Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Lilacs

May-lee Chai

There was a photo from my childhood that I hated of me and the lilacs. I was standing in the backyard of our house in New Jersey, and my motherhad asked me to pull a lilac blossom closer to my face. I didn’t want to pose with the lilacs in my face. It felt artificial and weird.

"Now take off your glasses, May-lee," my mother said, and I hated it even more.

I liked my glasses. I had liked my glasses since I got them in third grade because they allowed me to see. Without them the world was blurry and distant, something I could not find my way through, like a viscous fog between me and the real world of sharp edges and clear lines.

I scowled. "I always wear my glasses. It won’t look like me without my glasses." This was who I was, a girl with glasses. A girl who could see.

"Don’t you want to look pretty? I want you to look pretty!"

"I like my glasses," I said helplessly. How old was I? Eight? Nine? Ten? When my mother insisted I must take off my glasses to be a pretty girl.

"Won’t you take them off for me?" my mother changed tact. "I’m your mother. Won’t you make me happy? Won’t you listen to your mother?"

My mother was very good at getting what she wanted. I was miserable, shamed. I took off my glasses.

"Smile! Now smile!"

But I didn’t feel like smiling.

In the photo I saw the lilacs and my eyeglass-less face. I didn’t recognize this girl, the one for whom the world was blurry. I remembered being in the head of the girl who wanted to see clearly. That was the girl I wanted immortalized in the photograph, not the girl who obeyed her mother.

*

My mother was of the generation that was taught strict notions of pretty and unpretty, feminine and unfeminine, good and bad. This was a line that must not be crossed.

My mother understood this line because it had been beaten into her by her own mother.

The first time my mother was beaten until she bled, she was six years old. It was 1940 and she was living in Indiana, and she had been caught talking to a black person.

Grandma had recently given birth to her third child and was too busy to pay attention to her eldest—my mother—whom she locked outside the house during the day.

My mother and her family had recently moved from Indianapolis to the countryside. Mama said she liked to take their big farm dog, Penny, on walks on the gravel road that led to a family of white hillbillies on one side and to a childless black couple on the other. The hillbillies kept their grandmother in a baby’s crib where the old woman scratched the paint off the walls with her overgrown toenails as my mother watched. The hillbillies were friendly, but the black woman liked to talk, had a doll collection, and made my mother biscuits, which made her my mother’s clear favorite. The black woman must have been lonely, all by herself in the countryside while her husband was off at work, so she welcomed my mother, a lone white child, told her stories, and fed her.

Eventually my mother told Grandma about the woman with the doll collection, neglecting to mention that the woman was black. My mother at six had no vocabulary to talk about race. So Grandma told my mother to invite the woman over for pie. She couldn’t have a woman feeding her child without thanking her. And perhaps, too, Grandma was hoping to make a friend. She was lonely herself in the countryside with only the children to keep her company while my grandfather was at work.

My mother extended Grandma’s invitation to the black woman, who showed up at the house one day, dressed up as if for church, in a pretty dress with a hat and gloves. Grandma was shocked. She talked to the woman on her porch but wouldn’t invite her inside, and the black woman quickly went home.

My mother couldn’t understand what had gone wrong. Grandma had said to invite the woman over for fresh berry pie.

Then Grandma picked a branch off a tree and beat my mother on the back of the legs until they bled. Grandma shouted that she was a bad girl and she wasn’t to talk to colored people or invite them over to the house.

A storm gathered, my mother could remember even forty years later, with thunderclouds and lightning. Grandma was distracted enough by the prospect of rain to stop her beating to gather her laundry off the line, and my mother ran off to hide in the second story of the barn. Even after the storm got underway for real, with booming thunder and pouring rain and forked lightning that scared my mother, she did not dare leave the barn until well into evening. By then she’d missed her supper, but her father was home, and her mother distracted, and she was not beaten a second time.

*

My mother said that she remembered watching the black woman’s husband driving by her house in his small pickup truck. She’d see him leave for work in the morning and see him drive back in the evening. Although she wished she could see his wife again and talk and eat biscuits, she did not dare to visit them again.

My mother saw the black man one final time before her parents moved away from that house. She didn’t remember how old she was, but there were more children in the house and she no longer had the leisure to wander the dirt roads with Penny. Instead she was expected to help care for her younger siblings.

One day the iron stove in the kitchen caught fire, grease perhaps. Grandma grabbed the baby, and my mother ushered her young siblings outside, and they ran onto the lawn and watched the flames shooting from the stove.

The black man was driving by in his pickup and saw the flames and the children on the lawn and Grandma with the baby.

He pulled into the driveway, ran into the house, and pulled the stove onto the lawn, where he beat the flames out into the dirt.

Grandma approached him to thank him, and the man said, "I only did this because of the little girl." Then he drove away.

My mother could never call her parents "racist." She said instead they were "uneducated," but they always "meant well."

*

Grandma wanted my mother to be a good girl, meaning a good white girl, which back in the day meant a white girl who didn’t talk to black people. A girl who obeyed her mother even when her mother said terrible things.

I never wanted to be a good girl. Perhaps it’s my mother’s stories of beatings that put the desire for resistance in me. I could see even as a child that my mother had been in the right, the beating unjust, even if as a grown woman my mother could not bear to criticize her mother directly. She was a loyal daughter. But she also married a Chinese man and had two mixed-race children with him—me and my brother—so perhaps her rebellious nature could not be quashed by a mere beating either.

I don’t know if my mother would have wanted me to tell this story. She liked to tell me lots of stories but then told me not to tell anyone else. Maxine Hong Kingston has said that when our mothers tell us secret family stories and then tell us not to tell, what they really mean is "Tell."

