I laughed at her

I laughed as she struggled to pronounce the English word. We were on the couch in our small living room reading a children’s book, wrapped in a warm, soft gabi. I was eight, and excited to read this book again, to experience the story with my mother. So she sat and held me close and read to me in a language that was not her own.

We were a few pages in and she was doing well. But now she was stuck, wrestling with this one word, trying to pin it down. She fought to get it from her head to her mouth and she failed. It came out strange, like she was gargling a golf ball. Her jaw stretched uncomfortably, her tongue flexed and flailed while her daughter sat in her arms and laughed at her.

I saw the pain in her eyes too late, after my cackle had already left me, pierced the space between us and stabbed her in the heart. She sat still and quiet, the book limp in her hands. She snapped it close. Rasish ambibee. Read it yourself, she told me, and stormed off.

I pleaded with her, told her I was sorry, but she didn’t respond. I waited, certain she would change her mind. How could she let such a silly thing ruin our entire afternoon together?

She said nothing.

I started to get frustrated. It wasn’t personal. The way she’d said that word was incorrect and, therefore, objectively funny. Didn’t she understand?

I tried to explain this to her and begged her to come back. But she was done with me. I sat there stunned, alone with the book I loved on a couch that suddenly felt cold.

I replayed the moment, trying to understand what happened, flipping the scene over in my head. I saw her smile as she first sat down to read to me. I felt the smooth, hard cover under her fingertips as she cracked the spine open. I felt her warmth. I heard her smile. I saw her eyes scan the page, taking in the terrain of words. I can do this, I heard her think. This will be fine. It’s just a children’s book.

I heard her step forward, targeting one word at a time, her speech methodical and practiced. I felt her lips form shapes that she’d rehearsed, connecting with consonants and vowels. I felt her relief as she finished a page. I heard her heartbeat quicken as she started a new one.

I saw her eyes lock on this one word that she knew so well. She’d seen it before. She’d said it before. This would be fine. I felt her jaw stretch and her lips slip and she frowned. This wasn’t working. She tried again, the sound leaving her body contorted and strange. She was close, but not quite there.

She’d been here before, that place where her tongue and her brain refused to cooperate. It was the wall that stood between her and this new country that she was fighting so hard to crack open. It held her back, denying her the ability to be understood, to be respected, to be herself. It betrayed her as other to everyone she spoke to. She watched their smiles grow cold when she opened her mouth. She saw their faces tighten and their eyes flash with impatience when she spoke. She heard their patronizing tone, wishing she could lash out in her native tongue and defend herself. But the shackles of this new language were prickly and unyielding. They kept her in her place. And in those moments, as she stood naked and struggling, she was reminded that she didn’t belong.

But here in her home, she was safe. There were no walls that needed cracking, no shackles to break free from. She sat comfortably on her couch with her daughter in her arms, where she could be herself, where she was understood, where she belonged. Now if only she could get this word out.

I felt her try again, and this time, she thought she had it. I felt her sigh of relief, and then she heard the cold laugh of her daughter pierce her world. She froze. I felt the hair on the back of her neck stand straight, her safety and her heart shattered on the floor around her. I felt her betrayal. Her daughter was just like the rest of them. The book felt heavy. We slammed it shut and stormed off.

I sat with those thoughts for a long time, felt them etch into my eight-year-old bones. I let the guilt sink in, unshakeable, unforgiving. I let her perspective suffocate me, so that I never forgot her pain. And I haven’t.

It’s many years later and I am an adult now. We sit and talk and I ask her about this moment. She doesn’t remember it. I give her the details and try to apologize, but she smiles and shakes her head. It was a forgettable page in my mother’s life, one of many immigrant moments. But for me, it means so much more.

She would probably find this absurd. She’d say I was overthinking, overanalyzing, making grand assumptions on her behalf, taking a timestamp and ballooning it into an entire movie, and perhaps she is right. After all, it was just a word in a book on a couch on a sunny afternoon. The whole thing lasted maybe five minutes.

And perhaps that’s what haunts me the most, that it can take so little to build walls and break hearts, that in just one laugh, I’d othered my own mother.

I hold onto this memory desperately, replay it often, dwell in the layers of that moment — the power of a laugh, the struggle to belong, the fragility of safe spaces. I see her eyes and feel her pain, and let it wash over me like a cleansing.

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