A statuette of the Virgin Mary stood guard as my mother and I sipped from glasses of wine cooler on our living room floor. We’d propped our front door open to let in the breeze, leaving only a flimsy screen between our shelter and the world outside. Every once in a while, we’d hear our neighbor calling for her wayward son or the laugh track of a sitcom playing too loudly in the next house over. We’d echo it with giggles of our own, seated on faux mink blankets from the Philippines laid over ceramic tile.
In Tagalog, they’d call this tsismis—idle talk, juicy gossip. Knowing I never learned the language, my mother would beckon me with its colloquial equivalent, a phrase that still has the power to bring me back to Hawai’i in an instant. “Come on,” she’d say, bottle in hand. “Let’s talk story.”
We’d talk story until the ache of our tailbones forced us onto our bellies for relief. With my nose so close to the plush fur, I could smell the markets of Divisoria—a cocktail of fried food, rot, and diesel. I’d breathe it in as late night became early morning and our cul-de-sac went quiet but for the buzzing of insects outside. In these hours, our idle talk turned serious, contemplative.
My mother would talk of what she once dreamt of. Living happily ever after with a husband. Owning a house. Building a home. In turn, I’d beg her for stories of the Kaua’i she knew: the island as it was before tourists discovered it and Hurricane Iniki decimated it. Kaua’i before me. Always, we’d find our way to the questions that haunted us—a parent preparing to say goodbye and a daughter poised to leave. How would my siblings feel once I left? How often would I visit? Who would take care of her when her body began to fail?
Once, she admitted, “I don’t think I want to be buried. I want to be burned.”
“Cremated,” I offered.
If we were still awake after 2:00 a.m., my mother would glance at the clock and grin. “If we stay up two more hours, we can eat breakfast.”
In Hawai’i, McDonald’s serves breakfast platters that far exceed the quality of anything else on the menu: rice and eggs with a side of Portuguese sausage or Spam. Somehow, she’d learned that McDonald’s began serving these gems at 4:00 a.m. sharp. So we’d wait, drink and talk a bit more, then drive down our island’s lone highway for a late-night snack.
Kaua’i is a tangle of what is and what seems—a series of distortions that can only hint at what’s more complicated and true. Sprawling networks of aunties and uncles who are technically just friends. Hawaiian land that’s technically American. A local tongue that’s English, but with rhythms and words all of its own. A regional meal with the packaging of a global brand. These technicalities smooth over the stops and starts; they make things more palatable for the visitors who come looking for an escape from home.
But Kaua’i was our home in all the messy, ugly ways that distinction entails. It was a home that taught me the cost of living before I knew the phrase, armed with a seven-dollar minimum wage and nine-dollar loaves of bread. It taught me the tragedies of history through calls for Hawaiian sovereignty in grade school classes and roadside protests. The tragedies of families came even earlier, the horrific truth that it isn’t all so rare for people to be hurt by those they love. By middle school, I’d lost the capacity to be shocked when a classmate walked into homeroom with cigarette burns dotting her thighs. I understood why another drove needles into her palms beneath her desk. It was pain, but it was pain she could control.
I was never under any illusions of what sort of world I was living in. No local is. We know the contours of what makes Kaua’i real. We know our reality is bad for the brochures, that our lives make up the underbelly of a mainlander’s Paradise. Still, I might have been content to spend my life there. But my mother had left a home behind once, and she insisted there was more waiting for me beyond Kaua’i’s shores.
When she learned that I was growing in her, her firstborn and a daughter at that, she asked everyone she knew how she could set me up for success. Books, they told her. Surround her with stories. And so she did.
She began building a library of children’s books before she birthed me. She liked to talk story even then. My father would find her reading aloud to the swell of her belly each night, hoping the words of Goodnight Moon or Dr. Seuss would reach me inside. Our family teased her for taking the advice too far. But when I was born, there was no denying that I was comforted by a good story. No matter how many my mother read to me, I was hungry for more.
She watched me grow and saw me for who I was: a girl captivated by tales about far-off countries and imaginary lands. She knew, long before I did, that my curiosity would eventually outgrow our home. She believed I could live a life reminiscent of, maybe even grander than, the adventures I found in my books. If we played our cards right.
I couldn’t have been older than six when she told me I had to leave Kaua’i when I came of age. She told me I’d get a scholarship to a distant university on the mainland. One day, I might even own a house there, build a home. She said she’d settle for nothing less. When I laughed at her, she grasped my hand and squeezed. “You have to go for it, baby,” she whispered. “Go.”
