The following stories are a few excerpts from a book I am editing for publication.
If you know Ma, when you hear her name, you immediately recall all of the amazing food she has cooked for you and, at times, forced you to eat well beyond your normal capacity. Hers is one of the best tables you will ever eat at in your life. I never understood why my mom never tried to monetize her greatest skill the way she did with everything else. Perhaps cooking for her was too personal to dirty with business or money. Perhaps she just didn’t want to work the long hours it would take to launch a restaurant from the ground up. Her choices in these respects were admittedly true to her Filipino roots: you should show off your cooking to friends and family but only in the confines of your home.
Ma is an artist with food. We would go to restaurants on occasion and she could take one or two bites of a dish, tell you exactly what was used to cook it, down to the type of oil used, the spice combinations and the cooking temperature(s) and techniques used to make the meal. But she wouldn’t stop her analysis there. She would take her musings, recreate at home what she had eaten at the restaurant (adding in her own particular spins to the dish), and it would taste better than what we’d consumed on our night eating out. I’m grateful for having had the metabolism I’d had while growing up.
There was this time when I was about eight- or nine-years old when I’d gotten it into my head one evening that I wanted to cook something to add to the dinner table. Prior to this whim, I’d been making “homemade” applesauce because the Mott’s brand at the grocery store was a luxury item we couldn’t buy all the time. (I was obsessed with applesauce at this particular time in my life.) Additionally my mother, being the practical woman she is, concluded that fresh apples were cheaper and healthier than anything you could buy in a jar. So, whenever I wanted the sauce, I peeled apples, I boiled them, I mashed them and I ate them. And my nine-year-old palate thought I’d done a pretty damn good job. So of course, after a few rounds of making the best apple sauce of my life, I needed to stretch my expertise to new heights, and I’d decided that it would be in the form of soup.
Again, my nine-year-old brain thought soup would be the easiest thing to make from scratch and with absolutely zero know-how. Soup was liquidy, so, I would obviously need water. Soup had vegetables in it, and the potatoes and carrots in the fridge seemed to be good additions to my masterpiece; they were, after all, in most of the canned soups I loved eating, so I logically concluded that potatoes and carrots must be mandatory for homemade soup. Everything seemed easy enough.
I boiled the water. I chopped the (unclean and unpeeled) potatoes and carrots and added them in. I poured in an ungodly amount of salt and pepper. And I watched it all boil happily away. Then I realized, soup needed color. To achieve this, I got my tiny hands on a bottle of red food coloring. I mean, it did say food on it, so that was a no brainer. The food coloring, and some old cabbage I’d come across and added at the last minute, was my pièce de résistance to this creation. I had accomplished what I set out to do. I had made a meal just like my mother, and I brimmed with excitement as I anticipated her wholehearted approval, as I fantasized the look of pure joy that was sure to be on her face when she ate her first spoonful.
The look on my mother’s face as I placed the soup pot on the table spoke otherwise. She wrinkled her nose in disgust, her palate clearly offended. She took a small bowlful of my soup-ish concoction and tentatively sniffed at it. Then she sucked her teeth in disapproval and took one small, obligatory bite as I watched, already crestfallen. I’m surprised she managed to swallow it down before she began teasing me about how disgusting it was. Too much salt. Dirty vegetables. Too much pepper. And why is it red? I was thoroughly crushed, utterly defeated. Much like my reactions to my mother now, her approval, wanted or not, weighs on me heavily. Sometimes, it literally affects the way I physically function. Just imagining her disapproval is enough to push me into an anxiety attack.
So you can imagine nine-year-old me, facing a mother at the dinner table who is not pulling her punches in her commentary on my food. Eyes brimming with tears, I hung my head low, pushed away my own bowl of soup, and ate her food in silence while she belittled me and poked fun at how bad it was. Uncle Joe, in his soft counterpart moment, ate bowls and bowls of it, expressing how much he liked it. He almost ate the entire pot on his own. I’m sure his digestive system was thankful that I’d used the smallest pot. But his kind affirmations were too late. I already knew the truth. Ma had established I was a terrible cook, and she still holds on to this belief to this day.
And then, the final dagger: on that night, at the end of our meal, as a few tears managed to fall down my cheeks, visible to anyone looking at me (because I just couldn’t take any more of her verbal jabs and jests), she concluded, “I can’t lie, Alexis. I have to tell the truth.”
In my middle school days, my mother and I fought like we were getting paid to do it. Our fights were incredible, scorched-earth type battles where we both came out scarred to no end and a little harder of heart. I’m not even sure what we fought about in those days. Usually it began with my mom gently stoking the fire, poking me, prodding me with any little comment or remark to activate my inner rage. She could never let things just be, she always had to have the last word. With each battle, I tried to hold the anger in for as long as I could, but at some point, I would always break. And that’s when the real fun began.
