Barefoot

In her piece “Barefoot,” Kanchan Naik shares the sentimental experiences of she and her grandmother in India.

If India was a heart, pulsing and beating in my palm, then the National Highway 66 was a pounding capillary with traffic as steady as the flow of blood. Sixty metres of rugged ebony asphalt and mud-ridden intersections, the National Highway 66 guided everything, from taxi drivers with beetlejuice between their teeth to bickering couples across the western coast of India. The sun blazed like a copper coin in the limitless blue sky, beating down upon the well-worn stones of a tired road. Anyone, from the street children selling coconut water at the junctions to the farmers guiding oxen through the rice paddy fields could tell you where these roads could take you.

But few travel the old road that diverts from NH-66. Only a handful of those people would cross the bridge that connects to the monsoon-blessed Shambhavi River, its waters meandering into lazy, stagnant marshes. Hardly any would care to remember the name ‘Hejmadi’, the old village settled on Shambhavi’s northern banks.

But I remember. And my reason to remember has charcoal black eyes and silvery hair tied tightly in a knot at the back of her neck. Paper-thin wrinkles line the edges of her cheeks, crimping into little folds every time she laughs. The world calls her Radha. I call her Maomma, my grandmother. And for years, I was content with knowing her solely as the latter, while falling asleep in her arms as she sang ​Ranganayaka in her low, powdery voice. It was a holy song meant to awaken God from his heavy slumber. So, as God’s eyes opened to my grandmother’s words, mine slowly and drowsily closed.

As I grew older, Radha’s presence became more than a shadow, details that I had overlooked as a child now sharpening into focus. I pored over photographs that smelled lightly of mildew, struggling to weave her tale. ​Yet the more I learned, the more I realized that there was a whole other side to her.

Before Radha, there was Meera.

And she was a flurry of bare feet thudding against the grasses of rice paddy fields, the peal of her anklets following her like a shadow. It was the age of black and white ​— of an India that was free, but in bloodied pieces. Of post-Partition pressure tearing apart the Indian soil, but Hejmadi wrapped in its own cocoon, unperturbed.

It was amid this sea of contrasts that Meera grew up, a nine-year-old with a charcoal dot beneath her ear to ward off the evil eye. Seven children in all, the Shenoy family was virtually a village of its own, scurrying about the mud-walled courtyard in the midst of their boisterous games. Meera’s mother watched and smiled. Meera only had a few faint memories of her mother — a gentle caress, tender hands weaving her hair into braids, a chime of laughter. She would count the callouses on her mother’s palm as they walked hand in hand through their coconut groves. Bare feet muffled against the silence of the fertile earth, the ghosts of their footsteps erased by the wind. It was during the handful of years with her mother that Meera learned to befriend the stubborn coconut. How to burst it open against the ground with a single crack. How to scrape the last bits of flesh off its shell.

What Meera didn’t know is that some coconuts bear tiny, fine cracks beneath the surface. They shrivel slowly from the inside, the white flesh dissolving beneath the sun. She would soon see these thin, jagged cracks in her mother’s waning health. For months, her mother battled fevers and a hacking cough. But still, she roamed the leafy groves, dismissing the signs of her growing illness with the wave of her hand. ​Little did ​Meera know that her mother would never live to see another coconut season, never guide her through the dense arms of palm trees again.

