How do you feel?” I said. 

“Oh,” said Rebecca. “You know.”

I did not. Not truly. I heard from Jeannie about sudden fits of crying. Terrifying outbursts followed by an unexplained numbness, not physical, but emotional, that prompted reticence and retreat. She has only held her daughter three times since her birth four weeks ago. She frequently took sleeping pills at night. On advice from her sifu, my mother made a Chinese antidote—a concoction of herbs, spices, and wishful thinking. Maybe this will bring her out of her funk, she told my brother. 

But Rebecca did not seem to be out of her funk. In fact, she seemed deeply entrenched in a funk she had no intention of plunging further into. Dark bags under eyes. She slumped against a pile of pillows on the bed. Baby Leah was fast asleep in her crib just six feet away. A kaleidoscopic mobile comprised of rainbow-colored animals rotated above her. Was this what early motherhood looked like? 

I wasn’t worried. I was curious. Okay, maybe I was a little concerned.

Rebecca looked at me, trying to smile. “Are you and John planning on kids?”

I hesitated before answering. “No, not yet.”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “You’re new to your marriage. You’re basically still on your honeymoon. Children can come later.”

There was a soft knock on the door and Evelyn, Rebecca’s mother, entered. An elegant woman in her late fifties, she had long, brown curls that drifted like clouds down her back. She removed the sunglasses from the top of her head and swooped down to kiss her daughter on the cheek and planted one loud smack on her newest granddaughter. 

We exchanged kisses, tidbits of personal news. She was going on a cruise to Scandinavia next month. John and I would be moving permanently back to KL. Evelyn was relieved for us. 

“Family’s here,” she said. “That’s most important.”

Evelyn looked around at the bare but nonetheless luxurious room, and at the caregiver, who tended so patiently to her daughter. “The comforts of modernity,” she sighed. “In my time we didn’t have confinement hotels. We did everything at home. In fact, my mother was my own live-in confinement lady.”

“How long did she stay to help?

“Oh, she never left.”

Suddenly a wail pierced through the careful tranquillity. Evelyn smiled at Rebecca before she made her way to baby Leah. “Do you want to rock her to sleep?” offered Evelyn. Gentle, not insisting. She was wary but she tried her best to mask it under an air of casualness. The caregiver glanced up nervously at the two of them. 

“Maybe later,” answered Rebecca. “I will hold her later.”

“That’s all right,” said her mother. She was bobbing on the balls of her feet, simulating the motions of a baby bouncer. “That’s okay,” she said. “Let mommy do it.” 

The wailing persisted, and Evelyn began to sing a Hokkien lullaby, forgetting some of the words, then mumbling them, then finally humming the melody.

“Do you want to hold her?” Evelyn offered. 

For some reason I almost said no, but I held my arms out and soon swathes of a knitted blanket draped onto my lap and I had a baby in my embrace. I held her close to my chest, my niece, whose eyes were encrusted with the brine of dried tears; a delicate, tiny mouth stretched to a thin, quivering line dispelling amazing, shattering screams. 

I placed a finger against her face and ran it down the side. I was surprised at how soft the skin was. How fragile. “Shh shh shh,” I whispered. “It’s going to be okay, it’ll all be okay. You’ll see.”

Out in the corridor, where we decided to stretch our legs, Evelyn was in low spirits. There was a deep crease above her brows. I knew what she was thinking about. 

“It’ll get better,” I assured her. ‘“It’s just hormones. Many women go through this. My friends—”

“I know,” said Evelyn. “I know, eventually, she will be fine. But she needs help now. She needs me.”

Confinement. The equivalent of this in Chicago, where we lived, briefly, was a doula service. Here, it’s called zuò yuè zi. 

“It is to prepare the mother,” the receptionist at the center told John and me, as our turn came and we paid the deposit, “to give the mother time and space to bond with her baby while her body heals. It relieves the mother of all worries from her mind.”

“Sounds like heaven,” John said.

“Six weeks of heaven,” I said.

 

iii.

 

Jeannie was forty when she found out she was going to be a mother again.

“Oh my god,” she said, over the phone. I was doing a grocery run. She was in a bathroom stall at work, apparently hunched over at the sixth pregnancy test she had taken that lunch break. “When will this end?”

“I think I’m too old leh,” she went on. “This shouldn’t be happening to people my age.”

She had Nicole thirty weeks later on the first day of Lunar New Year—an early (and auspicious) birth which frightened all of us and kept us up for sleepless nights as the baby stayed incubated in NICU. Her skin yellowed. She needed a blood transfusion. 

Naturally, Nicole became the obsession of all. Preemie babies always got the most attention. They are miracles, after all. I know this because Jeannie herself was a preemie.

