By Lauren Tom
I’m forty-three years old and pregnant with my second child. I waited a long time to have kids so that I could become the Not-So-Famous-Asian-American-Actress I am today, and to have more time to work on my “issues” so that I wouldn’t pass them on to my children.
I’m hopelessly in love with my two-year-old son, Oliver—to have another boy doesn’t feel threatening to me. But what if it’s a girl? I would never want my daughter to hate me the way I have at times hated my mother.
My due date is September 13th, my mother’s birthday.
“Why is Ollie so slow when it comes to potty training?” my mother asks. We’re standing in the kitchen of my home in the Hollywood Hills. She takes a swig of Diet Coke and runs her fingers through my son’s hair.
“What do you mean?” I say, wanting to scoop up my son like a football and run with him to safety into the next room. My stomach tightens.
“Well, I mean, he’s two years old. He seems to be doing fine with language, but why he is still in diapers at two? Is he slow?”
“Ollie, you’re fine,” I say, looking right at my son. “You’re right on schedule.” My face feels hot. I breathe deeply, take Ollie’s hand, and lead him into the next room. “Here, honey,” I say as I hand him a toy airplane.
I know that dropping the subject would be wise, but I walk back into the kitchen and say, “The doctor told me to wait until he turned two to start potty training him, Mom. He said that most boys don’t really get it until they’re almost three.”
“That’s ridiculous—you and your brother were both potty trained by the age of two. In fact, your brother learned faster than you did.”
“Whatever,” I say as I pick up the sponge and start to clean the kitchen counter. I scrub it hard.
It’s my mother’s birthday, 1966, and I’m seven years old, just home from school, breathless. I’m standing in the kitchen, holding my mother’s gift behind my back.
“Reach out your hands and close your eyes, Mom.” She unfolds her long thin arms and cups her large hands. Her fingernails are so long they curl in, taking up most of the space in the palm of her hand. I wedge the gift in. She looks like a praying mantis as she accepts it. She opens her eyes. I’m so excited I can hardly stay on the ground. “Do you like it?” I can feel my heart beating.
My mother smiles, her straight white teeth framed in frosty orange lipstick. She is wearing orange plastic earrings and a sleeveless orange dress with big white buttons running down the front. Her hair is puffy on top and flips up at the bottom like Laura Petrie’s in The Dick Van Dyke Show. But she’s not as cheerful and silly as Laura Petrie. She’s cooler, sleeker, more like Emma Peel in The Avengers.
I desperately want to show my mom that even though I may be short and chubby, I can make her beautiful things. I’ve been working on this piece of pottery for two weeks at school. I think maybe it’s a “masterpiece” because my second grade art teacher, Mrs. Benassi, used that word.
I shift my weight from side to side as my mother holds my creation up to the light.
“This is beautiful,” she beams.
“You really like it?” My face feels like it’s about to explode.
“Of course, honey. It’s nice.” She cocks her head to one side. She smiles harder. “What is it?”
I guess I would call it a ceramic blob with bumps—sort of like a soap dish but more like a jellyfish. It’s painted my mom’s favorite color—orange. Even our front door is painted orange.
“I don’t know, Mom. I guess it’s a soap dish. I’m just really glad you like it! Happy birthday!” I watch her carefully place it on the oval dining room table. I wrap my arms around her waist and give her a hug. I can feel one of her ribs jab my cheek. “I’m going upstairs to my room. Okay, Mom?” I want to get out of there before anything can ruin the moment.
“Okay, sweetie,” she says.
I race up the staircase, which is covered with white shag carpeting. A plastic strip runs up the center of it. I am careful to never step outside that strip.
“Come down for dinner when your father gets home,” she calls after me.
My mother has made our home a “real showcase,” as my father puts it. Our living room has white shag carpeting, a light green silk couch, and wallpaper with hand-painted Japanese flowers. Against the wall looms a locked cabinet with old ivory Japanese tchotchkes. My older brother Chip and I are not allowed in this room. Ever. In fact, I’ve never seen my mom and dad in there either.
An hour later I come down to see Chip and my father sitting at the kitchen table. The table looks beautiful. It is set, as it always is, with orange dishes and brown glass tumblers. I look for the soap dish/jellyfish but I don’t see it. We’re having Lop Chung, rice, and peas for dinner. Lop Chung is Chinese sausage that has large polka dots of fat in it. Chip and I like to dig the fat out with our fingernails and line the sides of our plates with it. My mom always shakes her head when we do this.
My father asks my brother to talk about current events taken from today’s newspaper. All I can think is, When is my mother going to tell my father about the gift I made her?
“What do you remember most from what you read today, Chip?” my father asks, pouring a can of Tab into his glass.
I don’t even hear what my brother says because I’m too worried about the soap dish. I wait all through dinner for her to mention it. But she doesn’t. Maybe she put it someplace special so it wouldn’t get knocked down. I’ll bet it’s in the locked cabinet in the living room with all the other tchotchkes. I’ll go look after dinner. I can see everything in the cabinet if I stand at the edge of the carpet. I gouge out the last pocket of fat and eat my sausage.
