The jade sat on the windowsill, leggy and dusty. Euna watered the plant once a week, but now Jasper’s mother was warning about over watering. “It’s a succulent,” Jasper’s mother told him on the phone. Although she was two thousand miles away she seemed omnipresent in their lives. “Succulents thrive in the desert,” came her words. “They don’t need much.”
Euna wasn’t so sure if she could thrive in the desert. She and Jasper had moved to Tucson in August, and for the first two months the thermometer outside the window seemed stuck at 110. They had spent their college and graduate school years in the Northeast, mostly in Ithaca, where they’d met. Euna didn’t like the bleak winters along Cayuga Lake either, but Jasper, a runner, never let the weather stop him. Here in Tucson, he awoke at 4am to get out before the heat became unbearable.
Jasper’s mother gave the jade to Euna when they were still in Ithaca. She said it was a cutting from a plant her grandmother had, and that it was good luck. It was especially good luck if it bloomed, and Jasper’s mother said it had bloomed for her every year except the years her parents died. Jasper’s mother was full of tips on how to get it to bloom. So far, it had not bloomed.
It was the second year they were dating that Euna’s mother decided Euna needed an infusion of luck. Jasper had been teaching her to ride a bicycle. Children who grow up in the U.S. learn bicycle riding simply by being. In Seoul, teaching a child to ride a bike was not a priority, certainly not for Euna’s parents, for whom leisure time was a concept as far away as Tucson.
Having reached her thirtieth birthday without riding one, Euna wasn’t sure it was a priority either. But Jasper and his family had spent their vacations taking bike trips around the world, and so for Jasper she would learn.
“That’s silly,” said Jasper’s mother. “What can a fortune teller in Seoul know about your fate?”
How can a plant give good luck, Euna thought but didn’t say. Jasper’s mother’s superstitions were considered charmingly quirky, whereas her family’s beliefs were foreign and strange. As an artist, Jasper’s mother was able to get away with doing strange things, like just walking away from her husband of twenty-five years, not because she no longer loved him but because it was time for a new adventure. She had taken a photograph of Euna’s family gathered around the table with Jasper, run it through some apps to make it look like a painting, printed it on expensive paper and then scribbled over it with a black pen. To Euna it looked like a defaced photograph, but Jasper’s mother had created a whole series of these and exhibited them in her gallery.
Although the focus had always been on doing well in school, Euna considered herself an artist as well. She liked to draw lifelike figures with colored pencils. But there was little time for art. When the family moved from Seoul to Atlanta, and Euna’s parents were running laundromats, Euna practiced violin several hours a day. She learned to speak English so she could help her parents talk to the people at the bank, and to buy and sell their businesses. And she learned other languages in school so she could learn the histories of China, Japan and Russia, earning a Ph.D. in Japanese history. But after two years of teaching, Euna decided she wanted to learn more, and while Jasper was here doing his post doc in aerospace engineering, she had thrown herself into a pre-med program.
Along the way she was planning for a baby. Her sister had a baby, Jasper’s brother had two babies; she had married Jasper with every intention of starting a family. But Jasper said he wasn’t quite ready, they needed more of a financial footing. And he wanted to be more established in his field before devoting time to childrearing. Jasper’s mother, Euna noticed, beamed when he spoke so practically.
Euna’s biological clock was ticking. She was four years older than Jasper, but she would wait. Pre-med was a good way of waiting.
Now Jasper’s mother had announced she was coming for the holidays. “I don’t want to be a burden,” she said. “I’ll stay at an inn. I’ll only see you when you have time, and find other activities to do so I don’t suffocate you. There’s a place north of Phoenix I want to visit.”
I’ll read in the dark, Euna joked with Jasper.
Jasper was much closer to his mother than Euna was to hers. She rarely saw her parents more than once a year all the years she was in college and graduate school, and their phone calls were brief and to the point. Jasper’s mother expected him to stay on the line a full hour on Sundays, a habit Euna was trying to break.
While they were in grad school, they spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas and Passover with Jasper’s mother, not to mention a week in the summer in Maine, where Jasper’s brother and his family lived. Euna didn’t like Maine. She felt like a foreigner there, among New Englanders in their hand-knit woolens, hands stained from gardening. Now that they were in Arizona, Euna was hoping to see less of Jasper’s mother. It would be good for Jasper to break away, she thought.
When the baby came, Euna knew, it wouldn’t be Jasper’s mother who came to help, it would be Euna’s. By then her parents would be retired and looking for something to do. Jasper’s mother had so many hobbies, volunteer work and traveling she would pursue, not to mention making her art, but for Euna’s parents, work was all they knew. When Euna’s parents came to visit, they wouldn’t stay at inns and do other things. They would sleep on the air mattress, turning Euna and Jasper’s office into a guest room. They would make a year’s worth of kimchi, stock the freezer with jigae and japchae with braised tofu, and rub the chrome sink in the kitchen with lemon rinds until you could see your reflection in it.