Being the youngest and, consequently the most special in birth, Nicole was persistently fussed over. She got the prettiest dresses, the most expensive toys, the nicest bed sheets. Ah Ma would get up at dawn to make her bird’s nest soup. Even I was guilty of over-indulging for her second birthday and bought a customized American Girl Doll. Nicole has four other brothers and sisters, none of whom could bring themselves to resent her merely because the gap in age difference was far too wide to warrant irrational jealousy. 

“She’s kinda cute, I guess,” said Jane, Nicole’s sister. “In a way that isn’t annoying.”

Nicole was smart, too. Like her mother, she was always top of her class. School work from her Year 6 class proved that she had an aptitude for science, a talent for math, a good brand of curiosity. “Maybe one day I will be a physicist,” Nicole once mentioned, offhandedly, as she cut out shapes for a collage project. 

“I have high hopes for her,” beamed Jeannie. A mother’s pride. “She could be a national scholar.”

By her mid-teens, Nicole had abandoned all interest in science and began hoarding hobbies of the most eclectic variety. There were short-lived dance lessons, voice lessons, pottery classes. Chess, rugby, horticulture, ten-pin bowling. She weaved in and out of these passions the way one might navigate a winding road during a thunderstorm. It was heading nowhere and somewhere at once. Her friends never lasted longer than a term; she picked up new ones as fast as she dropped off others, as if perpetually deciding which clique would suit the next iteration of herself.

Then, two nights before her confirmation, Nicole told her parents she no longer wanted to attend Mass.

“You can’t just stop now.” Jeannie was unyielding. She nudged her husband, Ming, for reinforcement.

“You are getting confirmed on Sunday,” said Ming. “You’ve already picked a name.”

“Catherine,” Nicole said with distaste. “After the saint of Siena, who vowed chastity to Christ from a young age. Which sounds kinda erotic, let’s be honest.”

“Eh! Why is she talking like this?” said Ming.

Jeannie had another worry. “What am I going to say to Father Julian?”

“I just don’t think this path is for me,” explained Nicole. 

“Nonsense!” said her mother. “You are young. What do you know about paths? You can’t even drive.” Then, “What’s the point in worrying about the future so soon? The future won’t happen for a long time. Stay focused on now. And now you need to be confirmed in the eyes of our Lord.”

Nicole went to sleep crying that night. A spoiled teen’s unreasonable tantrums, as Jeannie put it, and on Sunday morning, in front of friends and family and St. Mary’s congregation, Nicole was confirmed. She rubbed her hands against the folds of her new dress, lips folded into a pout as she made small talk with the people who had come to congratulate her. 

Later, Father Julian made his way over, a genial smile etched upon his age-worn face. “Catherine,” he said, proud. “A beautiful name.”

“Thank you.”

“So how’s school?”

“Oh,” said Nicole with a half-shrug. “You know.”

Father Julian nodded knowingly. 

“A pain.” Nicole agreed. “Any plans for your tertiary education?”

“I don’t know,” said Nicole. There was a pause. “I don’t think I want to go to uni.”

“I see,” said Father Julian. “Will this pose a problem to your parents? I know they take education very seriously.”

“Hm,” Nicole said. She thought about it. “No, I don’t think it will.”

When Nicole brought up her conversation with Father Julian on the car ride home, neither of her parents paid much mind, chalking it up to their daughter’s propensity for fickle-mindedness. 

And so for a while it truly didn’t seem to Nicole that her lack of desire for the collegiate experience would stir up any conflict. In fact, no one mentioned college or university or careers, even when the subject was broached at school career fairs and as cousins enrolled at NUS, NYU, UNSW. Conversely, Jeannie simply presumed that Nicole would naturally follow in her footsteps. The alternative never even occurred to her, so why would she have ever bothered to fuss over it? 

Until the time came for Nicole to sit for her SPM papers. Standardized testing brings out the worst in Malaysian mothers. Nicole dropped the bomb one night over dinner, the way one might bring up celebrity news.

“How can you talk like this!” cried Jeannie, as if her daughter was joining MCA. “How can you not want to further your studies?”

“It’s not the path I want to take.”

“Haiyah, again with this path-path talk. I’m sick of it. You’re lucky to even have a path. Many people don’t. Some had to carve out their own. I did. Your daddy did. Now you don’t want it?” 

When Nicole was quiet, Jeannie tried a different technique. “I thought you wanted to be a physician?”

“Physicist. When I was twelve.”

“Then, how, Nicole?” said Jeannie. “How like this? What life will you lead for yourself without a degree?” Then, “You wouldn’t survive working at McDonald’s. You don’t even know how to clean your plates.”

Nicole didn’t have an answer but that didn’t matter: the made-up mind of a seventeen-year-old was adamantine, stronger than Kevlar. Months later, she told her parents she would be going to Taiwan with a friend: they had applied for one of those work visa programs. It would be a great chance for them to earn a living while experiencing a different culture. In some ways, this would be more valuable than sitting for A-levels.

