1967 was our summer of work. My father was on a supply vessel to Vietnam; my mother was minding our grocery store near North Beach, the nerve center of the Summer of Love.
Hippies were leaving their families and forming communes. Mah’s family had been devastated by China’s civil wars. She wanted to remake a family of her own in America and wedded herself to that dream. Her promise to her mother was more passionate than her vow of fidelity in marriage. After the Immigration and Nationality Act passed in 1965, she was determined to become a naturalized citizen and bring her mother to America. I was nine and tasked as her tutor.
So what if Thank you/Excuse me/I don’t know was all of her English. Mah wouldn’t let anything deter her. She taught me: language was power, but devotion was wordless. She’d study for the naturalization test while sewing for the flower children; she’d become an American while dressing a generation of rabble-rousers.
During the summer months, we kept the Kim Hing Grocery open an extra hour. By the time we got to Dupont Avenue, the vendors were packing up. I squeezed hairy melons for maturity, bent snow peas for snap. I copied how Mah slit her thumbnail into the thick stalks of bok choy to judge its crunch. At Hop Sing’s, I tucked myself into the triangle where the two refrigerator cases met and watched the butchers flirt with my mother. At the Bird Store, I used one hand to grip the chicken’s wings, and the other to pinch its breast.
Back in our apartment at the Villa Rosa, Mah cooked a quick soup and steamed the chicken with long beans. We ate quickly and then I washed the dishes and swept the kitchen while Mah bathed baby Timmie. At eight, Night Boss Chan dropped off several bundles of precut fabrics. Smiley-face T-shirts were in demand.
I watched my mother untie the hazy purple bundle and lay out the manly parts: front, back, two sleeves, and a crew collar. I stacked the parts in their sewing order. Late into the night, Mah sewed the smiley shirts on the industrial Singer. A loaner, the loud, darkly oiled machine had the sleek, powerful head of a stallion.
“Do like this.” Mah matched a shirt front with a shirt back. “Pinch the seams together and hand it to me by its bottom edge.”
I nodded; I wanted to help.
“Makes it easier,” Mah explained as she slipped the seam under the needle and began pressing the foot pedal. The thick needle began punching, eat-stitching the long seam.
I lined up the next shirt and held it level to her working hands. With a slight flick of her wrist, she snatched the seam. Then another flick and the seam slid under the stamping needle. Head lowered, arms stretched, neck surging forward, Mah was purebred and jockey, and I was her stable girl, crimping, prepping, and racing after her.
Her foot pumped the pedal; the sewing needle punched. All twelve faces flew like a crack of smiles over the machine’s edge. Mah threw up her arms, yanked the line of shirts onto her lap and sewed the opposite seams. She worked so fast the shirts became linked like prayer flags. Then my job was to snip the umbilical threads that joined them.
One dozen smiling tee-shirts. A penny a seam, two cents for each collar, three cents per sleeve. One dollar. Eight cents. I tied up the bundles and stacked them by the door for Morning Boss Chan.
During the day, Mah worked the grocery. Flower children came in for shrimp chips, dried cuttlefish, and nickel bags of senbei crackers. When a teary-eyed pregnant girl showed up, I watched the store while Mah went to the back and made her a bowl of noodles.
What summer? What love? So what if Haight-Ashbury was a bus ride away, or that the groovier head shops were only down the block, and City Lights just around the corner—I had no time for peace and patchouli love-ins, dropping acid, or be-here-nows. I was too busy for any Hari Krishna-ing around with flowers in my hair.
My job was to help Mah pass her naturalization test. On the evening of Solstice, after dinner, after the dishes, after bathing baby Timmie, Mah spread the sheets with the one hundred questions over the kitchen table. Our windows were open and the guitar strumming, happy chatter of the flower children drifted into our apartment. The air bloomed with night jasmine and time simmered, sweetened with hippie incense. I watched Mah slow into a moment of contentment.
In the kitchen, I hovered over the questions, picking out the ones I recognized from my social studies class. But first we worked on her crib sheet. I read each question slowly as Mah transcribed its equivalent sound into Chinese characters which she wrote faintly in pencil. I liked how they floated above the English like capes.
Mind-blowing, Mah’s method. Old Woo, the clerk at Chong’s Suppliers taught her to transliterate each English syllable into several Chinese characters and then string them together into a song of nonsensical sounds, which she chanted over the phone when ordering supplies.
“Like singing a ballad,” Mah told me. She didn’t have time to learn English, so she made time by not wasting time. As comfort and counsel, she recalled what her mother had taught her: “The sun is gold, and when its needle moves into the shade, time is lost forever.”
Mah taught me how to make each golden needle shine double.
Every night, Mah studied for the naturalization test while sewing hippie garb for cash. As she sat in front of the Singer, I stood behind her, reading out five questions for her to memorize. Often, she’d finish sewing her bundles first. In the daytime, she studied while minding the store. In the evening, she was ready to learn a new five.
After ten questions, I quizzed her. After twenty-five, I tested her; after fifty, I was her examiner. I stood behind her sewing chair and in my most rounded American accent, barked out questions at the back of Mah’s head.
“What are the first three words of the Constitution?”
Wey dai pei bow.
(Hey. Big. Butt. Treasure.)
We, the people.
As summer heated up, the fashions went afire: pirate shirts, Nehru tunics, flowing paisley frocks, hip huggers, and culottes. Mah always made her morning deadline and always made me mini-versions of the flower power garb: a Sergeant Pepper jacket, hot pink hot pants, a pair of striped double-wide bell bottoms. She’d hang each outfit above the Murphy bed so that it was the first thing I saw when I woke.
