Author Liz Iversen reflects on her cross-country move and a neighbor’s parallel life in the Pine Tree State.
I was in my 30s when I moved with my husband from California to Maine, baby daughter in tow, never having set foot on the land that awaited me. Like my mother, a Filipina immigrant who settled with my father in South Dakota months after I was born, I followed a man a great distance, leaving my world behind for the one my husband called home.
My husband grew up on Deer Isle, and I in South Dakota. We both moved to Northern California after college, where we struggled for over a decade to make a permanent home. Housing was expensive, jobs were competitive, and, armed with only entry-level job experience and our English degrees, we made little progress. We got married, had a baby, and quickly outgrew our studio apartment. When our daughter was nine months old, we packed up our possessions and drove to Maine.
In my new state, I bemoaned the way the sky seemed perpetually gray, though we’d arrived in the middle of summer. I missed the diversity of San Francisco, where one-third of the population is Asian, where the streets are filled with people who look like me, who can sometimes be overheard speaking my mother’s native language. I thought of her then, exchanging her home for a place in which, no matter how long she stayed, there would be no disguising her foreignness. She traded her sense of belonging for the eternal status of an outsider.
In a surprising coincidence, the backyard of the house we purchased in South Portland abuts the backyard of a family who looks similar to ours: an Asian woman roughly my age, her white husband, their mixed-race child. Washing dishes at the kitchen window, I see the woman wearing scrubs—like my mother used to—when she comes home from work. I see the Asian grandfather pushing the toddler in the swing, the grandmother holding hands with her granddaughter as they stroll through the blooming vegetable garden. And I long for what this parallel life holds that mine lacks: the relationship my children will never have with my mother.
Perhaps my daughter also sees the parallels. Or perhaps she senses my longing. One warm summer day as we sit on the back deck, she sees our neighbor walk into her back door after work. “Is that your mama?” she asks. The woman is nowhere near old enough to be my mother. We are not even from the same country. But those are not the reasons I give my daughter for why our neighbor cannot be my mother.
“No, honey. My mama’s gone. She died.”
My toddler is too young to understand death. “So, you don’t have a mama? Only a dada?”
“I’ll be your mama,” she says.
And though I know what she promised could never be possible, for a fleeting moment, I surrender to the idea that my daughter carries within her my mother’s life and spirit. My mother, who photographed me in her garden holding her prized eggplants, who rubbed milk on the leaves of houseplants to make them shine. I have no idea how to discern the weeds from the greenery that belongs in our yard. It is my daughter who teaches me to pull out the thin-rooted jewelweeds.
My husband wonders if our elderly neighbors miss their homeland, and I remember how I used to probe my mother for hints of unspoken regrets. I am certain the America she found was not the America of her dreams. But she never set her sights on moving back. Like many immigrants, my mother’s greatest hope was to provide for her children a better life than the one she herself lived. Here in Maine, that has become my hope.
Standing on the back deck in the sunshine, I watch my children run naked through the sprinkler. They disappear into their secret hiding place in the bushes where they hold private picnics. I follow their movements through the Japanese knotweed, eavesdrop on their conversations while our cat prowls the yard, hunting bees.
When the raspberry bushes start fruiting, we wake in the morning to pick raspberries, me with coffee in hand, my children eating as many berries as they can stomach. We fill a bowl and go back hours later to pick what has ripened by afternoon, more raspberries than we can eat. When the kids want to cull the yard of knotweed, I help them rip it out. They stagger across the lawn carrying thick stalks three times their height. Without my children’s prodding, I’d let the bamboo lookalike plants run wild, though they’re considered an invasive species. Somehow, they’ve arrived in my yard, conjoining with others to form a network of deep roots nearly impossible to break. In their nonnative environment, they are thriving.
Liz Iversen is an advertising copywriter and freelance writer whose work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and elsewhere. A small portion of this essay previously appeared in Passages North.
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