Euna’s parents would jump right in to change diapers, warm formula. Jasper’s mother would proselytize about the benefits of breastfeeding. “But I don’t want to tell you what to do,” his mother would say. “It’s your decision.” Jasper was breastfed for the first year of life, she reminded Euna, and look how perfect he was.
“In your mother’s eyes, you’re a deity,” she told Jasper. “How can I get along with a woman who will never say a bad thing about you?”
Jasper’s mother had painted wild colors on the bedroom walls of her other two grandchildren and was always giving them books and art supplies, but Euna had overheard her talking to Jasper about there being too many children in the world, or that the world had become too crazy or too polluted to bring additional children into it. Jasper had proposed adoption several times during their early conversations about children, but Euna felt a primal need to bring a being into this world with Jasper’s and her combined DNA. That’s what love was.
Jasper’s mother cared more about ancestors than she cared about babies, it seemed to Euna. She had saved Jasper’s grandparents’ furniture in a storage locker after they died and documented everything with a photo and the story of its place in the family—who made it (often, a combined effort of Jasper’s grandmother and grandfather), what it was made from, and the history of the parts.
Acting as if she was letting Euna in on a big secret, she showed her the pictures. “This would be so perfect for you and Jasper to have,” she said, her breath smelling like kimchi. Although Jasper’s mother was Jewish, she believed kimchi was the secret to health and longevity and filled the refrigerator with pickles she made from the expensive cabbages she bought at the farmers market. It was spicier than the kimchi Euna’s mother made, and much funkier because of the days she let it ferment. Although Jasper loved his mother’s cooking, and had a whole cookbook of her recipes, he could not eat his mother’s kimchi.
“You won’t have to spend money to buy things from Ikea that you have to assemble and that aren’t as well made as these things,” Jasper’s mother said. “They’re family heirlooms, and you know how close Jasper and his grandparents were.” I like Ikea furniture, Euna thought, but agreed to take Jasper’s grandparents’ furniture. What choice did she have?
Thinking it was what Euna wanted, Jasper told his mother to go ahead and have the furniture shipped to Tucson. But once they began living in the apartment, they realized just how small it was. How would it accommodate the dining table around which his grandparents’ celebrated Passover with the extended family? Or the cherry china cabinet, where Jasper’s grandmother displayed her Royal Doulton?
When Euna’s parents learned that the furniture was en route, they reminded her that possessions of the dead bring bad luck.
A day before the delivery, Euna asked Jasper to call his mother and tell her they had no room for the furniture. Jasper put it off for as long as he could, knowing his mother would be livid.
“Now you tell me! These are things you and Euna asked for. If you didn’t want them, I wouldn’t have spent the money to store and ship them.”
Jasper tried to explain how Euna’s parents believed these were bad omens, but his mother grew defensive. “In our family, gifts from the ancestors are more valuable than anything else,” she sputtered. “And what about the jade?”
“We brought it with us in the car,” said Jasper. “But Euna and I aren’t very good with plants. And it’s especially hard to grow things in the desert.”
“The jade will thrive in the desert,” she said.
It was too late to stop the delivery, so their tiny apartment was chockablock with the large pieces of furniture. With the temperature above 100 they needed to stay inside to keep cool, but it felt like a mausoleum. There was a massive oak fireplace surround Jasper’s grandfather had built, with carved gargoyles and lions he’d repurposed from found antiques. What would they do with a fireplace in Tucson?
“It’s a work of art,” said Jasper’s mother, “made by your grandfather. You can be innovative in how you use it.”
The shipment included an enormous picture of a lighthouse painted on the reverse side of the glass, and two plantation-style chairs.
“I want to decorate our home our own way,” Euna said to Jasper. Both felt a deep malaise in the presence of these massive wooden pieces. On the phone, Jasper’s mother suggested that Euna had depression, that it had nothing to do with the furniture.
Jasper contacted a theater company and donated the fireplace, the china cabinet, the lighthouse painting and the barrel chairs. The producer who came with a large van promised that Jasper’s grandparents would be acknowledged in the program. This would assuage Jasper’s mother. She could add the program to her family keepsakes, perhaps encase it in glass.
They still had the dining table his grandfather made—it took up the entire living room, and they had no room for a sofa or chairs, beyond those around the table. They still had some of the smaller paintings of his grandmother’s, he pointed out to his mother, and the wooden horse carved by his grandfather. They’d kept all the toy chairs and a gingerbread house his grandmother had collected.
Jasper’s mother had a treasure chest of family jewels she wanted to give to her daughter-in-law. Even before Jasper proposed, she had said “When you’re ready to give a ring, see me. I have plenty to choose from, and if you don’t like them, you can bring them to a jeweler and have something new made from them.”
But Euna told Jasper she did not want a ring made from his family heirlooms, and so he bought her a brand-new sparkling diamond and sapphire ring. Before the wedding, Jasper’s mother brought her grandmother’s pearls and Jasper’s father’s mother’s opal and diamond ring to a jeweler and had a new necklace made. She presented it to Euna a week before the wedding. Euna packed it neatly back into the box, along with the note detailing its provenance, and put it away where her own mother wouldn’t see it.
