Shopping for Thongs with Lao Lao

by Laurel R.

“Your grandma went to get you some thongs, sweetie.”

I don’t know what to say to that, so I just stand there watching my face turn scarlet in the changing room mirror. “Thanks!” I finally mumble. Then so quietly that only I can hear: “She’s not my grandma…”

My mother adopted me when she was 59 years old. I was two and a half. She was a smiling lady with snow-white hair. I remember she gave me a rubber band, and she says I surprised her with, “Thank you.”

“Oh. Em. Gee!” someone squeals outside my dressing room. “That is sooo cute!” It’s the thong lady talking to her daughter. I noticed them earlier in the store, loading up their cart with mini-dresses.

I look at my reflection in the changing room mirror. My mother has always had me call her Lao Lao, or grandmother in Chinese, and the name fits. The khaki high-waters she insisted I try on make “mom jeans” look positively youthful. I’m also wearing a too-small, nude-colored bra. “All yours are becoming scraggly,” she said loudly, holding it up against my chest in the middle of the store.

Standing there in the dressing room wearing these ridiculous clothes, I flush with indignation. The scar I usually ignore reflects back at me. It runs from my sternum to the bottom of my rib cage, reminding me of the open heart surgery I received after arriving in America. For the most part, I rarely think about it. I’m more self-conscious about how I walk, which is with a slight turn out. My legs’ ligaments formed in a peculiar manner from being in a crib so long.

Once in awhile, I’ll think about my biological mother, and wonder what she was like. Was she pretty? Smart? Kind? She must have been smart and kind — she placed me on the Nanjing Bridge knowing that I would be found and granted the medical attention I desperately needed.

“Laurel!” Lao Lao yells, bringing me back to reality. “What’s taking so long?” Over the changing room door she waves a pair of black flip-flops. It takes a moment to register…thongs. “A girl told me you’d need to wear these with those trousers.”

Having a 74-year-old mother means “thongs” are flip-flops. It means I cook a lot of our family dinners because she’s frequently too tired. It means she blasts NPR so loudly in the school line that heads turn. It means I’ll be filling out college applications and FAFSA on my own.

But you know what? I actually don’t mind (well, except for FAFSA). I like knowing how to make her lemon pie from scratch. And listening to All Things Considered together has become one of my favorite parts of the day.

Sometimes I do feel envious of other moms and daughters, especially when I think about how much longer they’ll have together. I know I’ll be saying goodbye much, much sooner than I’m ready to, losing someone who thinks a lot like I do (about almost everything besides shopping), has done so much for me, who cares for me and loves me unconditionally. Will that be in five years? Ten? Twenty?

Regardless, I decide, Lao Lao and I shouldn’t waste any more time in Old Navy. I put the pants and flip-flops in my shopping bag. “Thank you,” I say, squeezing her hand as we amble to the checkout line. “They’re perfect together.”