My mother, myself

betty ming liu Inspiration, Relationships 25 Comments

So today, I need you to help me write this blog post. I’ll do my part by supplying an iconic image from my childhood. One look and I’ll bet you’ll instantly understand a lot about my personal issues. My hope is that you can explain what happened to me.

I can still remember the day this memorable image became tattooed on my brain. We were still living in Lyndhurst, N.J. and hadn’t moved yet to New York City. We didn’t relocate to Chinatown until I was nine, which means that I was probably seven or eight on this day.

Well, there we were — Mom, me and my younger sister, sitting around the formica-topped dining table. In front of us was a rectangular cookie tin. On its lid was the image of a very pretty white lady in a strapless blue evening gown. Her long white gloves were so elegant! And she was holding red roses, my mother’s favorite flower!

We’d recently finished the butter cookies that came in the box. Now, my mother was wiping out the last of the crumbs. But for some reason, she was staring at the picture of the beautiful lady and frowning.

Next thing I knew, Mom was holding a pair of sharp scissors and a scrap of blue contact paper. Have you ever used contact paper?  It’s plasticized sheeting with self-adhesive backing, often used for lining shelves. That’s what Mom used it for — until that particular day…

She cut that contact paper into the shape of a little jacket. Then she peeled off the backing and covered the white lady’s bare shoulders and cleavage. After that, my mother smiled, satisfied.

During her lifetime, my mom used the box to store sewing buttons. When I was in my I-hate-my-mother 30s, I snuck it out of my mother’s apartment and took the box with me to one of my therapy sessions so that my shrink could see first-hand how I was raised; by the end of my 50 minutes, both of us were laughing out loud.

After Mom went into the nursing home and we cleaned out her apartment, the box and the buttons went into one of my closets. Ever since Mom’s death, I’ll occasionally take out the cookie tin. Holding it’s solid shape is somehow comforting now. I can even smile too. Although, I’m quite sure my mother and I are smiling for different reasons.

Your thoughts?   :)

Original copyrighted work by Betty Ming Liu

Comments 25

  1. Well, the jacket IS rather a nice design – a period piece of course but it works with the gown. Perhaps your mother was simply expressing her inner true self as a would-be fashionista. Possibly she had recently read an article on “clever things to do with contact paper” and was looking for opportunities. Perhaps it was an expression of a thwarted childhood desire for paper dolls, long pent-up but bursting forth at last, precipitated by the unexpected congruence of contact paper and biscuit tin. Or there may have been some dreadful experience with an out-of-control décolleté long buried in her past, in which an untoward exposure occurred, thus creating a trauma that resurfaced with horror when the biscuit tin served as a reminder. There are numerous possibilities to be considered.
    On the other hand, maybe it was just a survival of Victorian sensibilities. My great aunt Sophie considered piano legs to be slightly indecent and draped her Beckstein to the floor, lest a storm of passions be released in any young people who happened by. None ever did but you can’t be too careful, after all.

  2. About 25 years ago I visited rural China with my wife. In the near tropical heat it was common to see any woman younger than, say, 45 walking around in shorts, but the upper body was always covered at least in a tee shirt. There were no strappy tops, no bare shoulders, etc. I think that traditional Chinese interpretations of decency require that a woman’s upper body be covered, and perhaps your mother was simply trying to convey that to her two young daughters. As a father of two girls myself, I am sure that at some future date they will laugh out loud (if they already haven’t) at some of the things I have done as well.

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    MJ, I would never, ever think of peeling off the jacket!

    Toby, my mom was probably like your Aunt Sophie. They probably would’ve gotten along very well. My mother also always told me, “A lady never shows her teeth when she smiles.” Oy.

    And yes, Lee, my mom was big on modesty and appropriate garb. Skin is too sexy!

  4. Great post, Betty. I have such a vivid image of you and your mom. I can totally understand bringing the box to therapy! And keeping it. And writing about it. By the way, although it’s not ‘loaded’ in the same way, I still have the old cookie tin of my grandmother’s buttons.
    Does your sister remember the event at all? It’s so interesting to me that siblings often remember their childhood as if they had grown up in different homes….That’s true of my brother and me, even though we are only 11 months apart in age.
    By the way, two things are clear: your mom had a strong streak of creativity and a great eye for design.

  5. Betty, I think your mom and my mom would have seen eye to eye on the cookie tin model. I am sure there upbringings had many similarities for all their differences. My mother was raised in a strict Baptist home in Haiti and she probably would have blushed red as a child if she ever held such a cookie tin in front of her parents. She was taught and incorporated into her own belief system certain aspects of being ladylike and skin was not one of them. When she attends formal functions today, she will not dare wear a sleeveless dress without a shawl.