The courtyard was silent as her mother lay on her charpoy. Those few fleeting hours before she died, she swallowed her finals sips of coconut water, the glass trembling in her hand. Soft sobs filled the night as Meera sang ​Ranganayaka for her mother. God arose from the distant horizon, welcoming an old friend.

~~~

Life without her mother was wounded and fragmented. Meera learned to tie her own braids, her stubby fingers fumbling with the ribbons. She ground coarse masala powder against a stone and swept debris off the courtyard floors with a broom. She carved the ground beyond her house with white rangoli and lit sticks of incense beneath the altars of the household gods. Ashy plumes of smoke clouded her vision. The temple was no different from what she had become, clouded by the obscurity of what was no longer there. In all her teenage years, Meera was a child struggling to fit in her mother’s skin. She rebelled, thrashing against the void she was expected to fill. In local paan stalls, she secretly smoked beedi cigarettes, the feeling of tobacco mixed with temburni leaves burning in her throat. Meera’s aunt speared her left nostril with a pointed stick, her eyes screwed shut through the agony. When the pain subsided, she threaded a glimmering crescent of a stud through the hole.

“You are a woman now, ” she said, beaming.

But at night, when the coconut trees whistled in the wind and her father sang Ranganayaka t​ o the sky, Meera was still a little girl wrapped in her mother’s shadow.

The years passed by slowly. Old scars learned to heal with the gentle fingers of time. The village was the same, with the medleys of grey-bellied cuckoos reverberating across the fields. It was Meera who had changed, with her hair longer and threaded into spiraling braids, her features the very image of her mother’s. The knee-length skirts and blouses were now replaced with half-sarees, the ends of the cotton fabric tucked into her ​kamarbandh​. Her nose ring was larger than the last, but gone was the stinging pain that had come with it. Gone was the anguish that marked her early childhood, the vision of her mother now blending like watercolors into the past.

Meera still roamed barefoot, the soles of her feet resilient against the Indian soil. But the ground where she had learned to walk had changed. The seamless rice-paddy acres, so enormous they could have swallowed her, were now but a faint horizon through the window. With time had come the overbearing verdicts of her conservative older brothers, imprisoning her within the confines of four walls. “A woman’s place is in her home”, they repeated, their words twisting into firm metal bars. But the stern gaze of her brothers only made Meera love the open air with reckless abandon. Heartfelt but headstrong, she refused to watch life slip between her fingers. Bare feet tiptoed across the courtyard as she slithered into the night, the village fair awaiting her. Her eyes grew wide as she watched larger-than-life actors prance across the stage, the bells of their costumes jangling in the distance. It was those nights when Meera tasted the stolen fruits of freedom.

As she grew older, her father and brothers descended into a whirlwind of preparation for her marriage. Meera’s father counted the acres and examined the cows of local landowners, his love demanding nothing but the best for his daughter. Marriage was a circle, a rhythm of brides leaving their homes to make new ones. The day a woman adorned her forehead with the vermilion dot of good fortune, she became a strand of an age-old fabric much larger than she was. But in between the threads of red and gold tradition, Meera saw the same pattern of captivity, the same narrow walls of domestic drudgery. She had no interest in walking in the footsteps of her mother and the mothers before her. Her brothers pleaded with her. “Why must you argue? Are you not happy?”

“Of course I am happy. I just want more.”

But what ​did s​he want? Frankly, Meera didn’t know what she wanted. All she knew was that sometimes when the village Ferris wheel ground into motion, her fingers grasping at the breeze, Meera felt irrationally but utterly complete. Bare feet fluttered against the sky as Meera’s Ferris wheel cart swung gently at the top. Her gaggle of friends waved to their companions below, but Meera looked nowhere but upward.

She wanted to spend the rest of her life reaching for the sky.

Meera was sprawled on the charpoy on the terrace, dreaming of the Ferris wheel when the stranger from Bombay arrived. Her sister grabbed her arm, whispering excitedly.

“Meera! There are visitors at the door! They are bringing a ​boy.​”

Meera rolled her eyes. “​Another ​suitor? The matchmaker had just brought in a boy two days ago.”

Her sister giggled. “This boy isn’t the same as the rest!​” She leaned closer, her smile only growing wider.“ He’s​ different. Y​ou know, these other boys come swaddled in their​ dhotis, looking like baby ducks crossing the pond. But not this one! He is wearing crisply ironed brown pants. ​”​

Meera’s eyes widened. “When will I get to see him?”

“No, you cannot see him. What would people think?”

“How can I marry him without seeing him? What if he’s short or plump or…” Meera struggled to find words, “…or ​ugly?”​

She darted across the courtyard, leaning against the walls in a desperate attempt to catch broken pieces of conversation. There were muffled words, the voices of her brothers too faint for her to discern. As the discussion continued, Meera stared at the chicken-wire window etched into the wall a few feet above her. Her eyes hardened into resolve, as she knotted the loose end of her half-sari to her waist.

Bare feet mounted the tiles that lined the courtyard walls. Her sister stared at Meera’s antics in silent horror, entirely prepared to flee in the case that she was caught.

When Meera stared through the spaces between the wire mesh of the window, she saw nothing at first. The faces of her family members were hidden behind a billowing cloth hung to dry. She cursed her fate under her breath, clutching the edge of the window sill for support. Then something flashed before her eyes, and she gasped.

Shoes.

Shoes were not for Hejmadi’s farmers or businessmen. They belonged to those who walked down bustling roads carved by slabs of concrete. The shiny black Indian loafers meant nothing to brothers who accounted for land and the aunts who prized the family name. But for Meera, shoes were the symbol of a world she had never seen, of the things that she never had. Every scuff mark brought a piece of the city’s crumbling sidewalks, every stain of shoe polish was the mark of city monsoons. No one in Hejmadi cared for those shoes because they had no interest in its whereabouts. For the earthen village soil, living barefoot was enough.

But not enough for Meera.

“Of course he’s ​different!​” Meera whispered to herself, recalling her sister’s words. “He’s from the ​city.”

In the midst of her joy, she lost her balance and fell to the ground with a thud. Bruised bare feet on the ground again, giddy and quivering. Her sister clucked like a mother hen, scolding her for being so foolish. But still, she smiled in a daze of some sorts, remembering nothing but the shoes. It was settled. Meera was to be wed.

