KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsReadingRemembrancesWriting

The Year I Forgot Passover: On Love, Memory, and Honor

IMG_3969

I’ll eat with money and I’ll eat
with my teeth until the rocks

and the mountains curl
and my blood sings —

I’m such a good girl

to eat the world.

—Dana Levin, “The Living Teaching

There is a red moon tonight outside our window, as I wait for the chicken stock to finish simmering. I point it out to my husband, and we sneak outside for a moment to gaze at it.

Outside on our quiet street, he takes photos alongside our other neighbors. Apparently tonight is the night of a penumbral lunar eclipse. It makes me feel anxious. How did I not know about this? Wasn’t there a time I was more in tune with eclipses and blood moons? Was I forgetting something, losing a part of myself to make way for this new life with my husband, which I hadn’t thought so new, which I’d thought had been a seamless transition. Our wedding day on Padre Island was really everyone’s day, meaning our families and friends who did not want the night to end, not wanting to be separated. We stayed out as late we could; after the reception ended, we changed out of formal clothes to head out to the open-air bars on the beach. My late uncle still alive then. How strange, considering none of my Jewish family was present, and yet the female rabbi prayed over us, over all of us, the Hebrew seamlessly connecting my life to everyone there.

Standing in the street, watching my husband snap one last photo with his camera, I feel a dull pain in my head as I search for that something lost, yet not having the faintest clue what it could be.

It isn’t until we are back in the apartment, that I receive a text—from Brian’s mother, no less: Is it Passover yet? Have a happy one.

Last year, I didn’t celebrate Passover. Because for the first time in my life, even though I’d seen the telltale orange boxes of matzah and jars of gefilte fish in the supermarket stockpiled high in displays, I’d been caught unaware. I’d thought I’d had more time to prepare a small seder at home, for friends Jewish and not. The guilt I’d felt in forgetting the holiday had stayed with me for months.

And here I was, yet again, uncertain of just when it would begin.

 

I remember calling my parents, and my mother scolding me for forgetting; this year is no different. Even though they both work very different hours, they’d managed a small seder. She suggested an “emergency seder.” My father weighed in, saying not to worry about it, that perhaps I could at least remove all the chametz from the house. I asked him if this included rice because with my husband has rice with almost every meal we prepare at home. My father had said rice is kitnoyot; some say it’s alright, some say it’s not. He said not to worry, again, that he knew I’ve been busy.

And here I was, yet again, calling them about the seder. My father tells me it falls on the evening of April 22 this year, not to worry, I have time. He pauses and asks me what I’m doing.

I say: Actually I’m cooking right now.

My father says: RightThought I heard something burning.

I tell him I’m making congee. I ask him again if it’s okay to keep rice in the house. He asks me if I can make it with matza meal or quiona, which is acceptable for Passover. I tell him congee is a rice dish as I turn off the heat and drain the stock through a sieve. The aroma of the chicken broth fills the air; it’s so thick the cat comes into the kitchen and stands on her hind legs to reach the counter. She meows at me, paws the air and loses her balance.

Over the line, my father sighs and says: Well, if you can’t eat it all before the 22nd, there’s always next year.

 

* * *

Unknown

My husband’s parents live near Shek Tong Tsui Market, an indoor, multistoried market where you have to take the stairs or escalators to shop all floors. When we are in Hong Kong, I often accompany his mother and help with her many bags and packages. On our last trip, the vendors eyed me curiously until she revealed I was her daughter-in-law. Now she tells me they ask after me, when we are coming to visit again.

She and I don’t always understand each other. But whether we are in Shek Tong Tsui Market, or walking up the sharp incline of Hill Road to their home, or sitting with her favorite tea vendor as we sample loose leaf pu-erh and oolong teas, I stick close to her. While I understand a little Cantonese, she is always quick to translate for me, in shops, at family gathers, when visiting the traditional medicine doctor who examines the arms and tongues of his patients in a pharmacy on a busy street and makes herbal concoctions to drink, the latter of which she brews at home for my husband and me, the thick liquid strong and pungent, as she hands us pieces of haw flakes, a candy to eat after we finish, to chase away the bitterness.

IMG_7614
Moringa Seeds

This past week she texted me that she purchased moringa seeds for me to try during our upcoming visit in May, that they have many health benefits. I examine the photo she sends. I consider, as I always do, the vast differences between us, the many different geographies, histories, and beliefs that might have separated us.

We don’t always understand each other.

