I’m searching for a bag of leafy yao choy, but my fingers just seem to fumble through the bottom drawer of the fridge without any luck.
“Mommy, it’s not here,” I call as the chilly air drifts out.
A tight voice warns from behind me, “Don’t let me find it!”
I shut my eyes. “I’m telling you, Mom, it’s not here. I must’ve checked at least three times already, and– “
I turn my head and my eyes blink open to find my mother’s figure: one hand on her hip, the other holding a bag of the fresh greens.
“Third shelf – right in front of you!” She scolds with a raised brow.
It’s times like this when she reminds me that all too often I look without seeing. That is, I’ve never been an expert at hide-and-seek, I have to call my cell phone at least twice before I can find it, and once a year I lose one colorful hat to the monstrous black hole of the New York City transportation system.
The mysteries of lost faces and places rattle my bones and will my feet to keep looking, determined to find what I’ve been searching for, be it a little cousin hiding under a table, or a Blackberry tucked into the forgotten folds of my backpack.
But, when I watch Mommy cook chicken with chrysanthemum petals, or fry up beef with bok choy, I never understand how she can recall any recipe in the blink of an eye – like the family stories we tell with rapid fire over dim sum, lips smacking as fast as chopsticks are clacking.
“Remember Kenneth’s wedding?” Mommy would ask the table, wearing a smile waiting to be born into a laugh.
“Oh God, who could forget that?” my Yee Ma would mutter with a chuckle.
She wasn’t really my Yee Ma, my mother’s sister; she was my cousin’s. But everyone on my mother’s side of the family was so close that it didn’t even matter. Distant relatives smiled upon me like uncles and aunts, and I was tied to cousins like they were sisters.
One cousin, Nina would interject right on cue. “Can we please not talk about this? Just thinking about what grandma did to that chicken makes me queasy.”
“What happened?” I’d urge my mother, even though I’d already heard the story thousands of times. I loved to hear it, but I loved even more to hear her tell it.
“Years ago – you were too young to remember – your uncle and aunt got married and received all sorts of gifts: bouquets of gladiolas, baskets of oranges…” she waved her hand at each detail, tossing them into the air.
“And a chicken,” Nina would say, “a whole, live chicken!”
“A Chinese tradition,” Mommy would explain. “But anyway, Po Po prepared the cutting board,” her voice grew longer and deeper, “ and raised her thick, black kitchen knife…”
She’d pause and watched my horrified, but mesmerized face. Then she’d drag me in further.
“- and off with his head!”
“But, that chicken wouldn’t give up without a fight.”
“I was there!” Nina would moan. “It ran around the living room, headless, dripping blood all over the linoleum.” She’d turn to Mommy. “Can you believe it? Po Po wanted us to catch the thing!”
Then, forgetting the tension of the story for just a second, the table erupted into laughter over the pure hilarity of the situation. A chicken, I thought, shaking my head. A whole, live chicken.
“And did you?” I beseeched.
“No,” her cheeks were scarlet, “ but Po Po did.”
I could definitely imagine that. Not once had I ever seen her face shape into anything remotely close to disgust or fear. Po Po took the job – whatever it was – and the job got done.
Thinking about her always reminds me that she isn’t with us now. I try not to imagine her in that place where lost things, lost people, go – the place I can never really seem to find no matter how hard I look. But there’s something about the way my mother’s eyes shine when she tells a story, how she shares that same fearlessness of embracing the truth. And when I see that, it’s like the lost hide-and-seek games, the misplaced cell phone, the disappeared hats don’t matter anymore.
When I see my mother tell a story, I know that I’ve found that place. It’s not a place where lost things go; it’s a place where things that wait for you go. When you’re finally ready to see them, they appear to you, in that fresh, crisp way only the unpredictable can master. Sometimes it happens in a flash. Sometimes it just brews.
Now, bringing myself to the present, I take a good look at the steamed fish, beef, and yao choy being cleared from the table. It’s on to the next, unspoken course of the meal, a tradition only between me and my mother.
She has placed a white mug of black tea in front of me. I watch steam spill out of the mug’s edges. Tentative and pensive, I take a short sip and wrap my hands around it for warmth.
“Where did you find them? The recipes. Po Po’s.”
“Find them?” “Yeah. Did she write them down? Were they from newspaper clippings, cookbooks, anything?”
Mommy only replies no, and gulps down a swallow of tea. My eyes press her for more.
“She learned from her mother. I learned from her. That’s the way things are. You don’t read recipes, Shannon; you make them. All you do is watch the cook while she does her work. You always keep your eyes open.”
I just sit there, letting the warmth of the tea seep in between my fingers, and think about all the recipes, the stories, I’ve made and have yet to make. I’m still sitting there as she puts her mug in the sink and washes the dishes. I’m still sitting there as she returns the plates back into the cupboard for tomorrow’s dish, tomorrow’s recipe.