Photograph of my mother, Melbourne, Australia
MY MOTHER IS HOLDING the very corner of the frame — a model of a ship, a clipper, I think. She is 18 or 19, newly arrived to Australia to study in a secretarial college. It is the early 1960s. The man in the hat is a mystery to me; perhaps he is her host in the homestay she has arranged. Or someone else? I will never know. My mother looks at ease and gazes into the lens with a frankness that, 50 years later, moves me greatly. Did she foresee that, all her life, she would cross oceans and continents, shedding languages, memories and belongings? When I look at her in this moment, I see a young woman walking warily and courageously into her life. My mother, born in China, was a child refugee during the Second World War. Life would carry her to Hong Kong, Australia, Malaysia and finally Canada. In her 40s and 50s, her employer sent her each week to the pulp and paper mills of British Columbia and Alberta — to Port Hardy, Chetwynd, Grande Prairie and beyond. She loved the West Coast and the shifting movements of the sea. She died suddenly at the age of 58, when I was in my 20s. Souvenir, in French, is both a memento and memory itself. This mysterious picture, discov- ered only after she had passed away, is the beloved thing I carry with me everywhere. I do not know if the ship was purchased in Hong Kong, or how my mother came to choose it. I like that we can see through the ship’s case to my mother’s shoulder, and to what looks like a bakery or food stall (I can almost make out Chinese lettering on the sign), and in the background a building that says Bar. What comes next? What invisible heartbreak and love are within her? What has she carried from home? This souvenir, this memory itself, is a way for me to carry a future that circles between then and now. My mother looks deeply into what is to come, and I look for what was, what would be, and our thoughts hover between worlds.