Jeannie was beside herself. She went to our mother in a daze. 

“妈妈, where did I go wrong? How did she turn out so unlike her siblings? Was I ever like this?” she wondered aloud.

Then she came to me. “She’s never rebelled before,” said Jeannie. “Is this supposed to be rebellion now? At eighteen? None of her siblings pulled stunts like this. None!”

“She’s trying to strike out on her own,” I told her. “I think she’s lost.”

“I don’t want her to be lost,” Jeannie said, looking lost herself.

The night before Nicole’s departure, two suitcases were already anxiously placed at the bottom of the stairs. Her grandmother had knitted her a pink and white scarf to help brave the harsh fall winds there; it was draped over the handle of one of the suitcases so that she wouldn’t forget to take it with her. 

Dinner was quiet. Chopsticks and spoons clinked and clanked against ceramic plates. Ming barely spoke, but when Jeannie was busy with the dishes in the kitchen, he made sure Nicole had enough money to spend before covertly slipping a red envelope into her hands—thick, and with the blessings of a reluctant but doting father. 

“Nicole,” called Jeannie before Nicole went up to bed. “Come here, please.”

Nicole entered the living room and saw her mother sitting alone on the sofa, her hands held into fists on her lap. She joined her, awkward and cautious. She braced herself.

“Do you know the meaning of your name?” asked Jeannie. Nicole shook no. “. It means beautiful jade. A jade is the most treasured stone in Chinese culture. Wearing it is supposed to bring peace and ward away harm.” Jeannie felt herself losing a battle against tears. “Aiyo, Nicole, don’t you know how much I love you? You’re my nyawa, okay. There are two things a mother hopes her daughter will never become: a druggie or pregnant at sixteen.”

“Ma—”

“And even then, you know I will still love you,” said Jeannie. “But if something happens to you, I will never forgive myself.”

“Ma,” said Nicole, gently. “Nothing is going to happen to me.”

“I know, I know. Because you are brave and strong. And stubborn. So stubborn!” Jeannie opened up the palm of her right hand. In it laid a fine golden chain, at the end of which hung a green gemstone, winking under fluorescent light. She lifted it up and undid the clasp so she could wear it around her daughter’s neck. “Here, wear this. It will protect you on whatever journey you wish to take in life.”

The morning’s drive to the airport was even quieter than the night’s dinner. They were quiet as they helped her check in. They were quiet as they bought her breakfast at the airport fast food restaurant. They were quiet when Nicole’s friend Cassie arrived, two girls screaming and jumping with excitement. 

And when they watched Nicole walk through security checks and ride the escalator downward, and away, Jeannie cried, “Nicole! Nicole!” She was weeping. Her voice echoed in the airport. “I’ll miss you so much! My baby girl!”

And Nicole said, with a tearful smile, “Aiyo, Ma. You’re embarrassing me.”

 

iv.

 

As per family tradition, the women in my family would converge at our mother’s house for Mother’s Day. Every year, except this year. our mother makes her famous nian gao. 

This year, we arrive downstairs to find the breakfast table empty. Then we hear a strange noise coming from the wet kitchen in the back. A strangling noise. Like a miserable cat.

We find Auntie Mel sitting on the stool by the stove, crying. Our mother has her hand on her shoulder, rubbing gently. Behind her, half-fried nian gao bobs atop the surface of cold oil. 

“What happened?” asks Kelly, my daughter.

Somehow, between her wailing, Auntie Mel manages to push these words out: “It’s Ah San—that bastard—marriage over.”

Then, additional details. Siu saam. Another woman.

Rebecca shouts Hokkien swear words. Jeannie makes a cross. “I will cut off his prick myself.”

We are all in shock. Granted, Uncle San and Auntie Mel didn’t have the best marriage. They got married after five months of dating. He played mah jong more than they had sex. He constantly butted heads with Mel’s children. He forgot their anniversary all three times. We were surprised, frankly, that they outlasted Nick Cage and Lisa Marie Presley. But still.

“What a loser,” says Jeannie, later on. Auntie Mel has retired to the bedroom to resume crying very loudly, but in private. We are gathered out on the patio, the afternoon sun beating down on us. “How can he do this? And on Mother’s Day. Pui!” She mimes spitting on the ground.

“I knew something was up when she said he wouldn’t be coming for dinner,” says Rebecca.

二百五,” mutters Kelly. Nicole and Leah privately snicker.

“Hey!” we all shout. “Language,” I warn. 

“I hope she signed a prenup,” Rebecca says. “Ah San is such a bum.”

“And she was so happy to have found love at sixty-two.”

I look at my mother, who hasn’t said a word. “Mama, are you okay?”

“Just thinking.”

