When I was in 9th Grade, I randomly ended up in a car with my father driving along the 17-mile scenic road in Pebble Beach to visit my childhood best friend. It was beyond awkward to be in a car with my father, who I would only see once a year, but now, he was attempting to have some honest conversation with me about my mother. He turns to me and nonchalantly states, “You know, vanessa, your mother is a lesbian with Shen Ai Yi (my mother’s best friend).”
My initial reaction was irritation. How was he going to try and blame the dissolution of their marriage on my mother being a lesbian? Secondly, so what? If I had to spend years with him, I may also consider avoiding men for the rest of my life. Lastly, I’m thirteen. Why is he talking to me about this? I’d prefer a silent six-hour car ride. Of course, at that point in my life, I just didn’t want to hear anything from him. The last time I had seen him, he kicked me out of a car then proceeded to kick and punch me upon my arrival back home.
Still, even without my father saying anything, I had often wondered about my mother’s relationship with Shen Ai Yi. My mother and Shen Ai Yi used to take me on these road trips as a child, whether that was to check out cherry blossoms or elephant seals. Shen Ai Yi, a photographer, taught me how to use a camera. She teased me, and ran around with me. For once, I felt like a normal kid. At restaurants, people would refer to Shen Ai Yi as my father, and I didn’t correct them. She was the first butch woman I ever knew. I just assumed at some point in my childhood, that they were in fact together. It wouldn’t have been a big deal to me.
Last year, my brother and I were teasing my mother, telling her to just come out already. We didn’t care. I mean, I came out ten years ago, so I only felt it was fair that my mother just told us the truth. She said, “Shen Ai Yi is my soul mate. We are not lovers, but we are soul mates.” I responded, “So, you’re in a relationship without benefits?” She didn’t appreciate that question, but my brother and I laughed.
My mother, for the most part, raised us on her own. She worked long hours, even on weekends. It never occurred to me that my mother needed anyone. She was so fierce. It is only recently, through my own friendships that I have come to understand just what Shen Ai Yi meant to my mother. Her existence in my mother’s life was vital. Even though Shen Ai Yi was out of the country for work most of the time, they talked regularly on the phone. I often heard my mother laughing to the point of tears while on those calls. That laughter filled our home. They supported each other and understood one another. Those brief conversations sustained my mother, revitalized and nourished her being, so that she could continue raising my brother and me. Their friendship wasn’t romantic, but it was intimate. It defined for me what relationships, at their best, could be.
Shen Ai Yi and my mother shared a deep level of trust, love, and companionship. Their relationship has been in the background to all the profound connections I have made with other people throughout my life. It is because of them that I can and do trust, forgive, and love other people. It is because of them that I work to redefine how families and relationships are reflected in our culture. It is because of them that I have a vision for what our world could be. And of course, it is because of them, that I just have to take photos of cherry blossoms and elephant seals whenever I see them.
vanessa coe is the Lead Organizer at API Equality - Northern California, a project of Chinese for Affirmative Action
This blog is part of Strong Families Mama’s Day Our Way blog series. Make and send a custom Mama’s Day e-card at www.mamasday.org. Strong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together. Our goal is to change the way people think, act and talk about families.