~~~
Marriage in India was not simply the exchange of rings in front of a fire. It was a moment of change, when women left the final pieces of adolescence in their childhood homes. Meera stared at herself in the mirror, her hair coiled into a bun and slicked with coconut oil. Thin strokes of kajal lined her eyes. There was once a time when Meera wanted nothing more than to be a woman, to fit into her mother’s cotton sarees and carry her borrowed confidence. Yet as the moment had finally arrived, she wrestled with the fear that simmered beneath the surface. Meera remembered the moment before she had broken her first coconut. Gingerly, she had looked up at her mother asking,

“I don’t know if I can do it, am I ready?”

Her mother smiled. “You always were.”

The coconut cracked open that day, its fruit for the taking. Wordlessly, Meera draped the loose end of her saree over her shoulder and walked into the light.

They say when God chooses to awaken on Earth as a mortal again, his incarnation is given a new name. Meera had grown up chanting these names in the household temple, singing, “Hare Rama! Hare Krishna!” And now, wrapped in red and gold, she was gifted her own name. When women were married in Meera’s village, they were given their new identities, the shells of their previous lives unraveling into the​ mandap s​moke. As the vermillion dot of good fortune was painted on her forehead, she was christened Radha — the namesake of God’s beloved. It was a new name, one that did not conceal Meera but rather embraced her. That night, it was Radha and her husband, Govind, who left the village, promising to write letters home. Bare feet welcomed the new earth below it, regardless of what lay ahead.

~~~
It took another thirty years before the National Highway 66 was built by the Indian Government. Carefully, the changing times molded pieces of Southern Karnataka, constructing buildings where there were grasslands, factories where there were terra-cotta homes. But the banks of the Shambhavi River are the same. The golden stretch of land resists not the water, but accepts its tranquil ripples and currents. Coconut trees reach towards the sunlight, its fronds whispering in a language of its own. I stare at Maomma. Her nose ring glints beneath the sunlight and I am reminded of both her pain and her pride. Time has been both kind and cruel to her, but my grandmother is at peace with the waves that have molded her.

I begin making my way down the waterside, but she halts.

“You are forgetting something,” she tells me, her eyes twinkling.

“What?”

Silently, Maomma slips out of her sandals, beckoning for me to do the same. We cross the patchwork of sand and silt, the two of us barefoot and laughing. My feet sink into new soil. Grains of sand coil between my toes and suddenly the generations between us disappear. Gone are highways that divide us, the languages that separate us. With every growing step our footprints grow closer and closer, until the horizon melts into the water below and no longer can we tell them apart.

Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin and the Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. When she’s not doodling or writing poetry, she is most likely untangling her earphones or looking for something that happens to be — much like herself — lost.

Visual Art by Nahyun Sung 

Perfect Case of OCD

The “Perfect Case of OCD” is based on the personal troubles Lily Oldershaw faced while growing up with Obsessive-compulsive disorder.

For a while, OCD wasn’t just a disease, it was my disease. No one else was allowed to claim it, because if other people suffered like I did, It was basically like I never suffered at all. Quite a selfish thought, really, but OCD is a very self-absorbed disease, seeking all one’s available attention until there isn’t any left to give.

In fourth grade, I had to whisper the names of every student in my class (in alphabetical order) to no audience other than my humidifier and the radiator (which stopped and started in reluctant applause at my incredible memory). If I failed to recall a classmate, I couldn’t fall asleep. It simply wasn’t feasible. I would shut my eyes and listen to the heavy lull of the radiator, but my fists would clench and the fallow colors creeping through the cracks between my curtains, the hapless four A.M. light, would settle atop my eyelids. But sleep would not come.

In sixth grade, I chewed each bite thirty times in each cheek, for I thoroughly believed, even one bite short of my perfect number, I might fail to digest the meal entirely. It would settle in my stomach like a rock and plop itself there, an eternal resident of my digestive system. I knew it was a foolish thought, and I kept it to myself. But I believed it nonetheless.

In eighth grade, I cried because I knew something wasn’t right. Nothing was ever right. But I was never sure what. Breath taut, like a shrinking elastic. Four in, seven out. Harsh beams of light filtered through my sterile shades; the four strips of white that shone on the sliver of the floor between the bed and the wall were the same every day. Four was a bad number, so I avoided them. One foot on the cold hardwood, another, until they were side by side, toe to toe. Three sips of water. Gulp, gulp, gulp. Cup back down. Center it, good. Every morning was the same, and I liked it this way.

