I stretch the stick of dough as I slide it into sizzling oil, all the while keeping an ear out for my daughter-in-law. To avoid eating breakfast, Hwei-ling often slips out of the house without so much as a good morning or good-bye. Her dieting and her twelve-hour workdays worry me. She places undue importance on her job.
My son shuffles into the kitchen and flashes me his good-natured grin. I break a hot-out-of-the-fryer youtiao in half and sandwich it between toasted sesame bread for him. Chin-ya is busy studying the stock pages, so I sit down next to him, dip his breakfast into hot soymilk, and hold it to his mouth.
He takes a bite and mumbles his appreciation. He lets me indulge him when Hwei-ling is not in the room. I ask why she hasn’t yet left for work. Eyes darting from one margin of the paper to the other, my son mutters that Hwei-ling is not feeling well, but will be up shortly. He acts so strangely that I wonder if what I’ve been longing for has happened.
I angle my face into his line of sight. “Is it morning sickness?” Hwei-ling is thirty-five, and they have been married for nearly a decade. My grandson is long overdue.
Unable to wrestle his breakfast from my hand, Chin-ya takes a bite, a conversation-delaying ploy. Finally, he says, “Have you taken a look yet at the morning qigong group at the park?” He is always telling me that sixty is not too old to develop new interests and pastimes, that he is no longer a fatherless boy in need of my constant protection. “You should get out more, do something for yourself. I worry about you.”
Chin-ya is a good son, but I know all his tactics as well as those of his wife. (She is generous with gifts when I make demands of her heart or her time.) I remind him that a mother’s work is never done and that giving her family a nutritious start to the day should be the only thing on a good woman’s mind first thing in the morning. “Home and family before self—every wife should know that.”
I am not old-fashioned. Chin-ya refused a matchmaker. Dicey as it was, I did not stand in the way of romance. For the sake of household harmony, I’ve even allowed Hwei-ling to believe that her opinions reign in their marriage. I’ve spoiled them, but I know right from wrong.
“Tell me what’s going on.” I stare until he turns pink.
He glances toward his bedroom and lowers his voice. “Hwei-ling is spotting, but that doesn’t mean she’s losing the baby. She doesn’t want anyone to know, not until we’re sure the baby is strong, so promise me you won’t say anything to her. She’s upset enough.”
I know what it’s like to be ruled by a mother-in-law, and I’ve done my best to stay out of their business. In light of this news, however, it is wrong not to offer guidance. I squeeze Chin-ya’s hands. “We can get along without her income.” My easygoing child needs to be reminded of this from time to time. His wife earns slightly more because she sells her health working excessive hours. “It is not in Hwei-ling’s or our best interest for her to continue at her job.”
I frown. “She works much more than is good for her.”
“If she miscarries, it’s not because of a desk job.”
“A cup of tea is not breakfast. If you don’t make her understand, then I will have to. Her lifestyle and habits affect more than just herself now.”
“She can’t help that she has no appetite in the morning.”
“Before the bleeding, did you have sex?”
Red-faced, he leaves the table and me, holding half of his breakfast. With a fingertip, I dab and collect the sesame seeds and crumbs around his plate and listen for his footsteps. I meet him at the front door and ask if she is having cramps. He gives his head an unwilling shake.
“Don’t worry,” I tell him. “I’ll take good care of her today.”
“We must do everything we can to help the baby hold on.”
He grimaces, but he knows I’m right. I pat his hand and shoo him out the door.
I comb my hair into a tight bun and change into a proper skirt for going out. No one can ever say that Bao-guo’s widow discredits his family name. I pull on old sneakers, not looking forward to the trip to the grimy and crowded live-food market on the outskirts of Taipei, where I slipped and fell on a patch of wet pavement last winter. I only shop there now for special occasions, and this is a special occasion: my daughter-in-law is in need of a medicinal brew to replenish her blood.
Unlocking the front door, I hear the whine of a hair dryer. I drop my bag and go to Hwei-ling. Eyes closed, she stands before her vanity, blower aimed back and forth across her face. The back and shoulders of her navy dress are dark from her wet hair. She flinches when I touch her elbow.
Gently, I say, “Your boss can get by without you for a little while. He’ll understand.”
Her face is more made up than usual, but nothing can conceal her red eyes. “If I don’t hurry, I’m going to be late for a signing I can’t miss.”
She rakes her fingers helter-skelter through her hair and, water droplets coursing down her arms, gathers it with a plastic jaw clip. Wormy pieces plaster her cheeks and neck, but there is no hiding her beauty. She picks up her purse and briefcase.
I edge toward the doorway. “It’s important that you rest and build your strength. You will harm this baby going out with a wet head.”
That fire again in her eyes. “I’m fine.”
I overlook her impertinence as I have so many times before. “I’m going to cook you a black-meat chicken with medicine to strengthen your blood and qi, and treat your kidney imbalance.”
“I don’t have a kidney problem.”
“Your qi is stagnant. That’s why your kidney is having a hard time holding on to a baby,” I explain with great patience. The younger generation does not understand that traditional herbs strengthen and nourish in a way Western medicine does not. “You are carrying the future of our family. You must go back to bed.”
Hwei-ling’s brow tightens. “My doctor says that spotting does not always indicate a miscarriage, that no amount of coddling will hold onto an unviable fetus. He says I can go about my normal activities as long as I feel up to it.”
“You saw your doctor this morning?”
In the split second it takes my daughter-in-law’s eyes to widen and shift, I understand that she has exposed herself to miscarriages in the past.
“That’s what he said when we discussed pregnancies in general,” she says, switching to the velvety, truth-distorting voice of a practiced saleswoman.
I stare until she looks away in shame. “It’s time you put family first. I don’t want you to miss out on the joys of motherhood.”
“Nor do I want to,” she says. “And if I don’t hurry, I will be late for my meeting and my doctor. I am indifferent to herbal soups, so please cook one of Chin-ya’s favorites tonight.” And with that, she slides past me and escapes.