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My 75-year-old mother lives, works in streets of New York

She has come to San Diego, but she'd rather stay home

Amy Chu's mother. She still tells me to be careful if she knows I’m driving by myself to Los Angeles, and to chant to Buddha all the way there.
  • Amy Chu's mother. She still tells me to be careful if she knows I’m driving by myself to Los Angeles, and to chant to Buddha all the way there.
  • Image by Lee Staicer

I go to New York to see my mother. She has lived in New York City for thirty-eight years and been to Brooklyn only once — in 1972. Most of those years she has worked in an old-age home where almost all the residents have been younger than she is now; spent part of every day in Buddhist meditation; and shopped for weekly food bargains in an area bordered on the south by 230th Street, on the north by 235th Street, on the east by Broadway, and on the west by Johnson Avenue in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.

She works the evening shift so it is always light when she goes to work and always dark when she leaves, the year round. Several years ago she was hit by a taxi. The taxi knocked her down and shook her up but didn’t change her habit of running to catch the bus home. So I wasn’t altogether surprised when she called me last month and said, “You know, I was hit by a car the night before last.’’

I don’t like my mother to walk on the dark streets of New York; she doesn’t like me to fly, not even to see her. But this time when I said I would come to New York, all she said was, “It’s so far and you can only stay two weeks . . . but I would like to see you.’’

This time when I arrived in New York I had to consult a map. After twenty-three years in a small apartment, my mother has moved into a large house. It wasn’t her idea to move, but she thinks she can make the best of it. There’s a vegetable stand on the corner, supermarkets in almost every direction, and she can walk to work without crossing the street where she had her “incident.’’ Her legs shake, she says, when she sees the spot. I look closely but it’s just another busy street, with no sign of the speeding car, her brief fling in the air, or her fall to the asphalt.

She’s supposed to be resting, but there are too many things to do. Together we clean Venetian blinds, put up a clothesline, hang pictures, install storm windows. One entire day is spent in the attic, cutting and stapling roll after roll of fiber glass insulation. When we’re done the air glistens with fiber glass particles that reflect against the foil facing and our eyebrows are gray. Because of a leaky gasket in the basement there is no hot water in the house, so we go to the Buddhist temple in the next block to take a bath.

We usually talk about the future casually and in small, oblique ways. My mother will say that she has enough cooking oil to last five years and that will probably be long enough; or that she will never get through her trunks of unused fabric. She giggles every time she tells me this: When her ophthalmologist detected cataracts and glaucoma, she asked him if she should worry. “How old are you?’’ he asked her. She was seventy-three. “Don’t worry,” he said. On her most recent birthday, the seventy-fifth, she told me that her mother had lived to seventy-five and her father to eighty, so she knew she had a few years left.

I ask when she will retire. She asks when I will have a baby. She used to say she would retire soon, maybe in six months or a year. Now she has to take advantage of living so close to work, she says, so she won’t retire for at least another year. In fact, her greatest pleasure is in working. She’s always glad to go back after a vacation, and the residents are so happy to have her again, some of them greet her with tears. The home gives her special treatment: she’s the only nurse who doesn’t have to float from floor to floor. Also, she used to say as a final reason, if she retired and later decided to return to work, who would hire her?

We don’t mention the future much this time. We do have to discuss the heating system, which must be repaired or replaced. There is a tremendous difference in cost. “How long will you be living here?’’ I ask. (In this house you’ve just bought. I mean, before you retire and move to California. I mean, how much time do you have?)

I want her to get out of the city and come to San Diego. She will, she says, but she’s not ready yet. Later, when she isn’t working, when she can’t get around as easily. She doesn’t drive, and there is no Buddhist temple here, nor any of her friends, and I’m not really sure she would like the suburban life. But her temple has started to stagnate and she doesn’t go every Sunday anymore. She spends hours on the phone every day, yet she doesn’t feel that she has any close friends. “Confucius,’’ she says, “says not to get too close to another person.’’ She is outliving many of her friends. And she likes to walk on the beach.

