My parents are gone, but I still have their things. A plate, a chair, a matchbook, a sweater, an old cell phone. Something of them lives on in this stuff. Send a picture of an object and tell me what it does to you and how it makes you feel about your mom and dad, dead or alive. Then go clean up your room. Thank you
This was my mother’s train case. She must have had it since 1967, when she traveled from Taiwan to the United States. For the past three decades, she had been using it as a sewing basket. Among the things inside it ( frayed spools of thread, small buttons, a 1974 ID from when she worked as a statistics lab assistant at Princeton and was a student at Rutgers), a band-aid, and two of my baby teeth, slightly bloodied) I found this post-it note that knocked me over. It reads:
To understand +
therefore take it
A gesture of life
The words in Chinese, 淡 and 坦然, can be translated as “light” and “calm,” “honestly,” “not hiding/concealing,” “undisturbed.” Were these phrases meant to reflect & refract off a single thought, or were they separate? Were they a comment on a piece of fiction, on a radio story, on someone else? Were they aspirational?
The post-it note is especially striking because it had often been hard for me to draw out her opinions, to tell what she held most dear. She usually went along with whatever restaurant you wanted to go to, whatever radio station you wanted to listen to. And yet, she was always clear-eyed about the gravity of difficult situations; she handled them with courage and grace. She suffered and experienced such turmoil, and she was so good at trudging on. My mother lived on three continents and always, I think, worked to live as meaningfully as she could, regardless of the context.
The fact that she was not bombastic, that she rarely imposed on others, does not mean that she did not hold deep convictions. I do not remember my mother initiating a single conversation about politics with me, though she never changed the subject, either. I do remember over 20 years ago, when we first became US citizens, asking her whom she had voted for, and she sounded almost surprised: “Celina, you know I would never vote for anyone who is not pro-choice.”
These items, in this sewing basket inspire me to be honest, to be calm, to understand and therefore take lightly—to practice equanimity and hold convictions close to my heart. Sometimes they make me cry, thinking about my mother who lived life with resolve and strength of character. I keep her Princeton ID in my wallet. I keep the post-it note on my desk at home. Recently I have started to sew, which requires a patience more my mother's than my own. I use the travel case as my sewing basket.