Jamie Ho : Junli Song

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Intro Notes 

Jamie Ho
Stories from our mothers

Mom in front of her house (L) and Mom pouring a tea offering during the eve of Chinese New Year (R), Fort Myers, Florida, 2015

When my mom tells me things, she assumes a lot. She assumes I know - that everyone knows - a full database of her experiences and knowledge.

Last time my mom came to visit me in Houston, it was the beginning of spring. My aunt had just passed away. My mom, my partner and I sat around our dining room table with tea in our hands, trying to figure out the logistics of attending and then leaving my aunt’s funeral.

I asked, ‘what do we need to do when we get home?’

My mom responded, ‘we need a fire.’

When my partner didn’t understand why, my mom became confused. She thought he understood; she assumed that everyone performed this tradition, Americans included.

I knew we were going to jump over fire at some point.

Near my Uncle’s home, Guangzhou, China, 2012

Jumping over fire was to prevent bad spirits from following us home. I had participated in the same tradition, when I was 12 or 13, attending my grandmother’s funeral. My mother’s mother who I had only met once during my first visit to Guangzhou five years prior. I remember flames in a metal pail and my fear of catching on fire. I jumped as high as I could over it and then climbed up the steps of a bus that took us back to my uncle’s.

Uncle holding phone at the stairwell of a restaurant (L) and inside my Uncle’s home (R), Guangzhou, China, 2012

Two months ago, unprepared, we lit junk mail in a dirt patch on the driveway, using a translucent pale green lighter from a gas station we purchased on the way home.

The stories or rituals that my mother has told me are fragmentations. Despite this, there are a few things that I know.

I know that she has lost many siblings, both recently and in the past. The first one she told me about was her brother:

Not the oldest, who I met when I was 7 or 8, at his place of business in Hong Kong filled with phones and a soft leather couch. Or the middle brother who stayed in Guangzhou in a 2 bedroom apartment where I spent many days staring at his out of date calendars sitting on uncomfortable wooden furniture.

The first was the brother she lost to the ocean when she was about 16 years old. She told me when I was the same age. They went into the water together. In one moment -

Was it when she ducked her head under the water? Or was it when she swam back to shore?

- he was there and the next he wasn’t. He got lost and she didn’t.

Gulf of Mexico, Fort Myers Beach, FL, 2017

She always considered herself a strong swimmer. When I was five, she tried to teach me how to swim, but I didn't want to learn from her. I wanted to take lessons at the public pool and learn with other kids my age but we couldn’t afford it. I didn’t understand at the time why she wanted me to learn and why she wanted to be the one to teach me.

Liwan Lake Park, Guangzhou, China, 2012

My mother assumes I already know. That I understand all these histories and all the paths she’s already walked.

But maybe it’s me, maybe I can be too stubborn to understand what she is trying to tell me. But that stubbornness I have - I inherited from her...

I was born by the ocean; I still don’t know how to swim.

My mom and dad at my uncle’s apartment, 2012

Junli Song
Stories from our mothers

I never knew much about my mom’s childhood when I was little, and it wasn’t until my later teenage years that I first began hearing small stories here and there. Even now, most of what I know are fragments of memories, and often I have hazy impressions of emotions and atmospher rather than concrete narratives. My mom’s childhood was shadowed by the death of her mom, my grandmother, when she was only five. That sadness has clung to her all her life, even though she’s generally a very happy and optimistic person.

There is an old black and white photo of my grandmother, and it has always been the image in my mind when thinking of her. I remember it very well because I made a drawing of it when I was eleven or twelve. It was the only photo of her I had seen until my grandfather passed away last summer, and my mom showed me some more photos that someone had sent.

mom’s note: ‘This photo was taken not long ago before my mom died.’

When I asked my mom for copies of these photographs, she wrote me notes for each one: some simply factual (identifying the people and location), while others had small anecdotes. There’s not too many of them, about fifteen or sixteen, but within this grouping there’s a stark before and after marked by the passing of my grandmother. Most of the photos are from the before period. There are photos of my grandmother and grandfather when they were young newlyweds. Their love story was like something from an old romantic film: she was the campus beauty and he was on the path to becoming a renowned professor. My mom’s early childhood years were the image of a happy family life.

mom’s note: ‘my mom was a undergrad student at Xiamen university, I think. She was considered of the beautiful flower on campus’(L) 1959, grandparents’ wedding photo(R)

The split is marked by a photo taken on the day of my grandmother’s funeral. In her note, my mom wrote: ‘I have never forgot that day when we sat behind her coffin and was one of the worst day in my life. From that day on, Xun and I live changed for ever...’ It reminds me of the repeated refrain that runs throughout one of my favourite books, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: ‘things can change in a day’ – and how the reverberations of a singular event continue into the present.

left to right: mom, uncle, and grandfather on the day of grandmother’s funeral

One of those aftereffects was captured by this poignant off-handed remark in one of my mom’s notes: ‘You can tell that Xun's clothes is so dirty and not one combed my hair.’ It made me think of how much care my mom always put into brushing and fixing my hair and dressing me nicely when I was little. Even though she had very little money after leaving China, she found ways to buy pretty hair pins, shoes, and dresses for me to wear. Hair and clothing, which are often dismissed as frivolous concerns, were the embodiment of a mother’s love for her and their absence in her childhood fueled her to provide an abundance of them in my own. It made me realize that, in a way, my mom has been trying to heal her childhood trauma through our relationship. It makes me think about how much we inherit from our mothers, whether we are aware of it or not.

from left to right: Xun, Hong (baby), babysitter, my mom
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