Are You My Mother?
It’s a few days after Christmas and my mom has asked me to come home to Northern Virginia and go through my old belongings. My parents are preparing to retire this year and sell the house—for real this time, they promise. Enticed by the idea of making pancake breakfasts with my young nieces and watching Frozen for the millionth time, I’ve agreed. In between spilled baking soda and “Let It Go,” I know there will be plenty of time to rummage through what’s left of my own childhood.
Oh Elsa, if only it were that simple.
I had asked my mom not to give away my old stuffed animals until I made it home. “I want to look them all in the eye one last time and say goodbye,” I said. She honored my request, although now I regret it. Their beady eyes stare back at me through the clear vinyl bedding bag they’ve been stored in. I don’t know what to do. Even decades later, Ducky’s quacker still quacks. Mooky, the pink walrus from Gund that sat upright, still reaches his arms out for a hug. Snuggles, the white seal chosen to move to Thailand with me when I was nine years old, still smells like comfort. Where will they all go? Toy drives won’t take them, not with their matted, greying fur.
But it’s not just the stuffed animals that nag at my conscience. What happens to the piano after we give it away? A Baldwin that’s lived up to its name and taken its share of beatings in an Asian household with three children. Or what about the stacks of family photographs curling at the edges? They will never make it into a proper album, no matter how enticing the craft store sales are.
These are the questions I have as I sit cross-legged on the basement floor of my parents’ house, surrounded by a force field of empty CD Jewel Cases, weathered friendship bracelets and scribbled notes and secrets folded tightly into college-ruled paper footballs. My boyfriend, Ben, sits on the futon watching basketball as I sort through 20 years of life stuffed into a surprisingly compact stack of decorative hat boxes and one red suitcase with a broken zipper. It seems like a waste to throw away the old ‘NSYNC posters and dried out ChapSticks that have made it this far. I have no use for any of it, but can’t establish a merit system that will help me decide what to keep and what to toss. The truth is, my mom could have thrown it all away, and though I would have fussed, I would have also very easily forgotten about it. I clearly hadn’t thought about the laminated Goo Goo Dolls magazine article in decades and could have gone on without it.
Decades. It’s a new concept that I grapple with.
I have a new box of keepsakes now. It lives on the floor of my closet in the Los Angeles apartment I share with Ben. It’s full of things I consider “grown up mementos.” Not the wrinkly post-it notes my friends and I used to pass in Algebra, but more like funeral programs, birthday cards that my parents send less and less often since I’ve moved to the other coast, and ticket stubs from all of the “firsts” of my relationship.
The funny thing about going through my old shit is that most of the stuff I thought would matter ended up having no bearing on my life at all. Most of what I cherished enough to save turned out to be junk: receipts from movie dates with boys whose names I can’t remember, autographed merch from bands that ended up being as terrible as everyone had warned me, various incarnations of Claire’s “best friends forever” jewelry from friendships more dead to me than MySpace.
What I didn’t expect to find, under the mounds and mounds of crap, was a different view of my mother. I had made up my mind about that woman a long time ago, maybe as far back the day I sobbed alone on the stairwell after a fight and thought to myself, I’m only six years old and I hate my life. We had a strained relationship growing up, only lightening the last few years after I had moved to the opposite coast to get as far away from her as possible. Rocky mother-daughter relationships run in my family, much like freckles and the inability to relax. I am determined to break the cycle.
My mother was mean. Not in a tough-love sort of way, but more like cold and belittling. She yelled at us because she loved us, she used to say. She never allowed herself to laugh at my jokes. It was more important for her not to mess up her hair and makeup, than to play with my brothers and me in the pool. All too often my oldest brother, Peter, dropped me off at my elementary school classroom, my face sopping wet with tears from a fight I had had with her earlier that morning.
It may be easier to recall all the times she messed up or wasn’t there, but buried underneath all the useless junk that had taken center stage, I discovered that there were good moments along the way, too. Quiet ones. I had never seen them like this before—the many handcrafted birthday cards and cheesy Hallmark trinkets all lined up in a row before me. She did kind things in silence, slipping a birthday card under my closed bedroom door here and there, or arranging gifts on my bed to find when I got home from school. At 5-foot-1, that tiny woman’s flaring temper turned otherwise fleeting bad moments into large-scale productions, guaranteed to overshadow any kind gesture she might have snuck into part of the day.
It all seems too petty now. The dread of coming home after school to a fire-breathing dragon for not cleaning my room or talking on the phone too much. Nevermind that she woke up at 5 a.m. every day to drive my brothers and me to school in Bangkok traffic because we hated taking the bus, or that she always picked us up afterschool with hot food waiting in the car. She has all of my “artwork” saved or on display around the house, from sloppily-glued doilies on construction paper, by a toddler attempting to master hand-eye coordination, to lumps of painted clay that insist they are either a seal, turtle or cat of some sort.
The house was always clean, the laundry always done. Yes, maybe it was the work of Rebecca, our kind Filipina cleaning lady, or my grandma if she happened to be in town. Either way, the housework was done. Our uniforms pressed. And, like magic, we had clean socks in our drawers by morning. We had a home-cooked dinner almost every night. The refrigerator was always stocked. My mom made sure all three of us finished our homework before bedtime. The science projects we forgot at home during the morning rush out the door still somehow made their way to the school office in the nick of time. Peter got to run track and go to his afterschool club meetings. Eric, my other brother, somehow always got his clarinet reed for Monday, even though he never remembered until Sunday nights at 4:30 p.m. The music store, of course, closed promptly at 5. And I had my piano lessons, sleepovers and bedazzled designer jeans. It may not have happened exactly how we wanted it to, but she still made it happen. We weren’t the family that had game nights, or curled up on the couch with popcorn to watch movies. But then again, most families aren’t.
So maybe she’s the only mom I know who shops at Wet Seal and FaceTimes me to show me her new eyebrows. Maybe she stands too close to me when she talks and always mentions that she wears a smaller size every time we see each other.
But what happens if I finally give her a break?