Do I begin at the here and now,
or does the story start
with the first time
my mother took the wheel
the first woman to drive
in a country where men
are afraid to walk?
My mother's story begins
when the steam rises.
It ends when it's ready.
Taste it. Does it need more salt?
Today, at 67, she stands at the stove at work. The heat overcomes her.
She thinks she is standing at the shore. The steam is like a warm
breeze being carried out to sea. My mother hears the seagulls circling
above. She feels the sun on her skin and admires the reflection on all
the shining fish bodies. Her father's men have been collecting the nets
for days now, laying the fish out for fermenting. The gull with the pure
white underside swoops toward the fish farthest away, lands on an
overturned boat, its sides beaten and worn, its bottom sunburned like a
toddler's face after her first day of work in the rice fields. Beside the
boat, a palm hut, where the fishermen hand their shirts, and where their
wives change when it's time for a break from the scooping and jarring,
when their black pants become hot as the sand itself. And then the
laughter starts, and the women's bodies uncurl from their stooped
positions, their pointed hats falling back, the men treading anxiously in
the water as they imagine a ribbon pulling gently at each soft chin.
Through the eye, my grandfather threads the rusty hook, forces it back
through the body of the fish. The tail curves around as if frozen mid-
leap. The seagulls never leave. The smell of fish always in the air.
Today, the old man will give them nothing. It is his daughter he is
thinking of. My mother is fourteen and beginning to turn heads.
Her father thinks she will like the seagull with the pure white
underside. He watches the birds, daring one another to come closer.
He watches the younger ones in their confusion. The swoop and
retreat. He has not fed them for days. Minutes go by, and he thinks the
boats will come in soon, scattering the gulls. The Year of the Snake is
only days away. He would buy his daughter a dove, but she likes the
wind. With a quick swoop, a gull grabs the fish in its beak. The old
man wraps the line around his roughened hands, braces himself for the
tug, as the line grows more taut. And suddenly the bird jerks in the
sky, wings extended as if it's been shot.
Easter lilies spill from her thin arms. The flowers and her gloves
equally as spotless. This is how it began. My mother would never
forget the seagull with the hook through its bill. Often she would recall
how wrong the imagination could go. All she had been thinking about
was the pure white of its underside. Not the high-pitched cry of a child
being separated from all it knows. The best part was seeing it finally
take to its wings again. It was still in the cage that her father had built,
but she could pretend it had its freedom. It could fly higher than she
She knew it was coming by the way the glass jars shook in the
darkness, the occasional flash of lightning, crawling the walls like
quick lizards. A rain so heavy, things would be hammered into the
earth. She thought of all the glass jars resting on their shelves, all the
hours the men spent, blowing these cylinders for the nuoc mam they
made from the anchovies they caught, and then, the few drinking
glasses they made for themselves on the side when her father wasn't
watching. After the rain, the broken pieces would once again have to
be melted down and mixed together. And here, her father lay in bed,
smoking away the profits. With each breath out, more jars
needed to be made, sold. Her father couldn't even hear the thunder.
The lightning, warm flashes on his lids, like the sun when he was trying
to nap in the afternoon. He thought the glass-blowers earned him a
puff on his pipe with each puff on theirs. He should reap the rewards
of being an old man, of owning his own fishery. But with each breath,
his daughter grows more impossibly beautiful. He knows he will not
be able to keep her long.
The three sisters watch her lean over as they sip their tea, as they try to
keep up the conversation, so as not to alert her that they are watching as
she uncovers the safe, piles the bars of gold to the side, and pulls out
the sack of bills, grabbing two bundles and putting the rest back. She
covers the safe with the red cloth as before, bowing to the picture of her
grandmother. The women think of their brother in Saigon, playing
poker in his white jacket, his slicked back hair. They think of the
young girls he has loved, the ones he has impregnated, they think of all
the angry parents they have faced. Then they think of him married,
married to Tran Thi Marie, driving her father's Mercedes; they
remember her grandfather and his plot full of banana trees and fruit
drying in the sun; they have seen her father's fishing fleet. They think
of all the delicious meals they will enjoy when they visit their brother.
Marie is a gorgeous woman. They will tell their mother.
For years, my grandmother thought he could keep my mother by his
side. She seemed content with her prayers and fasting. But he didn't
know about the couple that sat before her at Mass that Sunday morning.
She had noticed them, the man sitting next to the woman as if she were
any other. But then, the stolen glances, the passing of a prayer book,
the spreading of goose-bumps, from the neck down the arms, the
woman crossing herself.
The first time my father saw my mother, she was driving the barren
countryside of Bien Ho. How vain, he thought to himself: wearing
Easter lilies in her hair. What he didn't know was that they actually
were Easter lilies, she was on her way to Mass. She wore them year-
round to remind herself that Jesus was always risen--if you kept Him
alive in your life.
They were married before her father knew it,
her father smoking opium in the bright sun.
All he could remember
was the white jacket, the black tie,
the boat rocking, the boys reaching,
dragging the net.
