With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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“The thing I remember most about watching my mother’s body burn,” my mother tells me in English, a language that has never quite served her, “is when I can smell her skin and hair as they are catching fire and crackling in the flame.”
It is late April, and my mother and I are sitting at the kitchen table in my apartment in the old Deering neighborhood of Portland, Maine. Outside, sunshine is melting dirty snow into thin rivers that flood the city’s gutters with silver. Across the street the headstones in the cemetery stand like rows of crooked teeth in the fading white drifts. With one hand my mother is drinking green tea from a small porcelain cup, like the ones used in the street cafes of her girlhood village in Thailand; with her other hand she is holding my nine-month-old baby daughter in her lap and bouncing her on one knee. My mother has come to baby-sit, and something about the early-spring weather and my new child has prompted me to ask my mother about her mother, who died before I was born. For reasons I don’t understand, she has chosen to begin her story with the day my grandmother was cremated in “the old way.”
“To see your mother on fire, to smell her as she disappear,” my mother says, “this is something to awaken the consciousness, na?”
“Yes,” I say, but I am never sure that what my mother tells me in English is exactly what she means.
“First we take the sop out of the hospital in Bangkok,” my mother says. “We go back to Panom, to keep — what is it? Sop? . . . Corpse! To keep the corpse in a special room in our home.”
I wonder if she intended to use a less gruesome word than corpse.
“That she comes home, this is so very important,” my mother says. “This, this is very Thai.”
Very Thai is what my mother calls something that is too simple and too poor, too elegant and too beautiful to be American. Years ago, on a trip to Mexico, my mother described the children selling oranges in the street as “very Thai.” As a boy, when I used to walk around barefoot in winter, I was “so very Thai.” And “very Thai” is how my mother has always described her mother: a strict and rigorous woman of Chinese heritage who hand-stitched all her family’s futon mattresses, who disciplined her children with a stiff blade of canal grass, who refused to let my mother learn to cook so that she would be forced to rely on her intelligence instead. Seventeen years before I was born, my grandmother died of a sickness that my mother — because neither she nor anyone else in her village had a name for it — refers to generically as “cancer.” Dying and not even knowing what you are dying from: I suppose this, too, is “very Thai.”
My mother sips her tea, then pushes the small cup out of reach of my daughter, so that it will not burn the soft skin of her hand. “When the corpse is come home,” my mother says, “it is believe that the body is resting. It is believe that the body is preparing to travel.”
The home my mother speaks of is her ancestral home on the west bank of a muddy canal in the village of Panom, in the province of Chachoengsao. As a boy I visited it yearly, but since then my busy American life has kept me away. The walls and roof of the house are made of wooden planks and corrugated metal, and the floor is perched upon thin stilts. Across from the house are a bowed footbridge, a grove of craning bamboo trees, an old coconut tree, and a much-older bodhi tree, whose branches are adorned with red-and-gold spirit houses. From the front steps of the home it is a short walk to the Wat Takwean Temple, where each morning thirty monks chant to a golden Buddha, his eyes painted white and his feet illuminated with yellow candles. The neighborhood where my Thai family lives is called Bahn Bahn — not one word twice, but two different words: bahn (first tone, flat), “like a tree opening to the sky,” my mother says; and bahn (third tone, falling), like the word for “home,” which was one of the first Thai words my mother taught me.
“Then it is ab nam sop,” my mother says — the bathing of the corpse. She tells me how she and her sisters scented the body with perfume and oil. They dressed their dead mother in silk gowns — “the most beautiful clothing we ever have” — and wrapped her in white cloth. Then they placed her in a wooden casket decorated with gold leaf and carvings. On the first day, monks came to the house to chant prayers. They came back on the third day and again on the seventh. After several weeks — “when the corpse begins to smell,” my mother says — the family brought her mother’s casket to the temple grounds, where it was placed inside a large cement vault. “This,” she says, “is so the animals do not climb inside to eat her.”
Eat her? Only in a country like Thailand, where packs of stray dogs — pregnant or rabid, scabs and sores around their mouths and hairless haunches — haunt the streets like pigeons, does one worry about animals eating the dead. I look at my daughter, her skin fragile and new, not having yet seen a full summer, and I wonder what it will be like when I bring her to the village. I wonder what she will think about the dogs.