We went to China together two years ago, my mother and I. It was my first trip and my mother’s return home after forty-three years. Her parents are dead and also her two older and favorite brothers, but all her remaining relatives are there. We saw seventy of them, almost everyone except my mother’s oldest sister, who was suddenly too ill to make the trip to where we were and who lived in too inaccessible a place for us to travel to. In Shanghai we visited my mother’s old monk. When the monk saw my mother, he rushed over and said, with clasped hands and a warm smile, “Ah, Miss Chen, you’ve come back at last.’’ He was allowed to leave the temple and foreign tourists came occasionally to see the temple, but no Chinese were allowed there. As overseas Chinese, we were able to visit, and because of us, another old friend — Grandma’s former secretary in Shanghai — was permitted to go to the temple with us. For a while, before we went to China, my mother used to talk of going back there, to spend her last years in a Buddhist monastery studying and preparing for the Pure Land.

“Grandma is like a vegetable,’’ my mother tells me candidly. She’s my mother’s best friend, a woman I call my grandmother though she’s barely older than my mother. They’ve known each other for fifty-three years and lived together on three continents. They still say the same things to each other and smile the same smiles, but one doesn’t always hear what the other has to say and sometimes one is smiling at the other as if thirty years younger. Three years ago we visited Grandma in Connecticut. After dinner, my aunt — Grandma’s youngest daughter — reminisced about my mother’s storytelling skills. Every evening when they lived in the mountains near Hangchow, my mother used to read from an historical saga. She dramatized it for.the children, so imaginatively that my aunt, who was only four or five, still has vivid memories of monkeys sitting atop walls playing flutes, valiant, battles, beautiful courtesans. I never knew that part of my mother’s past. At the end of that evening in Connecticut my mother told me, Grandma’s memory was worse than her own. And now, she says, Grandma’s memory is gone.

Grandma has six children who live with their families nearby and who still gather together for Sunday dinners and all the holidays. It makes my mother remember the seven brothers and sisters she left fifty years ago. She looks at me and hopes for her own large family again. In her closets, wrapped in tissue paper, lie tiny, finely knitted sweaters and jumpers, gifts finished too late or forgotten, for babies now grown, waiting for my babies. This winter she wants to prepare a root for me to take. It’s for weak people, she says. It makes them more fertile.

My mother has sewed for me all my life. When I was a child, she embroidered bunnies and violets and stitched extravagantly long crisp bows. She never uses a pattern. She has copied button-down shirts and transformed photographs and drawings into cotton and corduroy and wool, conjuring up the unseen backs. She makes mistakes and carefully, painfully corrects the mistakes. She used to sew all night sometimes to finish a special dress for me. She also made exquisite lampshades out of very fine embossed silk or silk shantung, trimmed with a tasseled or twisted silk braid.

When I was a child and we lived in Manhattan, my mother took me to Central Park and spread a blanket for me to sit and play on, and if I strayed onto bare grass she would pick me up and place me in the center of the blanket again. The summer after I graduated from college, I went to Europe. I don’t remember if she knew then that I traveled from London to Istanbul and back through the Mediterranean countries by hitchhiking; I’m sure I didn’t tell her that from Venice to Barcelona and all around Ireland I thumbed alone. She still tells me to be careful if she knows I’m driving by myself to Los Angeles, and to chant to Buddha all the way there. Whenever you’re in the car, she says, you should chant. I don’t tell her that I frequently drive a hundred miles a day in San Diego.

She doesn’t go into Manhattan much anymore. She goes to see her doctor, her dentist, her ophthalmologist, or to accompany a friend who doesn’t speak English to the hospital. Whenever I’m in New York I go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Again?” or “What for?” my mother used to ask. ‘‘You’ve already been.” Once she went with me to see a Monet exhibition. It was the last weekend and there was a long line that started by the Chinese porcelains and went through Islamic art, Far Eastern art, and Etruscan art. I sent my mother into the Islamic galleries while I waited in line. Half an hour later I reached the head of the line but my mother was nowhere in sight. I walked back to the Islamic galleries: they had closed. I felt a sudden panic. When I was lost in Macy’s at the age of two, it had taken her a long time to find me. How could I find her in this huge museum that was bigger than Macy’s? Would she be as worried as I was then? But she was fine when I found her, chatting in the Etruscan part of the line. And she loved Monet’s paintings of water lilies, although she hasn’t wanted to go back to the Met again.

