Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (One Hundred Spaces), 1995. Resin. Pinault Collection © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: © Tate (Seraphina Neville and Andrew Dunkley)

Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (One Hundred Spaces), 1995. Resin. Pinault Collection © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: © Tate (Seraphina Neville and Andrew Dunkley)


Mother Words

by Ella Mei Yon

My parents open every drawer, except for one.

I sit on their bed to watch them get ready. Dad runs a blade across his face, causing a small drop of blood to emerge; Mom colors her eyes with a dark pencil. Later, when the room is still, and the vacuum has carved perfect rows into the carpet, I pad in on tiptoes.

The drawer is my height. At six, I am eye to eye with its half-moon handle, like an upside-down smile; I trace the rounded relief of the Chinese character for double happiness on its front. It looks like two people standing side by side, with crosses for hats and squares for legs. I form the character, happiness, and again, happiness, then curl my fingers under and pull. The drawer sticks. I lean backward, holding on. Inside, the darkness is speckled with bits of shine—photographs and change, pennies and nickels accenting family snapshots like jewels. The faded Kodachromes are moments in time, removed from the chronology of our albums. I take the pictures out and close the bedroom door. This is my ritual.

In the top photo, a woman’s silky black hair is wrapped into a perfect bun. She has an oval face, olive skin, and eyes like almonds. She cradles her palms at her hips, making a perfect seat for a toddler I recognize as myself. She is leaning on a grey stone wall facing the midnight-colored sea. We are on a balcony with a railing that blocks the steep edge of the land, its severe angle disappearing into the sand. This is in England.

I know everyone in the picture—my uncle and my brothers look straight into the camera. But her eyes find my toddler self through big seventies sunglasses with a faded tint. I see my own thin veil of a reflection, squinting. It looks like I’m making my eyes as much like hers as I can.

This is my Poet Aunt. I can see in the exchange of our glances, why I was always described as partly hers—the daughter she was never able to have. What I came to know about her was that she helped my mother understand me. My mother’s sister and my mother’s daughter: two lovers of words, two students of poetry.

I write my Poet Aunt letters before I know how to, holding my pen tight and drawing shapes that look like grown-up writing. I rest my head on the table so I can see the shapes as they come out of my pen, the feeling of ideas finding their way through my arm, hand, and fingertips. It’s magic. I finish with pages and pages of swirls that hold meaning for me alone. I read my words aloud while my mother takes dictation. She sends Poet Aunt both versions—one in my language and one in hers.

In other photos from that trip to England, I am stumbling through a garden the way top-heavy babies do. Poet Aunt stands straight, saluting a family of magpies goodbye. At the end of the day, the sun is low in the photo’s background. I curl my body up onto my uncle, both of us lying on a chaise with floral cushions. We sleep belly to belly, me breathing in and him out, him breathing in and me, out.

When Poet Aunt visits us from England, my brothers and I are her surrogate children. She likes to hear me sing the rainbow song. Looking at the pictures brings back flashes of memory—her gaze making me proud as I sing at the top of my lungs, “If you listen with your eyes, you can sing anything you see.”

The next photo is three years later. Brother blows out his number six candle. “Big wish,” I hear someone say, and the soft end of the word rings in my ears. His arms are small in his T-shirt because he was born early. People mistake us for twins, though I am two years younger. He won’t tell me what he’s wished for, for fear it won’t come true. I wonder if he wishes he were Superman. On his cake, The Man of Steel—with muscled arms and hands on his hips—is molded out of frosting that tastes like sugar and air.

In another picture, the clown offers a bowling pin to us, the way a waiter would a bottle of wine. We are unimpressed. He launches five bowling pins into the air one after another. They follow one another like well-timed dancers. Our jaws sink, our open mouths in a perfect line of Os. The clown stretches a long green balloon, inflating it into a skinny snake. He twists and turns the balloon before our eyes, and the snake has become a dog with a tail that sticks straight out. The clown kneels before Brother, offering the birthday boy the first balloon. We all clap, and there are more balloons—a princess crown for me. Someone waves a sword, saying it's a lightsaber. I think he says life-saver and wish I had one too.

In another picture, I’m sitting next to a bright orange soccer ball, frowning. Poet Aunt has kicked her shoes off, evident by the haphazard way they sit next to our blanket. Her blue-socked toes are scrunched and her long legs are crossed and extended. She is leaning back on her hands. There is a cooler holding drinks and sandwiches. There is a blue backpack holding the corner of the blanket down. The grass is emerald and holds silhouette shadows of trees, which go on forever.

My mother tells me Poet Aunt and I were singing the rainbow song, but at the part where I always say orange juice instead of orange and geen instead of green, Poet Aunt puts her hand to her chest and takes a deep breath. My mom puts a hand on her back and leans over to see her face. Poet Aunt struggles to inhale, the back of her throat narrowing. “She can’t breathe,” my mom says, and she runs to pull the car near, leaving the ignition on and the door open. She helps Poet Aunt walk to the car. I can see them both through the front windshield. They leave me with my cousin, who holds me and strokes my hair and says everything will be okay.