For the first one hundred days, my mother tells me, every morning and evening she and her sisters sat by the vault and spoke to it as if their mother were still alive. “I always want to know, will the spirit come out? So I will sit on top of the cement block and tell the block I miss her and hoping that her spirit can be with Buddha, to go to . . .” My mother stares at the ceiling as if the word in English were written there. She shrugs and settles for the Thai: “Niwaranat.”
“Nirvana,” I say. I feel a shameful self-conceit each time I am able to translate my mother’s Thai into my more sophisticated English.
“Yes,” my mother says, “a place where she does not have to be born again.” She laughs quietly, kisses my daughter, and pretends that she is not embarrassed. “This is the Buddhism. This is what the Thais will believe: that you can have reincarnation or maybe go up to,” and my mother points above her before saying, “suwan” — and by this she means something like heaven.
Sometimes when I look at my mother, I imagine how the rest of the world must see her: a diminutive Asian woman who lives by herself in a house that is too big for her, in a small town in Maine where she does not really belong, in a massive and brightly lit culture whose values she does not seem to share. By day she works twelve-hour shifts as a psychiatric nurse at the local hospital, where she tends to adoring patients with mental disorders that make them forget their home addresses and Franco-American surnames. Several afternoons a week she plays tennis at a health club with married white women. At night my mother cooks herself a pot of rice and spicy vegetables on an electric hot plate and falls asleep on the couch while watching DVDs she borrows from the public library. She uses the hot plate because two years ago she decided that any woman who’d been raised without a stove certainly did not need one now. She watches the movies from the library because the television we have owned since I was five receives only one channel.
Though our town has several Thai restaurants run by Thai and Cambodian families, my mother does not have many Southeast Asian friends. For many years I encouraged her to make some, until she explained, “They are not like me. They are new to America, and they will ask me for money or for favors or for job. I know Thai people. They will ask me for things, and I have nothing to give them.” Of course, my concern is that my mother will become lonely. My older sister lives in Switzerland, and, other than my bagel-making uncle, who lives in Queens, I am her only family in America.
This is the story of my mother’s past, as best I can patch it together: Not long after her own mother died, she had to leave Panom to find work in Bangkok. During the week she lived in an apartment with her aunt and taught high school. On the weekends she drove a motorcycle down the narrow alleys of Chinatown and worked in the silk shops. What money she earned was sent home to support her father and four younger siblings.
I have trouble imagining this period of her life. Whenever I have gone to Bangkok with my mother, the burning streetlights, the anger of the city traffic, and the blackness of the truck exhaust have diminished her in a way that nothing in Maine ever has.
During the Vietnam War my mother — along with thousands of other Thai women — traveled to the rural northeast border of Thailand to work on an American military base. In a city called Sakon Nakhon my mother found a job as the manager of an officers’ club. It was there that she met my father: a twenty-four-year-old former college-football player from Boston who was now the captain of a communications platoon that patrolled radio towers along the Mekong River. My father once told me that he fell in love with my mother because she was the strongest woman he’d ever met. He told me how she used to play pickup basketball with the American GIs while wearing a dress; how, long before she could speak English with any fluency, she could sing Elvis songs. Sometimes she sang them for the infantrymen who came to her club after tours in the jungle.
I’ll never understand what strange force brought my parents together. I suppose I want to believe that my mother is too smart to have been seduced by a camouflage-wearing American messiah; I suppose I want to believe that my father, as he watched his disillusioned comrades disappear into the hot jungle, was too devoted to duty and too damaged by fighting to fall in love. Or perhaps I just want to believe that my origins are not contingent upon something as dubious and regrettable as a war.
My mother says that she and my father had a traditional Thai wedding, to convince her family and friends that their love was different from the love between soldiers and prostitutes. The ceremony was attended by my mother’s entire family and several hundred servicemen. In photos of that day — which my mother displays above her fireplace — she is wearing a pink silk gown. Her black hair is wrapped into a tall, shiny tower, and golden earrings hang nearly to her shoulders. My father wears a formal dress uniform. The loops of a white blessing string sit atop their heads like joined halos as they pray over a bowl of Buddhist holy water. But the day of blessing was not without its curses: Recently my mother showed me an opulent gold bracelet given to her by her maternal aunt. “When your marriage fails in America,” this aunt told my mother, “sell this bracelet for money to buy your plane ticket home.” Nearly forty years later my mother still keeps the bracelet locked in a safe.
