By Elise Seyfried
We’ve been mother-and-daughter-in-law for five years now, and I’ve never found the right gift for her. Sometimes I ask her husband, my son Sheridan. That’s usually not helpful, because Sheridan is totally uninterested in “things.” Asking him about Ya-Jhu’s preferences elicits a sigh, and then: “I don’t think she needs anything, Mom. So anything you give her would be fine.”
So I take a guess and give her a sweater or a scarf. She is always very gracious, but deep down I feel I’ve missed the mark. This year would be no exception, I feared. And with two little ones now, two-year-old Aiden and infant Peter, my daughter-in-law really deserved a thoughtful present from me.
Yaj came to the U.S. from her home in Taiwan, pursuing graduate degrees in music composition from the Manhattan School of Music in New York, and, later, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. She came alone, traveling without family or friends. Within a few years, she had several commissioned works performed, she got that Master’s and that Curtis diploma, and she had stolen the heart of a young American composition student who happened to be my firstborn. Soon they were engaged, then married. And then the babies began to arrive.
Her parents traveled to Philadelphia for the wedding, but haven’t made it back since then. With Ya-Jhu’s mom 10,000 miles away, I’ve had to stand in many times — when she was in labor, when she needed quick mothering advice. Skyping with Taipei only goes so far. I cannot communicate with my counterpart at all. She speaks no English, and the extent of my Chinese is “ni hao” (hello) “haochi” (tasty) and “diannao” (computer), not exactly the perfect words for a meaningful conversation between mothers-in-law.
During the summer, Yaj and I were together down at the shore in Lewes, Delaware. One afternoon we wandered into an antique store that had a display case of heirloom jewelry. I am the world’s most unobservant person, but for some reason I noticed Ya-Jhu staring at a beautiful green jade bangle in the case. For months afterward I thought about that bracelet and regretted not buying it and setting it aside. I resigned myself to picking out yet another sweater or scarf, for which she would profusely thank me — but we’d both know it wasn’t a perfect fit.
One night I couldn’t sleep and found myself on the internet looking for jade bangles. Lo and behold, I found a lovely one, so I ordered it immediately. I hoped she still liked jade. I hoped she wouldn’t be secretly disappointed. And then I waited.
When she opened the package, she cried, “Mom! How did you know? This is a traditional gift from mothers to daughters in Taiwan!” I was flabbergasted. It had never crossed my mind that the jade bangle might have any significance beyond being a pretty piece of jewelry. My daughter-in-law slid it over her tiny left wrist. For once, I had scored as a gift giver!
The next day, I read more about the present I had given Ya-Jhu. In Chinese culture, jade is very special. It is said to ward off bad fortune. A jade bracelet is worn on the left wrist, and some wearers never take it off. Sure enough, mothers give them to their daughters as symbols of their love and protection. Totally unwittingly, I had given Yaj something that was very meaningful in her homeland. More than that, I had given her a gift that meant she was really a daughter to me, which was nothing but the truth.
In the years to come, I doubt my gifting skills will improve much, and I don’t hold out any higher hope for my ability to speak Mandarin. It will still be a challenge to connect with my new extended family in Taiwan with the few words I will manage to remember. But when I look at
Ya-Jhu, I will see the treasured jade bracelet on her arm, an accidental symbol of our abiding love, and I will be content.
Elise Seyfried is Director of Spiritual Formation at Christ’s Lutheran Church in Oreland. She is also an actress, wife, mother of five and co-author (with husband, Steve) of 15 plays for children. She is the author of a self-published book, “Unhaling: On God, Grace and a Perfectly Imperfect Life,” a collection of essays. It can be purchased for $15 plus shipping through www.eliseseyfried.com.