Mor Mor

Poetry
Tai Dong Huai


My adoptive mother’s mother, my Mor Mor, lies in a hospital bed in Baltimore. My adoptive father refuses to make the five hour trip from Connecticut. He says he can’t stand being in traffic on the Garden State Parkway, but I think it’s really the smell of the place, worse than the girls’ room at school on a hot Friday afternoon, that keeps him home.

Mor Mor smiles when we walk in, but I suspect she’d smile at anyone. She doesn’t talk anymore, and since the nursing home lost her false teeth, she mostly eats only plain yoghurt.

I kind of remember when she was active. It was maybe five years ago, when I was five. She used a cane, but she moved out on it. Get in her way, and you’d feel the sting on your ankles, the backs of your legs. Now she can’t even sit in a chair, and the staff at the nursing home has given up trying to make her move.

I say, “Hi, Mor Mor,” but she doesn’t respond. Her mouth opens and stays that way, a black circle on a melting face. My adoptive mother says,”Look who’s here to visit,” and takes out the small container of vanilla ice cream she bought at the deli across the street. When my mom feeds her, her lips close around the plastic spoon until it can be pulled free. “Leah can play Trepak,” my adoptive mother tells Mor Mor. “Maybe next time she’ll bring her violin.”

After we’ve been there for what seems like much longer than we’ve been there, my adoptive mother takes a wrapped Almond Joy miniature from her purse and puts it into Mor Mor’s hand. A year ago she tried to mask the gesture, as if Mor Mor herself had gotten up, walked across the street, and bought the candy herself. Now she knows I know better, but she still says, “Mor Mor’s got something for you.” And when I approach, “Kiss Mor Mor goodbye.”

I’ll throw the candy away as soon as we head back to the car. I make no secret, and my mother is wise to it. But it’s a ritual and rituals, like some old women, don’t die easily.

“Mor Mor went to college when few women did,” my adoptive mother tells me on the ride home. “She was a mathematician. She worked with Chuck Yeager who was the first man to break the sound barrier.”

I think of my own mother, my birth mother, somewhere in Taizhou. I like to believe that sometime before she abandoned me, she took a photograph with a neighbor’s camera. I picture myself tiny and wrapped in many layers. Propped up in a chair against a white wall. This would have been a time before I knew how to smile, before I knew how to do anything.

I imagine that some nights, when she’s alone, my birth mother takes my picture from some hidden place and talks to it in a language I am powerless to understand.

I see myself staring out at her, unable to answer.

pencil

Tai Dong Huai’s fiction has appeared, or is scheduled, in elimae, Hobart, Word Riot, Wigleaf, 971 Menu, and other terrific places. “Mor Mor” is from I Come From Where I’ve Never Been, a collection in progress. E-mail: taidonghuai[at]gmail.com

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