I have no sense of direction and it embarrasses my mother; she denies any family resemblance. I never learned to navigate, to translate forward motion into the pale grids of roadmaps, though as a child I’d loved the miniature geography of atlases and globes—for it was easy to know where the distant places were. It was where we were that I misunderstood. In a flashing maze of street names and storefronts, traffic circles, on- and off-ramps, I might remember a sharp left turn, or if the road curved as it climbed. What I don’t understand is relative location, where each place is from where you are or where I’ve come from, how to articulate sequence of movement. I am here. You are there. I won’t know the way back.
Down the wide gray corridor, we’re leaving the hospital I hate. My mother is pregnant with my sister. I know, with no memory of her being big or slow-limbed, because she no longer holds my hand; I’m old enough, almost five. When we pass the kiosk with candy and magazines, I do not look longingly at the bright red tins of caramels. But as we come out into the blue November day, out of habit I reach up—and find a stranger’s hand. Reeling with rage, I fly back down the corridor to the waiting room: green vinyl benches and slippered feet, canes, nurses’ shoes, disinfectant stinging. She always said to wait by the exit if I got lost. No running! but I’m gone already, rounding the corner, nearly knocking into her.
Where have you been?
We say to each other as if in a game of mirrors.
I walked out with a stranger. I thought it was you.
It was me. You were with me.
I don’t know why I mistook her for another, only how sure I was. I don’t know if she’s forgiven me, only that even then I’d delighted in my mistake, not knowing my mother or the girl who took her hand away and ran, motherless and nameless, back to her.
She writes on my birthday and at New Year’s, otherwise rarely. I do not complain. My mother’s letters come with boxes of food or clothes I do not need, are even more formal than my grandmother’s.
A lesson in letter-writing: Begin with the greeting appropriate for the season: something different for mid-April and for late April, as the cherry blossoms fade and the leaves come in; for early and mid-June, as hues of green deepen with the plum rains. Assume the same weather for the other, that they are not far apart. Inquire after her health, even though you know already that she eats too little meat. Note the polite closing address to match the opening, the honorific after even a daughter’s name.
Her briefest note has a beginning and an end, a sense that something substantial has been said. They come to me as postcards from a distant place of motherhood, written in a foreign tongue like weather we do not share. I recognize only the plainness of her signature, the abbreviated Chinese character for mother like a thumbprint seal.