I tasted grits when we first arrived in Mississippi. We ate at a diner where I choked on a piece of steak. Not the kind of choking where you cough a few times but where you cannot breathe. I clutched at my throat and tried to get my mother’s attention. I reached down my throat with pinched fingers in the attempt to grab it. It finally slid down, allowing me to gasp for air. The whole episode unnoticed, I pushed my steak aside and finished my grits.
The fifth school I went to in fourth grade was a private catholic school. Along with my school uniform, I came into possession of my first bra. The nuns insisted we wear them so the boys could not see our undeveloped bodies through our white shirts during gym class. I had not been self aware up to this point and I was embarrassed.
Despite the upheaval and chaos over the year, I was still an exceptional student. In the few months I would attend St. Pauls School, I received a Certificate of Scholastic Achievement and a Certificate of Merit for Superior Achievement in the 4th Grade Mathematics Contest.
I would attend my first Seafood Festival as part of a fundraiser for our school. I went from catching small, gray crayfish in a cold creek in Ohio to tables piled high with bright red, spicy bodies atop boiled corn and red potatoes. Used newspaper draped over picnic tables, quickly collecting cracked tails and tiny heads. I sucked the juice and brains- the ever adventurous eater. I ate until my pruned fingers were covered with tiny cuts and my lips were coated in Cajun spice- a taste that lasted for hours. I learned to rinse my hands with lemon juice and to shake off the slight sting.
We would learn about Mardi Gras, moon pies, brightly colored coins (which I hoarded even though they had no value), baby Jesus in a king cake, and beads.
Later when we went To New Orleans for a night parade, I would see what the older girls would do to get the beads. I would hold my mother’s hand tightly as we wove through the crowded streets. Cigarettes swept past my face and the ground stuck to my sneakers. It was scary and exciting.
Our day time trips to New Orleans consisted of beignets, gumbo, and visiting the River Walk- where we were allowed to pick a large jaw breaker. They were bigger than our fists and would often go moldy before we could finish them.
We lived close to the beach and one day we drove by to see a large group of people walking very slowly, in a straight line into the ocean. It was a bit overcast and felt eery. This was my first time living by the beach and the ocean was fascinating but this gave me a weird feeling. Was I witnessing a strange religious ceremony?
We lived in an apt complex where I made friends. There was a swimming pool and we played kickball in the open fields. Being entrepreneurs, we attempted to sell Mardi Gras beads to neighbors and had lemonade stands. Influenced by Nancy Drew, my friend and I started a detective agency and took it seriously.
We had my 10th birthday party at the pool and invited my neighborhood friends.
My sister had this shirt that said “I scream for ice cream”. We got such a kick out of that.
She was so excited to get a bike. It had “pink thunder” stenciled on the frame. One day, she crashed it into a brick wall and she was devastated. I think it took a great while to replace it.
We saw our first waterspout form and break apart. My sister next to me with her arms tucked into her oversized t-shirt, we looked on in awe.
We would sit around on hot summer days eating Kool aid from the packets and the older girls would throw out sex terms and giggle when the younger ones looked confused. When we asked why a guy “coming” was so funny, they told us to ask our parents. But we knew better.
My friend and I would collect things like tampons, candy bars, and magazines to keep in a box under her bed. When Milli Vanilli was declared a fraud, we heard that the police would be going door to door to collect their tapes. So, we hid them in our secret box.
We loved NKOTB. We loved Joey and Jonathan. We would pretend to call them and plan dates. This would be the first cassette I would own. I had a puzzle I would put together, glue to a poster board and hang on my bedroom wall. I loved my NKOTB t-shirt.
I loved to play records and dance in front of a full length mirror. Madonna ruled- I’m in trouble deep.
We got cheap haircuts at a salon and too late I realized that I was getting the dreaded bowl haircut. I was devastated and cried, refusing to leave the house for several days.
When the Gulf War happened I knew it was really important and had a feeling that I needed to record what was happening. I would sit in front of the tv for hours taking notes.
Around this time, I started documenting and saving many things. I had a vague notion that I was saving things to share with my future children, passing along a legacy of memories. I realize now that I was protecting my memories. The few things that I kept have served as my inanimate story tellers, helping me to remember things I have otherwise buried deep.
