Happy Mother’s Day! In honor of today and the memory of my later mother, I’m sharing an essay I wrote about our bond last spring. I hope that my words bring solace to those who have lost their mother and struggle with this day.
Sixteen years ago, my mother passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Over time I have learned to live without her presence. I have accepted her death and reconciled to the reality of life without her by my side. Nevertheless, there are many things I still miss about my mother. I miss how she smiled-unabashed and open, showing each of her flawless white teeth.
I miss the way she threw her head back when she laughed, a rich chuckle that emerged from the depths of her being.
Danielleee…the extra ‘e’ she added made my name dance. Though I have been anointed with various interpretations of my given name-Dani, D.W., Dani Mo-none have sweetened my ears the way Mama’s did. I miss the way my name became a song on her lips…
I miss her stubbornness and attitude and her adherence to her convictions. Mama could be humble. But there was no docility or backing down when she knew she was right on a matter.
Most of all, I miss our intense and fulfilling discussions. I am the oldest of four siblings, and I felt my Mom excelled in nurturing a unique special connection with each of us. The long talks I had with my mother about history, literature, religion, gender, and other topics that crossed our minds on any given day were part of the special bond I shared with her. I owe my personality’s curious, imaginative, talkative, and reflective aspects to my mother alone. Mama passed them to me via nature and amplified them through nurture.
Once I learned how to read in the first grade, I was hooked. I became an avid reader and started with reference books. More specifically, it started with the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Mama purchased the set for me when I was four years old. Though I was not literate yet, the heavy, somber-looking volumes fascinated me. Thrilled with their knowledge, I eagerly shared my discoveries with my mother. Mama would smile and nod as I ranted about the Lake Nyos disaster in Chad. She patiently fielded my questions about the burgeoning AIDS crisis. Pleased with my fervent reading and curiosity, Mama pushed me on. “There is so much to learn about the world, Daniellee,” she would remark, “and there is nothing cute in being ignorant.” Because of her, I believed it was cool to seek knowledge.
In time, our encounters evolved from Mama listening to my rants to genuine discussions. Mama did not adhere to the idea that children should be seen and not heard. No, she engaged in authentic intellectual discourse with me. My Mama did not minimize my thoughts and ideas. She did not condescend and discount me because of my youth. Mama taught me that my voice and opinions mattered to her through our discussions. Because of this level of acceptance and validation, I always looked forward to our talks.
Our engagement was not limited to debates, however. We were both avid readers and had an informal book club. Up until her death, Mama frequently visited her local public library. When she called me during her last year of life, she often asked what book I was currently reading. I took pleasure in reading books together and then analyzing them once we finished. Mama found “Life on the Color Line,” Gregory H. Williams’s fascinating memoir, which reveals the damage caused by America’s insane one-drop rule. I bought Iris Chang’s “The Rape of Nanking” while browsing at Borders bookstore in high school and passed it to my mother once I finished. However, we adored one book so much we read it together three times: “Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China.” In ‘” Wild Swans,” Jung Chang shares the stories of her mother and grandmother, set against the backdrop of the tumultuous changes in 20th century China.
Through Chang’s memoir, we empathized with millions of Chinese women and recognized the threads that bind women throughout the world. Reading “Wild Swans” created a hunger in us to explore modern China further. This hunger led me to the foreign film section at Hollywood video and a video titled “Xiu-Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl.” Upon reading the synopsis, I realized two things:
- I had to watch this movie
- My Mama was my only relative who would be interested in watching it with me
Sure enough, Mama’s interest was piqued when I brought the videotape to her apartment a day later.
“Go ahead and put the tape in, Daniellee. Let’s start it now!”
When the credits rolled, Mama was somber, and I was in tears, the remnants of L’Oreal’s Voluminous mascara making a patchy black mess on my cheeks. We spent the rest of the afternoon discussing “Xiu-Xiu.” The protagonists’ fate was not rare during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Mama and I were sympathetic to millions of Chinese whose lives were forever changed by the ruling party’s actions. Taken by “Xiu-Xiu,” I sought out more Chinese films. And each time I arrived at Mom’s place with another rental, she eagerly watched it with me. Like our informal club, our movie sessions became a unique ritual that we shared, and I cherished them.
However, my cherished rituals with my mother came to an end much sooner than I expected. I never dreamed she would ‘leave in summer.’ But on a Saturday in July 2005, my mother transitioned out of earthly life and into the unknown.
It took me a little over five years to accept her death. Initially, I treated my pain and grief the way a lazy child treats their dirty room: I covered it up and pretended it was not there. In a basic sense, I knew she was gone. But psychologically, I could not face how that made me feel. I covered my pain and emotional turbulence until I started to crack. For my mental health and for my daughter, I finally confronted the depth of my loss and grief. It was ugly, and it was difficult…but it was worthwhile. When the seventh anniversary of my mother’s passing came around, I put pictures of her up in my living room. I also created a memorial for her in my living room. The American flag that draped my Mom’s coffin was its centerpiece. My cousin Marcus, a US Air Force vet, re-folded the flag for me to restore it to its’ original crisp condition. When he was finished, I gazed at the display, thankful that I could look at her pictures and flag without breaking down in tears.
However, accepting my mother’s death did not keep me from missing our discussions. I have lost track of how many times I wished I could call her to discuss some development in domestic or foreign policy. I wondered how she would have reacted to the election of Barack Obama. And when I read and fell in love with Isabel Allende’s novel “Island Beneath the Sea” in 2011, I envisioned reviewing it with my mother.