And we aren’t close out of some ideological need to right the world of those differences. We are close because of the kind of woman she is. Because of the kind of mother she is.

* * *

What women wander?
Not many. All. A few.
Most would, now & then,
& no wonder.
Some, and  I’m one,
Wander sitting still.

—Marie Ponsot, “Among Women

During our first trip Hong Kong in early 2013, she and I ate together a restaurant, just the two of us, as Brian went to run some errands with his father. She poured me tea, and ordered for us. We talked about the usual things I imagine future mothers-and-daughters talk about: childhood, family, likes and dislikes. She told me that when Brian and his siblings were children, she would listen to them. She’d ask for their opinions before making a decision on after-school activities or the desired focus of studies. She wanted them to have a voice in the household and its greater decisions.

This was very different from how I was raised. Growing up, my mother’s favorite line was: Because I am the parent. There were many things I did not want to do, but had to do, to keep the peace. She even tried to choose my friends for me, the friends she wanted me to have because they came from families she admired, or lived in the good area of town. Up until my mid-twenties, when I visited my parents, I was not allowed to drink a beer in her household or stay out past midnight. It didn’t matter I’d gotten a full fellowship to grad school or a post-graduate fellowship thereafter. My mother was still the woman who told me, when I was only seven years old, that if I ever, ever came home pregnant, if I ever brought a baby into this world without being able to take care of it, she’d throw me out of the house forever.

I remember asking: Would you really not let me come back? 

And her answer: No. And because I am the parent, not you.

Strangely, it is easy to honor my mother. She likes accomplishments, and she likes to see her children to do well. My brother and I have done comparatively well. She loves nothing more than what she perceives as hard work. Happiness, for my mother, begins and ends with financial stability, with paying a long-standing debt to a larger usefulness. My mother recently retired from holding down two part-time jobs for the last twenty years by accepting another job: a thirty-five-hours-a-week job as a language tutor for ESL children. She tells me, with a straight face, that she will only work five days a week, so it’s basically retirement. My father did the same by trading in his job at Walmart for working in a car garage. When they get time off, they take trips and see my mother’s family spread around the country. My mother was once said to me that traveling and free time “didn’t feel right” without working. I told her there was nothing wrong with retiring and enjoying life.

She replied: I don’t want to be useless. 

When I began to protest this outrageous claim, she added: I don’t want to get soft.

While my mother has always equated gentleness with softness, my husband’s mother is a very gentle woman. She has had an easier life—at least from a socioeconomic standpoint—than my mother, and accomplishments are not as important as her children’s happiness. And all she asked that day in the restaurant was that I explain what makes me happy, to be honest with her, so we wouldn’t have problems later.

But being my mother’s daughter, all I heard her say: Be honest. 

So I spilled everything. I told her I was on the fence about having children. That although Brian didn’t need to convert, I’m still religious and celebrate the major holidays in Judaism. And while her family is filled with successful lawyers and business owners, I’m an artist— and often once I get going on a line, a thought, a story, I block out everything else. I never really had a “home” home. I’ve lived in too many places. I wander second-nature; that is to say, to move is to live. Oh, and I can’t cook to save my life: when I was younger, my brother did the cooking and I did the cleaning. I do try to cook; it’s just everything always goes wrong. That when I cook chicken, it sticks to the pan. Even though the pan is non-stick and I’ve coated the surface with a light coat of oil. I don’t understand why. Sometimes I put a layer of oil nearly half an inch deep so it won’t stick. I stand far away as the oil angrily spits up and flings itself at me. I still get burned. Sometimes I heal fast. Sometimes it takes time.

At that point, she stopped me. She did this by putting her hand over mine and squeezing it. She smiled and began to say something, and instead took a deep breath. She squeezed my hand again. We sat there, sipping our tea, in silence until she asked me what else I’d like to see in Hong Kong. That tomorrow she’d take me to get a visa for China, so we could travel in the mainland. That living half the year in Toronto, and half the year in Hong Kong, had become “second nature” to her as well. That she grew restless at times too. That all that mattered was that she wanted me and her son to be happy.

Later, I realized the sins I thought I was confessing were some of the most important parts of me.

And she’d already accepted them, accepted them for that very reason.

I do not know many people like her.

Often that fact alone weighs on me: how can I honor her?

* * *

This is how I make congee for my husband.

He, like his mother, says it’s an easy dish to make; it’s just over-boiled rice. And he, like his mother, is most apologetic about saying this, not wanting to insult me. When I make it, he eats every last bit of it, scrapes the pot so I’ll hear. I imagine then what it would be like to live in his beard, wipe the hair clean of crumbs.

