August in Paris. Oppressively hot. The air still. The city quiet.
My mother, younger teenage sister and I were visiting the city and Europe for the first time, taking part in the annual summer migration of crazy Americans on their grand European tour. We decided to seek respite from the city’s heavy heat in the formal gardens of Versailles.
As we followed our guide through the halls of the vast interiors, the studious architecture student in me drank in the details of King Louis XIV’s manifestation of himself as “Le Roi Soleil”, the all mighty and infallible omniscient monarch around whom the world revolved. The glittering hall of mirrors built in an attempt to capture and possess the impossible, the light elusive; for me, the crowning example of his complete self belief in his right to be him.
Meanwhile, my mother was busy absorbing the more intriguing details of the Sun King’s grand court, the idyll he created as the centre of French political power for more than a century before it was shattered by the French Revolution.
Walking through the formal manicured gardens, extending beyond reach with their elegant finger like paths, my mother turned to us and said in her usual perfunctory manner, “This is like a palace in China.” “What? This looks nothing like a palace in China,” I answered, irritated with her seemingly random reference. “Yes, it is,” she insisted firmly. “All those emperors and their cucumbers.” Having spent a lifetime interpreting my mother’s words, often having to uncover layers of meaning within them, my sister and I looked at each other quizzically. Tentatively, my sister asked, “Mom, do you mean concubines?” “Yes, yes,” my mother replied in annoyance at our always wanting to get the details of her English right, “Of course, that’s what I meant.”
Yes, of course that’s what she meant. Because when it came to men, that’s all she ever meant. Men, especially powerful men, according to my mother were all unfaithful. Louis XIV, Chinese emperors, Henry VIII, Turkish Sultans, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton; they all had mistresses. Her own father, a powerful Kuomingtang general also had one; or at least only one she knows of.
My mother had learnt to be wary of men ever since she was an eleven-year old girl when a series of dramatic events crashed into her life. She lost her father to the Battle of Siping in 1946 only to discover shortly after that she had a half brother, the son of her father’s mistress. My grandmother overcame her husband’s posthumous betrayal with a wartime widow’s pragmatism and invited the mistress and her son, the only male heir to carry on her husband’s name, to join the family. The two women and four children escaped to Taiwan together.
I was not to know the full depth of my mother’s insecurities, nor in fact was I even aware of this story, until many years later. Growing up, I just thought that the instability of her early life made her deeply suspicious of everything, men included. By the summer of Versailles, my mother and father had been married for 25 years. While they didn’t seem all that well suited to each other, they were still together, unlike the parents of my friends and their many messy divorces I witnessed, percolating throughout the free wheeling ‘70’s of suburban America.
My father was a good man. Intelligent and hardworking, he was the first Chinese person in the US to become an actuary and he also had a law degree, both of which he was very proud. Fiscally conservative, he became a successful insurance executive and was able to provide a good life for his 4 children and an even better future for us by sending us to private schools and the best universities in the country. His own liberal arts US college education had taught him to give back and he served on many community arts and education boards while mentoring other Chinese actuarial students; his aspiring acolytes. If my mother could be unpredictable, my father was always steady. He was my rock. He would never cheat on my mother.
But three months later, my family experienced our own car crash when my mother discovered that my father had been unfaithful, not once but several times; reaffirming what she knew about men all along. My two brothers and I were away at university, leaving my sister at home to deal with the aftermath. I have never asked my brothers if our mother called them incessantly, crying into the phone, despondent and yet seething with rage at the betrayal and injustice. I do know though that they were there for me when I called them in tears every time my mother had called me. And my sister’s memories of her college tour in California were of my mother’s weeping disconsolately as she drove down the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Instead of sunshine, my sister remembers tears. As it happens, she did not go to college in the Golden State afterall.
My mother’s solution to protecting my sister and me and breaking the philandering cycle in our family was as elementary as it was transparent. “You should marry someone who loves you more than you love them,” she advised. For her relationships were built on power; trust was not part of the equation.
It would take many years for our family to heal. My parents stayed together but the constellation of all our relationships changed, a few eventually even for the better. Some of the scars though will remain forever. My father passed away from lung cancer 12 years ago before I fully understood the origins of his fallibilities, relating to his own wartime childhood. I was still angry with him when he left us but am no longer; now I’m just sad that he doesn’t know I have gained compassion for his actions.
A year later; August in New York. It’s hot, humid and sticky. Sitting in a small car packed with our belongings with the sun beating its rays onto the window panes, we are stuck in late afternoon standstill, commuter traffic. The air conditioning is working hard but the sun is winning. My boyfriend, eventual husband, and I have said farewell to our student days in Cambridge, MA and are driving to Manhattan where both sets of parents live to start our new lives. I am crying from the indescribable weight of knowing I will soon have to enter the oppressive gloom of my parents’ apartment. I tell him that I feel like I am slowly getting sucked into a drama that’s not mine and I don’t know how to anchor myself. And that I’m scared, so scared that my mother’s fears will become mine. Maybe it’s better not to love at all, I suggest. His response is simple and clear. “But we’re not them,” he says. “We have our own story to write.” The car in front of us starts to move and so do we.