Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Brearley School, New York, NY
Educator: Jee Koh
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
Learning my Mother
We started our new life in America in the basement of a Hispanic woman’s two-story house. Our beds were blankets stacked on the floor, arranged close together, though not for the sake of warmth. We had plenty of that, sleeping opposite the boiler machine. I was two at the time, so all I know of these events come to me secondhand from my mother.
No one besides our landlady and my mother’s brother-in-law, who had lived in the States for a while, knew we were there. It was, for glaringly obvious reasons, illegal to lease the space to a single person, much less a family of four. But the landlady saw an opportunity for easy profit and seized it, an action for which we were eternally grateful. My parents were afraid to leave, especially in the daytime when our landlady would have visitors on the upper floors. Occasionally my father would venture out at night to buy food and diapers, but it was usually my uncle who visited every week bearing plastic bags bulging with essentials. We were there for two months, during which my mother developed asthma from the mold and the heat. She still keeps her inhaler in the same drawer as the Band-aids and spare light bulbs in our house, though she has no need for it now.
I’d filled the white void of memory that began when I first came to the U.S. and ended when I entered preschool with the assumption that we’d immediately moved into a proper apartment, luggage rumbling behind us as we kissed the congested crowds at JFK goodbye. In some ways, I’d been proud of that: proud that we were able to adjust to life here so quickly and easily, proud that my sister and I quickly rose to the top of our classes at school. I was proud of these things because other people admired us for them. So when I heard, thirteen years later, about our true beginnings in this country, I was mostly disturbed by how irreconcilable it was with my image of our transition. I dealt with this immutable fact of our history by pretending it never happened, or if it did come up in conversation, glossing over it as if it weren’t as bad as my parents made it seem. I thought myself morally superior to my parents, who raged at material discomfort and displayed bitterness over our early squalor, when in truth I was scared that their anger would give me the horrifying epiphany that we had, and continue, to struggle. Needless to say, I grew angry whenever they complained about the state of things; all I wanted was for them to optimistically endure.
After two months in the basement, we moved to 1370 Virginia Avenue. A church stood on the left corner of our street, which was bookended on the right by a mosque. One particular Sunday morning that I shall never forget happened to fall on Eid. The mosque doors were open, a sea of white and black caps swarming before it; the doors to the Baptist halls across the street were ajar and slowly yawning wider as the service came to an end and people filed out. An aged black woman, whom I recognized with fondness as the first floor neighbor who had given me hearts of dark chocolate when we first moved in, feebly stepped out. Upon seeing my mother, whose hairline glowed red with the shidur that indicated she was a married Hindu woman, our neighbor waved and wished us a happy holiday with the kind of smile that makes the tips of your own mouth quiver. My mother said thank you, and we turned away. I remembered then what my sister had told me months ago, annoyance coating her voice: that because all her friends were Muslims, she was constantly asked when she, too, would don a hijab. I wanted to ask that woman why she had wished us a happy holiday, what holiday it was exactly that she thought we were celebrating. Instead, I asked my mother why she hadn’t said anything; why she had said thank-you when really she should have asked, “Excuse me?” I didn’t have enough courage even to say “excuse me” to strangers on the train, much less confront them when they were wrong; but somehow I wanted my mother to be stronger than me, strong for me.
To this day, I remember her reply: “What’s the harm?” Dissatisfaction rose and writhed within me like a rattlesnake poised to strike. I wanted to confront the matter headlong; I wanted to pierce into her mind and see if rage was secretly boiling in her blood too. But she stayed silent. This was what distinguished mother from daughter: to me, correcting microaggressions so slight they might be taken as compliments was one small step forward; to her, little things like what the neighbor said don’t matter, but the state of the home she lives in, the money available for groceries–those mattered.
After securing a roof over our heads, my father, once an economics professor in Bangladesh, procured, after many rounds of bureaucratic testing, a job as a traffic agent for the NYPD. My mother went through the same process with less satisfactory results. She was testing to be a preschool teacher, and she still claims that she would have passed had it not been for one question. Says she: just as she turned in her exam and was about to leave, the proctor called her back to correct her answer; but, worried about her children, whom she’d left loitering in front of the building entrance for two hours, she never turned back.