I pour the stock back to the pot, and wash a cup of jasmine rice—the rice he prefers— and think of the arguments my mother and I have had. I add the rice to the pot and wait for it to boil. We rarely argue about the little things; rather, it’s the hard hitters that shatter the evening across the distance. My mother once said of my husband: They don’t make men like him. I consider my mother, the stern face she’s presented when I needed her most in times of dread. How, through the lens of my husband, I’ve come to see that her lack of gentleness is a form of compassion, that she didn’t want me to suffer and struggle as she and my father had. Her children’s desires are her own desires but not for her benefit.  A mutual yet unequal case of sacrifice. The rice begins to boil, and I reduce the heat to a simmer and cover the pot.

For almost two hours, I stand at the counter, finishing this essay and stirring the congee, adding the too-many mushrooms I’d rehydrated in water. I look out the window. The moon is still red. When I was in 4th grade I wrote a poem in English called “The Tango of The Blood-Red Mango.” I still remember it word for word. I really thought in my young head that the red mangos would tango when no one was looking. And they were the only fruit that did. I remember trying to help my tias cook and starting a fire, my first fire in the kitchen, the flame more pale and blue than red. Once Brian’s mother brought home a bag of mangos when we were visiting Toronto; there were terribly over-priced and underripe, but she knew that I liked them. That she’d gone to a different kind of market to buy them. That while she and her family put aside the many different geographies, histories, and beliefs that separate us, my father’s family, my Jewish family, cannot and will not. That they can’t accept that I married a Chinese man any more than they could accept my father marrying my mother. Their line of reasoning: I should not be blamed for my father’s “mistake.” But there I was in the world, with all its Jewish suitors, and I passed them all over. How could I do this, they asked, how could I forget my place in the world?

I uncover the pot and stir some more. It gets me right in the throat that I can’t answer them, to say that my finding this kind of happiness won’t happen again. That he is the only one in the world. That adages can be true. That I must stop the tears from falling into the pot because I don’t want him to eat my bitterness.

Because adages can be true.

I miss them, my father’s family, who’d probably be pleased to learn that I’d forgotten Passover last year,  they’d been completely correct in what they’d warned me about all along. Maybe they are right. But I also know they are wrong. I chop up scallion and ginger to garnish the congee. I take out the sesame oil. I don’t know if I’ll ever be close to them again. I stir some more, the congee thickening, as I feel his arms encircling me. It’s just us now, in this kitchen which needs to be cleaned more often because there’s no fan above the stovetop. Our apartment came with everything else but this one important element.

The other day I realized that although we’ve lived in this apartment for almost two years, I saw for the first time the Queensboro Bridge from my desk. My heart stopped a bit when I realized it, and again that feeling of loss came over me, that there were things I’d somehow missed. That there are things I want to do, which the limits of my own background and experience will not allow, the limits of my own human. Jump into water and reach the bottom of the world. Seduce genetics for cures. Rotate and revolve to fall in sync, become an antenna to lost worlds. Dearly departed beloveds.

My father tells me to say what you want to say to the living; when one is dead, it’s too late. I want to tell my Jewish family many things I cannot. That I forgetting Passover for the first time in my life marks a new season. That my life used to be run according to their calendar, and now it does not, that there are other prayers and holidays and occasions to grieve, give thanks and bless, that this does not mean I’ve lost that part of me for good. It’s a large question of being. That when I’m writing emails to people, I can’t bring myself to write what I really mean: be around, always. That whenever I struggle to finish these essays, I write to people I love. In doing so, what I’m really saying: live forever.

Of course no one can.

Of course the world, in ways big and small, bears the marks of do much existence, even if we forget them, even if we never knew of them in the first place.

At last the congee is ready. We are dancing our blood moon dance now; he’s still holding onto me as I ladle the steaming congee into a bowl. I top it with a drizzle of of sesame oil, the scallion and ginger unevenly chopped, shredded chicken breast I’d boiled, deboned and skinned the night before. The cat returns, meowing under us, rubbing against our ankles, wanting us to drop something.

We sit down to eat, and she follow us.

Sometimes the cat looks at me as if I’m hers alone.

Sometimes, being mixed, one never lives in a culture quite her own.

Sometimes there is honor in that alone.

 

The "Shishi" Congee I Made
My “Shishi” Congee

 

This is Part 2 of a 2-Part Series on writing, memory, and making congee. Read Part 1 here.