The Memory Cone

Monday, January 15, 2024

I want to preface this by saying I do love my mother. That truth gnaws at me. I don’t wish to betray anyone. Not her, not the family unit, and hopefully not God. (The well-known adage in a Muslim household: Who next? Your mother? And then? Your mother. And then? Your mother? And then? Your father.) I’d love her to death even if I wasn’t ordered to do so. A parallel: the magic, or perhaps the curse, of childbirth—that even though the process of having her was so painful, when I see her face I am filled with love, and fooled, again. Is this hypocritical to say even though I’ve never given birth?

The mashed potatoes slid down the wall, a few inches from my head. That was the first contrast I recognized: it’s not good to waste food, but food was being wasted. The table was still an oval then, not a rectangle. It was dinner time, the hanging blinds in front of the sliding glass door to the backyard drawn shut. The round light above our head dangled silently, casting strange shadows in the room. I was maybe ten, then. Still in my happy years.

While teaching me how to color, my mother told me the story of how her brother went up to the roof to bring down the rice when my grandmother asked, only to see a giant monkey threateningly eating rice out of the bag.

As she tied my salwar kameez and hooked my anklet on Eid morning, she told me that when my aunt was in college, my grandparents brought a suitor for her to meet, and in protest, she had shaved her head bald and hid upstairs, refusing to meet him.

While she fed me rice balls, alternating with McDonald’s French fries to appease me, she told me their family had many enemies, how her uncle had married a witch who cursed their family, eventually leading to their downfall.
(I listened with rapt attention.)

Analysis of a kid on the playground: what I like about bluebonnets is that a single flower gives you many flowers. Bonnets are never alone, a single stem carrying many little buds of blue. When bunched together, they make a little bushel; when the bushels grow together, they can cover an entire field. Bluebonnets are also resilient: they grow in the cracks of sidewalks next to busy roads, they grow even when it’s cold outside and stay fresh even when the weather turns too hot. But they are also delicate: the buds crumble off the stem if you grip the flower too tightly, they are difficult to grow at home if you plant them, and they wilt easily in the rain. Sometimes I like watching bonnets flowing down street drains by the masses in little rivers of blue.

Analysis of a mother who knows better: jasmines are better than bluebonnets. My father plants jasmine bushes next to the patio. Once they’ve bloomed, five-petaled and fragrant-sweet, you can collect them in a basket and put them in the fridge so they stay fresh longer. When the weekend comes, you can thread them together and make necklaces and crowns.

I wove them through her thick black hair and made a frame with tiny fingers. Sitting on the mahogany chair, with her pale skin and dark hair, in a long, plain black skirt and white blouse, cream flowers braided through her hair, she looked elegant and sophisticated. Just like the princesses from the tales she told.

When we moved to Virginia, we learned that the spring Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, DC was the big flowering event in the area every year. That first spring after we moved, I discovered that I had developed an unruly pollen allergy. Armed with eyedrops, Claritin, Benadryl, and in later years an inhaler, I visited the Lincoln Memorial with my family to take pictures with the cherry blossoms. The wind would blow until I couldn’t tell if my sneezing and watery eyes were from the pollen or the chilly remnants of winter still battling an early spring. I was battling something, too: smiling impatiently for every picture before running off to climb one of the trees or jump between boulders until my parents told me that I shouldn’t do that since it’s “dangerous for girls.” I stubbornly climbed higher.

My mother would sometimes collect small fallen branches of the cherry blossoms; they were too big to be woven into crowns, but she would take them home and press them dry inside books, saying she wanted to start scrapbooking. My mother was like that: she had many dreams, and three children and a husband who didn’t understand them. We stood there every year, mother and daughter, collecting pink and white petals off the ground. Dreaming new dreams and forgetting old ones.

The difference between thirteen and fifteen: you know what to do so no one calls the police.

