Over the years, I’ve come to see my inherent lameness as a form of ethics. Take, for instance, the bag of Depend undergarments that sat in my closet for nearly a decade.
By age 11, I had read all those Judy Blume books, parts of the Bible, and Carrie, so I knew, seeing the brown stain in my underwear, that I was now initiated into the fraught world of little women. Nothing would ever be simple again. But what I had not yet taken into account was my own mother, a woman that had grown up in post-war Korea and then immigrated to America, the land of milk and Costco samples, in the Reagan era.
When my mother came home and learned the news, she first took me to the bathroom and told me to soak my underwear in hot water. Then she shuffled me into our emerald Infiniti I30 and, because we lived in Northern California, drove one mile down the street to Safeway. There we picked up a bag of absorbent mattress pads and an even larger bag of Depends. I deduced from the schematic graphic on the package that this was an adult diaper. “Use these when you go to sleep, so you don’t stain your sheets,” she said, averting her eyes. When we got home, I looked up the words “urinary” and “incontinence” in the dictionary.
Later that night, the 11-year-old me gamely pulled on a diaper (“Do I still wear underwear over it? Or do I wear a maxi pad and my underwear, and then this diaper over that?” I pondered) and then positioned a placemat-sized absorbent pad under my rear before finally closing my eyes. The 11-year-old me appreciated the ritual and ceremony that came with marking important moments of transition. The 11-year-old me probably felt more than a little vulnerable and wanted my mother to hold my hand. If her way of holding my hand was swathing my butt in micro-bead-filled plastic, I would still bask in its tenderness.
The 11-year-old me woke up the next morning sweaty and uncomfortable, with a wrinkled absorbent pad next to my head. Then it dawned on me, the dreadful prospect of waddling to the bathroom and peeling off the damp, bloody, Saran-wrapped nightmare under my pajamas. Funk this, the 11-year-old me concluded.
If I were in a Judy Blume book, or maybe even in Carrie (by the end), I might have let my mother know that the Depends were not just an unnecessary humiliation but just totally, completely unnecessary. Such energy, money and material just for the possibility of dirty sheets! Then I would have tossed the whole bag in the trash, and either we would have shared a hug and a chocolate chip cookie, or I would have telekinetically speared her with a breadknife.
But I’m not in a novel. I’m Korean-American. I didn’t say anything to my mother and kept the open, nearly full bag of Depends on the top shelf of my closet. And every time I saw them, I felt a tinge of guilt and wondered if my mother noticed I wasn’t using them. As the years passed, this guilt turned into gratitude. My mother didn’t mention them again; I didn’t throw them away. That open, nearly full bag of Depends became a symbol of unspoken accord.
Here’s the thing: my mother wasn’t being malicious, nor was she entirely crazy. My mother worried about having enough to eat while growing up—not about how much she was throwing away. Now she lived in a time and place where she, and her children, could consume as much as she wanted. So when she drove me to Safeway and handed me the bag of Depends, she was trying to tell me, I brought you here. I’m giving you a different life. You are becoming a woman in a way I couldn’t.
Or at least this is the kind of magical thinking (“magical” as in Harry Houdini escaping from the Chinese Water Torture Cell) that arises from the potent mix of Confucian and immigrant values. It’s an interesting approach to optimism, where you always see the glass half-full because the glass itself is a precious gift. The water is the complimentary extra. And maybe you don’t even like water. Maybe you’re actually not thirsty at all, even feeling a little bloated, but you know that water is good for you, and you never drink enough. And what’s not to like about water? It doesn’t even taste like anything. Why are you making such a big deal about this water? Now you’ve been standing here staring at it for 15 minutes!
Now that I have a daughter of my own, I am surrounded by well-meaning friends and relatives giving us their children’s hand-me-downs. A lot of this stuff is junk. If it wasn’t lace-and-ribbon-covered velour junk when they bought it, it was by the time their toddler got through with it. But still they want to pass it onto my daughter, unidentified stains and all, and I can never say no. I take the filled trash bags and Rubbermaid storage boxes, haul them down to our basement, walk back up the stairs and close the door. I send exuberant “Thank You” emails. My husband demands to know what I am going to do with it all. I say, “I don’t know.” We have a short or long argument about it. And that’s it.
I’d like to think of our basement as the way station for our friends’ and relatives’ memories. I know how attached you can get to your children’s things, and I know how hard it is to accept that certain phases of their lives are gone. I also know you spent $50 on that ridiculous onesie, because having children makes you buy crazy things, and now you want it to be worn down for all it’s worth. I know. I know.
So even though I don’t actually want your Dora-the-Magical-Princess-Pony-Explorer outfits, I’ll always appreciate the offer and always accept. Because I’ve learned the value of being accommodating over being honest. Because I am the kind of person that looks for tenderness even in micro-bead-filled plastic. Because, maybe, this is your way of holding my hand. This is my way of holding yours.
Mia You is a doctoral student in English at UC Berkeley. She is the author of a poetry chapbook, Objective Practice (Achiote Press, 2007) and the co-founder/editor of A. BRADSTREET, a webjournal on poetry and motherhood. Her writings and translations have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Versal, Zoland Poetry, the San Jose Mercury News, The Korea Herald and the Los Angeles Review of Books.