Her Infectious Laugh

Issue #147
Spring 2021

Mother has been brewing phở with her own private stash of Saigon cinnamon for over twenty-four hours in anticipation of the lunch. The entire house is fragrant with its sweet spicy scent. Purchased on her last trip to Vietnam, the cinnamon, harvested near her childhood home in the Central Highlands, makes an appearance only on special occasions. Its journey with Mother in a repurposed Café Du Monde tin can elevates Mother’s visit, bringing me a small measure of solace.

“Here, make dumplings,” she says, pushing a volleyball-size tapioca dough ball my way. I sit down to pound the dough, pulling out smaller golf ball–size spheres. I am nervous. Sweat drains from my palms, mincing the dumplings with my anxiety. Mother hovers over me at the table, demonstrating the best way to knead the miniature dough balls. Her fingers are long, thin, and graceful, each nail perfectly cut and smoothed in the same oblong shape she’s favored all of her life. Her silvery hair is tied into a bun at the back of her head, and wisps of white strands are tucked behind her pearl-bearing ears. Despite having just reached her sixth decade, her face is still youthful and round, only the lines around her eyes showing her age.

Mother delivers instructions for the preparation of the dumplings in unerring Vietnamese, her dialect musical and gentle. We fill awkward silences with small talk. She asks polite questions about my job and my vegetable garden but nothing about the baby in my womb. My replies are hyphenated, peppered with English where the flowers of Vietnamese words refuse to bloom.

She is visiting for a very specific reason. Both my sister and I are pregnant; I, a full month before my sister. My sister’s pregnancy was joyously received at a family gathering last month. My announcement has yet to be made. My pregnancy is outside the boundaries of my mother’s comfort. Inaudible concern echoed over the telephone when I first told her.

“Mai is pregnant!” Mother had beamed, her accent swallowing the r.

“That’s beautiful!” I said, “So am I!!!”


“No,” she clarified, “Mai is pregnant!”

“I know!” I said, “I am too!”

Longer Pause.

“OK, I go now…” She hung up on me.

Though she had not asked me any questions, I had heard them all between her halted breaths.

Makini arrives just as the dumplings are done steaming. The scent of sandalwood oil follows her in through the front door. Makini is all about the healing powers of color and she has adorned herself with the calming hues of the sky and the sea. Wearing a knee-length sky-blue tunic and black slacks, she has on dangling earrings of alternating blue and turquoise beads that rest on either side of her dark brown cheeks. Her attire adds length to her already towering height, which is at least a whole head above both my mother and me. She is long, lean, and muscular where I am short, soft, and gooey, my muscles defiant to any amount of sculpting from exercise. Side by side we look like complete opposites. I am round-faced and blushing, in maternity jeans, a big baggy nondescript T-shirt, and barely brushed hair tied up in a messy ponytail. Makini’s face is angled with high sun-kissed red cheekbones. Her braided hair is neatly coiffed and oiled on the top of her head, not a single strand out of place. I greet her with a respectful smile and a measure of distance, which I notice Mother takes stock of. I fight the urge to go change out of my tapioca flour–coated T-shirt.

“Chào bác,” Makini says bowing a bit too deeply. Her delivery of the greeting for an elder Vietnamese woman is perfect. I wink at her in approval and her eyes twinkle in acknowledgment.

“Nice to meet you,” Mother says, her broken English as charming and melodic as her Vietnamese. She offers Makini a hand, which she holds just a few inches from her soft belly, her elbow stuck at her side. Makini looks at Mother’s stance and laughs.

“You’re so beautiful, can I give you a hug?” Makini asks and Mother stammers an uncertain yes as Makini pulls her into an embrace. Mother’s face is turned to the side, the top of her head resting just a few inches underneath Makini’s shoulder, her eyes wide, like a deer staring at two bright fog lights in the dark. Her stocky, slightly overweight body stands rigid, pressed against Makini’s tall, thin frame as Makini rocks her just a little. I give Makini two sharp “stand down” taps on her back— the way you would in Jiu-jitsu when the hold is about to cut off your circulation.

Makini nods and relaxes her arms. Mother pushes herself off Makini, her hands slipping slightly on Makini’s sky-blue silk tunic. Makini offers Mother a dozen redolent yellow roses. Emotions flash across Mother’s face. Few can resist Makini’s warmth, but I know Mother wants to be angry in the same instance that she wants to embrace my wife-to-be. Mother is battling between her love for me and a loaded internal dialogue evidenced only by the briefest of hesitations on her face. She accepts the roses, laying them on the kitchen counter.

Makini gives me a safe embrace, intertwining her fingers with mine for a few seconds. I sigh at the reconnection. Mother raises an eyebrow and takes a few wide steps back to the stovetop, turning her back to us.