I’d just finished the fourth grade at Jean Parker School. My teacher, Miss Schmidt, wore dark round glasses that made her unblinking eyes owl-wide. She also wore a metal brace that clanked and squeaked as she limped between the aisles with the same sleet! sleet! sound that the butchers made as they sharpened their heavy cleavers. I’d tuck my chair tight up against my desk as Miss Schmidt’s voice growled. When I hadn’t memorized my multiplication tables, she decried what a shame I was to my toiling parents.
After English school, I had two hours of Chinese School at Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Our ancient teacher had a Frankenstein head that housed hundreds of Tang Dynasty poems, all four of the Great Books, and every Confucian analect. After teaching us, he worked the late shift at The Empress of China.
But every afternoon, at three, when Frankenstein Jue walked into our classroom at the basement of the church wearing his funeral suit, we obediently stood, bowed, and greeted him, “Great Teacher Jue, Good Afternoon.”
For the next two hours, he remained stiff and erect in front of the classroom as Tang dynasty poems droned out of him like graveyard mud. We droned on after him, our American-accented dirt-Cantonese making him ill.
Strict Miss Schmidt and Old Scholar Jue were my sincere, masterful teachers. But Mah only had nine-year-old me.
Mah memorized a world—without map or manual—guided only by devotion. Without war or famine, with one more year of schooling, what worlds might have opened up for her?
After the summer of learning, Mah passed her test and attended the naturalization ceremony just before Thanksgiving, but it would take more than a decade before her mother was allowed entry.
Widowed at twenty-two, Grandmah had sent her daughter out in marriage, tasking her to be the passport out of poverty.
My Grandmah asked the groom for a promissory note. “I give you my daughter, promise our reunion.”
My young father refused, “What I say, I do.”
That theirs wasn’t an arranged marriage was revolutionary. On his bride-seeking trip, my father had been given a list of names; my mother’s was one of the lucky seven. When she met him, she did not say no.
There was a ceremony in the ancestral village and a civil one in Hong Kong to register the marriage. Then the groom returned to San Francisco to work and the bride remained in the British colony to wait. In 1953, husband and wife were reunited. In 1965, the Immigration Act passed. But over a decade would pass before mother and daughter would reunite.
In the wait, Mah lost her maidenhood. In raising four children, she sacrificed more than womanhood. She hadn’t known to keep something for herself; she would learn that sacrifice sours. Obedience had been her road, desire her heartbeat. The dream for reunion kept Mah’s loneliness at bay, but the acid in her marriage was profound.
My father’s work as a merchant seaman kept him absent for months. Cold strangers and then burning rivals, they had no common ground except that each was fatherless. Orphans, both. She was four when her father was killed in a street brawl.
Mah shrugged when I asked why. “Get mad, get into a fight. Lost temper. Lost life.”
But her tone softened when she told my father’s story. “The youngest son, he was sold for grain.”
I held this story until I understood that pity had arranged their union. Without fathers, without protection, the piteous gaze from others had bound them.
Dad never forgot the returning sojourner who gave an American dollar to each child but him, declaring, “You’re not our blood.” Mah never forgot the first time she saw a letter written by her father, his calligraphy like lace, like wire—a weave of strokes and dips, bars like arms reaching—to embrace and imprison.
Instead of self-pity, they pitied the other; this became their blood.
At seventeen, Mah left her mother. At thirty-seven, Grandmah arrived, but their fracture had been set. More than longing and loneliness, Mah had aged into bitterness.
Decades later, though it was the toxicity of the textiles that stained Mah’s lungs with carcinoma, she blamed the marriage. On her death bed, Mah would swear that it was her mother who loved her sweetest.
The morning I came to say goodbye, my mother’s shaved head showed her delicate cranium. Deep in pain, she called my name as I looked into her face.
I broke when I saw how tenderly my youngest brother Tim cradled Mah’s head and stroked her temples. I hold this image in dear memory alongside my childhood view of my mother. I still know the intimate contours of her skull, the soft points on her ears, the dip of her lobes, the round of her back, and the rise of her shoulder blade.
In a moment of lightness, the daughter in Tillie Olsen’s, “I Stand Here Ironing,” says that she’ll have to paint her mother standing over an ironing board.
I am still the daughter standing behind my mother’s sewing chair. I see her strong back, feel her fierce gaze, hear the bare gasp from her pressed lips, and smell her scent as her hands and feet dance the cloth to life.
At seventeen, I left for UC Davis to study textile design, planning to hire Mah and her gaggle of sewing lady friends, but switched to writing, inspired by Mah’s fearlessness of English. Then I left California for New York. It took a decade and three thousand miles of separation to finish my novel, which Mah couldn’t read in English, and when translated, couldn’t read in the simplified Chinese script.
In early Communist China, Mah had been a teacher. Now I write while teaching writing. I insist that my students set up a writing sanctuary, private and quiet. I ask them to have a photograph taken of the back of their head while writing.
“Your writer’s passport,” I say. “The back of your head must impart as much vigor as your visage.”
As a child, when I saw my mother working, I felt her loving. Mah taught me that love wasn’t only rebellious, it was also tenacious. If love for self, for family, or for work didn’t translate well, sacrifice still serves the story.
Mah’s devotion to her own left-behind mother alongside mothering her new American children taught me the infinite ways to make a revolution. She made me an eternal summer of love, revolution, and work.
When not writing or teaching, I’m clearing out our two-flat house. In the basement, I find two old Singers and a modern Ulike. In a cabinet sat three porcelain Immortals. I dusted them; none will go to the dump. A wise old god will grace each machine, a good enough tribute for now.
Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.