Riding home that day, I realized how the subway had changed. I used to love the subways in New York. The clatter, the sway, the blast of hot or cold air when the doors between cars opened and closed. Going downtown, the steady accumulation of people. Going back home, the sudden sunlight and fresh air at 125th Street and the screech of brakes that meant I was almost there, 242nd Street. When I was fourteen it was a trip, and the destination might have been San Francisco or Siberia, not just Times Square. It was once the excitement and exotica of distance and space and other lives. Now it was noisy and dirty and no one looking anyone else in the eye. It was just a place to sit or stand and wait for Columbus Circle or Chambers Street to come along, and it was either too hot or too cold. It seemed strange that my mother didn’t notice how the subway has changed.

This time I went to the Met alone, on a different subway, the one that goes by Yankee Stadium. On the way back the subway was packed and the stadium ablaze with World Series lights. In the museum I saw the recently completed Astor Court, modeled after a small courtyard in the Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets (Wang Shi Yuan) in Suzhou. It is lovely and looks very authentic and more perfect than the so many more and larger ones in China. There these private gardens, built for the contemplation of the privileged or the wealthy, are public parks, places where people walk and talk, sit and eat. I was glad I hadn’t encouraged my mother to come with me. She would have liked it but she would have been disappointed by it.

“This neighborhood isn’t safe,’’ my mother warns me. “Don’t come home too late.’’ A policeman has told her which areas to avoid. Between her big brick house and the subway are bright street lamps and other houses like hers: it’s a street where congressmen used to live. In the other direction, though, are apartment buildings with higher crime rates. In a local department store we overhear this conversation: one shopper, buying a portable hair dryer, confides to another one, “This is the seventh hair dryer I’ve bought. They keep stealing them’’; and the other one, buying glasses, “They even steal my glasses. I can’t believe it. I don’t know why they want them.’’

We go out very little. We make plans — to go to the new Asia Society gallery downtown, to look at a diamond ring in her safe deposit box, to take an old platinum watch in for repair, to buy curtains for the kitchen — but instead we stay home and call plumbers and heating companies and wait for them to call back and then wait for them to come. We don’t even get to Bronx Park, to walk among the turning leaves. “It doesn’t matter,’’ my mother says. “You can close your eyes and imagine that you see them.’’ We wait two days for an estimate on storm windows and finally the salesman says, “I am your friend, I have to be honest with you, You want a written estimate? I’ll give you one, but listen, I haven’t given a written estimate in thirty years, I have to charge you fifty dollars for it, I have no choice, Well, how about twenty-five dollars?’’ It drives you crazy, my mother says, and she’s been dealing with New York all my life. She still doesn’t know how things work, she can’t understand the instructions enclosed with this or that appliance, and she isn’t able to fix it when something goes wrong.

I’m amazed to learn that my mother has never balanced her checkbook. And because she’s afraid to carry it with her, she forgets to enter deposits and withdrawals. “Something terrible has happened,” she tells me one morning. “The bank lost two of my checks.” We hurry to the bank, we wait for an hour and a half, and in the end the bank remembers that she deposited another check but not those two. Then it must have been another bank. She has to wait for a statement from that bank: no checks. They are really lost. One of them turns up on a statement from her stockbroker. The other one is still missing.

At least she knows that she doesn’t want to know, doesn’t have — at her age — to learn. She’d rather cook something special for me to eat when I’m there. And she does, every meal.

My mother hates to travel, yet she’s been traveling most of her life. After forty-four years in America, she still feels herself a visitor. She has come to San Diego, certain she wouldn’t survive the trip, accepting the risk in order to see me, enjoying Disneyland, loving the giant redwoods. She’d rather stay home, though. So I go to New York to see her.

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