I offer Makini a seat at the table. She refuses to sit until Mother does. But Mother is not yet ready to sit. Instead, she fusses over the steaming dumplings and busies herself ladling soup froth. Makini stands beside her offering to help as she expresses genuine interest in the soup’s preparation.

“I want to make sure mama and baby are both chubby,” Makini says, chortling, her right hand brushing against my cheek. I translate and pause when I see the stark expression on Mother’s face. She holds her breath for only a few seconds, but it is enough to fill the kitchen with an awkward tension. Exhaling, Mother jumps back into her recitation of the recipe as if nothing has happened as I stand by to translate.

My brother Ronnie arrives twenty minutes later with his emo hair styled at a strange angle and his “I run with wayward artists” look. Mother exclaims in excitement at the sight of him and grasps onto Ronnie like a lifeline. Ronnie complains about his underperforming band. Mother reacts with overdone exuberance to every word he utters. Makini and I retreat to the table, hovering over the chairs, softening the unease in the room with the business of setting the table. I arrange the roses in a vase.

When the phở is finally done, Mother ladles steaming broth into bowls filled with noodles. Ronnie and I serve the soup and dumplings. Only when Mother pulls a chair next to my brother does Makini finally sit. We fill the lunch with small talk about the savoriness of the soup and its extensive preparation process. I catch Mother studying Makini as she speaks, no doubt noting her lilting mannerisms, light and calming. Mother has a bias for poetry.

Beside Makini I sit, our baby tumbling and somersaulting in my womb. During lunch, Makini leans over and rubs my swollen belly, creating circles with her index finger over my belly button, as she speaks. I intertwine my fingers over hers and we caress my belly together. It is an act of tenderness that has become instinctual between us.

Mother’s reaction is visceral. She drops her spoon and stands up with an abruptness that is shocking. Her chopsticks fall from her bowl, hitting the floor. Makini straightens. Her hands pull back from my belly, but her fingers remain close, lingering on my arm. Mother darts, moving stealthily, out of the kitchen to the garden. The back door closes behind her. Silence replaces the murmurs of our conversation.

Ronnie and I trade glances, both of us wondering who should go after Mother. We both know it had to be me. This is my gig, my meal, my baby. I stand up. Ronnie and Makini give me reassuring smiles.

I find Mother Asian-squatting in the corner of the garden where nothing grew. She is digging with ferocity. I study the ground, wondering what it is that she is digging up.

Nothing came up but the earth. “Mother?” I say. She does not even put on the pretense of a smile. All she manages is an irritated cluck of her tongue. She shakes her head, muttering something inaudible.

I try to crouch next to her but my belly is so large that bending down is a challenge. I fall back on my bottom beside her and pick up a spade. Together we dig in silence. Since I have no idea why or what she is digging, I simply copy her.

Inside, Ronnie and Makini’s voices waft down to us. It is hard to make out what they are saying but Makini’s laughter is unmistakable. Whether the source of humor be slight or mighty, she places no judgment and her mirth knows no censorship or levels. It is always full-bodied and raucous, often accompanied by a sharp shriek either before or after, and more often than not, followed by feet-pounding or table-slapping.

Mother seems irritated by the sounds coming from the kitchen. She transitions from digging to weeding. Reaching for some crabgrass about a foot in front of her, she pulls. I join her, tugging at a tangle of vines nearby.

Makini’s bellows continue, becoming louder. Mother wipes the beads of sweat on her forehead with her sleeve and says something in Vietnamese that could only be translated as “That woman…laughing…loud…so loud…”

The literal translation leaves out the cultural context. It is a statement, a critique, but also an acknowledgment of the fact that Makini’s laugh is also symbolic of her core essence. At this point, I’m unsure if Mother’s statement is negative or positive. What I do know is that Mother won’t talk about it. “It” being me, the baby, Makini. Though I have tried to explain all that is in my heart, she only shakes her head, not wanting to hear.

But she is here, I remind myself. She had taken an eight-hour bus ride from Southern California with a box full of newborn onesies and persimmons that she had harvested from her own backyard. Within minutes of her arrival, we were combing the Vietnamese grocery store together and she had asked me about what flavors excited Makini’s palate. She had purchased mint, which I detested but Makini loved, telling me it would add texture to the food.

I hold onto this thought as I pull up some dandelions and hand them to my mother. She takes them without question, placing them in her growing pile of weeds. In the kitchen, Ronnie says something and Makini screams in response, her laughter is so loud it feels as if it’s vibrating the earth below us. Mother jumps in surprise and a runaway snort escapes her lips. She bites down on her lower lip and covers her mouth with her forearm. Frowning, she pulls her mouth into a thin line, drawing seriousness back to her face. I imagine her reminding herself that she is out here to sulk. She throws all of her energy into weeding the heck out of the little plot of vegetation around us.