It was also in eighth grade that I developed my x-ray vision. It was a Tuesday when Max Jacobs threw up in the middle of first period. Mrs. Peterson was explaining the importance of special right triangles and he started coughing. He didn’t even bother aiming for the sink or a trash can, it blanketed his desk like a cocoon, spilling over into his open backpack.

“Oh, dear,” began Mrs. Peterson, but I didn’t stay to listen to the remainder of her sentence. I pulled on my sweatshirt and hurdled over an empty chair to reach the door before any of his germs spread to my open lips. I saw things nobody else could, the bacteria floating through the air, crawling along the carpet, clinging to the bottoms of my shoes, sinking into the raw skin on my palms. I despised the nurse’s office. It was the most germ-ridden room in the entire school. They were everywhere in there: in the bathroom where countless stomach ache cases had thrown up, on the armrests of the benches where the cold cases rested their sweatshirts after they’d coughed in their sleeve. I avoided this hell hole at all costs. But I didn’t know where else to go. I perched myself on the table as I hyperventilated. I had never breathed so fast before, but I didn’t have time to be impressed with this new skill, for the nurse was rubbing my back with her hand, the same hand that had rubbed hundreds of other backs that same very week. I tore away and shoved my hands in my pockets where they wouldn’t touch anything else, held my breath so I wouldn’t have to breathe the infested air. By the time I couldn’t hold my breath any longer, she was dialing the number on my emergency contact sheet. I breathed into the hood of my sweatshirt and waited.

When I got home, I stood under the bathroom’s judging light. I scrubbed the antibacterial soap into the bleeding canyons on the backs of my hands, cracked from a combination of over washing and the biting winter air. I used only the hot water until the skin beneath my fingernails turned purple like the bath toy my mom used to give me that changed color in the pink bubble bath steam. I clenched the skin of my cheeks in my molars until my eyes watered and counted to one hundred. A solid number. A safe number.

“What are you doing?” My dad flicked off the faucet. I was just relieved that I didn’t have to touch it. Hands suspended in the air, water dripping onto my socks, I whispered, “Washing my hands.”

Suddenly, I found myself in a cold office. All the laminated degrees, they meant nothing to me, but they must have meant something to my parents, for it made them trust this man with my care for hours at a time, even though they hardly knew him. I was told his name was Dr. Clump, and that was all I really knew about him, besides the fact that he graduated with a PHD from Brown. It haunted me that he knew so much about me, yet I knew so little about him, and I was determined to find out more. All I knew was what I could see, and I never liked that, because there were always things lurking beneath the surface. I knew he leaned back in his chair as he talked, and his stomach protruded over his thick black belt, landing on top of his desk. I knew a diet coke left a wet ring on top of a textbook sized, “A Comprehensive Guide to Adolescent OCD” Perhaps he was going on a diet, a rather unsuccessful one, I presumed. I knew he closed his eyes while he talked, inspiring me to coin the nickname later when I described the session to my parents: Closed-eyed Clump. His desk lacked any photographs of his wife, kids, even a dog. There were only generic framed pictures that it was clear he didn’t take, a fall leaf, a droplet of water on a brick, they seemed meaningless, and they were hung crooked on his wall. I wondered if he had done it like that on purpose, because surely no grown man could manage to accidentally center a photo that poorly.

I sought solace in the small octagonal window behind him, the sky blue, grey, black, orange, depending on the time of day I was dragged to this stifling room, always cold in the summer and warm in the winter. I loved the drive home from his office, from the city, buildings stacked neatly side by side, precisely planted shrubbery, because I knew I didn’t have to stare past his ugly glasses into curious, prying eyes for at least another week. But I loathed the ride there, the car-seat fabric stretching between my white knuckles, rolling the window up and down because I couldn’t get it just right.

During one of our earlier sessions, I noticed his computer had adopted a new screensaver: polar bears. It changed about every thirty seconds or so, and each depiction of the animal featured a new pose, one leaning against a rock, one sitting cross-legged, one standing on its heels begging for fish, one resting on its back, its stomach stretching out over its legs. Then and there, I decided my shrink quite resembled this arctic species, but his most accurate likeness was certainly the last image on the slideshow.

