Of Rice Porridge and Sacrifice

Jacqueline He, 10th Grade

This is my mother: snapping on the kitchen lights in the blurry darkness of 5:00 AM each day, breath soft and feet cold, awakened by the flickering chirps of outside crickets. As the sky lightens, she prepares breakfast – slicing the leeks, washing the rice, trimming the knobs off ginger roots.

She says she doesn’t mind the early mornings, when the pale sun is the color of tea-stained eggs and the foliage of mulberry trees stipples smoky imprints on the skyline. Says it reminds her of home in far-away China, of blooming threads in silk jackets and clicking bamboo stalks and everything in between. Those moments before she’s off to work, my mother’s halfway in another world.

Later I wake up, eyelids still creased from sleep. The rice porridge is already waiting for me, still hot. Still good.

Some odd years ago, my mother splurged on a daunting monolith of a piano. $800, a long scratch defacing the ebony top, foam and springs sticking out the bench. But with a lace curtain covering the scarred surface, it looked presentable.

I had just started piano lessons back then. My mother perched behind me every class, attentive as my teacher directed my fingers over the notes.

At home, my mother would try the music herself – patiently tapping out each note, eyes skipping over the music. Her fingers, made soft by dishwater and soap, were splayed and tentative; the melody jarring and unsure.

“Come help me with your pieces,” she would request whenever I wandered into the house. “Only takes a minute,” she was always quick to say, as I rolled my eyes and grimaced. It was summer and I always had something better to do.

Our piano is in the garage now, concealed by a coffee-splotched tablecloth and wedged under reams of tired sheet music. Out of tune and falling apart, its hooded mouth gapes open.

I quit playing. Refusal to practice meant I was no better than before. The mistakes piled up, each accompanied by a sharp rap to the wrist. Playing the songs, over and over, had become synonymous with the heaviness of failure. And after countless arguments with my mother, one day I slid off the bench for good. I remember her expression: quiet and hollow, as if a palace collapsed before her eyes.

After I stopped, my mother never brought up the piano again. I’ve tiptoed around her for the longest time, waiting for an explosion. But my mother swallows disappointment like bitter gourd tea; you won’t ever find it on her face.

My mother deserves a medal for her sacrifices. A solid medallion of 14-karat gold, the best quality. But when I see the strands of silver in my mother’s pin-straight hair, or the crows-feet crinkling her eyes, I wonder if even the best would be enough.

Some nights I try to list out everything my mother’s done for me, but the number is more infinite than counting sheep. It’s the little things that matter – such as that time she bought velvety tangerines for me, fresh from the farmer’s market. Or the handmade sweater that she knit for me, the one with a yellow sun embroidered at the center, yarn tassels perpetually droopy.

My mother renounced her homeland for me, her savings, her days and weeks, and a hundred other things I’ll forever be grateful for. Is it worth it? Yes, she tells me over the kitchen sink one day, it’s all worth it. To give is the greatest gift, after all.