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118_sull_originalWhen Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea enter the flophouse, they look around, dismayed. Sleeping vagrants litter the floor in a knot of rags, and when Lake and McCrea find a free spot, they curl into a protective cocoon, batting away strange, errant limbs. On the wall is a curious sign:  Have You Written Your Mother?  Those thick block letters have an oddly chiding tone, a schoolmarm’s fat finger waving at those unfortunates who have just endured a fiery sermon to sleep here.

No, I have not written to my mother. I call, though not as frequently as she would like. My father answers and pretends I’m a stranger: Who’s this? he asks, as if caller ID weren’t a built-in feature of their life.  My mother replaces Hello with Why haven’t you called? As she runs through her litany of concern (Have you gone to the dentist? Found a permanent job yet? Get your flu shot?), I feel like I’m eight, and I wait, irritably, until I finally become an adult, and she tells me what’s been going on at temple, with her friends, in the family.

She sends out emails too, though her use of diacritical marks depends on which computer she’s using. Behind the desk in the computer room (my old bedroom), my father has taped a sampler of the Vietnamese fonts he’s downloaded. With these, the accents are accessible via keystrokes. I imagine her sitting there, tapping out appropriate vowel tones. But if she’s in her own room, sitting up in her waterbed, tablet on her lap, I imagine that she most likely can’t be bothered.  It doesn’t matter, really, if the marks are there or not, since I’m barely literate in Vietnamese. I scan the email for words I immediately recognize— root canal, endodonist, dental insurance, osteoporosis—and infer the rest. The diacritical marks dot the screen like dust.

But my mother also writes letters, short communiqués on the free notepads charities send out when they try to guilt you into sending donations: Red Cross, World Wildlife Foundation, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Her handwriting is crisp and spiky, insisting that it be absolutely understood. Just a few words on each note: I’m sending you this check, it says, because of ____, and I’m forced to sound out each word, to remember which tone goes with which mark. The hỏi asks a question, and the ngã breaks. Sắc is like the French accent aigu, while huyền is the French grave, and nặng is the heavy thud, a cannonball of a vowel. The diacritics sometimes double up on the same vowel. Depending on its marking, the word ‘ma’ can mean: mother, or ghost, or however, or horse, or grave, or rice seedling.

My mother asks if I can read her notes, and I always answer yes, even if I can’t. I put her notes, folded in half, in the back of my desk, where they remind me: communicate.

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In The Lady Eve, right before Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) realizes that her beloved thinks she’s a gold digger, she tells him, regarding women: “The best ones aren’t as good as you probably think they are, and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad.” Her voice is jaunty as she speaks because she doesn’t know what’s coming next, and as he reveals what he knows, Stanwyck becomes crest-fallen. Her self-confidence is rattled, and her eyes water as she pleads with him to see past what he believes. To see past what the world believes of her.

Those tears may seem like easy sentimentality in this most sentimental of film genres (the romantic comedy or, more specific, the screwball comedy), but behind those tears, Stanwyck maintains a strong will. She spends the remainder of the film proving her assertion about women, and from then on, looks at Peter Fonda as if he’s more trouble than he’s worth, but worth the pursuit anyhow.

At that moment, I finally understood why my mother loves Barbara Stanwyck. We once watched an entire season of The Colbys because Stanwyck starred as the matriarch of the family, Constance Colby. I was only eleven and had endured 10 hours of Richard Chamberlain in The Thorn Birds for two hours of Stanwyck, but at least for The Colbys, I was already a fan of Dynasty. But when Constance was killed off after the first season (a plane crash in Asia), my mother and I stopped watching, because the show was actually pretty lame. The series finale involved an alien abduction, if I’m not mistaken.

Stanwyck had never struck me as someone who was glamorous—after all, I’d only ever seen her play fiercely protective mothers—but I could say the same about my mother. She had me when she was almost forty, so I never knew her as a young woman. A black-and-white photograph of my mother hangs on the wall outside the kitchen. In it, my mother appears softer than I’ve ever seen her, looking slightly over her shoulder, hair cupping her face, luminous. My father joked: “That was taken when Mom was a radio pop star.”

I can’t tell how old my mother is in that photograph, but apparently, my paternal grandmother once called her a ‘gold digger.’ My father was, at the time, an officer in the ARVN, educated in America, slender and handsome with a copstash standard moustache. In other words: quite a catch. And my mother? She was older than my father by three years. Quite the scandal.

According to Henry Cavill, screwball comedies aren’t comedies of marriage, but of how a couple separates and reunites. Of remarriage. How long did it take my mother to convince my grandmother that good girls weren’t as good as she think they were, and bad ones weren’t as bad? Because nowadays, as I watch my mother in the kitchen, peeling vegetables, making rice, stir-frying shrimp and braising fish, I can’t help but think that my father got the better end of the deal.

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