On the surface, our relationship seems simple. We’re mother and daughter, parent and child. She’s the woman who held me when I lay in bed sick. I’m the girl who pretended to be asleep as she quietly begged my illness to fly to her body instead. But when my father disappeared one night, hiding from a country that wanted to spit him out, my mother took my hands in hers and told me being a child wasn’t enough. It was time to grow up and take his place. I was eight then, just young and stupid enough that I was excited to be one of the adults. I’d be the hero that held our family together. I’d play the role of parent, daughter, or spouse. I’d become whatever I could to meet our family’s needs.
I cracked myself open and willed myself to be more, all while doing the best I could to find my path to the mainland. I learned how to care for my sister between homework assignments while my mother worked. I knew we’d lost my father’s income, so I tried to save money by skipping meals and living off cheap frozen food. Later, I taught myself how to cook for the entire family, making sure dinner was on the table when my mother came home. More than anything else, I became accustomed to knowing parts of her my siblings would never see. We’d talk in hushed tones about a day when my father might be able to come out of hiding and spend the day with us, unbothered and free. Some nights, she’d share our lawyer’s dismal take on his immigration case. We’d pray together, rosaries glittering between our fingers. We’d cry.
One day, my mother became sick. She had no fever or persistent cough, but her face would go pale and she’d run to the bathroom to heave. After a week of this, I saw her illness for what it was. I was in the fifth grade at the time, and my school had taught me the signs. My mother had given me permission to take the class. I waited for her at our kitchen table as she retched in our nearby bathroom. When she emerged, I asked if there was any chance she could be pregnant. Her eyes went wide, but she nodded.
I wasn’t ready to ask the question on my mind (How?), but I didn’t need to. She collapsed into the seat beside me and explained that there were days when my father came out of hiding to see her.
I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t want to know if he’d asked to see his daughters or why my mother had lied. Where they met or how often they saw each other while my sister and I were home fishing dinners out of iced-over cardboard boxes, I’ll never know. I focused on the conversation we needed to have. I said it could just be a stomach bug. But I told her to get a pregnancy test, just to be sure. Nine months later, I learned how to carry my brother (a large newborn at nine pounds) on my slim frame.
After my brother was born and my father’s absence dragged on, there were nights when my mother’s tears turned to anger. I steeled myself as she hurled insults my way, scolded me for being too ungrateful, too lazy, too apathetic about my siblings or my grades. Even when I put forth all the effort I possibly could in meeting my family’s needs, my mother’s needs, I still wasn’t enough. And how could I be, when what she needed from me was a replacement for a husband who’d fled?
She told me as much on the nights when she was too tired to be angry. “I just wanted a partner. I wanted someone to talk to.” She’d gesture at me, toward my siblings in the other room. “I wanted someone to help.”
I felt closest to her in those moments. She was a girl like me, tired and heartbroken and small. There was a part of me that detested her for turning me into a cheap imitation of the partner she was looking for and still demanding more. But a greater part of me pitied her. The pity made it easier to bear her rigid hands falling upon my arms, torso, and cheeks. I let her hurt me until she was sated, and when she came to me the next night to lament her own suffering, I listened.
In these vicious cycles of care and abuse, I loved, hated, and accommodated my mother more than a child should. Our relationship has been split at the seams and mended so many times—a patch here, a stitch there—that it’s become simultaneously more and less than what it once was. When she was grateful for me, she’d call me her “confidante.” In striving to become more than her daughter, I’d become her “best friend.”
She so believed in this, our messy and warped bond, that when I told her that I was admitted to an actual dream school, the kind of university name-dropped in Hollywood movies, I wasn’t surprised to see her strained smile. My mother had succeeded in raising a daughter who could build a life better than the one we knew. But that meant being, once again, the one who was left behind.
Her reckoning with this loss led us to those long summer nights. Making the most of the time we had together was our way of saying goodbye to something far greater than me. We knew there would be other summers. I’d always be drawn to my island, my family, our tiles covered with blankets and old bedsheets. But with the end of this summer came a release neither of us was quite ready for. My mother would be asked to let go of our family as we knew it, the confidence that she would come home and find her children under one roof. I’d be asked to release the careful control I’d spun around us, to trust that my siblings would be cared for, safe. I wouldn’t be able to nourish them anymore. I wouldn’t be able to shield them from my mother, to rein her in as soon as voice or hand was raised.
Beyond that, I’d have to step away from Kaua’i and accept that the island I knew would go on without me. That while I was away, Kaua’i would evolve and change into a world that wasn’t entirely mine.