After dinner, I clear the plates and take them over to the sink. I open the cabinet beneath the sink to scrape the food into the garbage can.
And that’s when I see it.
My masterpiece is sitting right on top of a pile of garbage. I feel my heart drop to my stomach. I want to throw up. My mother doesn’t notice me looking at her; she’s sitting at the table talking to my father. I feel a tightness in my throat. I scrape my leftovers into the garbage, turning away my face so I won’t have to look at the food hitting the soap dish.
Either Mrs. Benassi is a liar, or my mom is a liar. I scrape the next plate. The food completely covers the soap dish now. I start to cry. Maybe my mom liked it at first but then changed her mind. Why would she throw it away? Who throws away a perfectly good soap dish? Or maybe it’s not so perfect or even good. Mrs. Benassi must be the liar.
My mom calls out over her shoulder, “Honey, get the Jell-O out of the fridge and bring it into the den. Bewitched will be on in five minutes.”
“Okay,” I say, keeping my head down so she won’t notice I’m crying. We sit and watch the show, just like we do every Thursday night.
Twenty years later, it’s the late eighties, and people across the country are in therapy, dredging up their pasts, blaming their parents for every imaginable woe. When I finally confront my mom, I feel the support of an entire nation.
We’re sitting at the dining room table in my rented apartment in West Hollywood. My mom still looks like a knock-out.
“What are you talking about, Lauren? I never did that.” Her eyes dart away.
“Yes, you did, Mom. I saw it sitting right on top of the garbage.”
“I really don’t remember, but you’re making such a big deal out of it. Really.”
Here it comes.
“You’re too sensitive. You make everything into a big problem.”
“Well, maybe that’s because you dismiss me and what I’m feeling as if it has no validity whatsoever.”
My mother leans forward. “But it usually doesn’t, Lauren—that’s what I’m trying to say. I don’t understand you. You don’t have any problems, not really. You don’t know what a real problem is.” She starts to pick dog hair off her black leggings.
“What do you mean by that?” I’m staring at her. Hard.
“That in the large scheme of things, a girl your age has no problems.”
“A girl my age? I’m twenty-nine years old. I’m a woman.”
She knits her brow and turns away her head. “You should see what I’ve had to deal with in my life.”
She’s right; she had a rough childhood. But we’re not talking about her. I was talking about me.
She lets out an exasperated sigh. “Is all this ‘therapy’ helping, Lauren? You know, your brother and I never seem to have these kinds of arguments. He gets me. He never says things like this to me. But you? I have had problems with you since the day you were born.”
I dig my front teeth into my lower lip and say, “Fuck you, Mom.” I have never said that to her before. I am shocked that that came out of my mouth.
She looks at me, her face expressionless. She takes a swig of Diet Coke. “You can talk all you want, Lauren. Go ahead and talk. Say whatever you want. Your words do not affect me. I’m not going to change.”
Three years of near-silence followed.
Then, on the heels of my featured role in The Joy Luck Club, a film about mothers and daughters—Chinese mothers and daughters—I telephone. I invite my mom and her mother, Helen, to the film’s premiere. My grandmother is so excited she calls all her Mahjong pals and tells them she’s going to see her “big-shot granddaughter in that movie, The Pot Luck Club.“
I’m wearing a black, ankle-length, so-tight-it-looks-sprayed-on Spandex dress, my hair slicked back with greasy styling gel (big mistake) and enough make-up to last the rest of the year. I can hear my father calling out from the grave, “You look like a hooker.”
My mother is wearing a deconstructionist, see-through silk dress by designer Xandra Rhodes. My grandmother Helen, four foot ten, eighty-one years-old—the woman I call “Who-Who” (Chinese baby talk for Grandma)—is wearing a traditional red Chinese silk brocade jacket, black pants, gold sequined tennis shoes with a matching visor, and diamond rings on each finger.
As we’re walking into the theater, the ushers hand out little packets of Kleenex. Who-Who takes one and taps me on the shoulder. “Hey, Little Midget”—I’m five feet tall, Who-Who is four foot ten, and that’s her nickname for me—”why they give me this? They think I’m going to be some kind of crybaby?”
“No, Grandma,” I say, taking her hand. “No one thinks that—it’s just in case you need one.” She scrunches up her face as if she’s just tasted something sour. “It’s free,” I say. “Just put it in your purse.”
“Oh. Okay,” she says.
We settle into our seats as the lights go down. The curtains slowly open. A smile spreads across my face. My mom is sure to be proud of me now. Millions of people have read Amy Tan’s book; it’s already a success.
Twenty minutes have passed. We’re watching the scene in which one of the mothers is crying because she’s been beaten, when suddenly my grandmother starts yelling at the screen as if she’s hailing a cab, “Hey! Buck up!”
I whisper, “Shh! Grandma! We don’t talk in the theater.”
She turns and looks at me—as do several people sitting close to me. She turns back to the screen and yells, “What you think life gonna be? A gravy train?”