“Do you know why I chose the polar bears?”

I shook my head.

“Now that I brought it up, and you’re staring at them, you can’t stop thinking about them, can you?”

I shook my head again. This was our usual routine. He would say something he thought to be profound or groundbreaking and smile to himself at his own genius while I either nodded or shook my head, depending on what I deemed appropriate.

“It’s like OCD. As much as you try to stop yourself from thinking about your compulsions, they will never go away. You have to stop trying to make them go away, and they will.” This seemed extremely counterproductive. Wasn’t his entire job to cure me? Not to make up reasons why I wasn’t yet cured. I realized how unfair this entire thing was. Why me? Dr. Clump told me I had the perfect case of OCD, but he also said nothing was perfect. He was full of contradictions. It comforted me, knowing that something about me was perfect, just right: my OCD. That meant there were other people like me, probably a lot. And as I watched the sinking orange beyond the car windshield, past the puzzle of buildings, while my dad whistled his usual backing out of a therapist’s driveway tune, I thought about this idea. I thought about it quite often. Nothing is perfect. What exactly did that mean? I had heard things described as perfect before, so how was it possible that perfection didn’t exist? It was August when I realized he was right. During one of our dimmer, lamp-lit sessions over the winter, he told me to go kayaking. I was watching sleet blanket a telephone wire through the octagon as he described the ripples in the water that stem from the rivulets dripping off the paddle. How they appear unflawed at first glance, the rings all equal lengths from each other, separating slowly until they sink into the black depths, continuing far into the distance.

“But,” he had said, “even one of the most seemingly perfect sights in nature is still not entirely perfect. A boat could drive by, disrupting the pattern. And this is essentially what OCD is. Something disrupts the pattern and it upsets us.” This sounded like something a bearded man with horn-rimmed glasses framed by Brown degrees would say, but it was also one of the moments when I was most fond of my therapist. It was a very therapist thing to say, and I liked that. I liked that it was expected, but I still wasn’t sure how that piece of advice could fix me. Come summer, though, I did as he told me. As soon as I stepped into the boat, I immediately became ill-at-ease. It tilted with the shifting wake, I never liked being off balance. Water soaked through my shorts, prickling the skin on my thighs. My breathing began to tighten again. 7,4,7,4. I watched the sky warm to a pale red reflecting in the water on the ripples. It’s true. They aren’t perfect, but they’re still beautiful. Exposure therapy, a term Clump liked to throw around a lot; I knew it was important for me to get better, but I kept putting it off. Getting better, it seemed hard, far away, the future you imagine on the hopeful edge of sleep, but in the back of your mind know will never find its way into reality. I dipped my fingers into the cool pink water, sweet on my chipped fingernails. I let them stay there for a solid amount of time. I didn’t count, just waited for my fingers to grow numb as I stared at my rosy reflection in the lake water. I tried to remember the second part of what Clump had said. As he was finishing his sentiment, I remembered, I was watching a cardinal flick ice from the telephone wire,

“Even if something disrupts the pattern, don’t let it upset you. Nothing’s perfect, and that’s okay.”

Lily Oldershaw is a sophomore in high school who enjoys writing based both on her own experiences and creating worlds from her imagination. She hopes readers of her work will think about the world differently and take a piece of it with them into their everyday life. When she isn’t writing, Lily can often be found doing yoga, watching interviews on Youtube of interesting people, and trying to shorten the pile of “To Be Read” books on her desk.
Visual Art by Anastasia James 

Green and Gold

Zoya Yan explores a fast paced narrative of her mother’s immigration, and sheds light upon what it’s like as a working immigrant in a largely populated city.

The story opens like this: a small suburban town, incredibly picturesque scenery, high expectations and even higher taxes. A teenage girl mingles with her friends in the hallway in the few sacred minutes before class begins. She looks like the average Chappaqua student. She sounds like the average Chappaqua student. She is one, isn’t she?