My mom is a proud woman. She doesn’t apologize. She doesn’t forgive. It’s a part of her that to this day I have a hard time accepting which is why I still cannot find peaceful ground with her. If I could truly and wholly accept her for who she is and try not to take what she says and does too personally, I think we would get along great. But I’m as proud as she is in a way, I guess. I cannot sit silent in the face of something I think is unjust or unfair. I’m not quite sure what my mom and I were fighting about this time around. I just remember I reached my breaking point, as I had in previous fights, as I had after this particular fight, and as I am positive I will reach in future arguments until one of us finally gives up or backs down. Thinking back to this day, I only remember flashes of noise and color that led me to my room, frantically stuffing clothes into a large duffle bag and calling my friend, Michelle.
In between rants of anger and sobs, I convinced my friend to get her mother to come pick me up. I no longer had the will to be under the same roof as my mother. I didn’t want to be anywhere near her. My mother said nothing to me as I silently walked to the front door, duffle bag in tow and stepped outside to wait for Michelle. She didn’t even know that I made that call. The wait was angry, regretful and lonely. At no point did my mother come out to talk to me, to convince me to come back inside. She only came out when Michelle and her mother arrived.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she spat at me.
I didn’t answer. Instead, I made my way to Michelle’s mother’s car, but before I could take that final step to leave my mom, Michelle’s mother stopped me. She wasn’t going to take me with her to their house. Not like this anyway. Michelle and I stood to one side while the mothers talked. I was angry to see how calm, friendly and polite my mom was being. It angered me because I knew it was all a facade. She was acting so normally to save face. She never showed her ugly side to outsiders, and I hated her for being so dichotomous and hypocritical. Why couldn’t she treat her family with the same respect?
Ultimately, the mothers decided that I was staying put. I gruffly thanked Michelle for trying and quickly carted myself and my things off to my room to be away from it all. My mother didn’t come talk to me after all of this took place either. Not to console me, to repair the scars. She let me remain alone, isolated, friendless. Part of me, the proud part, was glad she never came. But the other part of me, the vulnerable part that just wanted a mother’s love, died a little more that day.
Growing up in an apartment complex, one gets used to sharing space, however begrudgingly, with roaches. To this day, I loath every type of roach with a deeply hostile, vociferous rage. I remember many a battle I’d had in the years we lived in this apartment complex with roaches, trying in vain to keep them at bay.
I used to stuff bits of bread into the small holes in the kitchen cabinets (the entryway for all kitchen roaches). Of course, this was counterproductive and perhaps motivational for them as they’d simply eat their way through, thank me for the free treat and continue along looking for the next source of food. We used to wipe down and vacuum every surface in every living space on a daily basis with cloroxes, powders, liquids and detergents, hoping in vain that the clean smells would drive them away to less sanitary spaces. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, feeling those damn things crawling in the space between my earlobes and head. I would fling them away fearfully, forcefully, afraid to go back to sleep because I didn’t want to wake up to that sensation again. Recalling that feeling still makes my skin crawl.
Small roaches, baby roaches, flying roaches. We had them all in Florida. One variety for every insect-induced fear one could develop living in close quarters with them.
We eventually moved to a house a few blocks away from the apartment complex I grew up in. For me it wasn’t a very devastating move, not as impactful as the move that stationed me for a brief stint in a richer part of our county; I could walk about two minutes down the road towards our old apartment complex, go through the gates leading into it and play with my schoolmates who still lived there. I could invite them back to my house to play basketball on our driveway. We could rollerblade together up and down my street. Coincidently, my family also enjoyed the added bonus of fewer encounters with roaches. All was good.
Then one night I heard a familiar sound emanating from a small cabinet in a dresser drawer where I used to store my small collection of books. I knew that sound well: it was the scurrying of tiny roach legs. All over my books. I didn’t read for weeks, for months, from anything that was caged in the now terrifying cubby. I anxiously listened every night for the scrapes and scuffles. One night, I tested out my theory of what I suspected was inside it by gently tapping the cubby door, never daring to open it, in order to confirm my suspicions. Whenever I tapped, the scurrying stopped. After a few moments, when the intruders knew there was no danger, the scuffling and shuffling continued. I taped the door shut.
After what seemed like years of being tormented by their presence, by their close proximity to the bed I slept on that leaned right against the cubby of intruders, I finally cracked. I needed to face my fears head on, get rid of the vermin and reclaim my books. Those possessions were mine; they were me; they meant everything. I had to save them from destruction. I put on a long sleeved shirt and a pair of sweatpants that I strategically tucked into a pair of thick socks. I tied my hair back into a tight bun. I grabbed the biggest shoe I could find with the thickest sole possible and readied myself for the war.
