Because he is my first he takes me back, without even trying, to the days when I was young and stupid and didn't know anything (hence, the definition of "stupid") and believed he'd die of malaria if a mosquito bit him. When I rushed him to the Chinese pediatrician over every little thing and I worried when he slept and then worried if he slept too much and then worried, once he was awake, that he'd never go back to sleep again (some days, it really seemed a possibility).
All morning he'd be a tiny Tasmanian Devil and I'd follow him about picking up the toys in his wake, thinking about the things I'd do once he succumbed to a nap. And then, if he did take a nap, I wouldn't do any of those things but just sit somewhere close to him, as if in all my ministrations I'd been cleverly tethered without my noticing.
Think any of that changes when they grow up and away from you and take separate vacations? Hmmm? No one ever prepares you adequately, in pregnancy, for how sewed up and torn out you'll be for the rest of your life.
He gets out of the car and he looks bigger to me, taller and bigger and his skin is a shade or two darker. He has new eyeglasses and new shoes. His brothers get to him first, their hands outstretched and their arms wide. Even the dog is standing up on his hind legs trying to high-five the kid.
I'm bringing up the rear, as usual. We hug. We stand apart and grin. We hug again.
Mom, I got you something when I was in Chinatown, my kid says.
This touches me, in and of itself. That he would bring me anything at all from San Francisco's Chinatown. Significant chapters of my life were written in Chinatown. Most of which, he'd have no way of knowing about. He could have brought me a phone book and I'd have oohed and aahed over that appreciatively.
[Oh, look, here's the help lines where you can call and get pre-recorded information on any subject. Let's call a number and listen, even if it is long distance from here; it'll be just like the old days, when I was a new mother with no friends in a strange land, two thousand miles from home, and I'd lie on the new carpet of the new apartment and punch in selections to listen to while the baby slept, just to hear someone else's voice instead of my own.]
He was in Chinatown, he said, and he saw a silk robe in a shop window that he thought I'd really love; you don't have anything silk, do you, Mom? But then he decided a silk robe isn't practical, and bought me navy blue slippers with silver embroidery across the toes, and an emerald green billfold, and a painted wooden fan, instead.
Ohhh, thank you. But the money I gave you for the trip, that was for you, I protest. Not to buy something for me.
But I wanted to, he protested back. You deserve something nice, Mom, really.
I have tears in my throat. I can't talk.
My son, he shows me how to unfold the wooden fan and I flutter it coquettishly, pretending to be a Southern belle.
You know what else we did? my son asks me. We ate at Yu Lee's. We even got the lemon chicken, your favorite.
My mouth waters. It was good, wasn't it? I ask, in a way that is not exactly interrogative.
It was, he says, it was really good. I can see why you liked it so much.
[The lemon chicken at Yu Lee's is one of their specialties. Everyone who goes to San Francisco, I send them to Yu Lee's for the lemon chicken, even though it is (or, it was; I haven't been there in over a decade) a small somewhat out-of-the-way restaurant. The food is scrumptious, you'd want to eat there before you die, really you would.]
I know the San Francisco trips are important to him. I know that part of it is about exploring a past he never had, or might have dreamed -- a time when his parents lived under the same ceiling and took care of him together. He was too young to remember it when it was happening. The trips piece together memories borrowed from other people -- friends, family, people who knew us when. One uncle has my abandoned artwork; another, the drinking glasses from our old apartment. The only missing piece of the puzzle is his mother, herself.
Why did she leave? Why?
He's showing me pictures now. Pictures of him at the ocean. Pictures of the fish he caught. Pictures of Chinatown. I nod and sigh. It's lovely, it's all very lovely. Yes, there's the city with the fog rolling in. (It must be two in the afternoon in that picture.)
"But it's good to be home," he says, somewhat anxiously, as if to reassure me. He wants to know: Do I really like the fan? The slippers? The billfold? Should he have brought me something else? Something less practical, or more?
I love it, I assure him. I love it all. I put on the slippers even though it's midday, and turn my ankles this way in that, preening and admiring them. I transfer my checks and my ID to the new billfold. I put the fan in my purse so I can summon it at will, like a magic wand.
You went to the city I left behind, I'm thinking, and you brought back the part of it I loved the most: yourself.