Inside, Makini’s guffaws grow louder, ticking off the both of us. Mother’s right cheek twitches while a chuckle wheezes out of me. It was Makini’s infectious laugh that first drew me to her. She had a gift for being able to find humor even on the darkest of days—not laughing at misfortune but challenging it to weaken her resolve.

Eventually, Makini’s laughter infiltrates our silent impasse. Mother pulls up a handful of clover leaves only to freeze in mid-air, her right arm extended, cloves dangling, as her stomach is gripped with laughter. She looks ludicrous, squatting in the dirt, her arm sticking straight out, her stomach twitching underneath her shirt, and her cheeks pulsating with withheld air chipmunk-like as she tries with all of her might to hold in her laughter.

“Are you going to use the weeds to wipe yourself?” I point to the hole.

Mother glances down at where I’m pointing and bursts out laughing. She is squatting perfectly positioned over the hole she has dug. I follow suit. It is hard to laugh with baby and belly all scrunched up, so I lean back against the iron fence and let loose, giggling like a little girl.

Mother tries to say something, “That woman, Menini…” but the minute she says it, she catches her own mispronunciation, something she’d fumbled over with frustration since her arrival. Her laughter is out of her hands now. It swipes at her like a strong wind and her squat fails. She falls onto the warm soil. Lying on the ground, she wipes the tears from her eyes, clutched weeds leaving spots of dried soil on her face as laughter shakes her entire body.

Seeing Mother fall, I grab her, trying to break her fall. The moment I touch her, she screams, throwing her hips out of reach. She is very ticklish. “I’m just trying to help you,” I sputter, but she shrieks every time I reach for her.

“No! Ah!” she gasps between laughter, her hands slapping at mine. Together we manage to wrench ourselves off the ground, me grabbing the iron fence to fight the gravity of my belly and Mother grabbing the edge of a wheelbarrow that topples over. We both lurch to steady the wheelbarrow and end up hung over it, our elbows intercrossing, our chests heaving with the giggles.

From inside, Makini’s laughter becomes a howl and the sound breaks my mother. She screams right along, entering a state of no return where the ability to speak leaves her. Seeing her sets me over the edge and I holler right along with her. If there is one thing I’ve inherited from my mother, it’s the way we laugh.

We stumble to the kitchen door. I open it and we enter the kitchen, both of us wailing and wiping away tears from our eyes. Mother still has a handful of weeds in her right hand and I manage to ask her between breaths if she is planning to drop it in the soup. At this question, she grabs the kitchen counter and throws her head back and screams so loud that both Ronnie and Makini leap from the table alarmed.

She opens her eyes long enough to see the both of them staring at her wide-eyed and worried. She points at them and doubles over, semisquatting as she grips both knees with her hands. The sounds coming out of her mouth move into the realm of a cackle.

She looks either like she’s trying to give birth standing up or like she’s hovering just over a toilet bowl, and I tell her so. This makes her slap me across my shoulder with the weeds, leaving a trail of green and dirt on my white T-shirt. Mother begins to waver on her feet. Her mouth is open so wide from laughing and her eyes shut so tight that her equilibrium is shot. I try to help balance her but the effort ends up putting us both on our knees in the frame of the kitchen door where we alternate between pulling ourselves up on the door frame and crawling into the kitchen, both of us reeling with laughter.

Makini steps toward us, but Ronnie holds her back.

“Don’t. If you touch her, you’ll tickle her and she may have a heart attack.”

Makini’s eyes widen and it takes her a moment to realize that both Mother and I are merely laughing. “Oh, wow,” Makini exclaims, “and I thought I was bad!” She rushes to help Mother up, wrestling the weeds from her.

“Do you want me to wash this?” Makini asks.

Mother roars with laughter at the question. “No!” she shouts before disintegrating again into endless chuckles. Ronnie helps Mother to the kitchen table where she braces herself and resumes eating despite the dirt caked underneath her perfect nails. Makini waves the weeds at me but I am blistering with laughter, unable to say anything.

Shrugging, Makini drops the weeds into a colander. I join Mother at the table. Mother slaps my dirty hands and points to the sink. I point at her own filthy hands and another laughing fit follows. Makini returns to the table, her eyes flitting back and forth between Mother and me. Ronnie continues eating as if he has seen it all before.

Mother leans toward me when I return from washing my hands. I hand her a washcloth and a clean pair of chopsticks, “If your wife always laughs like this,” she says, “you will be happy your whole life.”

“What did she say?” Makini asks. I turn to Makini and translate.