Mm, not so much. Before Chappaqua there was Eastchester with its white picket fences and lovely neighbors, where she and her parents piled into a rented single-bedroom, single-bathroom multi-family house for four years. Before Eastchester was the Bronx, a tall apartment with a view of the city skyline from the top floor and piles of rotting garbage from the bottom, where they stayed on the fourth floor for a few years until a drunk man was shot to death in the bar behind their building, after which her parents deemed it high time to move out. Before the Bronx was South Side Chicago, notoriously dangerous, not particularly pleasant either, especially not the grimy studio apartment (demolished a few years after they moved) that she can only remember from photo albums—but her first home nonetheless.

Before that before and even before that, if you really dig deep enough, you’d trace her life tree down through its suburban trunk, into its roots buried in sketchy South Side Chicago soil, through the Americas and across the horizon of the Atlantic.

The real story opens like this: a big city, street lamps blurring together under the ink of night. A 25-year-old newlywed waiting for the 8:15 PM bus calls this city her home, the only home she’s ever known.

She’s a planner and has been one for her whole life. She knows what she’s doing, what she’s capable of, what she wants in life. This city is her childhood and her youth. This life is comfort and familiarity and convention guaranteed to lead to stability.

Above the streetlamp, a sliver of moon hovers, just enough for its beams to skim the dots of drifting snow. The wind warns of an impending storm, tugging at the end of her ponytail and swirling the tip into a brush dipped in the gold of the streetlight glow, ready to paint her future. She looks around herself at the streets she could navigate with her eyes closed, the people she’s loved her entire life, the home she’s slowly built for herself.

Yet she knows there’s more. Her husband just left to study abroad in Illinois. She wants to support him there, and maybe she should. But how can she not think about all of the impossibilities? If she leaves her home, will she ever come back? What about her mother and father and brother? Will she make it in a country whose language she can barely speak, whose culture is entirely foreign, whose location is halfway across the planet? How does she survive financially, socially? Emotionally?

The moon brightens and brightens, fans out across the sky. Hours pass and the snow comes softer, everything rhyming with the word “go”. She thinks again of the impossibilities, and then of the possibilities. The promise of spring, glowing green and gold.

And then she rushes toward it with every ounce of energy she has.

She first works as a minimum-wage fast-food server at a Chinese place in downtown Chicago. She comes home every night nauseous from the sickening smell of oil soaked into her clothes and her hair, hands burned and blistered from the frying pan. For now, no other stores will take her with her poor English. So she studies hard.

Half a year later, a friend introduces her to the owner of a Japanese restaurant a few blocks east and she lands a job immediately. The restaurant is nice, somewhere she might have chosen to dine with a few friends on a Friday night if she were back home. She carries a secret snack stash of edamame beans in the left pocket of her apron and a pocket-size dictionary in the other—here, she relies much more on English. She gets tips now, and a few months later, she and her husband save up enough money to buy a bed frame to go with their mattress.

Because she adores children, her third job is babysitting. It pays well and she grows close to several of the families she works with. She has her very own baby to babysit a year later: her daughter, born on a chilly November morning as twilight surrenders to dawn. Shortly after, her husband receives a job offer in the Bronx, so they say goodbye to their friends (surprised by how sad they are to go), then on a foggy weekend begin their drive to New York City.

The sunsets from the balcony of their new apartment blanket the entire city until only tiny glittering lights are left dotting the skyline across the pier, countless specks of light, countless dreams and wishes. Their room is close to the ground floor so on windy days she gets a whiff of the garbage piles on the streets, but it’s nothing compared to the fast-food place she used to work at. Days bleed into weeks. She upgrades her pocket-size dictionary to a handheld electronic one that she buys from a Dollar Tree two blocks down.

She takes her daughter to the library near their apartment and explains to the librarians in what broken English she can muster that she’s going back to school soon, that she’ll be busy but can’t afford a nanny, asks if it’s okay to maybe drop her daughter off on the weekends. And so it’s between the beanbag chairs and lime green leather couches with the help of the librarians that her daughter learns how to sound English letters out, how to put them into mysterious bundles called words, how to read—and god, after she learns how to read, there’s really no stopping it. She sees the way her daughter falls in love with the adrenaline rush of a plot twist, the desperate itch of a cliffhanger, the way the page opens up doors to worlds and people that don’t even exist in this dimension of the universe.

