My mom married my dad when she was just 17 years old. It was an arranged marriage, though she’d already met him once. He was smitten with her, the story goes, when he first heard her singing in a throaty operatic voice on some local radio program. This was Phnom Pehn in the early 1960s. I can only imagine what he must have felt when he actually set eyes on her. My mom, you see, was a raving beauty. Long black hair, coarsely thick; fierce almond eyes, dark as coal; and cheekbones so cut you could set saucers on them. And gauging from the random photos of her in chic 60s fashion, she also possessed a perfect hourglass figure, something she refused to pass on to any of her daughters. Her claim to fame though were her lips, the lower one a perfect triangular jut, an exact replica of her real mom’s.
I say real because as a very young child, my mom was given away to be raised by her adoptive mother, who was actually the sister-in-law to her real dad. My real grandmother had birthed four daughters, each one probably a mounting disappointment in a culture that favored boys. For reasons unknown to anyone, my real grandmother plucked my mom, the third born, out of the entire girly bunch to be tossed aside. It was decades later before I realized how much this event shaped her, for although she was raised entirely by her adoptive mother, my mom lived just kilometers from her real family and saw on an almost-daily basis her sisters going about their business within their intact family, without her.
My adoptive grandma was Chinese and possessed a legendary personality of steel, perhaps the predecessor to the dragon lady stereotype. My mom has never said much about her upbringing, but I gather that she loved and respected her second mother with both a sense of foreboding and awe. Mah, as we children called her, had been married to a successful Chinese businessman. He died when my mom was quite young, leaving her under the sole care of Mah and her entourage of servants.
Mah was the classic storybook charismatic bully. She demanded love, loyalty, and attention, all high prices, but in exchange, you get a glimpse of her enigmatic smile and more importantly, her approval, which made you clamor for even more of it. I remember one time when I was 5, being asked by Mah to dance to her favorite Chinese operas. It was a hot sticky night. We were both bored. I loved my Mah and couldn't say no if I tried, so for what seemed like hours on end, I hammed it up for her in her suite, the one with the chilly black-and-white parquet floor and floral drapings. Delirious with sweat, I moved and swayed to flashes of my beloved Mah reclining in bed, smiling as she waved a silk fan in front of her face.