In the sitting room I notice two school pictures of the husband’s sister and brother. Already the mischievous glint in the sister-in-law’s eye, the wry catch to the brother-in-law’s smile. I think of how there are no photos of my mother as a child. What I know of my mother’s life before my birth comes from her stories, which she’d usually tell while we were preparing meals. As a child, I was expected to stay silent, and listen; I had nothing of my own to tell, for my self was shapeless, and Mom was disinterested in the details of my days, my struggles at school, my friendships. She was trying to shape me, I suppose with her stories, into something like herself, but that didn't go well.
Being born a girl shaped my mother’s life, like it does for most girl-born. To be a girl was to work from a young age. After her parents divorced, she was sent to live with her mother’s relatives, who did not send her to school but made her clean for them every day, and boarded her in a closet, where she slept among cockroaches. She worked on shrimping boats and sewed for rich people. There were few other options for a teenage girl in Cambodia during the early 70s, having no education beyond primary school.
By 1975, she was a refugee in San Diego, where she married my father when she was 20. Most photos of my mother are from the early days after leaving the refugee camp: she’s impossibly young, standing on a cliff, wearing blue bellbottoms and a white polo jumper. Or glamorous in a shimmering silver brocade dress during the last rite of her three-day wedding, her wrists bound with red thread, symbolising happiness, good health and success.
Afterwards, her life was punctuated by all the conundrums particular to occupying a female body: miscarriage and birth control, the fear of babies taking over the course of one’s life, and the having of children, despite that fear. There’s a photo of my mother, holding her newborn son, looking content, the carnage over.
A few years later, she had to leave us behind when she went to manage her donut shop in another city. We joined her a couple of years later. There are no photos of that time, only the memory of bleary early mornings and late exhausting nights in that donut shop, the greasy smell of the fryer and the dusting of flour over everything, the Sunday evening Chinese takeaway by the sea. Later, she trained as a robotics technician; the hands that deftly sewed piecemeal for decades assembled drones and the like for the military.
Her children grew up, into strange creatures, not quite proper Cambodian children: one disowned his family, and the other lives on another continent. Her husband died early, after decades of disappointing her. We could not accommodate her expectations of the good life. Unruly and evasive, full of feeling for other landscapes and people, we followed our desires. “Life is hard, A-Na! Then you die!” I heard this so often, every time I visited. No wonder she was so fervidly Christian, seduced by the promise of a good afterlife.
When I was small, all her stories were sad stories, and so I grew up thinking of her only as a sad woman. Until my father died, I never thought of the child she was, of whom no photo exists. Sometime after the funeral I asked my mother and auntie about our family. For them, there was before and after, before and after their parents split up. Before, the family lived in a big house on a plantation, with many servants and beautiful things in the house. One evening a long table had been set in the garden, for a party al fresco. My mother got up on the table and dashed along it, dodging servants and cutlery and candelabras and vases of fresh flowers, leaving tiny black footprints on the white tablecloth from end to end. “I was so bad!” she recalled, her eyes shining with glee, and in that moment, she was the lightest I had ever seen her, as light as that child must have been, fleet-footed and spry, when it seemed desire alone could shape the world.