My mother would move to Portland, where over the next ten years she would wait tables at a seafood restaurant along the waterfront, go to nursing school, and — like any honorable Thai woman — devote herself to caring for my father’s family and preserving the dignity of his name. She would give birth to my sister and me, and two years later she would learn that my father was having an affair with an American woman — my mother’s friend, confidante, and birth coach.
I once asked my mother if she’d ever dated anyone before my father, thinking that perhaps I could improve my version of her romantic history. My mother’s answer was indirect: “Be careful if you date a Thai woman,” she said, smiling. “It is saying that the Thai woman can only fall in love once.”
Following the divorce my mother, my sister, and I moved into a small apartment up the coast in the town of Brunswick, where my mother took a job working the night shift at the local hospital. On our birthdays she would take us to the playground at McDonald’s or on a picnic along the banks of the Androscoggin — a dirty and barren river that ran past the paper mills downtown. There, above a large hydroelectric dam, my sister and I would swim in the shade of an iron pedestrian bridge. I liked to imagine that the water of this industrial river did not stop at the Kennebec but flowed across the endless oceans until it reached that little canal next to our ancestral home in Panom.
On yearly trips back to Thailand, my mother would boast to her family about her life in America and, rather than bear the shame, tell her relatives that her husband was too busy working to come with us. She would give them what money she had saved and promise that more was coming, and then she would return home to a town where my father’s last name appears on street signs, libraries, schools, lobster buoys, gravestones, and more than two pages of the phone book. For reasons I’ll never understand, my mother has kept my father’s name — perhaps because this is the Thai way, or perhaps because the name is what brought her to this country, this town. Whatever the reason, my mother, rather than sell her aunt’s gold bracelet to buy a plane ticket home, will probably leave the heirloom for me.
“D op bat! Dop bat! Dop bat!” my mother sings as she claps my daughter’s pudgy fists together. “Sieng dang! Dop bat! Dop bat!”
The Thai nursery rhyme means nearly nothing to me in English: “Clap! Clap! A loud sound! Clap! Clap!” But for my mother and my daughter, who is smiling and kicking her feet, its meaning is joy.
“To have children,” my mother says. “This is the most happiness you will ever have.” She looks at me and smiles, and I recall a dark November night more than a year and a half ago, when I came to my mother’s house to tell her that my girlfriend, Jessie, was pregnant with a child I was not prepared to raise. First I cried, then I cursed, then I apologized to my mother for disrespecting the future she had worked so hard to provide for me.
My mother nodded, but her expression did not change. She reminded me of the story of the Buddha’s path to enlightenment: Days before he left his palace to become an ascetic, his only child was born. The first thing the Buddha said when he saw his son was “Rahula” — shackles. This became the boy’s name. “I have always thought this is so sad,” my mother said. “I believe in the good of the Buddha. But that the Buddha do this, it is sad.” She looked at me. “You are not my shackle. I am not disappointed in you.” She laughed, and we sat quietly for some time without speaking. “You are better to have the child,” my mother said. “I believe it is always better to prevent someone’s suffering than to choose it.”
I knew that my mother was speaking not of the suffering of my unborn child but rather of the suffering of the woman who carried it. As I drove back to Portland that night, I felt betrayed by them both.
“Dop bat! Dop bat!” sings my mother. My daughter laughs. “You see this? She understands! She is smart,” my mother says. “I think she can be president. She can be anything she wishes. I will help her.” My mother claps my daughter’s hands again. “Sieng dang! Dop bat! Dop bat!”
Recently I asked my mother to speak to my daughter only in Thai, because I want my daughter to learn to think in the language, something I cannot do. But this task has proven more difficult for my mother than I thought it would be. She has confessed that she is as uncomfortable speaking in Thai as she is in English. “I am in between languages” is how she described it.
