The Lady Whispering Hush

By Pichchenda Bao

In college, I helped to paint a mural of the bedroom in Goodnight Moon for a
local daycare center. “Oooh, a classic,” everyone said. But for me, it was the
first time I had ever encountered that whimsical book. One more thing to add to
my running list of things I was missing from my childhood. One more thing that
put me slightly out-of-sync with my U.S.-born-and-bred peers.

I would like to insist that my childhood was ordinary and suburban. My
parents drove me to violin lessons. I was a youth football cheerleader for
a season. By the time I was in elementary school and learning how to read,
there was ample food on the table, a house with a backyard, and all the
attendant comforts that went with such stability. I spoke English well, and
so did my parents. But buried under the getting-on of every day, Cambodia
and all we lost there throbbed like an unhealed wound.

Still, I don’t remember Cambodia. I was born out of the aftermath of the
Khmer Rouge. When I was a few months old, my mother carried me out of the
country. She didn’t have to abandon me, she likes to tell people, because I never
cried on the journey. We reunited with my father in the refugee camp complete-
ly by chance, and eventually arrived in the U.S. with all our belongings stuffed
inside a large plastic bag emblazoned with the logo of the resettlement agency.

I don’t remember any of it. To have survived all that, I must have been loved
unconditionally, unfailingly, with utter faith in my preciousness. But where does
the unremembered reside? Our life in the U.S. was about moving on, and my
parents’ untreated trauma harshened the daily ministrations of love. I don’t
have memories of cozy laps and tender words. Instead, I remember the burning
sting of a chopstick across my open palm for being too loud.

Maybe this is why, when my parents would let me loose in the public library, I
escaped into the refuge of books. Reading was a kind of private freedom, a space
of perfect possibility. I read anything and everything that caught my eye. I was
smitten with the absurdities of Amelia Bedelia. I joined the investigations and de-
ductions of Encyclopedia Brown. I questioned and prodded with Ramona Qui-
mby. I accompanied Lucy, Susan, Peter, Edmund, and later Prince Caspian and
Reepicheep the Mouse on their quests through Narnia. Every book gave me
language for the impossible. I found bits of myself in talking animals, aliens,
goddesses, ghosts, monsters, wizards, as well as ordinary 4th-graders, younger
siblings, kid detectives, historical figures, bullies, and babysitters. I already
knew from my own family history that anything was possible, but there were
lessons from each story, every literal rupture and repair, that were inaccessible
in my real life. In my family, we didn’t really repair. We mostly tried to ignore.
So, it was transformative for me to understand the power of words to conjure
both the realities of life on Earth and whole worlds beyond the confines of
personal experience. Later, I would recognize that we are all invited to our
own conjuring, our own re-making.

Now, to my young children, I read Goodnight Moon like I’m incanting
a spell. We enchant ourselves with the long vowel sounds, the rhymes,
and the repetitions. As I read it, I realize I have always been a poet. The
wave-like pace of the words beckons to me. The poem gathers me in as the
sleepy bunny names all of those disparate, associative objects in the bed-
room: the kittens, the mittens, the clocks, the socks. I sense a kinship and
an invitation to simple, deep attention, to the immediacy of wonder, and
to the elusiveness of language. “Goodnight nobody, goodnight, mush” tells
me to pause here, in this suspended moment, savoring its strangeness. Then
comes “the old lady whispering hush.” Poetry is made in these movements
between the unexpected and the familiar, between the sound of words and their
rhythms, between the reader’s emotional reservoir and the poem’s own logic and
imagination, and between the poet’s and the reader’s mutual need for such magi-
cal encounters. Poems can be a way out of our ordinary understandings of time,
history, memory, emotion, and sensory details. Once I started writing them, I
knew I could never be quiet again. But I can’t say what my children experience
when we read books. They are so much closer to that pre-language, pre-memory
primal land from which we all originate, and, well, the distance between any two
points remains infinite. They will inherit, like me, an inventory of unspeakable
tragedy from Cambodia, as well as the unremarkableness of a somewhat privileged
life in the U.S. Perhaps like me, their response to such juxtapositions will be to
harness language to describe, interrogate, imagine, and ponder the capaciousness
of human experience. Perhaps not. I will let them make their own way to the
making of this world still in process and in progress. Parenting, much like art and
poetry, is a continual practice in faith and surrender, and after all, no childhood is
ever squandered, if you can get through it.

Pichchenda Bao is a Cambodian American poet, writer, infant survivor of the
Khmer Rouge, daughter of refugees, and feminist stay-at-home mother in New
York City. Her work has been published by Raising Mothers, the Adirondack
Review and elsewhere. Bao, who recently completed an artist residency at
Bethany Arts Community, will be a poetry fellow at the next Kundiman retreat.

Originally published in NOR 29.

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