    As a child, I was not permitted to wear pants, actually, until the age of 8 or so. As much as I begged, my mother refused. Even though she and my father were separated, she knew that he wouldn’t like to hear that his daughter was wearing pants somewhere, enticing boys in the sandbox. I was only allowed to wear pants after a schoolteacher told my mother to buy me some pants because I couldn’t keep wearing skirts and frilly church dresses (I wore those almost every day to school!) to gym class. My mother didn’t understand the teacher at first (language barrier), so she bought me a denim skirt and sneakers. When the teacher came and explained to her that I wasn’t comfortable playing in dresses and shiny shoes and more importantly, that my panties were showing, my mother gave in. I slipped in one pair after another until I was wearing pants nearly every day by the time I got to 8th grade. But, lol…I felt cool in my jeans then but my look was killed with the 2 long pigtails my mother would braid tem into, or the traditional Haitian 6 or 7 pigtails! This was not what I wanted when I thought life would just be so much better if I could dress like the girls on the tv show, ”Beverly Hills, 90210.” So I would sneak my mother’s Wet ‘N Wild lipstick to school and put it on in the schoolyard before we lined up for class. Red lips and pigtails, what a sight.

    Thinking about your own mother, I know that she was a product of a lot of social and cultural mumbo jumbo that happened long before she had you or was even born. She adopted some of the ways and traditions from others who thought it best. So when she covered up the tin, she surely thought she was doing a good job as a mother to her children and believe it or not, she was doing her best. She was giving you the best of who she was and trying to protect you from whatever she thought others might say about you if you ever stepped out as something so revealing. I think she was loving, protecting and looking out for you. I think that many of the points Toby raised sound quite accurate too. It’s all possible.

    As much as that image of your mom’s cutting out the contact paper and dressing the tin startled you, I think it would be interesting to remember that image by inserting this thought: This is Mom’s gift to me, this is a gift she was trying to give. This is Mom’s version of Mama Bear trying to protect her cubs.

  6. This is awesome, Betty. I love that you still have this tin. Indeed we all have those growing-up moments – epiphanies, good and bad – “tattooed” (great image!) on our brains. My immediate reaction to this, what jumps out at me, as it has to some of your other commenters: CULTURE-CULTURE-CULTURE. Your immigrant mother was a product of her very strong, rule-bound culture, transplanted into a place and time that felt dangerously “anything goes.” You’re somewhat younger than I am, but you too came of age as a daughter of immigrants during the, well, counterculture. Virtually all parents, in those days, were struggling to hold onto “Father Knows Best” as the kids were grabbing onto sex/drugs/rock-n-roll. For the immigrant parents it was particularly scary, I think. They were more rule-bound, xenophobic, fearful of change and of the new (because they’d had quite enough), clinging to whatever authority they had over their kids, especially daughters (because that was how it was, in the old country), and to the traditions and images that didn’t feel quite so foreign and dangerous. Dangerous images like a ginger-haired white lady with a come-hither look, displaying her shoulders and a hint of cleavage. (Maybe it was Dad she was thinking about, not only you girls, when she fashioned that VERY smart-looking bolero?)
    My pious, modest, elegant immigrant ma suffered mightily having a rebellious daughter in the (HS) class of ’69. Her fashion trigger was – get this – blue jeans. Seriously. I can still hear how she spat out the word, with a contemptuous sneer: JEEEENZZZZZ. Up-to-my-butt mini-skirts were okay (because they were cute and man-pleasing?) – but jeans were nasty?? A daughter who went out in jeans (I wasn’t permitted to wear pants to yeshiva) was so…. American, so alien to and different from her. That girl was uber-casual, male-identified, tough, liberated, sitting cross-legged anywhere, . Rubbing up against other blue jeans and unzipping in the back seats of cars…
    Tempting to think that such moms gave us anti-sex messages simply because they were prudes, anhedonic, hyper-critical, etc. Maybe that’s true, but it’s not quite so damning (of their psyches/personalities/motivations) when you put CULTURE-CULTURE-CULTURE at the heart of it all. They felt so little control over their lives in those days. And then they see their own children becoming like “the Americans” – the people to whom they felt so invisible, the people who misunderstood and stereotyped them, the people who knew NOTHING of who they really were.
    I now see my mom having been quite sexy – a lushly beautiful woman who, throughout her life, turned men’s heads wherever she went. I didn’t, then, because she was overweight, and that’s ALL I saw. Shame on me. One thing she was right about: I never looked all that great in jeans. My butt, even when I was young and slim, was never my best feature.
    I really shouldn’t read your blog in the morning when I have a lot of work to do. xo

  7. What your post actually showed me was how similar our moms thought. While my mom didn’t have a cookie tin lady to cover, she would make it a point in her evenings out to be covered quite tastefully.

    On the other hand, when it came to us young’uns, my mom once turned to me and said, “You can wear the risque clothing when you are young. So go ahead and wear it.” So this is something I tell my kids nowadays, that it’s ok to wear the fun skimpy fashions as a young person. But perhaps not as acceptable for an older lady.

