This afternoon I took Pippi out to her favorite Chinese restaurant for Chinese New Year. I wanted to celebrate with her on one of her rare days off. Even with her three-year-old twin boys in tow, I knew it would be a special mother-daughter luncheon.
I was hoping it would be like the old days.
Our family used to live next to Chinatown. Jose and I still laugh, wondering how we raised five kids in that house in such a questionable area. Penelope was our baby, and our only girl. The boys called her Pippi. When all the boys were in school, we would run the errands together. I'd sometimes take her shopping and then out to eat at one of the authentic restaurants for which Chinatown was so famous. Pippi learned how to use chopsticks when she was five. Her favorite thing was showing off to her father and brothers, who still preferred forks.
“Did you and Mama eat in Chinatown again?” Jose would ask her, as Pippi dexterously used her bamboo sticks to pick up rice and veggies from her bowl. I’d wink at her, as if our trips were secret and special. In our large family, lunch dates became times of female bonding.
“Why does she always get to go with you?” Roberto, my youngest son, asked one night. Like his brothers, he never got to have shopping trips and lunch with me.
“Because I’m Chinese, and you're not!” she answered. Everyone laughed. Pippi had my grandmother's almond shaped eyes, my straight black hair, and rosy apple-cheeks, like a painting. "God made me Chinese, and all of you are Mexican. Why do you think I'm the only one who can use chopsticks?"
We never corrected Pippa's misconception, thinking it was cute. Part of me thought it did no harm, since she did anything to distinguish herself from among her brothers. It didn't take long before my thinking backfired.
The next week, Jose joined Pippa and I for lunch at Happy Dragon, one of our favorite restaurants. Mrs. Lee, our favorite seating hostess, looked at Jose suspiciously when she first met him.
"I thought you were married to an Asian man," she said, pointing to Pippa. "Because of your daughter."
"We're Mexican," I said. "In some regions of Mexico, the people sometimes have the same physical characteristics as Asians."
"Uh-huh," Mrs. Lee said, handing us our menus. I could tell she didn't trust my explanation.
"I am Chinese, Mama!" Pippa said, loudly. Mrs. Lee looked at her and smiled. As I tried to laugh and explain this outburst, Pippa shouted. "Tell her the truth! Tell the truth about our family!"
I avoided Happy Dragon after that.
Pippa grew, and her eyes became her trademark. They were framed with long lashes, and . Everywhere we went, Pippi was admired. I wasn’t ready for her adolescence, which came too quickly. It was like Pippa was body-snatched in the middle of the night and replaced with someone who wanted to fight about everything.
She never wanted to eat what I made for dinner. She never wanted to sleep or study. She suddenly withheld her affection. She was convinced I nagged and pushed her too hard. I probably did. In high school, she was an honor student and was in band, playing the flute. One day after school I made the mistake of suggesting she branch out into different areas. The remark brought a tearful eruption.
“I’ll never be good enough for you,” she screamed.
“Why do you say that? Such drama! All I’m saying is…”
“I do my best and my best isn’t good enough for you.”
“You will always be good enough for me!” Before I could clarify my words, she was running down the hall and then slamming her door.
What happened to my daughter? Would I ever see my little girl again? The one who loved me and knew I loved her?
Today we had lunch together and our conversation was like the careful, polite exchanges of two people who have only just met each other. We have learned to be civil with each other so we don’t fight.
“That was good,” I say, as we finish.
“Grandma,” Jacob asks me, looking at the ceiling. “What is your favorite thing here?”
“Besides you two?” I joke, looking between him and Josh. “I think it is….”
“Grandma’s favorite is the eggroll, always.” Pippa smiles, answering for me. The boys agree that it’s their favorite, too. I don’t have the heart to tell them that their Mom is wrong. My favorite is the noodles without dressing. It is a traditional Chinese favorite that Pippi and I have ordered for years.
“Mommy, can we play in the kids area now?” Josh asks his mother. Jacob waits closely behind him for her answer.
“Thank you!” They sing in unison and run toward the slides and swings that flank the restaurant.
“Thanks for lunch, Mom,” Pippa yawns. I know it’s been a busy week for her. She and her husband, Greg, have just landed a big account in their business and they’ve both been working a lot of hours.
“When are you going to slow down?”