Our parents fought in the kitchen. I quietly closed the doors to my sisters’ rooms before heading down to herd my mother upstairs, who fought my every tug. I did this mostly because I learned early on I couldn’t stop my father. Not because he was a man (maybe because he was a man), but because it was hard to reason with someone who decided to emotionally abandon you after puberty. My mother was unpredictable, but my father was unreadable. Afterward, I closed the door to the master bedroom behind me—my mother’s room now, because my father didn’t sleep there anymore—and sat calmly, absorbing everything my mother had to say. When the anger would finish, the tears would flow. It’s unfair, I would agree, holding her tight. Very unfair.

The next week, as I sat at the table doing biology homework, I watched a rare expression of happiness cross my mother’s face: she was on our small deck, smelling the deep pink roses that had bloomed after my father planted them there. Another contrast: the flowers that he brings can only be appreciated when he’s not there.

She picked one up and held it against her hair, which was half-red now, graying strands dyed with henna. A question suddenly occurred to me. “Mamma, would you want your daughters to have roses in their hair on their wedding day? Didn’t you say that was kaeth?” She shook her head. “It’s only kaeth if it’s styled that way. It can look very classy, too.” She liked things that were “traditional” and “classic”; she abhorred things that were “typical.”

Rose prints on clothes were kaeth, or tacky, especially if they were big. Small rose prints were okay, though. Roses on Eid were wonderful; on Mother’s Day, mildly acceptable; on anniversaries, cringey at best. In pictures, they were beautiful, but in paintings, they were overdone. The way my mother categorized roses seemed arbitrary and unpredictable. I memorized them anyway.


       I have different conflicts with both my parents, but my dad doesn’t tell me things. Or at least, we grew more distant as I got older. My mother tells me too much.


       Elaborate on that.


       It feels a little wrong to say this, but I feel like I was my mom’s emotional support daughter growing up.


       And why does it feel wrong to say that?


       I don’t want it to sound like I’m saying my mother owes me something just because I was there for her growing up. She did so much for me. It was the least I could do.


       I understand. But you were a child, and she was an adult. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but it wasn’t your responsibility to take care of her emotions. Nor should you feel like you have to live the life she wanted for you because of her sacrifice. It’s your life.


       (But what about hers?)

The shapla, or water lily, is the national flower of Bangladesh. They usually come in pink or white, sprouting on lotus pads, floating in rivers. I didn’t know much about the water lily, or about Bangladesh. Other images: mangoes. Hot overhead sun. Girls with roses in their hair (girls who don’t climb trees after turning ten). Mosquitoes. Street food my father insists is to die for. Doctors.

“Is everyone a doctor or engineer there?” I asked. It was the summer after my freshman year of college. “Mostly,” my father said, his glasses perched on his head as he squinted at something on his phone. “All 160 million-something people?” I insisted. He shrugged. “Well, I’m an engineer. I can only speak from that stereotype.”

“If you don’t want to be an engineer, be a doctor,” my mother said, entering the living room. “It’s much more honorable and prestigious.” It was suffocating, honor and prestige. My mother was wrapped up in it. Both culturally ingrained and like a glory-days cloak from her family she couldn’t shake off.

“Just finish your pre-med courses,” she pushed. “You can decide what to do later. You’re so good at chemistry and biology and science. Look at how well you finished your first year.” I’m not good at science, I wanted to say. I’m good at doing things that make you happy.

That summer, I put all my memories in a box for safekeeping. Half of them were mine, and half of them were hers: I was the only one after her whom she trusted with family heirlooms. In went my journals and little clay projects, alongside a journal of my uncle’s writings. Next to my uniforms and graduation cap and gown was a small stack of my mother’s family photos from Bangladesh. On the top was a file folder I didn’t recognize. I opened it.

Inside was a stack of sketches my mother had done in high school in Sweden, along with one painting: a duck in a pond full of lotus pads, a single pink water lily in the corner. She had been trying to hold on to home when she had left hers, too.


       Love doesn’t mean we have to carry each other’s wounds.


       She’s not going to like that explanation.


       Do you?

There is a burger lying at my feet. It was thrown from the backseat in the middle of the van, angled to hit my wrist on the way down. The tartar sauce has mostly spared me, grazing my pants with a few drops, but the lettuce lies in disarray around my shoes. We are stopped at some turnpike on the East Coast, likely Pennsylvania. Every disastrous car memory blurs.

