When I turned 15, mine took me to an empty parking lot because I asked her to teach me how to drive. She was the only one in her family who knew how to drive, the only one who wheeled her way out of Stockton, California. There was nowhere to go. All the people were lousy or temporary like seedy hotels. Freeways tore through apartments, deteriorated doorways just homes for the savage teeth of tires. Back in New Jersey, in the parking lot of a nearby pharmaceutical company, the sky is bright and rich and messy like a millionaire and she’s telling me when she was 16 and learning to drive. About an hour in, she stops and asks if I’m bored as I make my millionth left turn, my hair lolling out the lip of the window. Not bored, I say. I’m just listening.
At 9 years old, she fled a village in China, escaping a nightmare halfway between God’s blurry heaven and earth’s glassy purgatory where bombs planted themselves in the soil like violent flowers and the sky was bright and brassy like a trumpet. Stockton summers came on like a staticy TV set, where she ran through the channels grasping the antennae for English words she knew. All the words she knew ended in -ice, like her tongue had frozen from the frigidity of America. Sacrifice, prejudice, sticky rice, service, invoice, price, all words that implied a lyrical sort of loss.
The word comes from a wide variety of Germanic languages: Old English’s moder, Old High German’s muoter, Danish’s moder, Dutch’s moeder. The “th” is dated to the early 16th century. In recent years, mother has been bastardized into a range of sexual jokes. “Your mom is so…” is a fan favorite joke of twelve-year-old boys. MILF and mommy fetishes run rampant on the dark alleys of the internet. A popular trend that gripped the throats of Tiktok’s obsessed users in 2021 was overlaying the audio “Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me? Mommy? Sorry, mommy? Sorry, mommy? Sorry, mommy? Sorry~” over videos of women that users deemed attractive (Schroeder). Mothers have simultaneously been the victim of jokes and the subject of worship. No matter what angle you look at it, they are important staples of our culture.
On Saturday evenings, when my father was supposed to be home from work when I was four years old, my mom loved to watch trashy American action shows. She repeated the lovely lines on the flickering television. You kiss your mother with that mouth? The seductive woman in a tight suit flipped backward and choked the man with her thighs. My God, we’ve hit the mother lode! The greedy glow of gold slashed the explorer’s face in half. Sweet Mary, mother of God! My mother is not religious but I’ve caught her praying by the window when my father worked until three in the morning for three years straight. All the things I’ve believed about my mother are unevenly strewn out in the dark, the glare of the television an almost-searchlight bruising the blue of my memories.
Then, what can I call her? I called her Mommy when I was younger because I was a child. I called her on my father’s dinky Nokia phone when she forgot to pick me up from school and I sat in the gym reading the same picture book about monarch butterflies over and over, grasping for a taste of freedom. I call her [ ] under my breath when she won’t let me take the train to New York with my friends, I call her “Mom” around my friends because I’ve gotten it mixed up in my head that their validation matters most, I call her 妈妈 when it’s just us because I love her. I’ll call her every weekend when I fly out to college because I’ll miss her food, her warmth, her love. I’ll call her when I’ve forgotten her shape and her shadow, when I can only remember the voice that vandalizes my veins, a vapor of vacancy the whole flight home. A better question. What should I call her? Because I’ve called her every name in the book because she’s been all the characters in the story.