The Children's Table
In elementary school, my mother brought me to your house for family friend dinners. You and I sat at the small round table, separated by a wall from our parents, plates piled with meat and fish, steam rising off rice, feet dangling off our too-tall seats. At the children’s table, we climbed on our chairs and conducted magnificent, booming symphonies with our chopsticks. Taller than ever, we measured our height with our hands. Our table was the true celebration. It was a pinprick of light in the low-lit corner. It partied through the night until our parents had cracked three mounds of sunflower seeds and were ready to send each other off.
At sixteen, we still sit at the children’s table—position is always relative, not determined by actual age. The white tablecloth, the worn chopsticks, the blue-painted porcelain set, the way you separate the duck skin from the meat before eating—those are the same. But there’s no symphony. The table is too small, and your legs are uncomfortably close to mine. Our feet accidentally brush from time to time.
Somehow, our conversation has faded away, and I’ve resorted to tracing a crack in the table with my nail. You can’t resist a glance at your physics textbook, but it’s rude to evade boredom at a family friend dinner, so we eavesdrop on our parents’ conversations through the wall. As they murmur about the stock market and our grades, a voice rises above the others. It’s a voice I’d recognize anywhere. It’s the voice of the woman I’ve followed and argued with all my life.
My mother’s voice told me about attending college at sixteen, flying across an ocean armed with nothing but her suitcase and a handful of English, about losing her hair and growing
it back. Her voice has always begged me behind its words: take this freedom, this democracy, this home, this meal, this money… take everything and run ahead.
Sometimes I suspect my mother wishes you were her daughter. She was always secretly showing me how to be like you. Like being perfect under pressure, like pressing the dumpling skin, pulling back her fingers to reveal the now-smoothed creases. But my insecurities stain my cheeks red until I feel my heart beat through my face, and you sit, doubts sliding off like oil, leaving you pristine, unaffected as ever.
Once, I caught my mother watching you as if you exhaled gold. It was only after she examined your symmetrical eyes, your sturdy gait, the air of success that always chased you, that I realized she watched you the same way I did…
So I guess my mother and I aren’t so different after all. We like to argue about what’s best for me, what we know and don’t know about each other, what we understand of the world, but we both want the same things. My mother wants me to live the life she’s preserved in her mind. I want to rid myself of her pestering voice.
I sit at the children’s table, listening as my mother thanks your parents. Her slippers scuff on the hardwood floor, she peeks her head around the corner, and you escort us to the door. We put on our shoes and retreat into the cold while you stand, bathed in a rectangle of golden light. As we reach the car, I wonder what it would be like to wrap my arm around my mother and hug for warmth like a child.
I don’t miss my mother’s sigh before she starts the engine, smiles at me in the rearview mirror, and drives home.