Don’t Mess with My Mom

Don't Mess with My Mom

Don’t Mess with My Mom

The restaurant is loud with clank and sizzle and waiters shouting orders, the flare of liquor brightening the room, leaving deeper shadows. Izakaya implies small plates to share, but my aunties order their own. Nothing has been the same since my grandparents passed and my uncle claimed the family store for his sons and left his sisters to fend for themselves. My oldest aunty, Mae, ran her small money into an orchid farm, and Aunty Haley followed. Now the sisters have nobody to blame but each other.

Mae attends to her natto as if fermented soybeans held secrets she could divine. Haley crosses her arms, the scar on her left calf a white eel swimming knee to ankle. She was in and out of the hospital last year after she sacrificed her leg trying to keep a backsliding truck from hitting her sweet old pit bull Batman. She saved him, but the farm went neglected, birds winging the tatters of greenhouse netting, the anemic orchid blooms browning with blight. 

I sip at the glass of Sapporo I accepted so my mother would commit to the big bottle. Her flushed cheeks mean she’s fortified to fight on—she’s spent the last week sorting Mae’s financials and bills so a CPA can file her taxes before the IRS comes for her. Mae had given up; my mother stormed the breach, shuffling and sorting the stacks. She who was once the darling younger sister tagging along, now the one who restores order. 

My mother pushes her unfinished sushi roll at Haley, makes a joke and breaks into peals of silver laughter. 

Can you believe, Mae? Eh?”

She’s telling the story of her black-belt test in aikido, about the five-on-one attack known as randori. “Sensei was so angry. ‘You, Lynne! You’re attacking them!’ ”

And though she’s tiny, it’s easy to picture, for my mother is fierce. Once, at the family store, a Samoan girl three times her size grabbed her by the hair, and she tackled the girl; it took four boys from the warehouse to drag her off. Today, I fear for the salesman who figures her for a mark. Randori is a greater challenge—my mother might overcome one attacker, but a five-man attack is too much. The point is to learn how not to fight. 

My aunties smile, drawn on by the thread of my mother’s voice, so spirited and joyous. I picture the photo of my mother and father from the day they left the islands for good, a decade younger than I am now but already confirmed in their love, their necks piled high with leis, my mother’s skin glowing with youth, her eyes bright with a future I often fear I am not living up to, and I see how time makes us our parents. 

One day not far off, dementia will come for my aunties and mother as it did for my grandmother, who’d earnestly inquire if we saw the faces in the banyan and coconut trees, heard the voices calling her home. My mother will still be fierce, will chastise me, and I will try to face her fury. And when I struggle, I will picture her in the story she tells now to her sisters, of her black-belt randori: her standing there, gi belted to the pleats of her black hakama, which brushed the tops of her toes and the firm tatami beneath. All 4-feet-10 of her the upright, turning center of a storm, while all about her grown men are tossed and spun through the air to fall, one after another, at her feet.

Michael Copperman, ’02, teaches at the University of Oregon.

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