I looked at her and knew her hunched shoulders held a secret. I had been reading her body language for years. We had been at odds since I was a teenager, and I spent our entire visit bracing for a blowout. The daughter of a five-star Chinese general, she strategized ways to exert control and infiltrate my life — and now, my children’s.
Waiting for her to step back inside, I darted past her without meeting her eyes and stepped barefoot onto the damp concrete. Bubbles drifted toward the pine treetops.
“What did Wai Po say?” I asked, trying to sound casual.
My kids looked at each other, eyes wide, trying to see who would confess first.
“You’re not in trouble,” I said. “Tell me what she told you.”
My son broke. “She said she’ll give Zoe all of her jewelry,” he said and paused, “if she waits until she’s 13 to pierce her ears.”
Blood rushed to my head. My fists clenched up. Breathe, I reminded myself. We were getting ready to move across the country in a month, and Zoe was planning to get her ears pierced as a reward. At 6, she was so excited and told everyone, including her grandma.
Still in shock, I turned and rushed back into the house. I found my mother scrubbing the kitchen counters, yellow rubber gloves up to her elbows. The stench of ammonia and lemon made me recoil.
“Don’t negotiate with my daughter, Mom,” I hissed. “Talk to me first.”
She looked up, surprised.
“I didn’t,” she protested. She shook her head and continued cleaning. I looked around the kitchen, but her wooden jewelry box was already stashed away.
Later that evening, after I was 800 miles away, safely ensconced under my cozy duvet, I opened my email to read a message from her. The subject line: “Never interested to interfere.” She wrote how all of her friends who have retirement accounts didn’t have their ears pierced before college. “These facts helped me to accept why the feng shui master said that girls with pierced ears before 13 are bound to have a hard time to accumulate wealth.”
These facts. Her words made me cringe. She had been making these arguments since I was in high school when she became obsessed with feng shui. She raised me Catholic, but then after meeting a guru visiting from Taiwan, she converted to a strange blend of Buddhism and feng shui. With a salt-and-pepper beard, stray whiskers and glasses, he looked like a Genghis Khan double.
Everything came with a hysterical edge. If you don’t do what he says, then you’ll be doomed. She consulted her compass to rearrange my furniture in college. She ordered me a license plate with lucky numbers. She would give me specific dates to get my haircut or to move. It was impossible to reason with her or change her mind. This guru of hers died 10 years ago, but she wasn’t about to ease her fervor.
Her latest earring mission wasn’t just about my daughter. Since I had my ears pierced when I was 7, she was also implying it was too late for me.
“I only wish you and Zoe to have wealth for life,” she wrote.
I should be used to this twisted logic by now. Yet it still struck a painful nerve when she directed her misguided efforts toward my children.
“Please help your own daughter to have a good financial future,” she pleaded.
I slammed my laptop shut.
Before I became a mother, I assumed that motherhood would give me a deeper appreciation of my mother’s perspective and bring us closer. Instead, it has widened the rift. After my daughter was born, I decided it was time to draw boundaries with my mom, heal old wounds and ensure dysfunctional patterns wouldn’t be passed down.
When I took Zoe to a piercing shop in our new town, a heavily tattooed woman pushed a needle slowly through her lobe. I imagined the protests my mother would have made if she had been there. I held Zoe’s hand. She barely flinched.
“That hurt less than the flu shot,” she said with a giant grin.
Twice a day, I cleaned her ears to keep them from getting infected. She proudly showed off her sparkly blue stud earrings at school. But a month later, her left earring had fallen out twice and her lobe was oozing with pus and blood.
“Owww,” Zoe said, as I used a cotton swab to clean her red, swollen earlobe. I stopped and looked at her in the mirror. She was fighting back tears.
I gave her a choice. “We can stop, take out the earring and wait for the infection to clear or we can clean your ear and apply the antibiotic ointment,” I said.
“I want to keep my earrings in,” she said.
I wondered if this was her first beauty lesson and what she’ll remember. That she has to bear pain to meet a beauty standard? It’s a rite of passage for so many American girls. I recalled getting my ears pierced at a mall kiosk called Piercing Pagoda with a friend and her mom. My mother, who was working, didn’t go to hold my hand.
“Why did Wai Po say I have to wait to get my ears pierced?”
“She has a different set of beliefs,” I explained. “But you can make your own choices, sweetie.”
I feel guilty that my mother and I don’t see eye to eye, as if I have failed in some cosmic way. I will never be the good Chinese daughter. I don’t visit often. I barely call. I can recall only a limited number of Mandarin phrases, mostly useful for ordering dim sum. I don’t plan to have my mother move in when she’s too old to take care of herself. The weight of this guilt is crushing at times. I know this is not the Asian way.
My mother sends me packages in the mail filled with wrinkle-free eye cream, multivitamins and dresses I would never wear. Resentful of her offerings, I stuff them immediately in a trash bag destined for Goodwill. Too little, too late.
One night I was cooking pasta and slowly stirred a garlicky tomato sauce at the stove.
“Mommy, mommy,” my daughter pleaded.
“Wait, Zoe,” I said. “I’m cooking dinner.”
“Attention. I need attention.”
I let out a deep, weary sigh.
“Are you tired of being a mommy?” she asked.
I stopped and looked at her. She examined my face. Her words landed in my stomach with a thud.
“No, sweetie,” I said. “I’ll never be tired of being your mother.”
A few months later, I found a pair of silver swan earrings in my jewelry box, unsure where they came from. Did my mother give these to me? I don’t remember. Maybe her parade of gifts is meant to say the things she can never speak aloud. I am sorry. I do not know you, daughter. I did the best I could. Her acts of love never took the shape I wanted. But as a mother now, I know that we ultimately don’t have control over a daughter’s fate or fortune. We can be generous only with what we have. And wealth does not need to be measured by material riches but an abundance of love and care. With my own children, I intend to love them without condition so they will never question the depth of my affection.
Swans are celebrated for their devotion, mating for life. As part of a courtship ritual, their curved necks entwine into the shape of a heart.
I turned them over in my palm. Despite their delicate shape and light weight, they seemed surprisingly sturdy. I decided to set them aside for Zoe as a gift, but not as a stand-in for a mother’s love. I made a promise to keep our lines of communication open and encourage her to be the free spirit she already is. I hoped one day she would see them as a symbol of my fierce love, one that will always surround and hug her, but not too tightly.
Jen Soong, a writer in Davis, Calif., is working on a memoir about family ties, depression and the silences we learn to break. Find her online at jensoong.com and on Twitter @jenmuze.