One of my most memorable fights with my mom featured Nathan's hot dog nuggets. Sixteen of them. You know, those that look like miniature corndogs, but without the sticks. They came in a green and yellow paper box with a flimsy cut-out latch, the kind that never kept the box properly closed.
I picked them up at Nathan's in the Long Island Railroad terminal in Penn Station on my way home from work. I was in my early 20s, living with my parents in Long Island, and working as a paralegal at a law firm in midtown Manhattan. On the nights I worked late, the firm allowed me a $15 stipend for dinner. On this night, instead of buying dinner while I was working, I waited until I got to the train station to get the hot dog nuggets.
I remember thinking that it would a nice treat for my mom. Just a little something to change her daily routine. My parents worked late hours at their dry cleaners and never ate out. Every other weekend, my mom cooked a vat of chicken wings in hot sauce and packed six at a time in foil. She piled them in the top shelf of the freezer, and every morning on their way out to work, she threw one into her bag. That and rice was their lunch, day in and day out. Three chicken wings and a small tubberware of rice.
I felt guilty that I could go out and eat whatever I wanted for lunch. Sometimes I went down to the corner deli and picked up a corned beef sandwich. Or to the gourmet pizzeria down on Lexington for a slice of pizza. Or some giant sized California rolls from the Korean fruit stand/buffet counter on 52nd and 3rd. Many times, the attorneys I worked with took me out with them when they grabbed sushi or udon. They treated me like their little sister and generously picked up the bill whenever we ate together.
My mom’s life was very different from mine. Once in a while, she wondered what it would be like to have a normal life.
"Wouldn't it be nice to grab a cup of coffee and walk around the neighborhood – or on the beach?" she would say. The first time I heard her say it, I was shocked by the modesty of her wish. I encouraged her to get her cup of coffee whenever she wished, even though I knew that she and my dad saved every quarter they earned and hardly had time to roam around the neighborhood when they worked the long hours they did.
Because they didn't have time to explore the world as I did, I often found myself trying to bring as much of the outside world into our home as I could. To my mom who loved to eat, food was the proxy for the outside world – encapsulating cultures and histories and human differences in bite sized portions. I brought them Thai takeout so that they could try pad thai and coconut curry. On another occasion, I picked up some brioche by Macy's in Herald Square. Or an extra order of linguine when I met with a friend at an Italian restaurant. Just watching her eat my offerings appeased some of my guilt.
So on this night, I happily brought the hot dog nuggets home through the 45 minute train ride to Port Washington and the ten minute drive from the train station to my parents’ home. When I arrived, my parents were already in bed, so I stuck them in the fridge for my mom to find them in the morning.
When I woke up around 5:30 in the morning, I heard my parents rustling in the kitchen. I rushed up the stairs to point out the bag of nuggets so that my mom could pack them with her lunch. As I entered the kitchen, I saw her putting the nuggets into a Ziploc plastic bag.
“Hi, Mom,” I said. “I got those last night so you could take them as a snack.”
She nodded and said, “I figured you must have gotten them.”
“You can have it as a snack today,” I said.
Without raising her head, she said, “I’ll just give them to your brother so that he eats something for breakfast.”
As soon as she said that, I felt myself boiling up, and the $11 and change that I had spent for these hot dog nuggets suddenly seemed like a huge sacrifice.
“What are you talking about? I got them for you!” I said.
She just brushed me aside and said, “Your brother never eats breakfast. He should eat something.”
I felt tears coming into my eyes, even as foolish as it appeared even to myself. They were just hot dog nuggets. Why did I care so much? But I did care. I cared that I had not eaten my own dinner the night before to bring this little snack for my mom. I cared that I had bought them for my mom, not my brother. I cared that my brother, who also worked in Midtown, could stop by Nathan’s anytime he wanted to, and my mom couldn’t. And I cared that my mom thought nothing of taking my little gift to her and passing it onto her son.
I don’t remember what happened next. I think I screamed and stomped down the stairs. And I distinctly remember my brother eating my hot dog nuggets innocently as we took the train together into work that morning.
A few years after that, I was shopping at King Kullen with my mom and my sister. It must have been during a summer when I was visiting from law school. I don’t remember how the conversation came up, but I remember my sister and I accusing our mom of treating us differently from our brother.
“You’ve always treated us differently, just because he’s a boy,” I said.
We gave her examples of the disparity we faced as we were growing up. How our brother always got a whole portion of whatever we were eating while the two girls had to share one – after being told that we had to share “because we were girls” – and how our brother always got to stay out late when we weren’t even allowed to go out in the first place.
My mom looked at us with a surprised look on her face and said, “I don’t do that. I treat all of you the same. I don’t think boys are any more special than girls. You know how happy I am that I have daughters.”
I listened to my mother and could not believe that she did not see the bias in her own behavior. How could she not see it, when it was so blatant, and how could she deny it with a straight face? And then I thought of her upbringing in a family of four daughters and one son. The one son who received all of the numerous parcels of family land after the parents passed away. The precious one.
After pausing for a few seconds, she continued, “If I ever treat you differently, you should just tell me right then so that I stop doing it.”
When I called them about a month ago to let them know that the baby we are expecting is a boy, I listened carefully to their reactions. My dad, as I expected, was delighted with the news.
“A boy! Oh, my. Good job. Job well done…”
My mom, on the other hand, just said, “Oh, ok. As long as he’s healthy…”
I was relieved that she didn’t betray any bias.
And I wondered what kind of bias I would bring with me into the next generation. What would my children see that I don’t see? And would I be defending myself against my children, trying to explain how the world differed when I was growing up? Would they understand if I try to explain that it’s the world that changed around me?