I opened the door to silence. The scurrying non-existent. Had they run away? Or were they merely frozen, assessing whether or not I was a true threat? I had no time to think; I pulled out the first book I touched and began the battle. Several large roaches began their scurry, seeking out a new dark refuge in my bedroom. Inwardly I screamed, heart racing, muscles tensed as I slammed the shoe down on each and every one that tried to escape. I pulled each book out of this cubby in terror, one by one, and methodically killed each shiny, brown insect.
When the battle was over, I was still left with a huge mess to clean up. Grabbing a roll of paper towels, I began scooping up and squishing within the folds what seemed like hundreds of dead roaches, piling up the dead bodies in a small, plastic grocery bag. Then there was the faeces I had to attend to. With Windex in tow, I sprayed down every surface in the cubby and wiped it clean of the excrement they left behind. I saved my precious books for last, lovingly wiping down every inch of every cover. Opening up every page to let the grime those pests left behind fall to the floor. Gently I swept a soft hand towel over every page, trying to restore them back to normal, or as close to normal as I could get. There were a few that, unfortunately, had to be thrown out along with the dead foes that felled them. There were a few that bore the small, brown marks of their former captors. I mourned for each one. I vacuumed the carpet, and I cleaned away all of the disgust in a long, hot shower.
When it was all over, when everything was restored and sanitized, I closed the cubby door, hoping I’d never have to hear that scurrying sound again, hoping I didn’t have to once again war alone and clean up the mess all by myself.
Little did I know at the time, this event in my life would perfectly mirror how I would be forced to deal with problems on my own. Or, even, how I would allow problems to fester before exploding, reacting and dealing with the losses that came with avoiding fate’s first calls to act. The build up of anxiety and tension. My hand forced. The onslaught. The clean up. All the while without anyone witnessing or being aware that I often had very real and very big problems to deal with. All anyone in any home I ever lived in saw was a closed bedroom door. All anyone ever heard was a TV, the radio or complete silence on the other side. For most of my life, I was utterly alone left to deal with the roaches life threw in my way.
I suspect my mother and brother also felt this way, though I’ll never really know for sure.
I’ve heard many conversations my mother has had about me with other people. I’m well-acquainted with the feeling that dawned on me whenever the topic being discussed (that I was clearly eavesdropping on) was about me: heart racing, ears throbbing, feeling panicked at what was being said and to whom. Sometimes, the panic would subside when I realized that what she was saying about me was more or less positive. However, most of the conversations I’ve eavesdropped on that were about me were of my shortcomings, and sometimes, they were conversations she’d purposefully engage in loudly, knowing that I would be listening. In those instances, she wanted to drive her usual main points home to me: that I was a disappointment, that I’d screwed up something somehow, that I needed to start changing or else.
Like a lot of things from my time with Ma, the details are a bit hazy but the tone and feeling of it all is deeply rooted within me. This one, when I recall it, covers me in shades of dark purple and dull blue, pulling me down to a quiet, lonely and frightening place. Like pulling the covers over your head at night when you think you’ve seen a monster staring at you from the darkness of your closet. The bright, piercing eyes stare you down into submission, and you, too scared to flee, hide beneath the thick blanket, hoping for the bad feelings to go away. They never really do.
My mom was on the phone with someone, talking in those blue and purple tones. Sighing in resignation. All I remember is hearing something to the effect of, “I just don’t know. She’s different. She’s changed…no, I don’t think so, Gi.” I froze, ice cold. She was lamenting me and everything she’d concluded that I’d become with my sister. And in her voice I could feel a sense of defeat. She’d given up. On me.
In that moment, I realized I’d become someone entirely alien to her. She didn’t understand me, and she didn’t want to. Not that we had been very close to begin with, but it felt as if the last shreds linking me to Ma were thinning, and there she was, looking at those ripping strands, holding a pair of scissors, contemplating.
I know I shouldn’t feel anger towards her for this. I’d done this to her many times over in my own mind and heart. When the shit between us became too much to handle, I’d cut myself off, vowing never to return again. Then guilt and shame and remorse would set in, and I’d slowly open myself back up to Ma, only just, in the hopes that the next time around would be different. It never was.
Only this time, it was Ma who was thinking about leaving me, about letting me go. Of all the horrendous things we’d done to each other, her truly leaving me, fully and willingly letting me go, physically or emotionally, was the one thing I always felt like she’d never do. Wasn’t this against the Mother’s Code? She’d preached so much to me for my whole life that no matter what ugliness fell between you and your blood, you should always remember that family would be there when no one else would. There was nothing you could do to sever those bonds. No matter what had happened between me and Ma until that point in time, I’d always believed that. And here she was, back-tracking on all of it. What I had done to push my mom to this, I still don’t know. I only know it forced something down inside me; a tight, obtrusive knot buried deep inside my gut that I don’t think will ever unravel.
