I never thought to ask my mother why she slept in my room most nights. I was just glad not to be alone in the dark.
One Saturday morning, we wandered into the toy section of the Goodwill, and my mother picked out something for me. It was a map of the world, a puzzle, 1,000 cardboard pieces inside a box for 50 cents. Each piece had a unique shape that fit with another. The point was to find the other pieces that fit with it somewhere in this pile of shapes and lock them together.
When we got home and I sat down to work on the puzzle, she did not pick up a piece or try to help me put it together. Instead, she watched me. She’d say, “That one doesn’t go there. Try another one.” When one fit, she’d say, “Every piece belongs somewhere, doesn’t it?”
I would work on the puzzle when I came home from school, and piece by piece, I put the colors together. First the blues, which stood for the oceans. Then the reds, greens, oranges, yellows, and pinks of all the many different countries. Weeks later, only a handful of pieces were left, and when I put in the last piece, I announced with pride, “Ma, I’m finished!”
My mother peered at the puzzle and pointed at a green spot. That was where she was from, she said. A tiny country in the lower far-right. Then she pointed to where we were at that moment, a large pink area at the top far-left. After a moment, she pointed to the puzzle’s edge and then the floor, where there was nothing. “It’s dangerous there,” she said. “You fall off.”
“No, you don’t,” I said. “The world is round. It’s like a ball.”
But my mother insisted, “That’s not right.”
Still, I continued, “When you get to the edge, you just come right back around to the other side.”
“How do you know?” she asked.
“My teacher says. Miss Soo says.” There was a globe on Miss Soo’s desk at school, and whenever she talked about the oceans or the continents or plate tectonics, she would point to those features on it. I didn’t know whether what Miss Soo was telling me was true. I hadn’t thought to ask.
“It’s flat,” my mother said, touching the map. “Like this.” Then she swept the puzzle to the floor with her palm. All the connected pieces broke off from one another, the hours lost in a single gesture. “Just because I never went to school doesn’t mean I don’t know things.”
I think now of what my mother knew then. She knew about war, what it felt like to be shot at in the dark, what death looked like up close in your arms, what a bomb could destroy. Those were things I didn’t know about, and it was all right not to know them, living where we did now, in a country where nothing like that happened. There was a lot I did not know.
We were different people, and we understood that then.
A few weeks later, we went to the park. It was cold and the grass was yellow underneath a lumpy sheet of ice. Earlier, I had been reading while my mother watched television. She usually found a show to make her laugh, but that day she couldn’t settle on one. She kept pressing the button on the remote control, flipping to the next channel, and then the next, until she started all over again.