Thirty years after her divorce, Helen asked her kids out to dinner.
“We should meet up at least once a month,” she said across the table in the Vancouver trattoria. As she cut her steak into cubes, the others finished their pasta. “And on special occasions.”
Nick grunted. He thought of the construction paper Hallowe’en pumpkins, Christmas wreaths, and Valentine’s baskets that he and Steph made in elementary school, that Ma always threw out after a day or two. He looked at his sister, who rubbed her upper arm as if it still burnt from Ma’s nails, back when neighbours and aunts and uncles would give her Lunar New Year’s envelopes and Ma would hurt her until she said thank you and gave them back. Steph said nothing now.
Ma pressed her black mood down on them when they forgot to buy presents for her birthday or Mother’s Day, but she didn’t do special occasions. No Christmas stockings, no birthday cake, rarely gifts.
In a British Hong Kong-style cha chaan teng, Helen raised her cup of half-coffee-half-tea in a toast: Nick and his wife’s daughter, her only grandchild, was five months old.
“Baby will be six months old soon,” she said. “We should have dinner then.”
They met for sushi by Central Park to commemorate Steph’s return from a business trip—two weeks in the north of the province. Steph arrived late.
On the first anniversary of the new tradition, Helen called her daughter from the Korean place by IHOP. She called again. And again. Eventually Steph answered and said she had to work late again. Behind his own phone Nick chewed in silence. His wife picked at the potato noodles and seafood pancakes on the shared platters, plucking out choice morsels for their toddler, who then crushed the food in her small fists and smeared it on the table.
“Come over for dessert.” Helen wiped her fingers with a napkin dipped in tea.
“No, that’s okay,” said Nick.
“I’ll take Baby next week. You two can have some time to go shopping or something.”
“Really, Ma. We’re fine.”
Nick reached for the bill. For a moment he breathed in the dead air of his teen years, when Ma was too sad to cook and too angry to give them food money. He breathed out and looked for his wallet.
Later, he and his wife both claimed to have thought of the takeout idea first: Instead of dining out, they’d order something from a restaurant for Ma. Ma hated tipping anyway, and Steph raged when Ma disparaged meals and service out loud to stop them from tipping. Wouldn’t Ma rather have pizza or sushi or Taiwanese beef noodles in front of the TV where she spent most of her time? Wouldn’t eating be a nice distraction from the Asian dramas she sneered at and binge-watched?
Nick’s wife and Steph agreed to take turns picking up food after work and dropping it off at Ma’s before heading home.
“Saves us all time and money,” said Nick.
More than thirty years after Helen’s divorce, her children wondered why, despite eating well, not needing to babysit, and having fewer expenses than ever before, Ma grew thin and frail.