My daughter rolls her eyes. “Don’t start, Mom.”
“You have twin boys, you know.”
“Really, do I? Because I forgot!”
I let it drop and there’s a bit of silence as she reaches in her purse for her phone. After checking her messages our waitress comes over and picks up the check.
“You want to take with you?” She points at the last egg roll, a juicy temptation left between us.
“Not for me,” I say, raising my eyebrows at Pippi. She shakes her head and the waitress smiles and walks off with the leather check-holder with the cash inside. I forget to tell her to keep the change before she walks off.
“The last eggroll,” Pippi smiles as she texts. “You know you’ve been on a diet as long as I can remember? Why don’t you ever give yourself a treat?”
The remark stings and she can tell.
“Really?” she says. “That offends you? Admit it, you’re always on a diet.”
“I guess,” I start to feel her claws against my neck. I feel trapped, unable to say the right thing.
“Why can’t I say anything to you anymore?”
“You can,” I begin. I want to tell her that I feel the same way. I can't say anything to her anymore without offending. Even those words seem barbed, so I say nothin.
“Whatever,” she says. She finishes her text and puts her phone down on the table. I can tell she feels misunderstood. I remember a younger version of the same face smiling broadly at me, picking up her bamboo chopsticks.
“Pippi, let’s not fight,” I say. "We see each other so rarely these days. Let's not waste a day with a fight.”
“You know, Mom,” she says, “every time I’m with you I feel like a child! You’re the only one who still calls me Pippi! My brothers, Dad, my husband, my friends? They all call me Penelope, which is my adult name!”
Silence descends again. I'm looking at the placemat in front of me, a paper sheet with a circle in the middle. The Chinese Zodiak is explained in the middle. Pippi sighs. I wonder when we became so distant. How many mothers and daughters, who really do love each other, feel misunderstood or disrespected in their relationship? I want to ask her opinion, but I don’t know how. Instead, I ask her a simple question.
“You want me to call you Penelope?”
“Yes,” she says.
“Alright, I will.”
“I’ve heard that before,” she says. I look up at her, and she's watching the boys. They're at the waterfall, an elaborate fish and turtle pond in the middle of the restaurant. A small children's slide and swing set is next to it.
“Do you want some help getting the boys together?” I ask. “I can load one of them in their car seats…”
“No, they’re having fun,” she says. “Can we just sit here and have some tea?”
I nervously agree. “Alright, I guess.” I want to add: “BUT let’s not start picking each other apart, okay?” but I don’t.
The waitress returns with our change and I tell her to keep it.
“Thank you,” she says, and smiles.
“Can we still order some tea?” I ask.
“Actually,” Pippi interjects, smiling broadly. “Since tea comes with our meal, and we didn't have it, can we just have a pot of tea now?”
“Yes, yes,” the waitress says. “Of course. Oolong tea or Jasmine ?”
As I say Oolong, Pippi says Jasmine. We look at each other and smile. I start to defer her wishes, but the waitress laughs.
“I'll bring you green tea?” she suggests. “Green tea is made with the fresh leaf and costs a little bit more but I won’t charge you.”
I look at Pippi, who smiles and nods. As our waitress walks away, and I think of what Pippi has just said. Do I really treat her like a child? Do I really not listen?
In the ten years she has been away from home, she's become a mother and a wife and a business owner. In very many ways she’ll always be my little girl.
“What are you thinking?” she asks, suspiciously.
“What is it?”
“Do you really think I don’t listen to you?”
“Oh, yeah,” Pippi laughs, as if this is an understatement.
“Don’t be sorry,” she says. “Just listen to me.”
I have to swallow hard to accept her words. I wonder if she knows how much her words hurt.
“Here's, your tea!” The waitress lays clean placemats before us and then white cups with no handles. In the middle of the table she places a pot of green tea. Pippi lifts the lid and decides it needs to sit awhile.
“I’m just gonna check on the boys,” she says, leaving her seat. I sigh, looking down at my placemat. The Chinese Zodiac calendar gives an image of each animal, what year it corresponds to, and a brief description of people born under the sign.
According to the chart, I am a tiger: a creative individual who is optimistic, resilient, and influential. It also says I am sensitive and prone to getting my feeling hurt too easily. Am I?
