Mother could barely sit and I combed her hair as she lay in bed. Her salt and pepper hair was still thick and strong, when smoothed, fanned out on her pillow like a flower. It gave me a little hope. Hope that her life would be as strong as her hair. Combing her hair, I said, “Mom, who is more beautiful, you or me?”
A smile spread from her lips, “you.”
“Nope. It’s you! You are the most beautiful from your village, aren’t you?”
Mother nodded, her smile broader, shy but proud. The kind of smile you see in a pure soul. I felt a lump in the throat, wishing I had known and understood my mother years earlier, not in the last months of her life.
It is not an exaggeration that my mother was the most beautiful girl in her village when young. She was also known as a very able woman, admired for her handwriting, which is better than many men with higher education, and better than all her children’s. She was selected to be trained to become a village doctor, because of which she had to travel to the township for all sorts of conferences and workshops, which exposed her to a world bigger than her mountain village Puzhu, which aroused many men’s curiosity and desire of her beauty and ability. Who is that girl?! People had asked. There was a long queue of men coveting her, handsome men and men with some power.
But mother chose father, who was considered not handsome, nor powerful, nor rich.
“When I first visited your father’s single room flat on the campus of Heyuan High School,” mother had told me while in hospital, “the first thing that caught my eyes was his mosquito net. It was old, but clean and neatly patched where there were holes. Everything in his tiny flat was clean and tidy.”
A good first impression.
Yet, meanwhile, another city man was waiting for mother to nod her head. It was a man surnamed Huang, handsome and with a powerful title, but widowed with two children.
Mother chose the plain-looking, reticent high school staff in the end. My father. “I wouldn’t want to be a stepmother,” Mother had told me, “Now I have my own children. Isn’t that wonderful?!”
Mother had always known what she wanted. She wouldn’t want to be a stepmother. Nor would she want to live her whole life in an obscure mountain village. When a young girl, she had fought with her father for her right to go to school. My grandfather gave in after a whole year’s fight and let her finish middle school, which was a luxury for village girls in the 1950s in China. “If only I had gone to college!” Mother had often lamented. Since she couldn’t go to college and couldn’t escape the remote village with the help of education, she chose to marry herself into the city. Since she herself couldn’t go to college, she insisted that all her children go to college. And we all did go to college.
Mother had regrets, though, because two of her children were still single in the last days of her life. Months before she died, she had often urged me, “Have you found a man yet? You can consider a man older than you. Your father is ten years older than me. But look, we do alright. Hurry up before it is too late. When you are as old and as sick as I am, you need children to look after you, like you look after me.”
In her last month of life, mother stopped asking me if I had found a man. Her face skin was surprisingly smooth and her eyes bright with a smile. Sometimes her eyes were fixed on a distant point and she waved her arm from time to time. She seemed to be seeing something beyond this world. One day, she said with a broad smile and sparkling eyes, “I see that mom and dad are together! I see them walking on the road, dad in front of mom. Mom is wearing a Hakka outfit, like when she was alive.” Another day, she said to me, “go to Zhumenting market and buy nine sets of incense. Do you know how to burn incense?” Two days before she left us for good, she was too weak to speak and she couldn’t even drink with a straw and we fed her with an eyedropper. But when I held her hand, she squeezed me tightly, with a strength like a healthy man’s. Father said, “she is saying goodbye to you.” Mother knew she was leaving us.
She left us on the morning of September 11, 2019. She was 78 years old.
I miss my mother. I remember her a phoenix flying out of Puzhu village, a woman beautiful inside and out. Because she was. Is.
(Where my mother came from, Puzhu: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fl_bpzGegvI )