by Chad B. Cowell
Joanna used a wet rag to wipe the table down with one hand while she put the dollar tip in her apron pocket with the other. One of the customers, a regular, hailed his elderly friends goodbye and wished her a good day, advising her to stay dry. As he left the diner, a small bell that hung from the door handle announced his departure. She looked at the large beads of rain that collected on the storefront window that lazily trickled down the glass. She sighed; it was one of those kinds of mornings. Gray and dreary. Taillights from the morning traffic blurred through the glass.
She picked up the pot of coffee that she had set at an adjacent booth and began to make her rounds again when she was startled by someone peering through the front window. It was a small Asian woman who was in need of an umbrella. She had her hands cupped around her eyes so that she might better see in the diner. Joanna couldn’t imagine how it could be that difficult to see in considering how dark it was outside, but she didn’t mind. Just so long as she didn’t actually touch the glass. Joanna didn’t feel like cleaning smudges off of the windows today.
She took the pot of coffee to the farthest table in the back where a group of male retirees congregated each morning to talk about cars, the weather, and of all things, work. They made the same harmless jokes about cold coffee or slow service as they did every morning, but they managed to put a smile on her face. They ordered the same thing every day. The same eggs. The same bacon. The same coffee. They were easy customers. Predictable. Which was good on a rainy Monday morning.
When Joanna returned to the front of the diner to get a fresh pot, she saw that the woman at the window had come inside. Despite the large sign at the entrance that said, “ Please, wait to be seated” the woman had taken a seat at a window booth, which was fine considering the fact that no one else seemed to adhere to the sign’s request either. Joanna brought her a menu.
“Welcome to Little Susie’s,” she greeted the woman. “Can I get you something to drink?”
After a brief pause the question seemed to sink in. “Do you have green tea?” She spoke the words carefully and quickly. As if they were practiced.
“No, I’m sorry. We have regular tea. We have coffee. Orange juice.”
“No green tea?”
“No green tea,” Joanna confirmed again. “We have Lipton.” She pointed to it on the menu.
“That is fine.”
“Good. I’ll go get that.” Joanna quickly checked on her other customers then filled a ceramic cup with hot water from the kettle that sat on the burner, opened up a bag of tea, and dropped it in. She was about to return when she thought to grab the small pitcher of milk from the stainless steel refrigerator that was kept under the counter. She returned to the woman’s booth and placed the cup and saucer in front of her.
“Thank you very much,” she said.
“Do you want any milk in your tea?”
The woman seemed unsure. “Do you drink it with milk?”
“You can. My mother always did.” She thought about her mother drinking tea in the mornings. Sometimes she would sit on the porch swing and watch the chickadees and the occasional cardinal pick at seeds from the feeder as she whispered to the stray tom cat. She fed that cat for nine years, yet it never came close enough to pet. She drank her tea with enough milk to make it white.
The woman took a sip and made a bitter face. “I’ll have some milk.”
Joanna smiled at the woman. “Have you looked at the menu? Would you like something to eat?”
“Just this, thank you.” She handed the menu back.
“Okay, let me know if you change your mind. My name is Joanna.” She held the nametag clipped to her breast pocket out so the woman could see it.
“That’s a beautiful name. Perfect for you. Your mother must be very proud.”
“Thank you. I don’t know about that.”
Joanna thought about her mother and the fights that led up to her leaving. Perhaps, if she thought about it, her leaving was the cause of the fights. She couldn’t remember any longer.
“Are you in the city for vacation?” asked Joanna.
“I’m meeting my daughter today,” said the woman.
“That’s nice. Are you meeting here?”
“No, we’re meeting there at the bus stop.” She pointed through the window at the stop across the street. Joanna knew that the airport shuttle dropped off and picked up travelers there. She often saw men and women with luggage. On particularly busy days she’d sometimes wish she could simply get on the shuttle, go to the airport, and fly someplace else: away from her claustrophobic apartment and her nine to five life.
“She’s bringing my granddaughter with her.”
“That’s wonderful. Do you get to visit often?”
“No, this is the first time.”
Joanna was surprised by the answer, unable to understand.
“How old is she?” asked Joanna.
“Four years old.” She pulled a photograph of a little girl from her handbag. The girl had dark hair, large brown eyes, and an even bigger smile.
“She’s so cute,” said Joanna. “Has it been a long time since you’ve seen your daughter?”
The woman’s eyes glassed over as she stared off into the distance. Recollecting a time long past. Joanna felt as though she had prodded into a matter that was none of her business. “I’m sorry,” Joanna said. “It wasn’t my place.”