We worked together to push those nights as far as they could go. My mother tried to love me best she could before I set out to the mainland. I tried to know her as a true best friend would. I’d surface the details of the woman she had been before me as if panning for gold. Before she was my mother, she was a girl skipping past scrap-metal homes and stabbings in Tondo, Manila. As a woman, she’d join her friends at Nawiliwili Harbor, dancing her nights away on Hawaiian soil. Once, on a cruise ship in that same harbor, a boy told her he loved her, and she broke his heart. Once, at the high school we both eventually attended, she slammed a bully’s head against the metal tables of their chemistry lab. She was suspended, but she wasn’t bullied ever again.
These stories told me that my mother is headstrong and bold, playful and astute. But they amounted to little more than glimpses that only capture one facet of the truth. Those late-night talks helped me know the mythology of my mother. They made me realize I’d never have the privilege of knowing the truth of her, no matter how many hours we talked. In the end, I was still her daughter. There would always be parts of her that would be out of reach, even for me.
The truth is: details of that summer escape me now. The memory of it has eroded to a tangled string of conversations, a mass of warm and sleepless nights. The feelings are sure, but the details aren’t certain (Did my mother tell me she wanted to be cremated in the living room or on my bed?). But I still find meaning in the mess. I can tell you my mother wants her life to end in a blaze. I can tell you she wants the myth of her to burn.
When I told my mother I was writing about her, she laughed. “Why would you write about me? I’m so boring.”
“You’re not boring,” I said. “And it’s not just about you. It’s about us.” She was unconvinced. I offered to read her the first page. I tried to make it count. I spoke our memories into being. The Virgin Mary. The blankets from Divisoria. Our old screen door.
When I finished, she was quiet, sitting with the words. She laughed again, but with a warmth she hadn’t had before. “How do you do that?” She asked. “The buzzing of insects…. You make it sound like a book.”
I understood her, as I always do. I’d made our story sound worthy of being on a page. I’d turned our conversations into something more than the idle talk of mothers and daughters. I’d made it sound like the kind of stories she wanted me to read, the kind of stories she wanted me to live. The ones she thought were worthy of being heard.
One night, my mother and I decide to eat our late-night breakfast at McDonald’s instead of taking our meals back home. The summer is waning, and the nights stretch on in ways they hadn’t before. The sky above us is splashed purple and blue. We’re the only ones on the road. Even the wild chickens that wander Kaua’i are still roosting.
When we arrive, we sit below fluorescent lights that cool the undertones in our skin. Here, my mother looks even paler than usual. Sitting opposite each other, a dark child facing a light-skinned woman, I wonder if we look related.
She’s brought our food to the table. I’ve ordered my usual: a platter of Portuguese sausage, eggs, and rice. She’s gotten a large iced coffee and the deluxe: an eggs-and-rice platter with Spam and another helping of sausage that she’ll move to my plate. There are days when I think she doesn’t know much about me, but she knows I like to have extra.
The platters squeak when we pull at the lids, but we talk over the sound. I’ll be flying to California soon. I won’t even be halfway across the world, but within a day, just an ocean away. I tell her I’m excited. Then I say maybe I am. I’m not sure. But then I look up and see tears burning the edges of my mother’s eyes, turning them red. For a moment, I’m at a loss for words. I recognize the look of despair, but I can’t tell what role I’m supposed to play. The daughter? The spouse? The confidante? I can’t tell what she needs.
Unbidden, she begins apologizing. She apologizes for yelling, for hitting, for making me feel abandoned and small. “You must hate me,” she says. “But it hurt me too.”
Her voice is soft as she leans forward. “I’m sorry,” she insists. “I’m sorry.”
I’d spent the summer chasing after a glimpse of the woman before me. Not a mother, but a woman who was real and whole. But now that she’s revealed herself, belly-up and weeping, I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do other than fall back on the old narrative we know so well.
I reach across the table, grasping for what’s familiar, and rest my hand on hers. I tell her that it’s okay. That I understand why she needed to hurt someone, anyone, to ease her own pain. Make it all feel less sharp, less raw. It’s an old script, one that doesn’t include forgiveness. Not yet. But if she’s noticed, she doesn’t say a word.
She’s quiet as I comfort her and looks at me with a new kind of recognition. It feels as if we’re not mother and child anymore, but something more foreign, even more in-between. She gives my hand a squeeze.
And we go on like that. We talk story. We eat.
Danielle Batalion Ola is a Filipina writer, born and raised on the island of Kaua’i. She now writes from the mainland with ample emotional support from her tiny dog, Stitch. Her work has appeared in Lunch Ticket, and she is currently a Creative Nonfiction Fellow with the Kundiman Mentorship Lab.