At two weeks old, Puggle made it clear that he had preferences. He put up with being swaddled for a grand total of ten days; and since then has wriggled, grunted and otherwise made his displeasure known with being confined. He's an Aquarian, and I am told they do not like to feel restricted. Attempts to wrap him meet with ferocious resistance. It goes contrary to what I've read about babies preferring to experience the safety and snugness of the womb: as I write this, he is asleep, lying on his side, hands tucked under his chin, happily unrestricted and covered with a blanket. I am incredulous that nearly a month has passed by. Sometimes he seems more like a little old man to me than a newborn. He's an old soul and I wonder where we have met before.
Mom was with us a few days after his birth; she cut short a visit to Vietnam for Tet and flew all night to meet her grandson. In the delivery room, I had my cell phone; and would call in reports to her in Vietnam every few hours to reassure her that I was all right. When Puggle was born at 2:41 pm, I called her, twelve hours ahead in a new day in Vietnam and told her that Baby and I were safe and well. And we both felt like crying (I did, I wonder if she did on her end?): she, fulfilled in having a grandchild safely delivered; I, because I finally understood her lifelong comment that I would not know what it was to love until I had given birth to my own child. The unrestricted passion which I feel for this wizened and pinkish little creature: Ah. So this is how my mother loves me.
At my house, she is indefatigable in the kitchen, cooking like a demon, nourishing me. Every day the smells of my childhood waft from the kitchen. She makes all of my favorite dishes, and some that I have not eaten since before my teenage years, food distinctly imprinted in my mind with the memory of babied voices and grammar school and we five siblings eating together. My sister is incensed with the menu I am enjoying. "Damn you," she rages on the phone when I tell her what Mom has made for me (you would think that in our thirties we would cease such puerile behavior?).
She tells me what dishes I should eat and those I should not partake ("Nothing sour," she tells me. "Not good for recovery."). No shrimp, limited portions of meat, lots of papaya ("It will bring in your milk." Seeing as how my milk didn't come in for almost four days, perhaps I should have eaten the papaya), lots of rich broths and ginger-laden soups (Pho Ga, the chicken noodle version of the famous pho features prominently for a few days); lots of rice dishes, some fish, everything fragrant with spices and herbs enlivened by the ubiquitous fish sauce.
I can smell the pungent scent of lemongrass that has been grilled, and the demure notes of fish sauce -- I know what she's making before I step into the kitchen. Bun thit nuong, vermicelli noodles with grilled meats, chopped herbs, cucumber and lettuce, doused with nuoc mam (fish sauce). I haven't had this particular dish in some time: it's not an essential favorite, the way other dishes are -- (time is limited when I visit her so I only ask her to make my preferred dishes, and these are bun bo Hue and my banh beo).
"Sit!" she urges, placing a bowl on the table. Her arms automatically reach for the sleeping bundle in my arms. She carries him off, cooing at him and admiring his little face. "Eat!" she calls over shoulder.
I crave Vietnamese food most when I am sick or worn down: fresh, clean flavors, devoid of heavy richness, brimming with fresh and raw veggies and flavored with several variations of fish sauce. I inhale the dish, thinking about the last time I had it: and I realize I have not eaten bun thit nuong in almost seven years. Then, as now, my mother was taking care of me through a recovery -- this time it's physical; then, it was emotional. I realized seven years ago that my mother's love is unconditional and endless. And I think to myself, watching my mother cuddle my son, for whom my love flows in surplus, that these are the smells of our love story: fish sauce and lemongrass.