“No, it’s okay.” She smiled. “It’s been thirty-one years since I’ve seen my daughter. Thirty-one years since I said goodbye to my baby girl.”
Joanna wasn’t sure what a proper reaction would be to the woman’s answer so she simply said, “I’m sure she’s very excited to see you again.”
“I hope so.”
The bell chimed at the door as a couple entered the restaurant. “Please excuse me,” said Joanna. She seated the couple and went about checking on the other patrons.
The hours ticked by. Coffee was served and breakfasts were eaten. Silverware clinked against plates. Tables were wiped. Patrons came and went: some regulars and some first timers. Outside, traffic streamed by in orange and red smears. The rain continued to fall.
The woman stayed in the booth all morning. She read while she waited. She drank another cup of tea with lots of milk. Despite being busy, Joanna couldn’t stop thinking about the woman who hadn’t seen her daughter in thirty-one years. It had been four years since she had seen her own mother yet it seemed like a lifetime.
Noon marked the end of Joanna’s shift. She put in a personal order, and did her last rounds. When she saw her replacement clink through the door, she took off her apron and hung it on one of the pegs next to the phone on the wall.
When the cook rang the silver domed bell, signaling her order was ready, she took up the tray from the kitchen window and walked over to the woman still sitting in the booth.
“Are you finished?” asked the woman.
“I am,” replied Joanna, “but I was hoping you would have breakfast with me. I know it’s lunchtime, but neither of us have eaten.”
The woman looked at the tray Joanna brought and saw two plates stacked with blueberry pancakes. Large spoonfuls of fluffy butter and maple syrup were on the side in small porcelain cups. She looked touched and more than a little hungry. “Thank you. I’d like that,” she said. Joanna set the plates and silverware wrapped in napkins down on the table, and took a seat in the booth.
As Joanna unwrapped her silverware, she asked the woman what she was reading.
“It’s called The Good Earth, it’s about a peasant family in rural China,” said the woman. She then laughed and put a hand over her mouth as if she misspoke. “It’s about much more than that.”
“Is that where you are from? China?” asked Joanna.
“Yes, child. Have you read it?”
Joanna felt slightly embarrassed at the question. “I don’t have much time to read.”
“Well, you must make time. Every young woman should read. How else are you going to learn about what’s out there?” She nodded towards the window; or rather, the world outside the window. She ate her pancakes in small bites and chewed softly.
“I guess I figure it out by just going out there.”
“That’s one way of doing it. But the world doesn’t always tell you the whole truth. I learned that the hard way. Sometimes you need to find answers here.” She pointed to her chest. “Books help you do that. The right books.” She picked up and handed the book to Joanna. “Here, take this. Read it.”
Joanna protested. “You need to finish it. You won’t have anything to read.”
“I’ve read that book many times. And I can pick up something new later.”
“Thank you.” Joanna cradled the book close to her. “I’ll read it and think of you.”
They ate in silence for a short time. Joanna broke the silence and asked, “How did you learn English?”
“ How is the easy part. Why is the story. I can tell you if you have time.”
“Of course. May I ask, what is your name?”
“You can call me Ying.”
I was born in Sichuan in 1965. My father was a poor farmer and my mother, a poor farmer’s wife. We didn’t have much, but they loved each other, and they raised me as best as they could.
I received my education in the village school. Everything that my father made went in to feeding us, keeping a shelter over our heads, and towards my education. Mostly my education. My mother only owned one dress and her sole possession was a necklace with a single pearl. My father wanted a better life for me and my mother had to sacrifice her role as a woman so that I could become one.
When I was sixteen, my parents sent me to work as a maid in the city. I would work in exchange for an education. I knew they didn’t have the money to send me, but the day I left on the train, my mother went home without the pearl around her neck. I looked at my reflection in the train window as the hills rolled by and the tears rolled down my cheeks.
During my third year in the city, I met a young man and I fell in love. At least, I thought it was love. I don’t know what it was truly. Maybe just passion. I was already pregnant when we were married a year later. My husband’s family paid for my parents to come to the city. That was the last time I ever saw them.
My father took sick and passed away. They said he had a fever; that many in the village died that year from fever. My mother needed me, but I couldn’t go to her. I was seven months pregnant. My husband said he would send money to help her. When winter came, he said he tried to pay for her to be brought to the city, but found out that she too had passed away.
Six months later, I received a letter from a neighbor in the village telling me my mother had recently passed away. My husband assured me that there had been some kind of confusion on the neighbor’s part. I had already mourned my mother’s death, so there was nothing for me to do, but raise the little girl we had had earlier that spring.
