At my funeral, she said those words again at the very end, only
this time she was smiling with tearful eyes: "Bibi was like a mother to me. She
was terribly generous with her advice."
My own mother did not give me advice, terrible or otherwise. She
died when I was a baby. So it was my father's first wife who raised my two
brothers and me. She was named Bao Tian"Sweet Bud"which was not quite
suitable. We, her stepchildren, were obliged to call that old sour-mouth by the
affectionate name of Sweet Ma. Whatever emotional deficits I had, they were due
to her. My excesses, as I have already said, were from my mother.
According to Sweet Ma, she would have been my father's only
wife had she not insisted that my father take a concubine so he could seed some
descendants. "It was my own idea," Sweet Ma boasted. "I wasn't forced to
accept the arrangement, not at all."
As the fates would have it, Sweet Ma was unable to bear
children. Soon after she married she caught a spotted-skin diseaseit might
have been measles, or chickenpox, but was definitely nothing as serious as
smallpox. The aftermath of this illness, she lamented, blocked off the path to
the warm springs of her body, and thus, she did not have sufficient heat to
incubate the seeds of babies. Instead, this useless warmth rose in her body and
continued to break out as blisters on her face and hands, and perhaps the rest
of her, which we couldn't see, nor did we want to. Time and time again, she
would wonder aloud over what she had done in a past life to deserve such a
barren fate. "What small transgression for such bitter punishment?" she cried as
the red dots rose. "No children of my own, just the leftovers of others"
(meaning my brothers and me). Whenever she ate anything that disagreed with her,
from unripe kumquats to veiled insults, her face was soon decorated with crusty
splotches that resembled maps of foreign countries. "Do you know where India is?"
we would ask her, and swallow our giggles. To soothe herself, she scratched and
complained incessantly, and when she ran out of things to say, she would look at
me and criticize my mother for endowing me with such ugly features. In time, she
scratched her eyebrows bald, and when she did not draw them in with mean black
slashes, she resembled a Buddhist nun with knots on her forehead, bulging with
That is how I remember Sweet Ma, always running a sharp finger
along her hairless eyebrows, chattering nonsense. My older brothers managed to
escape her grasp. They were immune to her influence and treated her with
blank-faced disdain. Thus, all her arrows fell on me as her solitary target.
"I tell you this," Sweet Ma would say to me, "only so you won't
be stricken sick to hear it from someone else." And she would tell me once again
that my mother had been a tiny girl like me, but not as squat, barely seventy
pounds at age sixteen when my father took her in as his breeding concubine.
"Itty-bitty though she was," Sweet Ma said, "she was excessive
in everything she did. She ate too many pears. She showed too much emotion. Why,
when she laughed she could not control herself, and would fall to the floor in a
fit of giggles until I slapped her back to her senses. What's more, she slept
all night long, yet yawned all day. She slept so much her bones turned soft.
That was why she was always collapsing like a jellyfish out of water."
During wartime, when the price of fatty pork had tripled, Sweet
Ma could be heard to declare: "Though we have money enough, I'm content to eat
meat sparingly, just for the taste and certainly not more than once a week. But
your mother, when she was alive, her eyes were like those of a carrion bird,
ready to pounce on any dead flesh." Sweet Ma said a decent woman should never
show eagerness for food or any other kind of pleasure. Most of all, she should "never
be a burden," this being what Sweet Ma strived not to be, and she desired in
particular for my father to acknowledge this as often as she did.
From Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan. Copyright Amy Tan 2005. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Putnam Publishing. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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