The Last Christmas
I think a lot about Christmas in 2016. The motivations for me being there were less than noble. My mother flippantly goaded me during the summer prior to this holiday about how she guessed I’d moved on with my life, that I had no need for her or our family in Florida anymore. This was her reaction when I told her that it was the UK family’s turn for us to be there for Christmas…and when I showed her pictures of where I was living.
My husband and I have separated parents, making holiday visits tricky. The best way we knew how to cope with that was to have each parent on rotation: when we were in the UK, one parent got Christmas and the other New Years. The next year we’d do the same with our US parents. Then we’d flip-flop what holiday the parents got the previous year and follow the same pattern. This way, we got to see both sets of parents during the Christmas/New Year’s season every other year. It was the best solution we could come up with for a complicated reality.
Out of pride (and this definitely went before the fall), I changed all of our holiday plans and decided we’d go to Tampa for Christmas. For some reason, I needed to prove to my mom that I didn’t think I was better than everyone else. It was my passive aggressive (and expensive) way to prove a point. And to soften the blow, I told people that we made the change because Ma was sick; this was only a partial truth. All of those moved summed up my first mistake.
My second mistake was entirely my fault. Looking back on it now, I did behave rudely and reacted with judgement when I was trying to help my mom. The problem was I didn’t do it the Filipino way; I’d been long out of practice on the roundabout way a Filipina is meant to help her parents solve a problem. I’d come in, guns blazing, wanting to fix all of my mom’s problems, namely the dilapidated state of her house. What I should have done was give my mom time and objectivity. She didn’t want her problems solved. She just, for once, simply wanted my company. I’d ruined that the day I left her home to stay in a hotel and the day I came back to her home with my sister and her boyfriend to clean Ma’s house, top to bottom. I shamed her. And openly at that.
Tensions building, Ma finally had her breaking point with me. I’d come over to bring food for my nephew because mom was unwell, and I figured she might like the help in caring for him since she was having a hard time moving around on her own. I paraded in like an idiot, food in tow, talking at Ma too quickly, once again arriving too abruptly, presumptively trying to solve her problems without her consent.
She broke down into a tirade of anger. Looking back on it now, I can accept and apologize for driving her to this and let it go; what I cannot forget is what she said in her anger. She told me to get out of her house. She didn’t want me there anymore. I had a new family (my husband’s), and I should just focus on them. She was happy for me, that I found people to love me, and I had a husband to take care of me. She told me to stop coming around and that she was okay for me to stop trying.
And then the final knife, stated to me verbatim, “I’m not your family anymore.”
Because of the conversation I eavesdropped on between my mother and sister about this exact theme, I wasn’t surprised at the conclusion. I was more shocked at the tone of her delivery, at the fact that she was angry enough to tell me these conclusions so directly. I remember her face: eyebrows furrowed, mouth scowled, arms crossed, hate gleaming from her eyes. She meant was she was saying, and she was finally angry enough at my behavior to tell me the full, unedited truth. I wasn’t wanted. I didn’t fit in, and I needed to get the hell out. Now.
I think I managed to stammer out an, “I’m sorry you feel that way, Ma,” and an “I love you,” but her ears were deaf to my gentle reassurances. She was done with me. The verdict was given. Get the hell out.
She ignored me for the entire Christmas gathering, even with close family friends openly and loudly admonishing her for behaving that way with a daughter who flew across the world to see her. She tolerated me at New Years (we decided to stay for both holidays that year to our chagrin), and on the day we were to fly back to Oman, she refused to say goodbye, to hug me, to talk to me or even to look at me. She openly rejected me in front of my husband, my sister and a close family friend, knowing full well what she was doing. It was straight out of the Cynthia Scott playbook: treat everyone in front of Alexis with extreme kindness, love and syrupy affection and act as if she isn’t even there. I knew this tactic well as she once explained her strategy thoroughly to me, “If you hurt me, I make sure to hurt you back worse, so you know how you made me feel.” Always an eye for an eye with her. It made sense: that’s how life treated her for her entire life, so why should it be any different for anyone else, even if it was her own kid?
I left despondent, shocked, listless, fully believing that that would be the last Ma ever heard from me or I her. The separation was complete. I was cut off, so I had to cut her off too, lick my wounds and hope to adjust to a life where Ma existed for everyone except for me.
Our flight out of Tampa was cancelled that day due to snow storms. I didn’t tell Ma. I didn’t go back to her home to try to mend things, to try and give her a second chance at saying goodbye, until next time. I acknowledged the rift, drew my own line in the sand and settled into planning for and executing what my life would now be like fully and completely devoid of a mother.
If you enjoyed reading the excepts from my upcoming book, Mama Ina, please check in regularly for updates on when it is officially published online. This will be my first published book, but, hopefully, not my last.
If you have read my stories above and are looking forward to buying the book, I would like to sincerely thank you for supporting me and appreciating the stories I create. I am truly grateful to you all.