You proudly wore a shirt in the Eighth Grade that said you were proud to be Italian Polish. You’ve always been known as Desiree-Sharon Tan Bania. B-A-N-I-A, it means bathroom in Italian, you told friends. You didn’t know what it really meant, but have since learned that it means “gourd” in Polish.
You once asked her at the age of 16, why your dad wasn’t in any pictures taken at the hospital the day you were born.
“He wass werking.”
“He was working?”
“He had to werk.” She went to finish her gardening, which was her way of ending a conversation.
What kind of father isn’t there for the birth of his child? She seemed irate with your questions. Well, he is a workaholic, you reasoned, so you didn’t bother pressing the issue, besides your parents always told you the truth.
Years later you decide to use some pictures at your wedding reception, so she gives you the albums she’s kept of you since you were a baby. She tells you, “I don’t need dem anymore. I don’t need to remember duh past.”
One picture caught your eye, so you peeled back the plastic film and remove the picture off the sticky album surface. It leaves a yellowed shadow where it has been all those years. You’re probably around six months old, sitting in a baby carrier with a toothless smile, gazing undoubtedly at your adoring mother. She tells you that she named you Desiree because you were the desire of her heart when she came to America and she loved that Neil Diamond song that bares your name. A song that you’re still not familiar with. She married your dad soon after arriving in America and at the age of 38 she gave birth to you.
It’s taken you a couple years to get the courage to ask her about this little piece of evidence.
“Mom, I have something to show you.”
“Wud is it?”
“Just a second. Let me go get it.”
She’s sitting at your kitchen table. You see her shifting in the chair, her back straight, legs crossed at the ankles with her hands firmly clasped in her lap. She clears her throat, but not to say anything. She’s had constant phlegm in her throat that she attributes to growing up with a father who smoked a pipe. The familiar smell of her freshly dyed hair combined with perfume that resembles scented alcohol fills the air. Growing up, she’d ask you to help her rub the dye in to the nape of her hair that she couldn’t reach. You wonder how she does it now, but that thought is fleeting.
Today she’s wearing a floral print blazer with a matching skirt, she resembles her fashion icon, Imelda Marcos. When people ask her about her ethnicity, she says, “I am Chinese Pilipina.” Always the emphasis on Chinese. Throughout your life, she has shared the hate experienced due to her mixed ethnicity.
“My pawther came prum Fujian Province by boat and met and married my mudder. Every year she was habing babies. Dare were 13 of us, four were cousins dat my parents adopted from my mother’s sister. We were called ‘Mestizos’ at the Chinese private school we attended. My older sister and I would get into fights with duh other Chinese students because we weren’t pull blood Chinese. Constantly getting called to see duh principal. Duh Pilipinos hate duh Chinese and duh Chinese hate duh Pilipinos. My family wass not accepted by either groups. We were hybrids.”
You don’t think she understands the definition of hybrid, but you go with it. You have learned to pick your fights with her. She misused vocabulary words but dismissed it with, “Oh, you know what I mean. I had a bad English teacher in the Pillippines.”
You recall other stories she has told you. It comes to mind in bits and pieces.
“I saybd my money pore years, so I could leab duh Philippines. I wanted a better lipe. All my sisters were married and I wanted my own pamily. I didn’t want to marry a Pilipino man. I lept my whole pamily to come here. They wanted to come to America too, but all dare bisas were denied, only mine was accepted.”
You’re holding the picture in your hand as you walk back over to her.
You show her the back. She begins to wring her hands and her breathing changes into the rapid sort you’re accustomed to right before she’s about to say what’s really on her mind.
“I wrote duh wrong name.”
“Daisy Reyes?” The name sounds foreign as you say it out loud. Daisy has always been your nickname. You’ve always been slightly annoyed with the fact that your parents only use your given name when you’re in trouble.
“Mom, how do you write the wrong last name?”
“Mom?” You stare into her eyes and she knows that this time, she can’t sidestep the answer.
She lets out a sigh.
“Ohkay. I tell you duh truth.”
After all these years, she’s going to tell the truth? You feel your chest constrict. You’re holding your breath and wait for her to resume speaking. You never imagined this moment being this easy. You were ready to argue, but there is no need for any of that. Her guard is down.
“Dat is duh name of your biological father. His name is Bienvenedo Pascual Reyes. He is a Pilipino. Dat is why I don’t like Pilipino men. He wass very bad. I don’t care if he’s dead or alibe.”
“What are you talking about? How bad was he?” Your mind quickly jumps to domestic abuse. She’s warned you about men that beat their wives. “You be carepul who you date. Ip a man hits you once, dats it. You leab him, because he will do it again.”
She’s looking at her hands. She has one hand resting on the table and with the other she’s holding a napkin, rubbing it back and forth between her forefinger and thumb.
“You know, I had a C-section because he beat me up. Dats why you were born early. When I was at duh hospital, you know what he was doing? He wass getting his hair permed at duh salon. I had a priend take me to duh hospital.”
She clears her throat. “Duh reason I didn’t tell you when you were younger, was because I wass worried you would want to pined him when you were a teenager and not respect Lou as your pawther. I know it wasn’t easy habing Lou as your pawther, but he wass a good probider. I knew he wass a hardworker and dat he would take good care of us. You don’t know how hard it is being a single mudder. We decided not tell you por your own good.”
She takes off her glasses and dabs her eyes with the napkin. She rarely cries in your presence and it makes you uncomfortable. She occasionally gives you a hug, but you know she loves you. Her actions havYou don’t know what to do. All you can muster is, “Oh Mom.” Tears well up in your eyes and you can only empathize and give her hand a gentle squeeze.
She leans in towards you. “You know, he once tried to kill me. He tried to phush me out uff duh car while it wass still moobing. He wanted my lipe insurance money. Anudder time, he was going to beat me up again. I full a knife at him and said, ‘Ip you try to hit me again, I’m gonna stab you to death!’”
It was as if she were reliving those moments. The pain, anger and hurt resurfacing after 20 years. It explains her time spent in the early mornings watering her garden and weeding her flower beds. She embraces the peaceful life she has in the small town you couldn’t wait to leave.
“Da next day, my boss called the police and they arrested him, because he saw duh black and blue marks on my arms. I took you par away from dare and divorce him. I had to keep moobing from one place to anudder because he would pined me. He wanted you back. I met and married Lou a year later. We moobed prum Huntington Beach, Calipornia to Carson City, Nebada. I change your name on your birth certipicate and duh name of your pawther to Lou because he legally adopted you . I neber heard from your pawther once we moobed to Nebada. I didn’t want you to eber know, but now you know duh truth.”
She opens up her palms and shrugs her shoulders.
My faborite song at dat time wass ‘I Will Surbibe.’ You know dat song?”
“Well, I surbibed.”
She has dabbed away the tears and smiles at you. You want to know a little more about the man that nearly killed your mother, but for now, this is enough.