Outside of those library walls, weeks blur into months, months into years. She’s back in school for her master’s degree: classes in the morning, interning in the afternoon, work in the evening, homework deep into the night as the sky blackens and blackens then pales again, hinting at dawn. A few hours of sleep. Repeat.

Seven hundred sunsets and sunrises later, she receives her diploma and a New York State teaching certificate and an indescribable feeling of warmth. Her daughter is growing up. When she lands a second interview for the first time, she buys herself a laptop to replace the battered electronic dictionary that she barely even needs anymore, switches out her flip-phone for the newest Nokia. They move out to the suburbs into a good school district that’s two hours away, but she takes up the offer at the Brooklyn elementary school anyway when they tell her she’s hired. It’s the first call she gets on her smartphone and she saves the number into her contacts with shaking hands.

Sure, she’d like to sleep past 5 AM and not commute for four hours a day, but she loves teaching more, and she loves her daughter the most. The sun blazes and blazes, pans out across the sky. The glow of spring is here.

My mother’s story is one in 37 million. Most of those voices remain unheard, memories buried, some families even separated at the border of two countries. In so many ways, my mom was lucky for being admitted legally, for being with her loved ones from the very beginning, for being able, after all these years, to pass on her story to her daughter, who will pass it on to the world. Because stories like her mother’s deserve to be told.

To make the choice she did meant that she viewed the world in a way I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around. She saw her life through a lens larger than herself, far larger, and I’m eternally grateful for that lens and for her unrelenting dedication, for not only her sacrifices, but also the mindset she instills in me by simply existing.

Her decisions have shaped me more than anything else has. I moved around a lot as a kid. It’s ingrained in who I am. From a young age, I learned to say hello and goodbye to people, because chances were I wouldn’t get another chance if I passed this one. I learned that home is where the heart is, that my family would always be my sun, unfailingly there for me every morning to keep me alive and warm. I learned that my friends are just asteroids orbiting in my life, just like I’m an asteroid in theirs. One day they’ll spin off into the abyss and new ones will come, and that’s okay. Everything I have in my tiny universe is temporary, but that’s kind of the beauty of it, isn’t it?

I’m writing this on my porch steps right now. It’s getting dark and I should probably head back before the mosquitoes get to me. But the moon is almost out in the same Chicago sky I was born under a decade and a half ago, and its faint outline greets me, a lullaby of dulcet silver against rich velvet on a hazy summer night. And if I just give myself a minute, if I’m still enough, I might hear the faint jingle of the New York City ice cream truck accompanied by an orchestra of sirens and honks. A breeze might bring a whiff of that citrus-flavored candy my mom used to buy for me on her way home from work, and I might just feel the tickle of grass in my small picket-fenced backyard in suburban Eastchester. Even with my eyes closed, I can imagine so vividly the roses that climb up my neighbor’s trellis here in Chappaqua, where the stars are brighter than city lights; I’ll picture the sunflowers and little dandelion seeds choreographed by the wind, and I’ll know, truly, that I owe everything to her.

On her twentieth wedding anniversary last week, she sat me down as the guests left, pulling out of our driveway one by one as the sun dipped behind the clouds. Tell my story, she said. Tell it to the world, dear. Write something for me.

I will, I promised her. But you’ve got to teach me your secrets first. How did you do it?

And she just laughed, took my hands in her calloused ones. I could see every wrinkle around the corners of her eyes. Sometimes, she said to me, it’s almost as though she can see herself standing at the airport alone, waiting at life’s crossroads, clutching onto a map of fate without any labels and racing down a one-way street that could very well be a dead-end—but racing anyway, because she knew that it would be worth it.

If not for herself, then for her husband. If not for herself, then for her parents and their parents, watching from above. If not for herself, then for her daughter’s life tree and its Chicago roots, for all of its branches that have yet to sprout, for the hope that its leaves, under the warmth of the spring sun, will bud green and gold.

 

16-year-old Zoya Yan is a junior attending Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, New York. As a first-generation American, she loves to explore her heritage through her writing. In her spare time, Zoya enjoys reading and napping with a preference for the latter.

Art by Noah Jones