“You know what the strangest part was,” the woman said to my mother, “I never once thought of leaving him.”
My mother thought she understood, but then asked the woman to clarify. It was common for women in the same predicament to stay in such marriages – we both knew a handful of women who had stayed but thought of leaving every single day. For the woman to say that she had not even thought of leaving seemed unlikely.
“No, I didn’t even think it,” the woman insisted. She stared up for a moment at the soft lights hanging above the badminton club – whatever she hadn’t thought about ten, fifteen years ago she was certainly thinking of now, but my mother recognized a look of genuine confusion.
“I don’t know why,” the woman finally said, “It wasn’t good at all, was it? Looking back, I had all the time in the world to think about it, but instead I just focused on raising my daughter and making sure she had everything she needed to succeed. And even then, with all my focus and energy she turned into someone who sees herself as my exact opposite.”
It was the most self realized statement my mother had heard the woman make thus far. My mother asked, “What makes you say that?”
Without a hint of irony, the woman replied, “Oh my daughter has told me a many times in fits of rage, ever since she was in middle school.”
Around the age of thirteen it became apparent to the daughter that she was self-aware in all the ways her mother was not. Daughter cringed at family parties, watching mother talk others’ ears off, wondering if it was very obvious that her mother talked merely for her own benefit, to hear the sound of her own voice. Studying the faces of relatives around her, she realized it was very obvious. Most people tried to avoid her mother. So did she.
At home, her mother sang until inevitably her father would say, “Can you please. Not now, I’m on the phone.” If she was not singing, she poked her head into her daughter’s business, thinking she was being helpful and that the best thing was perhaps to mold her daughter into a miniature version of herself, but the girl had other ideas. As she grew older, she opted to spend more time out of the house, preferring to study in the busy MacDonald’s around the corner from the most popular cram schools (though not at the actual cram schools) rather than at her own desk, which was only a short hallway and thin door away from her mother’s incessant nagging. Though the MacDonald’s was a notorious breeding ground for tomfoolery and time-consuming middle school romance, there, the girl found something of a haven. She found other adolescents from middle schools all over the city who more or less wanted to escape the restrictive and overbearing mothers, and who like her, were more concerned about the sudden proliferation of acne on their young faces or the fact that they, males and females, were beginning to see each other in a new and rather interesting light.
|Edward Hopper Automat 1927 Oil on Canvas|
Over French fries and Chicken Nuggets she wrote notes to her girlfriends instead of studied the notes she took in class, whispering and giggling about several boys she found handsome and charming. She developed into a restless young woman who because of privilege and hormones and the desire to get away from home, could not apply herself as wholeheartedly to her studies as her mother would have liked. Her father, though doting, was hardly home and when he was, more or less echoed what her mother said, though to him she was much more receptive.
The girl was not academically gifted, not as her mother had been, and of this her mother never failed to remind her whenever her marks came home.
“When I was your age I never had any trouble testing into first or second place,” her mother said at every age, “School came easily. You need to sit down and apply yourself.”
Her mother, thank god, did not believe in corporal punishment as many of her friend’s parents did, but still, the girl felt an interminable animosity towards her mother. Sometimes she asked herself where the anger came from, but she couldn’t explain it. It was as though she were born to dislike the woman who had given birth to her. She tried hard to be civil, to hold her tongue and temper whenever her mother began to nag or imply just one of a hundred shortcomings she saw in her daughter, but it was very difficult. There were many types of abuse and the daily verbal reminders that she was never quite what her mother had hoped for in a child, not even the right sex, was enough to make the relationship brittle. Was that not reason enough that she found her own mother’s voice so grating?
In her last year of middle school her extracurricular activities at the fast food joint caused the girl to test into a low ranking high school, from which the students were almost guaranteed to feed into technical colleges rather than prestigious universities where good, stable jobs were guaranteed. Her mother was mortified, herself having attended the second best high school in the nation. She spent the better part of an afternoon fluttering around the house wondering if her daughter’s future was damned.
“I don’t understand,” she said, “we pay for all those cram schools and still, you can’t even place into the top five?” Her voice became more and more shrill, and for once her daughter wished her mother would sing instead.
The berating revolved around her mother and her “reputation” – how would people perceive it when they found that the academic superstar had given birth to a daughter who couldn’t even place into the top five? The top five! That’s all she was asking. The girl had no excuse really, mother and father worked so hard to give her everything she wanted, sent her to the top cram schools and even offered to pay for extra tutors. They gave her freedoms, didn’t they? She had no curfew, could come and go as she pleased. And money! Didn’t the always keep her flushed with cash. When had they ever denied her anything? Materially, didn’t she have more than the rest of her classmates? And now look, she had gone and left herself behind in their more diligent, disciplined dust.
The girl wanted to scream, shut up mother, but she held her tongue. She had perfected a deadened look that she put on whenever her mother began to talk to her. Why was there was never any loving remark from her mother’s lips, only questions about grades or her appearance or if she had blown through her allowance yet. And now in her mother’s eyes the girl had failed in the penultimate way, but she didn’t care. Her mother, she knew, needed to be in control but she was older now and saw her mother controlled nothing. Her father disregarded her, and even the Philippina maid could sometimes be caught rolling her eyes at her mother. No one respected her.
Her father, when he learned the news, sighed heavily and suggested they enroll her into a private school.
“No,” the girl said, “I’m old enough to make my own decisions, and I’m fine with attending this school.”
“You are not old enough to make your own decisions. I am not fine with you attending that school,” the mother said.
The girl said nothing, but looked at her father, who seemed more tired than usual.
The father looked at his daughter and then at his wife. Had fourteen years really just flown by like that? Now his daughter was old enough to argue and it seemed like that’s all he heard when he came home, mother arguing with daughter, or mother nagging daughter and daughter sullen and quiet. He cared about his daughter’s educational future, but both he and his wife had been self-motivated enough to do well on their own, without parents having to push them. He trusted his daughter to do the same. Or at least he hoped she would; he didn’t have the time to pursue an alternative, and while his wife certainly did, he could see her technique needed improvement. Anyway he had work to do. Phone calls to make. A business trip to plan.
“We’ll talk about it later,” he said. And by saying so, he gave his wife time to think.