More Than God

More Than God

When I was in elementary school, my mother became alarmed by how much I loved movies. "You love movies more than God," she said. My mother was a devout Catholic and such sacrilege was akin to admitting she'd given birth to Damien from The Omen.  "I've done something wrong raising you. I should never have let you watch all those movies!"

I was terrified that my mother would try to stop me from watching movies and promised her that No, I loved God, I was a good girl, there was nothing wrong with me. "Oh, is that so?" she said, unconvinced. No matter what I said, I could not erase what we both knew:  I did love movies more than God.

Mama used to say it must have been because she'd shown so many movies to her art students when she was pregnant with me. She was tired and nauseated from morning sickness, which lasted the full nine months of her pregnancy, and so it had been easier to load up a film on the Bell & Howell projector than to lecture. She'd lean against the projector cart in the darkness. The tick-tick-tick of the 16 mm film spinning through the machine seemed to calm me; I'd stop kicking and settle down and she could rest.

As a child, I got up early on Saturdays just so that I could turn on the TV in anticipation of the classic black-and-white sci-fi and horror films that would show after the cartoons. By the time  my mother became alarmed I was in fifth grade. I'd seen not only such classics as Frankenstein and Dracula, but also Blacula and all Ed Wood's oeuvre from Plan 9 from Outer Space to his cross-dressing homage Glen or Glenda; all the original Japanese monster movies from Godzilla to Mothra v. Godzilla to Son of Godzilla; the stop-motion animation classics of Ray Harryhausen; and a series of B-movies so bad that no one else I knew had ever seen them, including The Thing That Couldn't Die and The Thing with Two Heads.

Monsters rose from nuclear radiation in the sea and wreaked havoc on cities. The dead returned to life to haunt the living. Unclassifiable things haunted swamps and shadows. Seemingly nice men transformed into beasts in the moonlight or in the sunlight or after drinking something, whether mysterious potions or some unsuspecting girl's blood. These stories felt emotionally real to me because they reminded me of my family's stories, where monstrous memories  from the past, from war, from abuse, from trauma, returned again and again to haunt them.

My father and his family had come to America as refugees from China; they'd survived the Sino-Japanese War and then the Chinese Civil War, fleeing first their hometown of Nanjing to other cities in China, then fleeing the Chinese mainland for Taiwan, and finally Taiwan for America. On Sundays our family had dinner at my grandparents' favorite Chinese restaurant in Manhattan. During these meals they often relived their trauma at high volume. They argued about the past, who had suffered and when and who had suffered more and why. An endless circle of nightmares about surviving war, hunger, leaving family members with no resolution, unlike in my favorite movies where the good triumphed and the monsters were performed by men in rubber suits and thus not terribly frightening.

My mother's family lived in faraway states so I rarely saw them. Instead my mother told me stories about them, about the violence of her childhood growing up as the eldest of eight while her father was drinking and raging and her mother was suffering and taking her rage out on the children. My mother was a white woman, as was Grandma and my aunts, but I knew no white man had swooped in to save them, no white princes or heroes as they did in the movies I watched on TV.

Wasn't that why movies were better than real life? In the movies there were endings, usually happy ones; there were heroes and heroines and saviors; the monsters--human or otherwise--were defeated.

The film that really alarmed my mother was Star Wars, which I saw in a theater. I wanted to see it over and over and did, twenty times total. I wanted to collect the Star Wars cards that came in packages of Wonder Bread and sugary cereal and chewing gum. I wanted the tee-shirts and lunchbox and posters.

My mother hated science fiction films, but for me, far more than spaceships and the Wookiee, the appeal of Star Wars was Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia, a sassy brunette who could shoot a blaster even better than the boys, a princess who could save herself, who was sarcastic and funny and unimpressed with the men's antics. "Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?" she asks a dazzled Luke Skywalker after he blasts his way into her prison cell on the Death Star. He's the one who's tongue-tied.

She was cool, but she was not model pretty. I even imagined that she looked vaguely Chinese. She had a round face, like me, and buns on her head that looked like the buns on the pictures of Chinese girls on the metal trays that we used to eat tv dinners. 

For the first time in my life, here was a Princess who wasn't a blonde waiting to be saved or a dopey Charlie's Angel or one of the godawful Disney princesses of my childhood. Carrie Fisher was a heroine who was tough and witty and sexy.

She gave me hope for my future, as a  girl who did not want to be a victim.