*

My mother passed away twenty years ago and I had not thought of this story in ages, but the crepe myrtle blossoming on the streets of the town in North Carolina where I then lived made me think of my mother and her love of lilacs. I thought, she would have loved the crepe myrtle had she lived to see them. I didn’t know if it would have made her think of the fight we had over my photo with the lilacs, if that was a memory she held, or if she would merely have admired their beautiful blossoms and left it at that.

The crepe myrtles, with their spectacular array of lavender and magenta amidst the waves of green, made me think, too, of resistance. They were trees that flowered into the fall as though it were still summer, as if resisting the call to pack it in and prepare for the winter. They helped me to see my lilac photo in a new light. My mother was not just taking my photo, she was teaching me the fine art of resistance. The lesson that every girl needs to learn: there is a line others will draw for you, which side is good, which side is bad, but then there is the line you must draw for yourself. Learning to resist your mother’s pleas was just the first step.

*

When I was twelve, we moved from New Jersey to a small town in the Midwest. We were the first mixed-race family with a Chinese man married to a white woman who had ever lived in that town, and many of the white people there did not like our family. White kids told me to my face that mixed-race people were a sign of the End Times, when the Devil would reign on Earth for a thousand years. Their mothers scowled at me and wondered aloud why my hair was so straight, my face so round. They wanted to know if I was adopted. They refused to believe I could be my mother’s daughter. White men drove by our house and shot our dogs, leaving their bodies for my brother and me to find when we got off the school bus.

Throughout this period, my mother could not call the people in our town racist, not even when men and women made racist jokes in front of her, not when they made fun of my brother and me. She said they were "uneducated," they were "ignorant," they were "jealous," but she could not use the r-word. In fact, she continued to socialize with them in church and in town. I assume they reminded her of her parents, and this association brought up a kind of pain that she could not bear to address.

White women in that small town used to come up to me and ask if I was adopted. At first my mother responded with fury that she’d endured twenty hours of labor to deliver me, but later, after a couple years, she wouldn’t respond. She’d act as though she hadn’t heard the question. She’d drift away, leaving me alone with the white women, who’d prattle on about the Oriental baby someone’s cousin had just adopted, the refugee child their church was sponsoring, some other foreign child just like me.

I used to wonder at my mother’s silence as I stood there in plain view, the proof she’d had sex with her husband, a Chinese man. Was she afraid of losing her friends? Was she afraid she’d lose her status as a good girl, a good white girl, whiteness being more obviously precarious now that she couldn’t extend it to her own children? I didn’t know. She refused to tell me what she was thinking, refused to respond when I cried and said, "People are racist here." What I meant was, "Your white friends are racist to me." I wanted her to tell them off. I wanted her to defend our family, me. Was there an invisible scar, hidden so deep that she was unaware of it, that throbbed and made her afraid someone would beat her, hurt her, make her bleed?

Or was it so awful to be a disloyal daughter that she bit her tongue? I knew something about the pain of being a disloyal daughter. It was awful.

I left home as soon as I was able at eighteen and chose not to return. My father said I was disloyal. My mother refused to defend me.

But at eighteen I knew where my line was drawn, and I had no interest in being a "good" girl anymore, the kind who obeyed her mother. I was a strong young woman, the kind who made her own decisions, the way my mother taught me, knowingly or not.

*

My mother and I used to fight about my choices, my decision to study Chinese language and literature in college and then in graduate school, to work abroad in China and Hong Kong. I told her I needed to counter the stereotypes I encountered with real knowledge.

"You’re half me," she said in a fit of pique once. "You’re my daughter too."

I think she wanted me to identify as white, to be a good white girl, the way her mother had wanted her to be. But my lived experiences were not a white girl’s, and I could not, would not deny myself just to please my mother.

"I am biologically half your genes," I said. "But society sees me as Asian. I have to understand how to survive as an Asian in America."

My mother did not reply then.

She merely turned her head away from me, as though the sight of me were too painful for her to contemplate.

*

At the end of her life, when my mother was dying of cancer, she tried to write down the story of the black woman she was beaten for visiting. I was studying in graduate school in a creative writing program, and I encouraged my mother to write as well. But in my mother’s final telling, the familiar story had a different ending. In this new version, she omitted the beating but included the burning stove and added a coda. Now rather than rejecting the black woman, my mother’s mother baked a pie for the couple in gratitude.

However, the details were vague: no mention of how the pie was delivered. Was the black couple invited to my grandparents’ house? My mother didn’t describe any such visit. Did my grandfather drop the pie off at their house? She didn’t say. The vagueness made me think this ending never happened. It was the wish for a happing ending that she had perhaps longed for as a child and most likely never saw.

*

When I first saw the lavender blooms of the crepe myrtle trees lining the streets of my new town in North Carolina, where I had been hired to teach creative writing at the university, where I would teach students to read essays about difficult subjects and to write about difficult things like race and family and power, I thought of my mother and our battles over lilacs.

Would my mother have liked the woman that I had become, the woman she had helped shape during our battles over the lines we each drew for ourselves, the woman she had primed to become a writer with her epic stories of conflict and love and pain, so much better than the insipid books written for children that my teachers in school preferred? She’d died when I was in graduate school, never saw the books that I would write, the stories about our family that I would tell. I’d like to think that my mother would be proud; I was, after all, in many ways her creation. But I don’t know.

Perhaps this is the mystery at the heart of mothers and daughters and the women we become. We bloom in unexpected colors.