~Summer 2000, San Jose, CA
I found Mom in the backyard. Her garden was her oasis – her labor of love. Buckets full of harvested Fuji apples and bright red pomegranates welcomed the fall. It was the summer and the nectarines and opo squash, bau (in Vietnamese) were her treasures. Yet, it was a mess –cluttered and overgrown. The roots of the nectarine tree were breaking the concrete patio slabs. Its branches were heavy with fragrant violet and green fruit. The hanging bau squashes were dangling on a wooden trellis, their long, curved and bottom-heavy bodies looked like green cocoons. Amidst the young tendrils and leaves, a prized squash hid; the largest of all its brothers and sisters, probably a yard long, weighing 10 pounds.
My step-dad built this trellis that helped birth many healthy and abnormally large squash, zucchinis, Chinese okra and cucumbers. It was a creation that defied logic and physics. Imagine the frame of a tall table, dilapidated, leaning on one side, the middle part bending, toppling from multiple waves of squash and vines. It was constructed from mismatched, scraps of plywood; fence wood found from garage-sale walk-bys. In late summers when the vegetables bloomed and sagged, you could no longer see the trellis, its body transformed into its green, living host.
I learned later that in the prison camps in Vietnam, the men worked as laborers. Used to rebuild the country into a new communist paradise, my dad was among the many men who dug ditches, irrigated farms, constructed new homes and bridges. Doubtful and embarrassing, even magical perhaps; this janky creation was made by my dad’s hands.
My mom was sweeping the fallen nectarine leaves that had turned into sticky brown syrup. Resembling a candy striper, she was wearing her familiar red and white polyester jacket – a souvenir as a concession stand worker from the San Jose Flea Market days, her weekend job when we first arrived in the US. After 17 years, that uniform went through many identities; as a cook, she wore it when frying large batches of crispy Vietnamese spring rolls; as a barber, it protected her from sharp, flying hair from family members. Now reinvented, it had a new purpose: gardening and backyard work.
“Oh, my dear, when did you get here?” My mother greeted me in her sing song cadence. She gave me a big hug and a kiss, inhaling my skin with her nose – the Vietnamese way of kissing. I leaned down into her body and allowed her to hold me, surrendering my aching weight.
I lowered myself and plopped my butt on the patio furniture, a plastic child sized chair.
“Have you eaten?” she asked.
I shook my head no.
“How are you? How come you don’t call me? Look at the beautiful nectarines. They are so full. Vinh helped me pick a bucket this morning. He climbed up the ladder and broke off a branch with all the big nectarines. He’s so smart. You have to get the fruit at the top before the birds come. Huh, the birds, ah, horrible, they come and they pick at the fruit. Look what they have done to my tree, eating my nectarines, those birds. Do you want to pick some nectarines, bring some home with you? Huong and Tom came over last week with Sammie. We had lunch, then Sammie picked nectarines. They are wonderful and so sweet. Here have one. Do you want to pick some nectarines? I have so many. Help me pick some before the birds eat them. Pick some before you leave. How’s work?”
No strength for words, I smiled, hiding my eyes.
My heart said: ma, I’m working too much. I don’t like what I’m doing. I feel completely drained and empty.
Seeing my low spirit, my mother quickly added, “here try this nectarine. It’s so crunchy and sweet.” She put a nectarine into my hand and I held it, feeling its oily smooth skin.
“What’s wrong?” She tried again.
I shook my head avoiding her eyes. I couldn’t stop the tears from coming out. They fell on my face and poured down.
“What’s wrong hun? Tell me. What’s going on?”
My heart said: ma, he left me.
“Nothing. My neck hurts, my shoulders. It really hurts. Can you give me a massage, ma?” I said, my voice throbbing in my throat. For weeks now, my neck and shoulders had turned into pebbles and rocks. Crushed in by tension and stress, my body had turned against me, preventing me from turning my head and neck. A heavy, black scarf was used to prop up my head.
Immediately, she went to the house and came out with a small bottle of camphor oil. Removing the winter scarf and loosening my clothes, she put some of the pungent oil on her fingers and started kneading my shoulder. My mother’s fingers were precise; she dug under the layers of stiff muscles until she found the knots and slowly broke each one. For the first time, I allowed her to hurt me. I allowed her force to reach deep inside me.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on? Are you sad? Did something happen? Is work ok?” my mom nagged.
I shook my head no. No more questions. The smell of camphor oil, the kneading of my mom’s strong fingers, I felt a lightness, lifting me. Breathe.
After a long silence, my mother began, “there are a lot of things I want to tell you. You know when I escaped from Vietnam, it was so bad. We escaped with nothing but our clothes. The fishing boat, we were all packed inside, a hundred people like sardines bodies next to each other. The rocking, it was terrible, ah. After a couple of days, we didn’t know if we were safe or going the right direction. We were going toward the international seas to Thailand. It was bad. There was no food or water. I looked at the water and I thought, I could jump. I could jump off. It would be peaceful, only take a couple of minutes.”
She paused and became gentler with her fingers.
“But I couldn’t jump because of you. I wanted to see you.” She continued. “I wanted to see you.”
We both started crying. My tears, warm on my face.
“Oh, it was bad. We waited. Not knowing if we were going to make it. Finally, we saw another boat. Ah, joy. So excited. It pulled us into land until we arrived. And everyone started jumping in the water, one by one jumping in and walking to the land. I jumped into the water with my clothes, it felt so good. I was so happy, so happy to be alive.”
She continued to massage me until the pain went away and I was whole again. She looked into my eyes, “you know what ever happens; mom is always here for you.”
“Thanks ma. I feel a lot better,” wiping the tears from my face.
By Mai Brehaut