Lounging on the beach in a black one-piece suit, she tilts her head up at the camera. In the shadows, it is difficult to see what expression she holds. However, her soft stature and awkward pose make her seem ingénue and inviting to the viewer. The photograph is a capsule of a long-lost era, distinguished by its grainy film and her sloping fringe.
Growing up, I always thought that my mother was meant to be a mom. Her energy aligned with that of Mother Nature: warm, firm, and generous. Young children would tail her on the streets, mistaking her for their own mothers. And she dressed in layers and layers of knitwear and cotton like the softest Russian nesting doll.
Yet, she was very thin and always cold. My childhood was punctuated by my mother’s illness. I remember her eating bland foods every day because anything too sweet, salty, or spicy would upset her stomach. But it didn’t matter anyway because she would just throw it up at night. My mother’s bad health never made her a bad mom. Nonetheless, when I look at old pictures of her, I see a very different woman from the one I know. A young woman with a cherubic face and Junoesque figure undercut by her boyish and modest style.
It’s the late 1980s and yellow is a staple in my mother’s closet. She spends a lot of time outdoors, so it’s a yellow sleeveless blouse for the beach and a yellow sweater for the park. As a teen, her style is simple and sunny. My grandparents didn’t have much money at the time, so my mother wore the same clothes a lot. But they perfectly captured her character: a rosy and stellar student.
Later on, my mother’s style evolved to be more business chic. In a white button-down and black pencil skirt, one thing is evident: how freakishly tiny her waist is. I noticed this when I tried on a dress from her 20s as a high-schooler and it snugly clung to my waist. So I look at the girl in the photo how I look at Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina: in admiration, adoration, and a tasteful amount of envy.
Cool Girl College
My mom met my dad in college when she was an undergrad and he was a graduate student. She was, as she tells it, the second prettiest girl in the class they shared—“The prettiest one became an actress.” My mom liked my dad because he was more mature than the other boys. And my dad liked her because she was different from the typical Chinese college girl, a little more rebellious and open-minded. It showed in her fashion, which expressed her tomboy personality.
My parents married after graduation and immigrated to America together. This was a transitional period for my mother’s style. She adopted a bohemian flair to mark her leave from China. Most of the clothes I borrow from her are from this time, the late 90s. For me, they encapsulated the Asian American aesthetic, which still remains ill-defined. My mother mixed the modesty of Chinese dress with the bold colors of 90s America.
These days, my mother does not shop a lot. Malls are chilly and walking around makes her tired. She likes to dig through her closet and make me try on her old dresses. I see a twinkle in her eye when I put them on. Perhaps she sees an echo of her younger self in me. And she remembers how it felt to be the girl at the beach in the black bathing suit, carefree and at ease.