I knew such thoughts were futile-but such is life, right? Loss is an inescapable part of the process. We cannot carry all our valued experiences with us through every stage of life. I could not expect to duplicate what I shared with my mother; it vanished when she took her last breath.
Let us now jump to the present. It is April 2021. I’m seated at my dining room table, working remotely, when I hear footsteps on the stairs. Without looking, I know it’s’ my 17-year-old daughter. Though she is petite, her feet always hit the stairs with a specific loudness and force. I stop and look up, knowing she expects my attention immediately.
“HI MOM,” she chirps as she strides to the refrigerator and opens it mindlessly, “I need a good book to read! Any recommendations?”
As a bibliophile, I love it when anyone solicits reading recommendations from me. It allows me to use the Excel spreadsheet of books I’ve read. In addition to suggestions, I get the opportunity to give a spoiler-free review. I smile broadly.
But before giving the recommendation, I need more info.
“Baby, are you looking for fiction or non-fiction?”
My daughter contemplates for a moment. “Fiction,” she responds, “maybe historical fiction?”
Three titles immediately come to mind:
- The Book of Night Women, by Marlon James, is set on a 19th-century Jamaican sugar plantation
- Island Beneath the Sea, Isabel Allende’s novel which tackles both the Haitian Revolution and the caste system that formed in Southern Louisiana
- Segu, Maryse Conde’s vivid novel that follows a clan from pre-colonial West Africa through its eventual dispersion to the Caribbean
Each work is excellent and well-written. But as I mulled them over in my head, intuition said it wasn’t the right time for my daughter to read them. Then it came to me:
Yes, that was the one. In Pachinko, Min Jin Lee details a Korean family’s tumultuous experience through decades of Japanese occupation. The book was my favorite read of 2018. I sensed my daughter would enjoy it as well.
“You should read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. I read it a few years ago and loved it!”
“Okay, can we just order it instead of getting it from the library?”
Checking out books from our local public library was nearly impossible due to the convoluted policies implemented during the lockdown. Ordering the books online would be quicker and less frustrating.
“Sure, I’ll do it right now.” Grabbing my phone, I opened the Amazon app. In addition to Pachinko, I added the late Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking to my cart. My daughter didn’t know it yet, but she would read Chang’s detailed account of Japanese atrocities committed in China. The order was complete in less than two minutes and would arrive in two days. Smiling, I put my phone back on its stand near my work laptop. At times like this, I love technology.
When the package arrives, my daughter is surprised to see two books in it.
“When you finish Pachinko,” I explain, “I want you to read The Rape of Nanking. It tells the story of what the Chinese experienced under Japanese occupation. There is a reason for the anger and resentment the Chinese have towards Japan for what happened during World War II, and you can understand it well after reading the book”.
“Okay,” she shrugged as I passed both books, disappearing upstairs to her room.
Two weeks passed, and I was curious to know what my daughter thought of the book. I didn’t expect her to finish it yet. School is still in session, and I know she has a heavy academic workload. But she probably read a few chapters.
“So, what do you think of Pachinko so far,” I ask her during our weekly Saturday coffee chat at Starbucks.
“Ummmm,” she begins, her voice reticent, “I don’t know where it is.” I am confused.
“You don’t know where the book is at?”
“No. It is in my room somewhere, though; I’ll find it eventually”, she replies with confidence. I grit my teeth, feeling myself slip into nagging mom mode. WOW, your room is so dirty that you can’t find a book? Maybe you should do a better job of cleaning it then! The words form in my brain. But before they could escape my lips, the advice my Aunt Deb gave when my daughter was fourteen years old returned:
Choose your battles.
So, I kept my nagging Mom thought to myself, and let it pass. Besides, I had not gone to my daughter’s room in the past few days. I could not assume it was the pigsty I envisioned when she said she had lost the book.
“Okay,” I exhaled. “Well, please find the book soon and start reading it.”
“No problem, mom.” And with that, we continued enjoying our coffee date.
A little over a month later, my daughter knocked on my bedroom door on a Saturday morning.
“Good morning,” she begins, “I thought maybe we could go out for lunch today instead of Starbucks?”
“Sounds good to me. You pick the place; be ready to go by 11:30!”
My daughter picks a Mexican restaurant nearby in Hastings-on-Hudson. I was leery at first, as the Mexican food in New York has been mediocre for me thus far. But today, I am pleasantly surprised! We sit outside to enjoy our lunch, thankful that New York’s intolerable humidity hasn’t arrived yet.
“So, I finished reading Pachinko this week,” my daughter announced casually. I perked up.
“Oh really,” I asked, putting my burrito down. “Well, what’s your verdict?” THIS was the moment I’d been waiting for!
“Oh, I can see why you wanted me to read it. It’s definitely a good book. I was frustrated at first because it started out a little slow. But if you can be patient, the book is worth it…” my daughter continues her review. I listen contentedly as my daughter points out the element of passing in the novel and that similar skin tones and features don’t guarantee harmony between people. And while listening to my baby, it hit me:
The dynamic I missed with my mother was not lost to me forever.
This Saturday morning, I realized that I had the wrong outlook on it. That ritual wasn’t gone; it simply evolved. While the mother and daughter in the story changed, the roles were the same. I now stood in my mother’s shoes as a mature woman. And my daughter stepped into the place I occupied back in the 1990s-the opinionated and passionate teenager nearing adulthood.
I may not have my mother’s presence physically anymore. But in each conversation and moment with my daughter, I have Mama’s spirit. And when my time comes, it is my fervent hope that the memories and legacy I leave my daughter are as deep as what my Mom bestowed to me.