I quickly scan the chart to find Pippi. It says she's a dragon. It reads: “Proud, strong, and self-assured, Dragons don’t have to ask for things, they demand them. They can be dictatorial and inflexible in their associations with others, but at the same time be the warmest, most gentle individuals you may meet.” I smile and look around for Pippi, my Penelope, just to show her.
She's walking toward me, Joshua following her closely. “I’m sorry, Mom. I’m going to have to take a rain check on the tea, Josh wet his pants.” I can tell she frustrated and I start looking around for Jacob, who comes running to her in tears.
“Why do we have to go?” he is crying. “Josh wet his pants, not me!” His sobs echo through the restaurant as his mother tries to calm him. Josh, on the other hand, is ready to leave.
“Bye, Grandma,” he says, almost too quickly.
“Is there anything I can do?” I ask Pippi.
I pick up the placemat and follow her as she marches out to the parking lot. The waitress watches us, nonplussed, as we've left the teapot untouched on the table. I follow her to her car, even though Jacob is crying. He still doesn’t want to leave. Josh jumps into the car and buckles himself into his own carseat.
“Pip… Penelope, do you want to take this placemat home?” I ask. She turns around, and her face is like mine, or like mine was twenty years ago, when I was trying to corral the kids into the car. I numbly lift up the paper placemat, and it flaps in the cold wind. "I thought the kids might like to see it. It's Chinese New Year, after all. I was just reading these descriptions of the dragon and tiger…” I try to show her twhat I'm talking about, but she looks at me like I've lost my mind.
“Really, Mom?” she says. She clicks Jacob's car seat buckle and shuts his door. “Are you kidding me? Remember how you used to make the waitresses take that shit off the table? Because it conflicted with out beliefs? You didn’t want me being deceived by the Chinese Zodiac? All that stuff you used to say, and it was so embarrassing. Remember?”
Her voice is agitated. It's drowned out only by Jacob's cries. I suddenly recognize my insensitivity.
“Sorry, honey,” I say. “I was just trying to lighten the mood, I guess.”
“Yeah, well,” she says, fumbling with her keys. “I can’t understand you, sometimes. I mean, sometimes I wonder why you used to be so… ”
She looks like she's trying to be careful with her words. I really want to know what I used to be, something that might explain why we're not friends.
“Never mind. Thanks for lunch.”
She gives me an obligatory hug and gets into the car. I blow the boys kisses; they manage a weak wave back. Pippi drives off, leaving me in the parking lot, filled with disappointment, and waving at the taillights of her Rav4 .
When I return home, I sit at my computer, and start editing a piece for the Sun-Times that is due in eight hours. Instead of giving it my full attention, my mind drifts back to the lunch with my daughter. I start to get tears in my eyes. I decide to draft an email to her. Jose has asked me not to send Pippi emails until he's read them first. I resolve to save it as a draft for him to read later.
I can’t stop thinking of you.
You are my daughter, the beautiful blessing that God decided to give me. Today as we left the restaurant, I wanted to grab you and hold you and scream “I love you! How can I help you receive my love?” Instead, I said nothing and just waved to you like you were any other person I have in my life.
You’re not like any other person I have in my life. You are the one who is so close to me that you can hear me purr or growl before the rest of the world does. You can see right through the wall I've built and know me for who I really am. For all the years we have struggled, we have also understood each other. I thought it would be fun to go out on Chinese New Year for the same reason I thought it would be fun to read you what the placemats said about the tiger (me) and the dragon (you). I don’t put much belief in that stuff, as you inferred earlier, but I thought it brought comic relief to all of the tension we were having at lunch. The truth is, every mother and daughter does this dance that we do. We trade places in frustration, belief, hope and anger. We sometimes believe (falsely) that we don’t understand one another. We think we can’t see the other, but the truth is we do. I should say that I want to understand you; I want to know you; I want to love and be loved by you. Isn’t that better than thinking we already know each other? I love you and I’m proud of you.
Instead of saving it to a draft, I hit send.
When Jose comes home, I show him the letter and he rubs his forehead.
“I thought we agreed you wouldn't send letters to Penelope without showing me first?”
I smile, sheepishly. Then I ask him when he stopped calling her Pippi and started calling her Penelope. He tells me he started when she asked him to, and that was when she was twelve years old.