How to Make Your Mother Cry

 
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Sejal Shah

Art by Terra Keck

 
 

Before you left for Baltimore, you bought me Blue Train, still despising the quality of my only Coltrane CD, a Best of compilation. What you wore: a coat that was more expensive than I could properly imagine. You told me what I needed: a subscription to The Nation. To go with you to the George Clinton concert.

One Friday, you finished teaching. My classmates, they trailed out the door. We went to dinner. We drank Jim Beam and careened toward each other. Jim Beam. Us: the logical extension of the first time your hand rested, a little more than briefly, on my arm. We were together for more than a year.

This was the prompt you gave to our writing class: Who knows how to make love stay? This was the question I answered instead: Who knows how to make her mother cry? I do. After you left, I did.

Remind her of how you got in trouble in the fourth grade. How she sent you to school with the wrong word. What you needed was eraser. You don’t care what the British say. How have they ever helped you? You say to her: You should know what the right word for eraser is. You should not send your daughter off to school with the word rubber and a walnut-and-cream-cheese sandwich.

I would not speak to her for that whole afternoon. We watched the end of the soaps in silence. I let her make me an afternoon snack.

 

“She tells you that your hair will be shiny, that your hair will last, that it will not fall out like hers—that you will draw everyone’s envy. Hair will be your power, your secret weapon. Hair is the way to catch a man, to catch the eye of the right one.”

 

Drink coffee instead of tea. This will make you American.

She’s lying. She says India when someone asks where she’s from—and it’s not where she grew up. I want to tell you that. None of her passports have ever said anything about India. Not her birth certificate. Nothing except her marriage license, perhaps, which I’ve never even seen. And how about that marriage: she doesn’t make a fuss, so my father doesn’t bring her flowers. Who do you dislike most now? My father, for not bringing home flowers; my mother, for not making him; me, for keeping track?

She will worry about yellowing teeth, she will worry about caffeine.

She cannot pronounce her h’s. On the phone, she is careful, speaking slowly, enunciating for the Americans who will ask her, What? What are you saying? How do you spell that? But your English is good: Can you say that again? Flinch. Refuse to read what she writes: your gym excuses, your home-sick-from-school notes, her thank-you notes, her letters. Decide that you will be an English teacher, an English professor, that you will study it, that you will be what she is not.

This is how to make my mother cry. She has braided and oiled it, braided and washed it, braided your hair into two plaits. She wants the world to see that you are Indian the way she can see it (it is as natural to her as breathing). She wants to give you something other women will envy. She wants to give you a middle part. She tells you that coconut oil smells good, but it does not; not until the Body Shop markets it a decade later. Once something is out of England, it’s OK. Once something is swallowed by England, hennaed and remixed, it’s OK. Rubbers, though; that will never be OK. Beg her to cut your hair.

She tells you that your hair will be shiny, that your hair will last, that it will not fall out like hers—that you will draw everyone’s envy. Hair will be your power, your secret weapon. Hair is the way to catch a man, to catch the eye of the right one.

But you cannot braid it yourself. This is a problem at camp. You cannot wash it yourself—it is too long. This is a problem after gym. Beg for bangs, for shoulder-length. The weight snaps your head back, when your hair is wet (and straight, finally). Your arms tire. Gordon Stark calls your hair the Love Canal. You don’t know until you are in college what this means beyond the sneer in his voice. He still appears in your dreams. You hope, predictably, for you both to end up in a bar someday, for him to think you’re hot, to hit on you. For you to walk away.

 
 

This is how to make your mother cry:

1. Stop eating.
2. Drink only orange juice.
3. Cut your hair so that she has nothing to braid, so that she can no longer say that you look like her.
4. Always answer in English. Even your French is better than your Gujarati. She doesn’t mean to be mean (you understand this), but she laughs and you can’t stand being laughed at. You stop using this other language. Only ha and na. Only kem-cho to your grandmothers, on the phone. Only tamaro tabyat pani kem cho, to your grandfathers, and they will answer you in English, perhaps it pains them to hear you slaughter your native tongue like that. Or perhaps they just want you to feel more at ease.
5. Ask her why she left you there. You know why, she will say. I wanted you to learn these things: Bharatanatyam, slokas. She will say: You ask the same things, again and again.

She says, We talked to you every week on the phone.

