My Mother’s War (part 1)

Before the war

Again, an older piece. My mother is Dutch, was in a Japanese POW camp in WWII as a girl. She wrote about this in a book called the Flamboya Tree (published in 2001, right around when my youngest child was born, has been translated into fourteen languages and received some critical acclaim.) I wrote this feeling guilty about my first thought when she was published, “It was supposed to be me.” Over that now- the world has room for lots of stories. People ask sometimes how/why I started using. Not sure there is anything causal at root- just made that way. That said, I am long acquainted with the idea of more…

I think the beginning might be rooted in my mother’s war, the one that wrapped itself around the leg of my childhood, like an undercurrent you know you can get out of until the last minute, when the rush against the sand leaves you bloody lipped and grated, gasping and blinded by sun. A war, even an old one, can reach out if you are not careful. Ankle grab, quick tug and there you are again, tucked around a swollen lunch (too much, all ways) with your brothers and sister, the unremembered children she watched for pocket money tucked between you at lunch time like junk mail. The warm bowl of orange tomato soup hypnotic, impossible either to choke it down or leave it, hunger and lack the constant reminder of her own girlhood and the camp. The keeping quiet because a meal is, in wartime, nothing to be savored but a grim, toothy march to the future. Scarcity is common to war. Nothing is ever enough if you once ate grubs culled from a post-monsoon rain track. It sounds almost fake, to eat grubs. Better to say old canned food or a soup made from some leftover Russian potato. But grubs it was. My Oma would try to make it a game, the spearing them with sticks, the gush then the chew.

My mother named her book the Flamboya Tree for a painting her mother took in the one suitcase they traveled with. This painting of a single red and exotic tree and a road in the dust still hangs on my parents’ wall in Bellingham. It hung on the colonial wallpaper of my suburban Massachusetts home, was the image I stared at twirling the phone cord, laying on the bench, newly deepened voices at the other end. It hung on the walls of apartments I cried in and will hang somewhere after I’m gone.

It is a surprising story, this, the way her words were taken and made into a book, the one thing I have ever wanted, paraded in front of America via Rosie O’Donnell (who lost her mother as well, though differently.) How the hardback came to me in treatment for “opiate dependency,” such narrow words for a time defined by too many young children and not enough friends, the frantic calling and late taxis’ to Walgreens for another fill.  Her war played its part, too, laughing in the cracks of the stone walls when I lay in the basement of my first college boyfriend and let him (no — asked him) to slide the needle into the careful crook of my own arm, the way the room spun for a moment until I realized just how at home I felt, beyond the vomiting and the spin.

My mother still cannot bear the bombs bursting in air on the Fourth of July, would in fact hide in the back of our Impala with her ears covered as we sped around Pomp’s Pond before parking to watch. By twelve, I had read too much Judy Blume and had impossible dreams of romance, tossing at night, the FM radio down low. Wanted Bobby P. to stop blowing shit up and put his hands on me where they belonged. When the fireworks were over, my mother would always say with irritating relief, “Well, there’s that for another year.” I’d lie awake hungry for more. Always. More.

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