At church, our minds are preoccupied with this morning’s bombshell. Our lips move to sing O Come, All Ye Faithful. At the end of the service, Lilian Yee makes her way over to us. She stands at the side of the pew, thereby trapping us in. 

“Eh eh, is it true?” she asks breathlessly. “I heard it from my friend who heard from Ah San’s mechanic. He’s been seeing Chu Hua, the woman who owns the nursery!”

In the car ride home, we begin brainstorming the best way to approach this. Rebecca wants to confront Ah San. Jeannie is planning to send something unpleasant in the mail. But our mother is quiet. She has barely said a word since morning. While I’m driving she makes a sudden grab for my arm. I nearly swerve.

“Turn right now,” says Mama. “U-turn.”

“Where do you want to go?”

“To Ah Mel’s house!”

“Mama,” we say. “What for? What do you want to do?”

My mother is irate. “Go there first. Don’t ask so many questions.”

We arrive at Auntie Mel’s bungalow moments later. Down the slope we see Ah San’s parked Nissan; he’s home. The neighborhood is quiet, peaceful even. I kill the engine. 

Mama unbuckles her seat belt and gets out of the car. Nervously we follow suit. Mama approaches, unwavering in her stride, towards the Nissan before pulling out house keys from her pocket, a strange look on her face. She moves nearer to the car, away from Mel’s house.

Mama!” I hiss. “What are you doing?”

We all watch in stupefied silence as Mama starts dragging the edge of her key along the dark blue metallic finish of the car, determination etched on her face, sweat barely breaking in the heat. The car alarm breaks into a siren. 

“Eh!” comes a voice. “Eh! Stop! Stop!”

Ah San, in a white singlet and boxer shorts, comes racing out of the house, barefooted. A lit cigarette hangs from his mouth. He’s waving his arms in the air. We stare at him, rooted to the ground. The scene is beginning to resemble something out of an episode of Desperate Housewives.

“You crazy old woman!” he cries. “Stop it now!”

Jeannie grabs our mother and yanks her away. We start leaping back into my car, today’s arbitrary getaway vehicle; the girls are screaming from adrenaline. I jam the key into the ignition. The engine starts. I hit the gas.

Ah San has his fist in the air as he points to the damage on his car with the other hand, sis shouts drowned by the screeching of my tires. As we speed past, I catch what has been engraved along the doors: TINY SCROTU—

When we arrive home, our hearts are racing, blood surging. We can’t quite believe what happened. None more so than Mama, who is suddenly anxious. “Oh my god,” she says, eye wide. She’s shaking. “What did we do? Oh my god.”

Right on cue, Auntie Mel hurries down the stairs, phone in hand. Her eyes are about to fall out of their swollen sockets. 

“Ah San just called!” says Auntie Mel. “I thought you all went to church! Not to damage private property!”

Mama is dazed. “It was the heat of the moment.” Breathless. “It was like—I was possessed!”

“Why did you do it?”

“Mel, you’re my baby sister. He’s a son of a bitch!”

“You’re all crazy,” says Auntie Mel. She shakes her head in disbelief. “Crazy.”

And we all start laughing, yet somehow we’re reduced to hysterics. That evening at dinner, when the story is recounted to our spouses, they howl. Serves him right, they agree. He had it coming. We worry we will be arrested, but nothing happens.

“Mama,” I say, a memory suddenly flooding to me. “Remember that boyfriend Jeannie had in high school?”

“That skinny boy? I wouldn’t call him a boy—a cockroach, more like! He said Jeannie had a flat chest and then dumped her in front of everyone at the school formal.”

“And what did you do, Mama?”

“Haiyah, I went to talk to him.”

“No, that’s not it.”

She is reluctant to answer, suddenly embarrassed. “I told him he was an asshole.”

“And what else did you do?”

“He called me an old cow! So I—I…haiyah, I chased him around with a broom.”

Our voices raise an octave as we dissolve into laughter, hunching over, bellies aching. 

Our mother begs us to stop. She says she has a reputation out there in the world, she’s not totally unhinged.

My Mama, the eldest daughter, a good Catholic girl who never skipped school, who prays the Rosary each night, who helps write weekly church bulletins, who volunteers at the soup kitchen, who buys ice cream treats for the kids on her street. Now she’s seventy-eight: on bad days she needs a walking stick, on good days she stands for hours at the stove, sweat beading on her creased forehead as she makes nian gao that sometimes turns out and sometimes doesn’t; on ridiculous days, when her family is humiliated, she keys the cars of unfaithful men. She never discriminates among her children, and whomever her children marry become her children, too. 

In her I recognize our ah ma, who taught her how to be a mother and told her stories that ranged from the absurd to the pensive, the educational to the anecdotal. And now our children look at us, and at their grandmother, and beg for more of these stories. So do we.