She says, I mailed you letters, your clothes.

She says, India was farther than it is now. We didn’t have the money to just visit. We thought you were happy. You sounded happy. I didn’t see my own mother for seven years. Anyway, you can’t change schools in the middle of the year.

You didn’t see her for seven years, but I was only seven.

You watch her eyes fill.

I know I should have said something. But you—you would have noticed—(Mother)—if I was afraid to walk home by myself, if I squinted at workbook pages, if I inched closer to the TV.

 
 

When you are twenty-five, the professor, the one who gave you the wrong prompt, moves to Baltimore. When he is engaged to someone else, someone named Anne or Ann, you return to orange juice. You stop being able to swallow. On your meals of orange juice and coffee and shitty Merlot, you drop to ninety-seven pounds. Boys comment on the lovely articulation of your clavicle bone, on the hollows of your face. Their glance lingers lovingly at your waist—you know they want to gather you in their meaty palms and braille their fingers over the relief of your ribs. You can’t seem to get warm and you can’t remember things people tell you anymore.

You give Blue Train away, along with several clothes and coffee cups. Everything you listen to is Best of and on repeat. Your mother is the only one who says: If I could eat for you, I would. Eat, Daughter, eat.

You tell her, I’m only here because you wished for me. You wanted a girl. I know the story; you’ve told it to me. I can’t balance my checkbook. All boys leave for Baltimore. All boys get engaged. Well, did you expect him to wait? She asks. (You only need one, she says, laughing. I didn’t even like that one. If he got engaged to someone else, he can’t be the right one. Besides, he wasn’t even Indian.) Now you’re the one crying and this is what you say: I’m no good at cooking. Who will want to marry an Indian girl who hates to cook? What if I made a mistake? Now there is only English on my tongue.

Late at night, you will call Baltimore, ask him why he doesn’t love you anymore. He will say, sleepily, that he does. He will move to the next room and he will say that he thinks you shouldn’t talk to each other so much anymore. He can see it’s hard for you. Years later, this will still embarrass you. Years later still, this might make you mad.

 
 

Tell her that you will be fine. (This is never what you say.) She gets on the next bus to Massachusetts. Ten hours later, she is in your apartment. She goes with you to the movie store, where you rent Pretty in Pink and Better Off Dead. This is what American high school was like, you tell her. But you went to the prom, she says. We let you go, and you had a good time.

She goes to the movie store, and she makes you soup: potatoes and tomatoes and cumin. She goes to the pharmacy and to the store. You take the five pills she gives you and finally you sleep and sleep. You stop talking so much, and you are not so cold, and you sleep.

I liked some boys once, too, she says. Of course, that was before I was married, she says.

You will be fine, she says. I am strong and you will be strong like me. You are my daughter, she says. No one else’s. Now both of you have bright eyes. I can teach you, she says, to balance your checkbook. It’s not that hard, she says. Cooking is easy, she says. You just have to be hungry. You just have to practice. Hold onto your receipts, she says. I want you to be strong for when I’m gone, she says.

Don’t leave me Mom, you say. That’s my job, she says. To make you ready. Can you stay a little while longer, Mom. Yes, but get out your bank statements. Let’s work on your checkbook, she says. But I want you to understand Pretty in Pink. Why? she says. We already watched it.

But did you like it? I want you to like Coltrane. He’s saying something important. All that noise. I’d rather talk to you. I could show you how to knit. What’s wrong with silence? Nothing nothing, but I like this song. “Afro Blue,” it’s pretty to me. Maru mathu dukeche. Little daughter, my head hurts. If you have to play it, play it low.

 
 

Spring / Summer 2024



Sejal Shah

Sejal Shah is the author of the forthcoming debut story collection How to Make Your Mother Cry: fictions (West Virginia University Press, May 2024) and the award-winning debut essay collection This Is One Way to Dance, named an NPR Best Book of 2020. She lives in Rochester, New York.



Terra Keck

Terra Keck is an image maker and performance artist in Brooklyn. She received her MFA from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and her BFA from Ball State University. Her work is in collections in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Vanuatu, Fiji, California, the United Kingdom, and Brazil. Keck’s latest body of work engages the concept of the holographic universe and UFO encounters where reality is perceived as multidimensional and inherently benevolent.



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