I’ve been reading/watching The Joy Luck Club with one of my classes. For all of the obvious and clichéd reasons, it has always resonated with me. But watching it today, on the heels of my mother’s death, it shook all of the remaining reserve and detachment right out of me. It’s not that it’s an especially powerful film; in fact, I think the acting’s really bad for the most part. But stereotypes or not, it manages to capture enough truth about mothers and daughters, particularly, about cross-cultural mother/daughter relationships. As I watched today, I felt those gaps and misunderstandings between those mothers and daughters in newly painful ways. Before, even though I’d kind of sympathized with the mothers in the film, I was pretty firmly entrenched in the daughters’ perspectives, feeling the hurt, rejection, embarrassment, etc. that came with having an Asian mom in “American” culture. Today, however, I felt those mothers’ stories more acutely. I found myself explaining, rationalizing, and excusing their behavior to my students who were appalled and aghast at the way they treated their children. “Can’t you see,” I asked my students, “how their expectations and reactions are informed by all of those secret sorrows, forgotten loves, deep regrets and alternate lives that their daughters never fully know or understand?” “No,” they answered, “that lady’s just cold!”
I suppose that on an intellectual level I’d understood how these women had become the looming matriarchs that they appeared to be to their daughters. I hadn’t, however, really understood just how much we are shaped by those unexpected currents of life that sweep us up without our permission. Some people never make it back to the bank; they never get that opportunity to take a breath, to lie in the sun for a moment, assess the damages and chart a new course. They simply get swept further downstream, pummeled here and there by debris, barely managing to stay above water. Perhaps because I’m a mother myself, now, I have a bit more understanding and empathy for the way we get carried away from ourselves without realizing it.
In many ways, this was my mother’s story…and mine. As we sat together in those last minutes together, she looked at me and said, “I have been so stupid…” She trailed off, lost in her regret and sadness. I understood all that would have followed if we’d had time enough; we’d both been stupid. We’d used up all the time we had caught up in things that, perhaps, should have mattered less than just loving one another. Why do so many things get in the way of just loving one another? She cupped my cheek with her hand and with all the love, with all the affection, with all the things between a mother and child that there are not words enough to express, she said, “goodbye, baby girl.” In an instant, I was filled up, emptied out, destroyed and put back together again. It was, without a doubt, the most profound and sacred moment that I’ve experienced in my life thus far. I could try to explain, try to talk around it, but I don’t think I can yet articulate why or how that moment has changed me so completely; I only know that it has. It tossed me onto the banks of that river that carried me downstream, and now it’s up to me to find the way back to myself.
But today, I found myself missing my mother, truly mourning her for the first time. Before now, I’ve been in some kind of denial. It’s not that I deny her death, but somehow I’ve found a way to deny her absence. It’s fairly easy because she wasn’t a daily presence in my life. We texted every few days and skyped once every week or two, but there were long stretches of time between our face-to-face visits. It helps that I’ve been so incredibly busy and bogged down in the day-to day, but the tension has been building over the past few weeks as the leaves have started to turn. Every time I drive beneath the brilliant canopy of trees, I think about how much she would have loved this fall. I took a picture of my son recently pulling his wagon on a walk: the trees behind him are golden, the leaves on the ground are raspy oranges and reds—you can almost hear them crackling beneath his feet. I took that picture for her. I knew how much she would have loved it.
After we buried my mother’s ashes, my brother asked me whose idea it had been to bury them beneath a tree. I told him that one of the pastors had actually suggested interring my mother’s ashes there. And then he told me a story I’d never heard before. When he was in his language school for the military, my mom visited his Korean class on what happened to be Arbor Day. She told my brother that when she left Korea with my father in the 70s, she looked down at her country from the airplane and all she could see was brown; the countryside was still razed and ravaged from the wars.* But upon her return many years later, she told him, she’d cried with joy when she looked down on her country again and discovered the lush green landscape below.
*For many years in Korea (until just recently, I think), Arbor Day was actually a public holiday and the government launched national campaigns to support reforestation; it was done with a kind of fervor for a long time.
Hearing that story undid me a little. Not because of the story itself, though I’m glad it’s one that I have now, but because I was struck by the fact that I’d never heard it. I realize that there’s so much about my mother and her life that I don’t know. She didn’t talk about her childhood or her life before my father very often. Some things she shared. Some things I cobbled together on my own. Other things I overheard. And then there were things that I stumbled across here and there that I’m sure I was never meant to know. But it’s easy to forget, with the familiarity of the everyday, that my mother was, in so many ways, an unknown entity. When my brother told me his story, I was consumed with sadness for all the ways in which I’ll never know her now. If we’d had more time, more than those last few moments on the couch, what would she have told me? Sure, it’s easy to romanticize now, to imagine that things might have been different. Honestly, though, I don’t know. I don’t know that we would have found a way to meet one another in some sort of truth. But I like to imagine that we might have.