She was also the last such heroine I'd see for decades. By the time I was in high school, and The Revenge of the Jedi was released, Princess Leia would be bikini-clad, enslaved, conquered. Apparently Hollywood could not imagine a different fate for a strong woman. This lack of imagination disturbed me. It seemed foreboding of erasures and violence and misogyny to come. I wanted to believe that if a tough princess could prevail in one movie, then she should be able to exist in others. I wanted to believe a smart, sassy girl could grow up and be rewarded for her spunk in real life. Why couldn’t everyone else see this possibility and embrace it the way I did?

Despite my mother's alarm, she didn't ban me from watching movies. The fact was that my mother loved movies, too.

She associated movies with the happy years of her early childhood, watching matinees and double features with her mother in Indianapolis, before they left the city and moved to the farm where my grandfather started drinking again, and where his abuse began. Her happiest memories revolved around them: therefore she could not deny me movies, even if she feared they were corrupting my soul.

My grandmother, once upon a time, had  loved movies too.

She named her daughters after movie stars and practiced celebrity entrances for the audience of one that was my mother, throwing open the bedroom door, sweeping in, an arm extended, another draped over her forehead. She liked dressing up and pretending with her daughter. She was a young bride, eighteen when she married, just twenty-one when my mother was born.      

When they still lived in Indianapolis, Grandma took my mother to all the Shirley Temple films, paid for tap dance and accordion lessons and a fashionable  permanent: my mother remembered being hooked up to electric curlers that fried her hair. Once in a double feature, a strange man sidled up to Grandma and tried putting his hand on her knee. Grandma took out her hatpin and stabbed him. He became incensed, and after the film, he chased Grandma and my mother down the sidewalk all the way to the street car.

After more children were born, after Grandma started having babies every couple years, she stopped going to movies, stopped talking about them, stopped naming her daughters after movie stars, and began instead to recycle the names of relatives.

When my mother spoke of her mother, this is the woman she meant--the one who liked to take her to see movies in the city, the one who fought off a man with a hat pin, the one who dreamed her daughter might be a movie star, too, and paid for all the lessons, instead of the tired, angry, abused mother who learned to blame her children and who occasionally beat them. No one believed her. Or helped her. And the clergy said God wanted her to endure. She was the woman. She was the helpmeet. If her husband beat her and drank, it was her fault for not finding a way to bring him to God.

 No movie that I  saw with my mother ever remotely depicted anyone who looked like us, a white mother with her mixed-race Chinese American daughter. Nor did any movie we ever saw portray any family that looked like ours, a white woman married to a Chinese man with mixed-race children.

When I was in my twenties, my mother and I did watch the French film The Lover. Based on the autobiographical novel by Marguerite Duras, it depicted the author's torrid affair with an older Chinese man when she was a teenager growing up in French-colonial-era Vietnam. It wasn't exactly my parents' love story--my mother and father were both in their thirties when they met on a college campus in Southern California--but at least it was an interracial love story between a Chinese man and a white female.

Watching the graphic sex scenes with my mother was not exactly the most comfortable experience, but at least my father wasn't with us.  I love movies, but even I have my limits.

My mother was enraptured by the portrait of Marguerite Duras's mother. In the film, the mother played by Frédérique Meininger is lumpen and distracted,  falling into a deep slumber when her children are running through a house populated with animals. Occasionally the mother wakens to play an upright piano and sing as the children and servants wash the house, quite literally pouring water through the rooms in a cleansing flood.

"She reminds me of Mother," Mama said. "She was exactly like that."

I couldn't imagine Grandma allowing buckets of water to be thrown through the rooms of any of her fussy houses, always overstuffed with doilies and knickknacks, her spoon collection, her thimbles and Hummel figurines and weird shell people that she'd purchased on a cruise with Gramps to the Caribbean after the children had grown and left home. But there was something about the performance of periodic mothering--moments of attention followed by longer periods of neglect and abuse interspersed with bursts of joy and music--that resonated with my mother.

That was the magic of movies. You could watch a film set in 1929 French-occupied Vietnam and feel that you were watching your Indiana childhood on the screen. Movies collapsed the difference between viewer and actor, and allowed the audience an emotional connection that could feel exactly right, exactly truthful, even if nothing in your life actually remotely resembled what was flickering on the screen.

 At the end of her life, just a few weeks before she died, my mother and I went to see one last movie, The Birdcage. We didn't know it would be her last movie at the time. I thought there would be many more to come.

It was a comedy and had just opened in the local multiplex, and I hoped that it would cheer my mother. She'd been undergoing chemo for 20 months and nothing seemed to be helping. The oncologist no longer spoke of a cure but of "living with cancer." Who knows how long anyone has? he'd taken to saying unhelpfully. People can live with cancer for years and years.