I could tell my husband had been disappointed with a girl. He worked more, drank more. My mother-in-law had come to help while I was pregnant, but never left. She had become the head-of-the-household, while I became the equivalent of a servant again. Eventually, there was talk of trying for a boy.
I resisted the idea at first because of China’s one child policy, but it was what everyone expected of me. My mother-in-law told me they would take care of everything so that we would be permitted to keep both children. I’d like to think I was a fool to believe her, but the truth is, I don’t think I ever did believe her. I think I knew all along what it would mean. I had become a sleepwalker. Blindly walking through each day and doing what was expected of me. We had a boy the week after my daughter turned two.
When I came home from the hospital, my baby girl was gone. She had been taken to an orphanage. I was told to let them take care of my daughter and to focus on my new baby. And that’s what I did. But I never forgot. Eventually, something changed in me. Something hardened and I found strength I never knew I had. I held a kitchen knife to my mother-in-law, demanded to know where the orphanage was. She told me. I found the orphanage but I was too late. My daughter had been adopted by an American family.
The only way I was able to continue living was to tell myself that one day I would see her again. I told myself that every day.
“That is why I learned English,” Ying said. “I knew I’d be here one day. It took thirty-one years, but I eventually found her. And here I am.”
Joanna dabbed at her eyes with a tissue Ying had given her.
“I can’t believe that they would do that to you,” said Joanna.
Ying shook her head. “It was my fault. I let it happen. I learned that I couldn’t let being young be an excuse any longer. I learned that I was the only person that could make decisions for me.”
Joanna looked up at the clock that hung on the wall and saw that it was almost two o’clock. She felt a tinge of sadness and knew that it was because she would have to say good bye to the fascinating woman who sat across from her. In many ways, she felt as though she had had a conversation with her mother all morning, but perhaps it was just the conversation she was having within her heart.
“Why don’t you speak to your mother anymore?” asked Ying.
“How did you know?”
“I didn’t always make the best decisions as a mother. But I am still a mother.”
“I don’t know. It’s silly really,” Joanna said. She tried to remember why she had left, why she had been so angry. It had been so long ago that it was hard to pinpoint the exact emotions that she had been feeling. “I wanted to grow up, I guess. I wanted to move out. Find my way. I wanted to get out of our little town. I thought my mother only cared about my brothers.”
“You have brothers?” said Ying. “How many?”
Having just listened to Ying’s story and about how she had to give up her daughter to have a boy, she almost felt guilty telling her the truth. “I have three brothers.”
“Your mother must be so happy. And if I have any mother’s intuition left, I think you must be very special to her. Perhaps that is why she didn’t want you to leave.”
“Well, that’s not how she acted.”
“Take it from me,” said Ying, “sometimes even mothers make mistakes.”
“But it’s been so long. Even if I wanted to go back, I couldn’t.”
“That’s true.” Ying reached across the table and squeezed Joanna’s hands. She looked earnestly at her. “Maybe you can wait thirty-one years.”
Ying checked her watch and said that she had better get going. It was almost time. Joanna saw that it was still raining so she went behind the counter where she kept her umbrella and gave it to Ying. She could have given her one of the others, considering customers left umbrellas all the time, but she wanted Ying to take something of hers.
“Thank you for sharing your story with me,” Joanna said.
“Thank you for listening. There aren’t many young people who want to listen to the old ones anymore. And remember, it’s never too late.” She gave Joanna a brief hug and then stepped out into the rain with her small carry on and Joanna’s umbrella.
Joanna stood by the window and watched as the mother hugged the daughter she hadn’t seen in thirty-one years. The little girl got swept up in her grandmother’s arms. The memories of three generations came together. She saw tears mingle with the rain.
She gazed upon the blue hills on the horizon and felt the pull of her family roots as she rounded the bend and drove through the small town. She didn’t remember how beautiful it all was: the mountains, the trees, even the sky seemed different. It was bigger and bluer. She drove with the window down so that she could breathe in the fresh air.
When she pulled into the driveway and saw her home, it was as if she hadn’t been gone at all. It felt as though she had simply gone to town for a gallon of milk or a drive with her friends. She walked up the stone path that led to the front door. She smelled the wild mint that grew along the walk and saw the screen door that never quite closed right.
Inside, she smelled the familiar smells of home. Saw the mail on the table. There were a few dishes in the sink, dirty clothes in a hamper near the washing machine. All the familiar signs of life were there, but she didn’t see anyone. Just when she had come to the conclusion that no one was home, she saw her mother sitting on the back porch swing. She was drinking tea and whispering to an old tom cat.