The burger is still mostly wrapped, and my first thought is I hope I can still eat this. My father tells me to switch out of the driver’s seat, and that he’ll drive and eat the sandwich. I’m suddenly overheated in my hoodie, vibrating somewhere between numbness and anger. Suddenly I want to do something that will overcome the frozen feeling in me. I try staring straight at the afternoon sun that is miraculously golden at 4 p.m. after hours of cloudiness. It stings like I wanted. An intrusive thought: is this a good angle for a golden hour selfie? My mother is still yelling in the back.

My second thought: empathy is a disease.

Despite being a staunch feminist, and always supporting my mother, I had chosen, on this occasion, in this particular McDonald’s, to wait for my father to confirm a question about the vegetarian options that I was too tired to ask, despite my mother insisting that she knew the answer. She was correct, but I was anxious and pent up after a long drive, and I, along with my younger sister, spoke with annoyance as we told her we would just wait for our father to come back. Once we got to the car, I don’t even recall what I had said, but the burger was flung at me. A reverse humiliation. I had humiliated her, and now she had humiliated me. Empathy made it so that underneath my anger I felt it was a fair exchange.

My father is at the wheel. One of my younger sisters has earbuds in, the other is playing games on her phone. My mother refuses to eat. I shift in the passenger seat—her seat. I’m not supposed to be there.

I rack my brain at every turn: is this moment truly circumstantial? Is she overreacting? Or was there some sort of innate biological imperative I’d failed to curb through superficial politics, some kind of Freudian slip?

I only ever understood what she taught me.

Her quiet desire: for us to come into the kitchen like in that video she watched of the young Palestinian boys peppering their mother’s face with kisses when she is making food, murmuring habibi, habibi, in gratitude. Even when they have nothing, they have everything, she says. My quiet desire: to build a mosque in her name. A grander, more desperate gratitude: maybe God can give you what I’ve failed to.

We haven’t forgiven each other as much as we’ve loved each other.

Love can turn a sponge into an anchor if you’re not careful. I was drowning, oversaturated with unfulfilled wishes, hard-pressed expectations, endless demands. I wanted to be like the water lily, poised perfectly above the water, thriving in its natural habitat without drowning or over-absorbing. My other friends seemed to have mastered that, the art of being brown, the art of being your mother’s child, an eldest daughter—for me it was, I realized guiltily, only a mantle I wore. Every day, it was getting heavier to walk in.

I know which roses are tacky or not. I know which sandals are used for which part of the house. I know what upsets her (years of insecurities, a dwindling ability to drive, slowly becoming stuck inside the home, a two-story middle-class prison; enduring comments about her naïveté, rigidity, lack of skill, OCD; internalization). I know how to make jasmine flower crowns. I know I’d rather starve than step foot in a kitchen. I know that any slip-up confirms that reassurances and encouragement are for naught (at the end of the day, in her eyes, we were coddling her feelings because any final decision came from our father). I know I didn’t believe it, but she did.

I still don’t know a lot of things. Like how to make biryani. Or how to tie a sari. Or what to do with fathers who loom like shadows; fathers who grow old after their transgressions; a father whom your mother still loves or relies on, but never both at the same time. If you can do anything nice with bluebonnets at all. Or what to do with all the wishing (that things were different, that you could fix this, that you can go back. That perhaps it would’ve been better if you’d been a son).


       Are you translating for her, right now?




       Who is sitting in front of me, right now? Is it you, or her?

It feels something like this: I wrote my mother out of me—until she was expelled, onto the sheets, all out on paper. A birth, though I know it doesn’t compare. I wrote and wrote and wrote until she was tangible in front of me, a real person, and not a voice in my head. Someone you can’t stop loving, sometimes biologically, until you think you’d rather bite your lips off than see them again, but you do. Because your mouth looks just like hers. Because she fed that mouth, even when she silenced it.

Monday, January 15, 2024