The net full of fish.
The fish drying in the sun.
The seagulls swarming like men
honing in on the scent.
The slow peeling of an orange.
Smoke coming from his pipe.
The juice squirting.
The spewing out of pits.
And then, she was packing.
My grandfather had always had three women in the kitchen, someone
continuously preparing something. Fresh bread, hot banana pudding,
sweet rice with coconut. And now his daughter was leaving, and the
women were selecting china for her to take. He wondered how this
happened. She was the last of his daughters, and he spoiled her,
hoping to keep her for himself. For years, he spent his days, from the
moment he woke until the sun began its slow dive into the water,
submerged, working the fishing nets, his skin puckered like a mango
left in the sun too long. And here, his daughter would still need to
watch the gills heave up and down, the gasping at the small mouth.
Still, she'd need to chop the head off, blood running down the sides of
the cutting board, her hands covered her scales. For years, he tried to
keep her hands from coming in contact with anything but the food she
ate and the money she counted. Now they would be roasted daily over
He wondered how crowded her new home would be, how long she
would have to live with her in-laws, how such a small child would bear
a child. He knew she would find it difficult to breathe in the smog-
filled streets of Saigon. He closed the trunk for her, knelt down beside
her, pressed a bar of gold into her palm. He wanted her to write as
often as possible. She nodded. She wanted to stay, to hold her father's
hand, to watch the fishing boats come in, to listen to the seagulls like
hungry beggars outside.
It all began with her driving the barren country roads, barren because
the men were too fearful to walk them. Knife-blade to the neck, my
mother still refused to hand over the pearls her father gave her for her
first Christmas as a teen, as a target for unmarried men. Really, what
she hoped they wouldn't find was the pearl rosary her mother left
behind. She felt the blade bite deeper into her neck: the same place her
husband would often bite her the first year they were married, the last year
she would think of love as something shared between two people.
After the first child, she would think of duty and responsibility and
mirrors. She cared for herself and so, her child. Love remained
between her and God. Husbands were meant to be fathers, children to
be married off. Her mother's rosary was proof she agreed. The cross
was melded from her wedding ring. It was crooked from being
slammed in the door as she ran from her husband. One day my mother
would hide the same beads beneath her pillow, as if to ward her own
husband away, as if after seven children, he might somehow stop.
In Saigon, a daughter on each hip, she began to wonder where the rice
was going. Leaving one child home sucking her thumb, the other
holding her empty belly, my mother hailed a taxi. In front of the
cathedral, the pink nails in the car ahead crept across the man's neck,
and she recognized both. This was, after all, the man who woke her
body. Before him, she knew only the ache of chopping and carrying, of
balancing heavy loads. Now there was a different kind of pull, like the
sea, and after it, a different kind of heavy load, filling her belly. Of
course, she followed him.
On the way back from the market each day, the pole teeters across her
back, a pot on either side. The one on the right, emptied of its pho; the
one on the left, full of dirty bowls and the leftover dishwater she was
too impatient to drain. Cuong skips ahead, his short hair bouncing with
each step. She quickens and grabs her youngest son's ear, twisting it,
not because he is getting too far ahead, or because he is daydreaming,
but because she can't. Her husband gone with the oldest two children,
my mother still has four. He lives in a duplex in Manhattan; she sells
pho for ten cents a bowl and needs someone to hold. Cuong is getting
too big, with his slingshots and firecrackers, his patched eye from the Tet.
Each day she drags my grandmother's bed a little closer to hers, brings
a mirror along with dinner to her mother's bedside.
My mother's recipes are not even close to precise. Everything is in
approximate proportion. One portion of muoc mam to three of water
and one of vinegar, some lime, a big pour of sugar. Maybe some more.
This is in opposition to her determination to keep my father. With this,
she was painfully methodical.
When she got off the plane, rosary wound around her left hand, her
right, dragging Cuong along, did she think about the child growing
inside her? I was not yet growing inside her, but she knew I would be
soon. She knew also that there was a child growing inside some other
woman's womb, and that it would be born first, and that her husband
would be there. Still, she had four children in tow, all of whom would
cry out "Ba!" on cue. They had had enough rice with canh for
dinner. Now that they were in the United States of America, with all its
Independence and escalators, its planes, trains, and fast ways of getting
away, they weren't letting go.
Brush stroke number 49
and her hair shines like a black cat's.
She can think of nothing
but the days when she wore her hair
above her shoulders, moved her hips
like a boy. And still the men
couldn't help but look. Now
there are so many things
to fit into the frying pan:
the daughter with the red
lingerie rolled inside her dirty
school uniform, the son
with the twisted jaw
and the constant longing
for a cold beer, the husband
she chased in taxicabs,
holding her extended belly
only to finally say, Please,
take me home. At seventeen,
my mother counted her Hail Mary's
on the little white beads
of her rosary. Now she counts them off
on the heads of her seven children,
counting herself as eight,
and her husband,
as one and ten.