When I ask her what else I can do to give my daughter a more Thai upbringing — my girlfriend’s family is from Maine, and our lives will probably remain here — my mother tells me that raising my daughter with a Buddhist spiritual foundation is more important than teaching her a language that she will rarely use.
“One must learn to not thirst for material things,” my mother says. “Recognize that life is impermanence.” Then she slips into Thai and recites an aphorism I have not heard before: “Nai lok nee, mee korng mai nae.”
To impress her, I translate: “In this life, things are not certain,” and I think: Yes, but just because they are not certain does not mean that they must be sad. I look at my mother and secretly wonder for the thousandth time what convinced her to stay in this country. Why didn’t you go back to your village? I want to ask her. To your culture? To your father and your family? I often think of my mother’s life as one enormous sacrifice made in my name.
My mother nods and continues, “Gan geuht, gan jep, gan gaa, gan dtai . . .” And I translate: “But birth, pain, old age, death . . .” She has embraced all of these except the pain: of her mother’s death; of her divorce; of her separation from her homeland. I know that the pain has changed her.
“Gap tuk tuk kon,” my mother finishes, and I say out loud: “These are with all of us.”
“Yes,” my mother says. “This is what I am thinking about when I am looking at my mother in the flames. That seeing her body burning can show me most essential thing in life: that all that I love so much are impermanence and do not belong to me.” She looks at me and says, “You do not belong to me.” She kisses my daughter on her soft belly. “She does not belong to you.” She looks out the window at the melting snow. “After I am seeing my mother in flames, I look at my fingers that I have painted very pretty for her funeral, and I think: My gosh! Look what I do to myself! These fingers do not belong to me! This body is not mine!” She holds up one finger and repeats the Thai saying as if it were a verse of the Dop bat! nursery rhyme: “In this life, things are not certain. But birth, pain, old age, death — these are with all of us.” And then: “Maybe this is same as death and taxes!” and she laughs at her own cleverness.
As I look at my daughter in my mother’s lap, I cannot help but remember that I wished to give her a different name: “Somlim,” my maternal grandmother’s name. It was a cold winter night when I told my mother this. I had come to her house alone, and she had made me a bowl of rice and cabbage soup. Jessie, seven months pregnant at the time, was asleep in our apartment in Portland.
“No,” my mother said. “Please do not use this name.” She shifted in her seat and would not look at me.
I told my mother that Jessie was named after her grandmother — a Scottish orphan from Nova Scotia — and that I believed that naming my daughter after my grandmother would not only honor my ancestors but remind my daughter that she possessed one-quarter Thai blood.
My mother shook her head. “No. I prefer you do not use this name. The Thai way is not like the way in America,” she said. “The dead are up there, and it is not respectful to bring them down to us.”
She had rarely spoken about her mother while I was growing up, but the previous Chinese New Year — a holiday of forgiveness and renewal — she had displayed her mother’s portrait in her home for the first time in forty years. I suppose I believed that naming my daughter after my mother’s mother would help lift her sadness.
“No,” my mother repeated. “Please do not call her this name.”
“Then what should I name her?” I asked.
She looked out the window at the moon-bright snow. “Duang Jai,” she said. “I have always thought this was a beautiful name.”
Though I liked the sound of it, I knew that Jessie would not want to name our daughter this. Duang sounded too much like dong. “I don’t think I can name her Duang,” I said. “People here will make fun of her.”
“In Thai,” my mother said, “duang is a very beautiful word.” She cupped her hands together, as if guarding a small flame from the wind. “Duang has meaning like . . . sphere?” she said. “And jai is like —” she put the flame to her heart — “the light of a heart. You know. The soul?” My mother nodded, as if to convince us both that what she was saying was true. “Duang jai is like the heart and soul together.”
I thought of Jessie asleep at our apartment, her belly round and glowing with life. I thought of what we had talked about before I’d left Portland earlier that day: that naming our child was our decision, not my mother’s.
I shook my head at my mother. “No,” I said. “Duang Jai is not the right name.”
My mother shrugged. “Perhaps the name can be Dao” — the Thai word for star.
I told my mother that Americans would associate the name with the Tao Te Ching and think my daughter was Chinese or, worse, that her parents were hippies.