My mother would send me to buy cigarettes and the clerk looked at me like I was crazy. With my own money I would buy Root beer Wax Candy, Werthers, and Big Chew.
I have a memory of running down a dim hallway to answer the phone in the kitchen. I turned too soon and slammed into the wall. I got a black eye, the first memory of many clumsy episodes to follow.
On Halloween, I dressed up as a vampire. My mother put handfuls of Crisco into my hair to slick it back. I looked amazing and had fun trick-or-treating.
I remember coming home, happy and exhausted. I was ready to take a bath and go to bed. I climbed into the bath and tried to wash my hair. The Crisco was so thick and greasy that the shampoo immediately lost it’s bubbles as my hands applied it to my hair.
I sheepishly called out to my mother to help me. When she came in, her annoyance was palatable. She came over to the tub and put more shampoo into my hair, slowly massaging it in and then becoming rougher as the bubbles faded away. The water was greasy and chunks of Crisco floated at the surface.
She drained the tub and then filled it up again. The water was a few degrees hotter than the last and I bit my lip as I slipped in. My skin was greasy now too and my scalp hurt. She put more shampoo in my hair and massaged it furiously in, a few bubbles survived this time.
We repeated this 3 more times, draining the tub and filling the water with hotter water each time. My mother scrubbed me until my skin and scalp were raw. Finally she gave up, maybe she heard my whimpers or felt my constant tremble. Maybe her arms were exhausted from the effort. With my hair still slightly greasy, I tucked myself deep under my covers and slipped into a dreamless sleep.
My mother had a rubber paddle that she never used on me but did quite frequently on my sister. There was one time where one of us brought lice home from summer camp. My sister was severely punished and we both sobbed hysterically. Whenever possible, I would pick fights with my mother. The sound of my sister crying was the most painful and it broke me.
The fighting was unbearable. I did not want to fight but the screaming ripped through my body time and time again. The fights that would last into my adulthood. I had to protect my sister.
For years, my mother never laid a hand on me- until during a fit of rage, she would break my bear lamp over my arms and back as I twisted to protect my head. It was the only time I ever hit her. I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t. She never touched me again. But the other fights raged on.
She was cold and cautious where other mothers gave hugs and said “I love you”. I remember her telling me that if it weren’t for us that she would never have to speak to my father. But it didn’t seem like she wanted to talk to us either.
My father would call us once a week during the Simpsons (the hottest new show on TV) and we would be distracted. My mother purposely scheduled calls during that time and eventually they stopped. She told my father that we didn’t want to talk to him while we believed he grew tired of us. Many years later, my sister would find a box full of unopened letters and packages my father’s family had sent during that time.
My step-dad was fun and playful with us. He would become the only person to remember our birthdays and holidays. At that time, I think he was still in the honeymoon phase with my mother. My mother who was beautiful and smart could truly captivate an audience when she was charming.
She cooked a lot. She would go through (manic) phases and prepare certain cuisines for definite periods of time. We would make pasta from scratch, pan seared calamari, and matzah balls. She would make Korean hot pot or Indian food. She cooked her way around the world in that small kitchen apartment.
My mother did some kind things. She pretended to be the Tooth Fairy and would write me notes with a silver pen. I already knew Santa Claus was not real but there was something magical about this. Under the guise of night and myth, my mother connected with me.
I stayed up one night, tightly clutching the envelope containing my tooth. She tiptoed into the room and I pretended to sleep. I clutched the envelope so hard that we were soon in a silent tug-of-war. After a long time, she gave up. But the next morning I had my note.
Sleep would become a place of dread as the months passed. I had two reoccurring nightmares that I remember in vivid detail. One had me trapped in a maze with the cast of Sesame Street but they looked old and stained. At the end a monkey with very long nails would stab me and I would wake up as I was dying. The other had me in a church where I was being held down by an invisible presence who seemed to get angrier and more aggressive with each passing second. I would scream but nobody could help me.
I would protect my sister from bullies. We lived in the deep south and though I was part Asian- I did not look as ethnic as my sister. It set her apart and the boys were cruel in their bullying. We had come from a home where our cousins were mixed from several races so this was new and painful. I learned how to kick boys asses in this backwards country.