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first person

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

This week, First Person features the joys and the sorrows of mothering.

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Our house has always teemed with plant life: The stems of a money tree interweave toward the dining-room ceiling; the prickly spines of a cactus scatter light coming in from my parents’ bedroom window; soft fern fronds tickle my nose every time I reach out to pull the living-room curtains back. My mom has a green thumb. Every summer she transforms our backyard into a fruit and vegetable farm. For two months, our dinner plates are filled with snow peas, sweet green tomatoes and spicy peppers.

Mom puts the same care and attention into her family as she does into the houseplants and garden. I flourished under the sunshine of her smile. As a child, I faked a fear of bugs to make my friends feel better, but I loved spending summer afternoons digging up worms in the backyard with my mom. I listened to stories about her childhood in remote northern China. Her favourite was about how she used to get up before the sun to get to school and how the corn stalks, which grew twice as tall as her on both sides of the path, rustled menacingly in the wind, sending shivers of fear up her spine.

This November will mark 21 years since my parents left their comfortable life in China for Canada’s frigid weather and incomprehensible language. Their first years were hard. They squeaked by in a rented basement apartment, my mom holding me in her lap while she embroidered wedding dresses. Recently, Mom showed me the designs she’d sewn: fine beaded flowers on white silk. It was only years later that she was able to grow real flowers in her own garden.

In September, I’ll be leaving for university. I’ll spread my wings like a young bird and fly from the comfortable familiarity of the nest into the unknown forest beyond. My parents won’t be alone – they will have my little sister for another four years – but I’ll be solo. When I do my homework in the middle of the night and the plant shadows turn menacing and alive, I won’t hear my mom’s weary voice telling me to stop writing and go to bed. When I’m hungry, I’ll have to buy my own groceries. I’ll have to do my own laundry.

But I don’t have a green thumb. The bean plant I brought home after using it for a biology project? Eaten by my dog. The strawberry seeds I got for Christmas? Knocked the pot over. Only my mom remembers to water the yellowing plant in my bedroom.

Compared with her, I’ve had an easy life. I’ve never had to walk alone to school in the dark. I’ve never had to single-handedly take care of three younger sisters. I’ve never had to work long hours bent over white fabric with an embroidery needle, earning next to nothing while my child wailed next to me.

Sometimes, when I’m frustrated, I forget this. I yell, I don’t listen, I storm away. For a while, I think I’m all set. That I know everything I need to know. But I’ll come across a dilemma that I just can’t solve, one that my mom, with her wise advice, could easily remedy. Another leaf from my plant will wither and turn yellow from neglect and I will be reminded of the un-greenness of my own thumb, and just how much I still don’t know. I’ll wander back. My apologies muffled by the secure embrace of my mom’s arms. She’ll tickle me and an involuntary giggle will escape my mouth. “I’ve crossed more bridges than the roads you’ve even seen,” she’ll remind me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my identity, how it was shaped by my mom’s influence. I might have never discovered a love for reading if she hadn’t read me a bedtime story every night for two years, or a love of music if she hadn’t sat me down at our old piano and taught me how to play using videos she’d downloaded off the internet. I would have never chosen the specialized high-school program I attend, and have my life changed in all sorts of ways, if not for middle-school summers spent doing math question after math question with my mom in Mandarin (and relearning everything in English during the school year). I have so much to learn, so much still to do. But thanks to my mom, I’ve got solid roots that I can draw on as I grow into my future.

My goal for university is to keep a plant alive in my dorm for an entire year. My mom has been teaching me how, using little fragments of succulents she found on the ground of Home Depot and somehow managed to coax to life in leftover yogurt containers. In September, I’ll go off to university, and these succulents will sit on my dorm windowsill. They’ll stay alive because I’ll take care of them the same way that my mom took care of me. They’ll thrive, even. How could they not, when they’re supported by one (and a half) green thumbs?

Janet Chen lives in Toronto.