The night before the wedding, Euna’s father presented Jasper with a Rolex. Her father had come to this country with nothing but a small suitcase and a few wons. He’d worked at dirty jobs, working his way up to provide a Lexus and Louis Vuitton handbag for his wife, and now the Rolex for his son-in-law.
The next morning, Jasper’s mother, with her sharp eye, noticed the glint at Jasper’s wrist. When he told her about the gift from his father-in-law, her reply was, “Wear it to the wedding, put it in the safe deposit box, and give it to your future son-in-law on the eve of his wedding.”
Euna would do the same with the heirloom necklace.
When Jasper left for the airport to pick up his mother—she would get a rental car, but he would help her get settled at her inn—Euna was feeling queasy. She told herself the house was clean enough—Jasper had scrubbed the bathroom. Euna decided to take a nap, and had just fallen asleep when her mother called to remind her that the three-year period of bad luck was officially over. She had confirmed it with the fortuneteller.
When Euna told her mother she needed to go back to sleep because she was feeling nauseous, her mother squealed with joy at what she perceived as an announcement of pregnancy. As far as her mother was concerned, bad luck was not having children after marriage. Euna’s mother knew a baby would make her daughter happy. Euna told her mother she was living in another world and hung up but couldn’t fall back to sleep.
The real reason she felt nauseous, Euna knew, was because she was straddling the realms of her mother and mother-in-law, two women who couldn’t be more different. And yet when they met, they seemed to get along. It especially annoyed Euna that Jasper’s mother was always asking her mother about how she made her kimchi.
When Jasper returned he told Euna his mother was safely tucked in at her inn and would take them out for brunch the next day.
“I don’t like brunch,” said Euna. “I’m hungry when I wake up. I want breakfast.”
Jasper put an arm around her. “You can eat breakfast, then get something light at the brunch.”
“Maybe I’ll be too sick to go to brunch tomorrow,” said Euna. “I’m pregnant,” she joked, and both she and Jasper laughed.
The next morning, Jasper’s mother called to say she had found a Whole Foods nearby and would bring the brunch to them. Euna’s queasy feeling came back.
Jasper’s mother pulled up in her rental car. Wearing Birkenstocks and a toe ring—a vestige from her wild adventure in India—she wore her long gray curls loose. Her dress also looked like it was from India, and her neck and wrists were encrusted with chunky jewelry. Jasper’s mother bought old jewelry at flea markets, jewelry that looked a lot like the ancestor stuff she kept in her treasure chest, and pieced it together into new pieces. She came out of the car and gave Euna a big hug, holding the hug longer than Euna felt comfortable with. She went back to the car to unload parcels of smoked fish, fruits and vegetables, stinky cheese and crusts of bread made from seeds. “You don’t have to eat the cheese,” she said to Euna, who didn’t like cheese; Jasper loved it.
They spread everything out on the seder table, where Jasper’s ancestors had sung “Dayenu.” Jasper’s mother ate with gusto, complaining that Euna wasn’t eating enough. “I know you don’t want more things,” she said, “but I couldn’t resist a little housewarming gift.”
There was a long story about how she had gone to the laboratory of a self-contained city in the desert designed by an Italian visionary who made ceramic bells. Euna was thinking about a piece she’d heard on the radio about a man driven out of his mind by the sound of the neighbors’ wind chimes, and when the family went away at Thanksgiving he plotted to take the wind chimes down and blame it on the cat.
Jasper took the wind chimes out of the box, dutifully admired them, went out to the porch and hung them from a hook in the adobe ceiling.
“Will it be strong enough to hold,” asked his mother.
“It’s plenty strong.”
His mother reached up and jiggled the hook. “Doesn’t seem so strong to me.”
All during brunch, they listened as the wind chimes tinked and clanked in the Tucson breeze. When they cleared the table, they heard a crash on the concrete floor.
“Oh no!” cried Jasper, running out and gathering all the pieces. “I’m so sorry,” he said, assembling the parts on in a box. The bells had broken in large sections as well as tiny shards and powder. “I can fix it,” he said.
“I don’t think it can be fixed,” said his mother. “It won’t look good with all those cracks, and it will be far more susceptible to breaking in the wind.”
“I’ll make sure I hang it from a stud,” said Jasper.
“It’s one of those projects that Jasper will lose track of time on,” said Euna, “instead of doing the important things.”
“Seriously,” said Jasper’s mother, “Don’t spend the time fixing it—it’s not like it’s a family heirloom.”
Euna pivoted. “I’m not going to burden my children with family heirlooms,” she blurted.
Jasper’s mother stopped doing dishes. “Have I burdened you?” she asked. “I never meant to be a burden. I wanted to share something I cherished, and I thought you might too.”
After that, there was silence. Despite protests, Jasper went to work, building a mold around which he could epoxy the bell shards. Euna went into her office. Jasper’s mother puttered about the kitchen. Passing the window, she stopped to examine the jade, removing dried shriveled leaves, pressing her fingers into the soil. All the way from the office, Euna could hear her cry.
“It’s blooming.” Jasper’s mother had real tears streaming down her cheeks. “The jade is blooming.”
Ilene Dube asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work