She instead assumed the glorified job of managing the household. Work under her authority was highly specialized; my sister and I were to study passionately and become, as good children do, engineers or doctors. My father was to go to work, buy groceries, and pay the bills. My mother would clean, dust, cook; scrutinize the paper flyers that Foodtown and CTown delivered to our door for the week’s best deals; compose extensive grocery lists for tomorrow’s five-course meal, as per Bengali custom. One of her most important duties was to give her employees constructive criticism when she deemed it necessary, which seemed to me to be all the time. My faults ranged from the deteriorating quality of my handwriting to my admittedly late bedtimes. One of my many transgressions, however, finally exceeded the bounds of her tolerance.
I wanted to cut my hair. For fourteen years, my mother had washed and combed and oiled and massaged my strands into a black waterfall that stopped at my tailbone. She trimmed my hair every month to keep it growing evenly. For the past four months, I’d been itching to sport the short lob that was in vogue at the time. My mother refused when I asked for a longer cut. So I took the matter into my own hands; I braided my hair to create defined sections, steadied the scissors at the middle of the braid, and cut. I hacked at it for a while until the whole thing fell off. I couldn’t throw the hair in the trash, which my mother took out; the only viable option was to hurl it out the bathroom window. Praying that the maintenance staff was not standing underneath as they sometimes did, I dropped the bundle of hair onto the street and quickly shut the window.
I certainly didn’t expect to get away with such an act of rebellion. I knew what was coming as soon as my mother turned in the kitchen to find me standing in the frameway with more than ten inches of my crowning glory gone. It was as if I had stolen a trophy from her. Her fast and furious accusations flared up in me an anger that, like a pleasurable warmth, crackled and spit inside my body. My ears were numb and my mouth open, poised to defend my body from the sharp words that whipped my skin. When I found my mother crying in the bathroom hours later, the trash can gaping open, I slammed the door closed in disgust.
But anger soon yields to exhaustion, and I found myself wondering desperately why my seemingly innocuous haircut could elicit such an acrid reaction. I think, in my mother’s case–and I’m still trying to figure it out–that her bitterness flows from the fact that her life has been determined by other people. She became an English major because her father would not pay for a doctor’s education. Her father arranged her marriage to her husband; her husband decided to raise her children in America; her children absorbed her time and energy. Intellectual pursuit escaped her; freedom escaped her; her sense of self escaped her.
And when no one, not even her own children, acknowledged her hardship, she felt pierced by a two-pronged spear of betrayal: the first jab came from the people who had instilled in her the idea of a golden America, and the second from her children who countered that it still gleamed for her. How could she tell them that, for her, the dream had ended? She had been ready to climb Ararat and receive God’s holy words, but her efforts be damned, the guards had turned her back at the gates. And my mother did not try to fight the guards; she gave up. She had tried; she had failed; and in her frustration and disappointment, she spurned what had rejected her. She would try to learn English one day and throw her books out the next; she would take a typing course for an hour and never practice again; she would create a USAJOBS account online and delete it the day after. I think, for some people who have never gotten used to or learned how to properly deal with the raw feeling that comes from being thwarted, will and commitment start to ebb even when opportunities abound.
Her children, then, became her magnum opus. If they could snatch a piece of the dream for themselves, then maybe they would share some of it with her too, even if it were just a morsel. Perhaps she could, by rearing her children on her own, orchestrate the freedom she had always hungered after.
But they shouldn’t get it so easily. She needed someone, after all, to share her anger and bitterness. I think the true reason she refused to cut my hair, let me go on school trips, or send me to sleepovers is the fear that I might, on one of these occasions, realize that my sympathies rested with the American way of life, that I enjoyed the lifestyle she could not bear to acknowledge because she could not have it for herself. My mother can’t handle that kind of betrayal; she can barely handle dropping a plate without cursing at herself.
Facing the unbearable truth that I was a burden and a hindrance to the person that I, despite everything, had grown to love, was a trial that I don’t care to endure again. At first, I pretended that I didn’t feel the pain it caused me not to see friends on the weekends nor to have control over my own appearance; these problems were trivial compared to what my mother faced. I let pity and guilt corral me into a complacency that never wiped away the guilt, and I realized that no amount of atonement would make up for my mother’s losses. The only way to preserve my individuality was to be indifferent to her plight.
Two emotions, then, battled for dominance in my mind; the first was the empathy that I had learned to carry for my mother; the second was a persistent desire to stay alive. One being cannot be a vessel for another; the mind, when it is born, is irreversibly linked to the soul; and if the soul is extinguished so that another might occupy its place, the mind cannot remain intact. And so I had to both understand my enemy and fight her; to have compassion for her and the strength to oppose her. The fight still rages in my mind, and I can only hope that time proves itself a worthy adjudicator.