“Ma! Shh! Not now,” my mom chimes in.
She turns to my mom, “You shh, Moose!” (It’s her nickname for my mother because she thinks she has big bones.) They bicker in Chinese for a moment. I sink so low into my chair I’m almost lying down, my knees pressed against the seat in front of me.
Who-Who sneers and reaches for her purse. She pulls out a bag of mui, Chinese dried salted plums that have large pits inside them. She unwraps one, and the crackling sound and pungent odor produce more hairy eyeball stares from the people around us. She pops it in her mouth, reaches into her purse, and pulls out an empty plastic grocery bag. The sound is like deafening static over a microphone as she shakes it out and creates a makeshift garbage can on her lap. She rolls the pit back and forth in her mouth, trying to scrape it clean with her teeth. Click-clack, clack. Click-clack, clack. Patooey. She spits the pit into the bag. I settle in for what turns out to be the longest screening in the history of mankind.
The lights come up. The room bursts into applause. I look at my mother.
“What did you think?” I ask, feeling, once again, seven years old.
“Well, I have to say, I agree with Who-Who. I don’t know what the big deal is—all these women crying and whining about all their problems. I’ve seen a lot worse.”
I start to make my way down the row of seats to the aisle.
Okay, okay, I know that you and Who-Who have had to endure the long-held Chinese belief that women are valueless—heck, you’ve just witnessed a baby girl being drowned on the screen. Can’t you find some compassion for that girl, for yourselves, for me? If you can’t be supportive of me in this one moment . . . then just lie. I may have said that last part out loud. I’m not sure.
My mother, following me, calls out, “Why did you have the least screen time of all the women?”
“What?” I say, although I heard her. I stop, turn around, and look at her.
“Was your part cut or was it always that small?”
I keep walking. I try to slow my breathing. I open the double doors leading outside to a sea of photographers lined up along the edge of a long red carpet. “Uh . . . they may have trimmed a scene or two,” I say.
“Yeah, it definitely seemed like you had the smallest part,” she says.
A photographer yells, “Hey, Lauren, can we get a shot of you, your mom, and—is that your grandmother?”
“Sure,” I say, plastering a frozen smile across my face. Do not cry, do not cry. This is the biggest night of your life; don’t let anything ruin it. I stand between my mom and Who-Who, an arm slung around each of them. I can feel a large lump caught in my throat. I hope it’s not detectable in the photo.
Over the next ten years, my mom didn’t change much, but I’d started to realize that I wasn’t going to change her.
It’s two years after the opening, Ollie is a newborn, and my mom and I are talking on the phone. I’m picking dog hair off my silk-upholstered chair, thinking, Oh God, this is exactly what my mother does. We’re talking about how Ollie and my brother have the same shaped head and I look down at my son. He’s lying in a Moses basket, swaddled in a soft orange blanket. His large blue eyes, like pools of deep water, look up and to the left. He pulls one arm free, waves his hand and coos as if he is conversing with other beings, angels perhaps. I look at him and I’m so in love, my heart pounds faster and harder than it ever has, and suddenly my mom says,
“And don’t forget, Lauren, I love you as much as you love Ollie.”
When I’m twenty-four weeks into my second pregnancy I discover a new space within me—a space that can hold the idea of having and raising a baby girl. A girl, who will descend from a long line of strong, funny, independent women who love gaudy jewelry. Is my mom a warm and fuzzy sort of person? No. But it’s not warm and fuzzy that defines love.
I am stepping into my womanhood, and I couldn’t have found my way here without my grandmother and my mother. I know that now. And it’s my turn. I am a launching pad for a new soul.
So when I go to Dr. Katz’s office, I’m ready to find out I’ll be having a girl.
“I can’t take it any more—just tell me,” I say as Dr. Katz squirts warm goo on my belly and presses down with an abdominal probe.
“Do you want me to write it down, put it in an envelope and seal it so you and your husband can open it later?”
“Why don’t you just tell me now, write it down, and I’ll pretend to be surprised later.”
“You got it,” he laughs. Dr. Katz points to the middle of the screen. “There you go.”
“Is that what I think it is?”
Dr. Katz smiles. “Yes, yes it is. You’re having a boy.”
And I smile because I realize he could’ve said “you’re having a kitten” and it wouldn’t have made any difference.
Author’s Note: Landing a featured role in The Joy Luck Club was an honor, a privilege, and a thrill, but until I gave birth to my sons, I had no idea what joy and luck I was to have in my life. Writing “The Boy Luck Club ” helped me understand to what degree that is true.
Brain, Child (Fall 2004)
About the Author: Lauren Tom is an award-winning actress and writer. Besides The Joy Luck Club, she has starred in the films When A Man Loves A Woman, Catfish in Black Bean Sauce, Mr. Jones, Bad Santa, and Disney’s Mulan II. She had a recurring role as Julie, Ross’s girlfriend, on NBC ‘s Friends. You can read more about her at laurentom.com.
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