“Well,” my mother said, clearing the table, “then maybe it is better to have an American name.”
When I left the house that night, I felt as though I had just destroyed something I could never repair. I did not tell Jessie about the conversation I’d had with my mother. For two more months our unborn daughter remained nameless.
In late July, Jessie gave birth to a beautiful, dark-eyed baby whose flat nose and full lips and thin eyes seemed pulled from yellowed photographs of my mother’s ancestors. After three days in the hospital we named her “Jai-Yen.”
Jai-Yen, translated literally, means “cool heart” — but not cool in the way of indifference or a lack of emotion. Cool as in a breeze; cool as in the opposite of anger.
“This is not a name,” my mother said, wincing, when I told her. “Jai-Yen, for Thai people, this is more of an idea. This is something you say when you want people to please be calm and relax.” She made it sound as if I had just named my daughter “Chill Out.”
I told my mother that I knew what it meant, and that it was the meaning that had drawn Jessie and me to the name. “It’s the name we have agreed on.”
“Well,” my mother said, “then she will be the only Jai-Yen in Thailand.”
“Your khun tha was so sad this day,” my mother tells me, pointing to a faded photograph of my grandfather at her mother’s funeral. Dressed in a lean black suit and cupping a cigarette in one hand, he is much skinnier than I remember him. Walking behind him is my mother, wearing a white dress, her hair in a fashionable bob. Behind her are my two aunts — just teenage girls at the time. Leading the funeral procession around the temple’s pagoda are several solemn monks. One is my uncle who lives in Queens. Another is my mother’s youngest brother, the only sibling who has remained in Panom. “He became a monk the day my mother died,” my mother says. In the photo, my young uncle is dabbing his eyes with a white handkerchief and hanging his head.
The other photograph is of my grandmother’s funeral shrine, her portrait surrounded by stitched bouquets of lotus blossoms, pots of incense, and elephant tusks. My mother tells me how the temple grounds were decorated with the carved trunks of banana trees, and how her family hired a group of grievers to cry during the final ceremony. As offerings, people filled her casket with flowers and incense and — because my ancestors are part Chinese — bundles of paper money and small clay dolls. “This is so she can have servants to buy her things no matter where she goes,” my mother says. And then she tells me how, as the monks began their chanting, my grandmother’s body was set on fire.
“It is all so real to me!” my mother says. “The smell of the corpse is very different than the smell of burning flowers. And maybe I am sad, but I know that I must watch this to learn openness, to learn that this is happening to all of us.” In her voice I can hear the weight of her memories. “You see why we do this? In America you cannot just burn me. You have to take me to a funeral home, and then I am burned in private, inside an incinerator, and then how does my son know that his mother is really dead?” My mother laughs with astonishment and presses her cheek to my daughter’s soft hair. “It is same as a baby,” she says. “If you see a baby come out of a woman, you know: this is her baby. I think it is so very important to witness birth and death, or else how do you know about true life?”
When the cremation was over, my mother collected her mother’s ashes and bones in a metal urn. Some of the remains were carried to a shrine in the upstairs of our ancestral home. A greater portion were placed in a small cubby inside the temple walls. The hole was sealed with a square tile adorned with my grandmother’s photograph and a brief inscription. Thirty years later my grandfather’s ashes would be buried in a similar cubby, facing a portrait of his wife.
“And when my mother’s smoke is all gone,” my mother says, “the new smoke is from the squid that are being grilled inside the vendors’ carts. And the smell of this squid makes me feel so comforted. Yes, I continue to grieve, but when I smell the burning squid, I am able to understand that life must continue. Because now there is a festival, and it is true: people must eat!” My mother tells me how a movie screen was erected in the middle of the temple grounds, and dancers performed until dawn. Families from across the countryside camped upon large straw mats to spend the night singing and eating. “It does not matter if we know them,” she says. “We pay to feed everyone, because we believe it is doing good for my mother.”
As my mother is describing all this, I look out the window at the residual snowbanks and the tall pines in the cemetery, and I remember how in the fall the first Cambodian was buried there. His gravestone was adorned with Buddha images and chains of flowers, and for a moment I had mistaken the swirling Khmer script on the stone for Thai.
