Significant Others

My mother is offering her factory forewoman my first novel for Christmas.

“I see her reading the newspaper all the time in the booth above the sewing machines,” she says before leaving for work one December morning. “I’d like to give her a book. One of yours.”

I spend an entire day pondering an appropriate dedication for a woman I’ll never know, except through a few details my mother has mentioned. She is Chinese. She is fat, rarely impatient, and she is a newspaper reader. Finally I scribble, “To Mary, Merry Christmas. Thank you so much for being nice to my mom.”

Later that evening, we wrap the book in snowmen-covered Christmas paper, tie a red ribbon around it, then pin a card to it with both my mother’s and Mary’s names.

My mother tells me that she will tell Mary, “My daughter wrote this book.” We say it many times together. “My daughter wrote this book. My daughter wrote this book.” I imagine this daughter as a child my mother and I both share, my own dream offspring, whom I call Sophie after the tormented narrator of the novel my mother’s giving to Mary.

I once went with my mother to another factory from which she’d been laid off. We had gone there to pick up some money she was owed for making two dozen purses a day at minimum wage. The room was dim and dusty, the air laden with tiny leather and thread particles that the large overhead fans spun in a hazy whirlpool above the crammed rows of antique Singers. I couldn’t imagine my mother spending every day there, and not getting paid on top of it. But at 15, my anger was useless. I could only make vows. This would never be my life. I would never work for anyone. I would write books.

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Sojourners Magazine November 2009
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