To Take Lightly
Originally published the Museum of Yours Parents' Things, edited by Bob Morris, in 2015.
This was my mother’s train case. She must have had it since 1967, when she traveled from Taiwan to the United States, since the attached name tag features her Chinese name. For the past three decades, she had been using this train case as a sewing basket.
Amidst the sundries inside this train case, this sewing basket, I found this post-it note, so many frayed spools of thread, small buttons, a 1974 ID from when she worked as a statistics lab assistant at Princeton (when she was a student at Rutgers), a band-aid from Brazil (which we had left in the 1980s), and two of my baby teeth, slightly bloodied. The post-it note 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.” The light refers to color and not weight, an interesting juxtaposition against the English text. 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 to me 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 she was in. 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, sometimes make me weep. They inspire me to be honest, to be calm, to understand and therefore take lightly—to practice equanimity and hold convictions close to my heart. My mother practiced everyday life with a level of resolve and strength of character I can only hope to approach. I keep her Princeton ID in my wallet. I keep the post-it note on my desk at home. I use the train case as a sewing basket, as she did; I have recently started to sew again, and, against my usual nature, I hope to do so well, and to practice patience.
My brother Alex and I got to commemorate a bench for my mom next to the Prospect Park Boathouse. The quote on the plaque is from the post-it above. I sewed a banner with scraps from some of her old dresses, other beloved remnants, and a shirt that my dear friend Catie Lazarus, who passed away last December, bought for my kiddo A in Paris. The bench for our mom sits next to a bench for Catie. l wish that A could have had the chance to meet my mom and vice versa, that I believed in afterlives.