The first time I was called, mother was 3 weeks ago. I had hopped into a Bemo, the miniscule, local transport van found in various places throughout Indonesia. The affectionate term was entirely incongruent with the boob-filled posters haphazardly taped to the passenger door and staring me in the face, as I climbed in. Mother, is the direct translation of Ibu, but it also means, Ma’am.
Where you from, Mother? His question jerked my mind back from the wild eruption of cultural thoughts about those images. Women in hijabs were walking down the road. I could hear the mosque call to prayer out the window.
The second time I was called, mother was yesterday. I heard a teensy knock on my front entry door and found the tiny, young deliveryman, who had forgotten to bring me mint with last week’s order. The giant, stuffed bag he handed over immediately launched me into wondering, just how much mint tea and tabouli do I have to make this week? In his broken mixture of Sasak (the indigenous language of Lombok), Indonesian, English and the language of awkward pauses, he ever-so-shyly asks if he could come in for some water. Of course, I say, although I feel the weight of hesitance on my chest…what does he need? What does he want? Will this turn out badly?… Of course, you can come in and minum waterrr. I take a breath.
And then he calls me mother (not ma’am), as his diminutive self comes towards me and starts to repeatedly hug me and kiss me on the cheek. You be my Ibu, my mother? He had no mother. She had died a long time ago.
The awkwardness continues. I feel my “mothering” nature stir, wishing to take care of this lonely soul, to make it ok, to temporarily make up for his lostness. But I do not fill this hole. It is not for me to fill. I give him a glass of water.
He stands in the kitchen, gesticulating embarrassment with his hands. Did I have a husband, Mother? Did I live alone? I stand just beyond the kitchen, pointing toward my computer, saying I had work to do, kerja. He speaks again with his trio of languages and blank pauses and goes for another hug. I sidestep, still pointing. My computer was set up on a stool, and my yoga mat lay out alongside it, where I had left it from the morning. I type in the air, signaling that I must work. He continues to look at me with his child-like face of longing, Ibu, mother, he repeats. The space between us is dry and empty. I do not pour myself into it.
He goes and lies down on the yoga mat using 2 foam blocks as his pillow. I let this much happen. I breathe, sit down on some bolsters and type away. There are 24 empty inches between us. I keep them so.
Minutes later he gets up, motions toward my front door and says, Kiss. He wants to kiss me before he leaves. No, I say, clearly, tidak. This teensy man in the body of a child, wounded. On the cheek, he motions. Still no, from my end. So he takes my hand, gives it a papery kiss, slips his flip-flops back on his feet, half moving and half pausing, as if something were left undone. Finally he heads for the door to the outside world.
I stay on my front porch and a wave of sadness washes over me, as I feel his unmet wish.
Yes, I could have compromised, hugged him, let him call me mother in that moment.
It’s no big deal, I could have said.
Yes, I could have taken care of him beyond my simple offer. I could have pretended. I could have filled the space between us.
But my body said, NO.
My body had no wish to rationalize, analyze, wonder if this was ok in his culture; no wish to compromise, adapt or play that game of Twister, where we twist and turn ourselves to meet another’s wishes or expectations, while we unsteadily try to “hold our ground.”
Right or wrong? Good or bad? Should or shouldn’t have? I did not ask these questions. I simply followed that clear, present flow of energy that surges through me, when my body says, NO. It can contradict my mind, my feminine guilt, my ability to handle a lot, but I now know which one to follow.
If we wish to be healthy in life, we cannot fill the space in for another, when it contradicts our nature and our wishes. If we wish to be strong in life, we cannot pretend to be “nice” and ignore what is true for us. This makes us less real, less vibrant.
No you cannot kiss me. I am not your mother. I will not fill the space between us, if it is not a space I wish to occupy.
But, I will offer you a cold glass of water, a short respite from the heat and wish you well on your journey, from my full, clear heart.