But when I look back at my mother with my daughter in her lap, the vacancy in my chest reminds me that Maine is not Thailand and never will be. Even the Thailand that my mother remembers is now gone, replaced by the culture of my hipster cousins in Bangkok: bars where punk bands play reggae covers of Britney Spears tunes; night markets haunted by thousands of blue cellphone screens and neon-lit convenience stores; post-tsunami beaches full of sunburned expats high on hash. As my mother continues, I silently plead to a god I do not know or understand or often believe in to force my daughter’s little brain to remember what she’s hearing.
“Do I ever know where my mother’s spirit is?” my mother says. “How far she’ll go, I don’t know. When I have your sister many years ago, I think: Oh, my God! Could it be that my mother has come back around? I think: Can I give birth to my mother’s spirit?”
I want to tell my mother that, though she is not yet dead, I wonder if a shard of her spirit has already been reborn in my daughter. I want to ask her if Buddhists believe this is possible. I want to ask her: After you are dead, when will you come back around? And how will I know when you are here?
“This is why I don’t call on my parents,” my mother says. “I want them to have peace. I want them to be with Buddha and not to come back as snake or dog. Maybe I am educated from the Western part of world,” she says, “but sometimes, when you are younger, I asked your khun tha” — my deceased grandfather — “ ‘Please take care of my son.’ I believe you must sleep well and eat right food, but I still am asking your khun tha to take care of my son.”
In my thoughts I am screaming: I will not call on you when you are gone! You have done enough already! And then I feel a question swelling in my throat: “Where,” I ask my mother, “do you want me to burn your body?”
My mother shakes her head and smiles. “Do not go back to the village to do this,” she says. “It will be too much trouble. Too expensive! No. It is not important.”
But this is a woman who cries each time she listens to old audiocassettes of Thai folk songs, who still sings those songs in the voice of a little girl. How could I burn her body anywhere except the temple grounds in the village where she was born?
“As a matter of fact,” my mother says, “the other day I go walking to the ocean. . . .”
I know exactly what part of the coast she is talking about. Near her house in Brunswick is a tidal bay where mint-colored sea grass grows deep in the mud flats, where herons peck at clams, where gnarled apple trees open to the salty sky, and where at night you can see the lights of Portland in the distance. It is the bay Jessie and I as children used to sneak off to in the middle of the night while my mother was at work and the rest of our town slept. It is the bay where, as teenagers, Jessie and I would go to smoke cigarettes and talk about how much we hated Maine — the smallness here, the people who are too scared to leave. So many times, in spite of the pale mist hanging over the water, in spite of the solemn light that each dawn rises off the far shore, I convinced myself that Maine was not where I belonged.
“And as I am walking,” my mother continues, “you know what I tell myself? I say out loud: ‘This is your home now! You are home! Do not think too much of some other place!’ ”
My mother is speaking louder than she has all morning. She has dropped the balanced, thoughtful tone with which she spoke about her mother’s cremation. I feel as though she is no longer speaking to herself or to me but to someone I cannot see; someone beyond the daylight in my kitchen and beyond the changing season outside the window; someone who can hear and understand her in a way that I cannot.
“As I am walking along the ocean, I am even telling it out loud to myself,” my mother repeats. “ ‘This is your home! You are home!’ ”
And she stops to catch her breath, then bounces my daughter on her knee and, as if to calm them both, begins to sing again, “Dop bat! Dop bat!”
And I am thinking of all that is not certain and all that is. And I am thinking of death and old age and pain and birth and to what degree we are owned by the ones we love. My daughter claps and smiles at me, and I reach out and take her chubby foot in my palm, weighing it as if it were an absolute unit of life. I close my eyes.
“Sieng dang! Dop bat! Dop bat!”
In my private darkness I promise myself that when my mother dies, I will bring her corpse back to Panom, and when the fire burns her skin and hair, I will not resist the smell. I will collect her ashes and bones and bury them inside the temple walls, and I will seal them there with a tile that bears her portrait and name.
“Dop bat! Dop bat!”
And later, when I explain to my daughter why I have done this to her grandmother’s corpse, I will really be asking her to do the same to mine.
Jaed Muncharoen Coffin