My mother rubs a line of grout between two gray tiles in our kitchen. I never noticed the line was dark, or thought to lighten it with vinegar and elbow grease.
Mom visited us last month for the first time since our second child was born in 2011. It was rare to have her; we migrate to see family once to twice a year thanks to a leave allowance, but relatives can visit Thailand much less frequently. So a visit here is special. A visit is intense.
Our older daughter woke half an hour early for two weeks straight while Grandma shared her bedroom. Our younger one learned song after new song. Both girls showed off band bracelets that Grandma loomed with them, played and read with her for hours, and introduced her to local celebrities: classmates, church pals, guards. They watched her meld with their world, even guest-leading a session at kindergarten. A music teacher with decades of experience, Mom wowed her young crowd.
She also power-helped me at home. She babysat while I worked, co-decorated walls, deep-cleaned the kitchen sink. She stitched, glued, sorted, and scrubbed. Phoned measurements to me at the home store. Racked up repairs from an oiled shoe shelf to mended books to a column of sorbet cups, once swaying, now contained in the cupboard by two pink plastic party glasses. Determined to contribute, she rolled up her sleeves on arrival and kept working after she left, spotting clips for a wall display and posting them from her next destination, Australia.
She and I drank lots of coffee.
My mom’s stay felt, to her as well as me, I suspect, like several months of short visits put together end-to-end for two and a half weeks. There was no let-up.
Time seemed impossibly precious. Mom’s next reunion with the children will be this summer; she will have no way to help toilet train or play kindergarten math games again until both efforts are past. She cannot dress up or cuddle the girls again until they are centimeters taller. It may be years before she can walk them to school.
It will also be ages until she can go over my home with me again, feeling for dust on the fridge, soaking grime off the shower, and advising me about types of picture hangers. The sacrament of winding the sewing machine bobbin cannot be administered on video chat.
One evening Mom reminisced about how her parents saw my siblings and me every three weeks when we were small. We would drive a few hours to see them or they would visit us, bringing food and tools to work for a day. A day.
A day holds time for catching up and helping each other, then returning to familiar environs for rest.
Regular visits. These allow families time to grow acquainted slowly, digesting their differences in small doses.
If a manual existed to help extended families bond, it would surely advise them to “plan frequent, short visits to nurture contact with relatives. Take advantage of weekends, holidays, and travel deals to organize meals, movie nights, and fix-it days that expose families to each other’s homes—parts of life not visible on Facebook—while respecting everyone’s space and routines.”
As expats we would have to discard this manual. Every visit from relatives involves both length, and a wait until next time. Airline tickets do not grow on trees. If they did, no one would want to travel 24 hours just to turn around again in 12, and do it again the next month. This kind of travel is possible now, but taxing and disorienting—ask a multinational executive. In a global world, geography still matters. When my husband and I chose life overseas, we unwittingly forfeited regular home-improvement days and potlucks with our parents.
One of the hard parts of Mom’s visit was a sense that differences between my home and hers overwhelmed her—maybe because, for 19 days, she could never escape them. My housekeeping is laissez-faire; give me three hours and I’ll host a blue ribbon birthday party, but more often I remind myself of Barbara Kingsolver’s essay “The Household Zen” (High Tide in Tucson), where she lets her dust bunnies breed dust bison. (Here, it might be dust geckos.) This approach deeply worried my mom.
My mother also worried about my children—both of whom love her like the sun, but resist having her correct their behavior. Admonishments became inevitable during a visit of such length, and robbed Mom of her chance to cameo as a doting, co-conspiratorial grandma.
Finally, Mom often felt left out in our bilingual household. We use a one-parent, one-language approach in which I speak to the girls in English, and my husband uses Japanese. Speaking English with his daughters feels odd for him, just as it feels strange for me to parent in his tongue. (I do this sometimes when we visit his parents, but find it awkward. The girls respond best to me when I sound like their mother.) My heart broke one morning when Mom sat in her room, feeling shunned, because my husband had used Japanese at the table with our daughters. I had asked him to switch to English when she sat down with them for breakfast, but she felt too excluded to sit. And nothing I could say in that moment would salve the sting.
Nobody tells you about these moments when they gush about the glories of multicultural parenthood. That morning I so wanted the one-day, once-every-three-weeks plan for us: If only Mom could encounter new words bit by bit, not all at once, so they felt like hers, not just ours. If only she could rest at home when she needed a breather, rather than feel marooned at our apartment, burdened with to-dos, stuck in a country with its own language, where she cannot read or follow TV or drive.
I dare hope the discomfort will not always be so great—that we can tunnel through it. I studied Japanese partly because of my parents, after all: unusual for rural Kansans, they hosted exchange students and traveled to Yokohama and Nara when I was small, sending postcards of Minnie Mouse in a kimono. I grew up dusting folding fans on our harpsichord and enjoying rice with soy sauce at dinner.
I know well how culture as decoration and dish differs from culture as unaccustomed air one must breathe, sometimes choking and spluttering. My husband knows about this too. I pray that with empathy, we can knock out the walls that arise when visits seem both too much and never enough. They are, after all, still visits. And visits are miracles.
Families gather because, despite differences and quirks, they lay claim to each other. They see themselves in one another. They want to delight each other, to buoy and show off, and will risk unease and gray grout to do it. Together, they believe that they can write a new manual. They search for the next right ways to loom, lighten, lean in, and love.
Thank you for visiting, Mom.