  8. My mom and grandparents arrived here from Hungary in 1957 and I was born in1961. My mom was only 19 when I was born, but she was so into (her interpretation) of being American. She was not really comfortable with the student sit-ins, and the more hippie-ish hippies, and didn’t learn to call herself a feminist until much later, but she was very free-thinking, and in some ways radical. She received a great deal of pressure NOT to breast-feed, but resisted, and my parents’ friends ridiculed them for being too child-centered and actually taking us places with them, and taking our desires into account. Except for table manners and favorite dishes no one in my family really held onto traditions from the old country. Maybe because as Holocaust survivors they felt betrayed by their native countries…or maybe it was just their personalities.

  9. I think Skye and Vivien have pegged it. I have a feeling that or was just because on whatever level and for whatever reason, she just wasn’t comfortable with the lady showing so much skin, bit thought it was a beautiful picture nonetheless. The jacket is just her reconciliation, and at least it’s a cute jacket ;-)

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    Just got home from work. How nice to find your comments. If there’s one running theme thru them, it’s the tremendous compassion and empathy you all have for my mother — or rather, our mothers and aunties!

    Denise, my sister and I haven’t talked about this cookie tin moment in years but we often have different takes. Sometimes it feels like we were in totally different places and it’s fascinating — and occasionally annoying — to compare note. One thing though, you’re right about my mom’s creativity. I think this incident might have something to do with my life-long fascination with collage. And how great that your mother breast fed; mine did too. They were ahead of their time!

    Skye, how interesting that you and Viv both had a thing about pants. And all of you are right, what these women of an earlier generation gave us was the best they could give. If we’re really grown up now, maybe we — I — can be gracious enough to say thank you. Btw, I think pigtails and red lipstick would look pretty sexy now in hipster Williamsburg.

    Viv, it never occurred to me that my mom was trying to hide the cookie tin cleavage from my dad. Hilarious. I’ve come to see my mom as quite a dish too. A shame that she never realized it. Btw, I think you look pretty good in jeans.

    Mimi, you are light years ahead of me on the youth-clothing issue. Sometimes, I can’t believe that I’m on my daughter’s case about what she wears. I’ll admit, I’m a protective mom. Sigh. My mother, myself, right?

  11. I think she probably was trying to spare your father seeing the cleavage, lol. But more than likely, she was expressing herself and she did make it look like it was part of the design. My friend recently died and one of the last things I found in her apartment was an old cookie tin which she used for greeting cards. I liked it so much that I am just keeping it to look at now and then which is what I suspect you are doing the same with your mother’s tin. Actually, if you think about it, she achieved a “stop in time” by doing that in front of you. Whenever you look at that box, you can remember how she looked that day and what you were both doing. The whole scene and feelings stay with you forever especially now that she is gone.

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    Erika, yes! And it is a cute jacket, isn’t it? My mom loved dressing up and she had a thing for high-heeled shoes.

    Sandy, now that Viv has introduced my dad into this picture (he was always the off-stage main character hovering over every scene in our household), I think she’s right too. Especially since later on, when I was about 10-12, my mom told us over dinner one night that the love of my dad’s life was was white French girl he met while he was a student in Paris. Yes, it’s nice to have the tin around to keep the memory bank churning. I’m glad you have your own special old cookie tin too. I actually have a few of them from my childhood, all filled with sewing buttons and notions. I hardly sew anymore but, whatever. :)

  13. Betty,
    Interesting story. There seems to be a big generational gap between you and your parents. Or is it just a cultural gap? Your mouther seems more like a grandparent that a mother. Don’t remove the paper! It has been on so long that at this point it will destroy the tin. In reading about peoples stories I got wondering how many generations we have been here. I got looking for my book on Mary Murray Murdock’s decendends. I couldn’t find it but found I can buy a copy on Amazon! ( ) Isn’t that crazy! Mary Murray Murdoch was called Wee Granny because of her small size — 4-feet-7 inches tall and weighing little more than 90 pounds.
    I guess the point is that I was fortunate enough to know my great and great-great grand parents. I think this had a positive effect on things. If things were not to my liking at home I can always stay at grand ma’s ! I could even stay at my great grandma’s They were son’s and daughters of pioneers. Then there was my great grand mother Simmons who had 11 children of her own. Durring the Great Depression a couple dropped off a Boy and a Girl to watch “just for the day” and never returned.
    Finding peace in our lives, I think, is a great thing. Well worth whatever it costs us!

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      HyperGamma, you nailed on key factor in my upbringing: I had older parents. My dad was 50-ish when I was born and my mom was 38 or 39. Back in the mid-’50s, this made them really old! Not such a big deal today. The immigrant thing is also a factor because parents were the first in their families to come here. I never met my grandparents and for most of my childhood, almost no extended family. So I envy you the comfort of the generations. You were very lucky. :)

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