An-mei’s mother became the concubine of a man named Wu-Tsing when An-mei was four, so she and her little brother went to live with their grandmother, Popo, who forbade them to speak their mother’s name. After a few years, An-mei forgot her mother entirely.
When Popo became terminally ill, An-mei’s mother visited for the first time in five years. As she brushed An-mei’s hair and caressed a scar on her neck, An-mei’s memory came rushing back; she remembers that when she was four, her mother arrived at Popo’s house to beg her to give An-mei back. An-mei cried out for her mother, and a bowl of boiling soup spilled over her neck like a flood of boiling anger. Popo and the rest of the family chased An-mei’s mother away, and after a while, the burn wound turned into a scar.
Later, just before Popo died, An-mei saw her mother cut a piece of her own flesh out of her arm and put it in a soup for Popo. According to ancient tradition, such a sacrifice might cure a dying family member. It is also a sign of bone-deep filial respect. After that night, An-mei loved her mother, who wounded her own flesh in order to alleviate Popo’s pain, and in order to remember what was in her bones.
I made a promise to myself: I would always remember my parents’ wishes, but I would never forget myself.
Lindo Jong tells the story of her relationship with her mother. After Lindo was promised in marriage to Huang Tyan-yu at the age of two, Lindo’s mother began referring to her as the daughter of Tyan-yu’s mother, Huang Taitai, in order to get used to the idea that Lindo wouldn’t be hers for ever. To Lindo, it felt as if Taitai, as her future mother-in-law, had already displaced Lindo’s own mother. When Lindo was twelve, her house was severely damaged by a flood, and the family moved to another village. Lindo, however, went to live with Tyan-yu’s family, where she was treated as a servant. She soon came to live for Taitai’s praise and to think of Tyan-yu as a god.
At age sixteen, Lindo was married. On her wedding day, Lindo was filled with despair as she anticipated a life spent in pursuit of someone else’s happiness. She considered drowning herself in the river, but, chancing to look out the window, she noticed the fierce wind and realized that, like the wind, she too was strong. She resolved to honor her parents’ promise but to do as much for her own happiness as she could. According to custom, the matchmaker arranged for the couple to have a red candle marked with Lindo’s name on one end, and Tyan-yu’s on the other. The couple lit the candle, which had a wick at each end, during their marriage ceremony. A servant was instructed to watch over the candle all night, because if the candle burned until dawn without either end extinguishing prematurely, the matchmaker would declare the marriage imperishable. That night, the servant ran from the room where she was watching the candle because she mistook a thunderstorm for an attack by the Japanese. Lindo, who was walking in the courtyard, went into the room and blew out Tyan-yu’s end of the candle. The next morning, however, the matchmaker displayed the candle’s burnt remains and announced that the marriage was sealed. Looking at the servant, Lindo read an expression of shame and realized that the servant must have relit the candle because she feared punishment for her negligence.
For months, Tyan-yu forced Lindo to sleep on the sofa. When Taitai discovered the arrangement, Tyan-yu told his mother that Lindo was to blame. Thereafter, Lindo began sleeping in Tyan-yu’s bed, but he never touched her. When Lindo failed to become pregnant, Taitai confined her to bed, saying that if Lindo remained horizontal, Tyan-yu’s assumedly sowed “seed” could not become dislodged. Finally, Lindo found a way out of the marriage. She told Taitai that her ancestors came to her in a dream and said that the matchmaker’s servant had allowed Tyan-yu’s end of the candle to go out, which meant Tyan-yu would die if he stayed in the marriage. Lindo then convinced Taitai that the ancestors had planted the seed of Tyan-yu’s child into the womb of a servant girl, secretly of imperial lineage, who was Tyan-yu’s “true spiritual wife.” Lindo knew that the servant girl was in fact carrying the child of a deliveryman, but the servant gratefully “confessed” to Lindo’s story in order to give birth to her child in wedlock, and to marry into comfort. The marriage between Tyan-yu and Lindo was annulled, and Lindo emigrated to America.