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Modi Deng

For my mother

My mother’s youth seems inexpressibly glamorous to me now. She tells me she used to wear her hair up all the time, and would only wear clothes that were stylish and unique. My father did fall in love with her riding on her bike, her dress and hair flowing in the wind, after all. I wonder if it was her lavender dress, the one with the bell sleeves. He sent her letters, Dear… She had thick, heavy black locks and her large eyes were never made up. I remember coming back from school one day. Mum was waiting for me at the end of the drive. When we entered the house, my five-year-old mind finally clicked. It wasn’t that her hair was tucked into her collar, making it shorter. She had got it cut. My vision narrowed and I descended into a haze like a madman, crying and bashing our miserable tan sofa. Mum was a trooper and hid her shock. She lulled me back into calm, Orpheus beseeching the Furies. There are other details too, of her satiny white heels that I used to walk around in, and the silver-zipped baby blue vest that I yearned to wear when I grew up. Mum is light-footed and can wear the same shoes for decades, while I bruise and tear at twenty.

She laughs when she speaks of how extravagant she and Dad were. They bought beautiful, large wooden bookshelves and two big desks in their study room (they both liked to read). Her voice is mellow; mine, reedy. She was the only child of her family to go to university, and stubborn enough to pretend to not know the answer so she could put off her smug physics teacher. I think of Mum’s love of maths and Dickens and how she is great at telling stories. She knows the rhythm, the lengthening and shortening to stir up drama, the natural omitting of details. The ways to make someone expel a laugh, hold their breath. When she was expecting me, she listened to classical music every night. So much Chopin, so much Ashkenazy. A few years ago we went back to her home in China, and her cousin showed us a video of Mum around my age. Her hair was high and half-up. She ate carefully almost to the degree of a mannerism, and walked in a self-conscious, elegant way. Gosh! I thought. That’s a bit like me. Every time I’m home, I dance around the kitchen being no help, my chatter layered and caught in the smell of her cooking. I fill her up on everything that has happened as if I have to explain myself through the past. She is calm and amused and sees the little kid with the mushroom hair and penchant for tantrums. More like me than I know.

Modi Deng is in her third year of studying piano and English at Auckland University. She loves music, cinnamon, and the winter skies in Dunedin.