At this point in her treatment an anti-abortion group had staked out a corner by the hospital. Every week when I took my mother for either a chemo treatment or her follow-up blood work, the band of hostiles would shout and wave their dead fetus signs at us. They seemed to believe a mother and daughter came for weekly abortions.

We both needed something to cheer us up.

So we went to see The Birdcage, which depicted a gay couple who pretended to be straight for a weekend to appease the bigoted family of their straight son's fiancée. My mother loved Nathan Lane's turn in drag. He played the perfect mother in her eyes: he was funny, warm, feminine, and round. What woman in a movie had ever been allowed to play a mother as real as this?

My mother didn't say it out loud, but perhaps both of us thought it, he even looked like Grandma. Grandma had had eleven pregnancies, three miscarriages, eight living children. At the end of her life, after Gramps died, she didn't dress to please men anymore, only herself. She could have been the drag version of her married self: feminine but ungirdled, permed, and wearing sensible shoes.

 Before I was born, my mother's favorite movie had been The Sound of Music. My mother had almost called me "Maria," in fact. She'd debated the names, Maria and May-lee, over and over, giving a slight edge to Maria until I was born and then she told me she had decided that I "looked more like a May-lee." When I was very little, before I understood my mother, I'd thought that was because I looked more Chinese than Mexican.

Then in elementary school we started watching The Sound of Music together every spring on TV, and I realized it was this Maria that my mother had considered naming me after. As the eldest of eight children, my mother had grown up looking after her siblings. She'd felt at times more like a governess than an older sister, and she'd related to the images of the singing happy youthful Julie Andrews cavorting with the von Trapp brood.

But then when I was in junior high, my mother had a revelation. There had been a particularly long commercial break between the scene that ends with Maria marrying the Captain in her erstwhile abbey and the scene where Maria returns from her honeymoon as a much subdued, supposedly more wifely woman.

"Wow, she's no fun at all after she gets married," Mama remarked. "I never noticed that before."

After that, my mother vowed she would never become like the married Maria, only the singing novitiate Maria for her.

Perhaps late-movie Maria triggered memories of her own mother, whom she remembered most fondly as the young woman who'd loved movies and not as the tired, worn-out, battered woman who took out her own despair on the bodies of her children, particularly my mother.

 During the twenty months that my mother lived with me while she was undergoing chemo and radiation and then more chemo, and even more chemo, Mama would have startling dreams. Often she’d remember acts of violence she'd endured in her family and wake up in a panic.

I don't know why Mother had to be that way, Mama would say.

But after my mother saw The Birdcage, Mama told me the story again of watching movies with her mother in Indianapolis, of her mother paying for her to have accordion and tap dance lessons and taking her to a beauty salon to have her hair permed, and, happiest of all, entering her into a baby beauty contest.

This was the mother that Mama chose to remember. The one who loved her daughter so much that she dreamed her daughter could become the next Shirley Temple.

Hearing the story as an adult, I realized it represented my mother’s skills at editing and imagining more than an accurate depiction of a blissful childhood.

This transformed memory was what reminded her of Nathan Lane’s cheery and fiercely loving performance in The Birdcage, and it was the final image of motherhood that she would take with her to her grave two weeks later when, unexpectedly, my mother's liver began to fail from all that chemo and she died.

I had not taken my mother to mass in all the months that she'd lived with me, and she had not asked me to do so either. I don't regret that our last rites together as mother and daughter revolved around a Hollywood remake, a comedy critics considered banal.

Hollywood couldn't imagine anyone like us, not any mother and daughter who remotely resembled us, but we could imagine ourselves. We were women who loved movies for the springboard that they provided us not for the version of reality that they were supposed to depict. My mother had taught me this skill, this way of wielding my imagination to transform trauma into resilience. It was her first and final act of mothering.




May-lee Chai is the author of ten books of fiction, nonfiction, and translation, including her latest short story collection,  Useful Phrases for Immigrants , published in October 2018 by Blair. Her writing has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman, Jack Dyer Fiction Prize, Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, named a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book, and recipient of an honorable mention for the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights Book Awards.

May-lee Chai is the author of ten books of fiction, nonfiction, and translation, including her latest short story collection, Useful Phrases for Immigrants, published in October 2018 by Blair. Her writing has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman, Jack Dyer Fiction Prize, Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, named a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book, and recipient of an honorable mention for the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights Book Awards.


Three Poems

Three Poems

Advertisement for our book club, or, SIGRID NUNEZ: NOT LIKE OTHER GIRLS

Advertisement for our book club, or, SIGRID NUNEZ: NOT LIKE OTHER GIRLS