Why did you lie to me, Mom?” The mother looked contused - so genuinely, that the questioning eyes of her daughter softened a little.
The girl had not expected this response. She thought the judicious timing of her question - the first real talk with her mother since she came back from Việt Nam - would merely prompt a little surprise; its blunt accusation tucked inside a heartfelt reunion.
Sitting in front of the fireplace on a hand-woven carpet brought from Việt Nam, the mother gazed fondly at the many gifts, and the hundreds of photos of things and people in a part of the Việt Nam countryside she had not seen for over a quarter of a century.
She recognized her childhood home, the photos of her father and mother on the altar and, from among the many guests at the death anniversary, her uncles, aunts and cousins; each smiling gently for the camera.
“Remember your fifth Aunty, little child?” A woman asked in a digital video clip taken by the daughter.
Then, as tears welled up in the mother’s eyes, the daughter asked again: “Why did you lie to me?”
The mother was speechless for a while; then she considered the question.
Judging from the way it was put, it might not be serious at all. Early in her life, the girl had learned lying was part of the art of living. She would rarely pick up the phone when it rang although she was right there, and would let her recorded voice politely announce her absence, ask the caller to leave a message or a number, and promise a prompt reply. Then depending on her interest, she would call back or forget about the matter there and then.
The mother had had her first lesson in this art long before.
One cold morning, she had replied to her boss’s usual greeting of “How are you today?” truthfully. She told her boss she was afraid she would be taken ill with the flu. She told him her head ached and she was short of breath. The boss said he was sorry and that she should have stayed at home. She was moved by his concern, but when it came to work, she was given the same backbreaking chores, including moving four heavy boxes across the snow-covered court-yard.
The mother soon acquired the habit of giving a cheerful “I’m very well, thank you” to her boss’s automatic enquiries!
She knew “scientific truths” must be respected and that “white lies” were harmless, as her daughter had explained to I her when, at the age of fourteen, the girl was caught lying] about her dates and boyfriends.
The mother knew that her daughter was not a seasoned liar, but living in America, she had to act American. This was true of herself too. She was honest enough to admit to herself that she sometimes lied to her daughter about trivial things. But now, she could not recall what she had lied about.
The daughter remained impassive, as if nothing really mattered. She seemed to think that her question was clear and straightforward, that it was meant to get at a “scientific truth,” not to blame or to bring a moral charge against her mother.
She turned to look at the television screen to draw her mother’s attention to the video clip in progress: an old lady was taking a fat bundle of old photographs and letters from the altar and was presenting the pictures one by one to the camera. One picture showed a chubby baby girl sitting on the lap of a woman flanked by a man.
"Is this my father, Mom?
“But Mom, this is my father.”
Mother and daughter looked at each other.
“Listen Mom," the daughter sighed, "people can get married and then part company afterwards. In the same manner, you can hate someone so much that you wished that person dead. You don't have to tell me the truth about yourself if you don't want to, but then the lie concerns me. I want to know the truth about myself.”
"I'm telling you the truth. This man isn’t your father. He stayed with me for half a year. You were four years old when this picture was taken. You were going to kindergarten and you kept asking me about your father. I stayed with this man so that you could have someone to call your father.”
The mother felt the word strike her heart; her small body sank a little and she lowered her head, her eyes and her shoulders back into the past. When her daughter was at kindergarten, she began calling her “mom” the way American kids did. This pleased her very much and she encouraged the little girl to speak English to catch up with the other children.
Then in high school, the girl only spoke English, and the mother, whose own English was only sufficient for everyday use at work, had to revert to Vietnamese whenever she wanted to explain delicate matters to her adolescent daughter.
“Say it in English,” the girl insisted each time.
One day, when the girl was 20, she called from college and addressed her mother as “Mẹ”
The mother was spellbound and wondered if the telephone company had recently launched a translation service.