Later we learn Poet Aunt’s pericardium was so full of fluid that it was pushing on her lungs. The fluid made it difficult for her heart to beat. The doctors inserted a catheter into her heart, and the fluid began to drain. And as it did, the pressure was relieved, and she began to breathe again, slow and labored. All the color from her face drained, her eyes quiet.


I return to my mother’s drawer, trying to make sense of the story in these photographs. The trip to England, my brother’s birthday, the hospital. I lay them out on my parents’ bed in one order, then another.

I smooth the blue coverlet, pushing away the wrinkles mimicking waves. I lean back and tread the blanket like water. I look up to the ceiling fan spinning the way I look up to the sky when floating in swim class. I tell myself the story of the photographs. The feeling in my ears is the hollow, muted sound of my insides, my breathing and my heartbeat—like being under water in my own cocoon of possibility.

I look more closely at another picture, toddler me, my back to the camera, in a strawberry patch. Everyone thinks I am too little to pick strawberries because my basket is always empty when they find me. But it’s because I am eating them right off the vine. My mother says that in the strawberries I discovered heaven. The juice pours down my face staining my white sweatshirt and pants.

Another picture and we are in the hospital. Poet Aunt is sitting up with the strawberry basket in her lap. It says “The Strawberry Farm” in the shape of a rainbow; the gold at one end is a group of three strawberries with green leaves for hats and cartoon faces. My mother says she doesn’t eat strawberries anymore because of this image of Poet Aunt. I first see this picture when I search the drawer, my mom’s description playing in my mind while I examine the photo. I see things she never told me about.

There is a hole in the orange hospital blanket covering Poet Aunt’s legs. The severed strands of yarn at the edge of the hole are frayed, and the weaving around the blanket is loose and buckled. Through the hole I can see Poet Aunt’s knee, bare and goose pimpled. I am angry at that hole. I want to cover her and let her feel my hand’s warmth.

She looks translucent, all her pain exposed. The bell tolls to announce the sacrament. She sits up straight and presses her palms together in front of her heart. She stays that way as the bell gets louder, until it’s right outside her door. She has never been very religious until now, though the prayers of her Catholic school days come back to her easily. Her eyes are half-mast; her face is still. Tucked between the nightstand and the pale blue hospital wall is the profile of a wheelchair.

My uncle pushes Poet Aunt in the wheelchair. He is still posing for the camera, sort of smiling––it must be hard to know what else to do. There’s a scarf wrapped over her head and under her chin. A blanket she or my grandmother crocheted covers her legs, and a silk Chinese Min Nap jacket covers her shoulders. I think about the tens of thousands of silk worms that spun their silk cocoons over eight days, their protection from the outside world as they transformed themselves. The women in my grandfather’s village of Gao Gong sifted them in large baskets and rolled them under the sun. I imagine the women spinning, the cocoons unraveling, and the worms tumbling out and curling up into the fetal position in their final moments.

As long as I don’t flip to the next photo she won’t be lying in an oak casket, silk-lined. She won’t be posed, wearing that bright purple dress and all that makeup, playing alive. They won’t take her final photograph weeks later at her memorial.

If I don’t turn over this photo then there won’t be teary-eyed family in the pews, my mother with a crumpled tissue in her palm. There won’t be the reading of Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” his words conjuring the land’s sharp features and the aged thrush. A bird whose voice rises sings at the top of his lungs and then flings himself into the gloom, making his watcher realize there was “Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware.”

I look at the photo of her in the casket—her almond eyes closed, her face still—a person without life. This is what I will look like without life, I think. I bury this photo back into the drawer, but Poet Aunt calls to me. So I exhume her, arranging and rearranging the photos on my parents’ bed.

I put the casket photo first and reverse the story. She’s saluting magpies, she’s holding me by the sea, she’s relaxing on a picnic blanket. She is reborn. The bed begins to feel unsteady, its coverlet-waves rocky. My head spins. I am the bowling pin the clown tosses into the air, and I am the balloon transformed into animals and swords and princess crowns.

But there’s no magic here.

Rachel Whiteread, Ghost, Ghost I, 2008 Polyurethane (fourteen parts). Photo courtesy of Gagosian.

Rachel Whiteread, Ghost, Ghost I, 2008 Polyurethane (fourteen parts). Photo courtesy of Gagosian.

I pick up another set of pictures, also of a birthday, separate from the rest. Initially, I confused them as the same birthday from the earlier photos. But these photos are mostly of faded outlines, children moving too fast for the frame as they make their way around a wood roller rink floor. There’s no Superman on this birthday cake.

It is Brother’s seventh birthday when my mom gets the call. Everyone is getting ready to drive to the roller rink. Ice cream cakes sit in coolers in the back seat, melting slowly while my mother takes in the news. “She told me she’d choose a special day to die,” my mother tells my father. They decide not to tell anyone else until tomorrow.

My mother says she doesn’t remember the party. The chatter and whir of skaters drowned her. She must have been able to make small talk with other parents because no one asked her what was wrong. They sang, “Happy birthday, and many more.” Brother inhaled deeply. Round and round the skaters went, laughing, falling, holding hands. I imagine him calling out, “Mom! I’m making a wish!” His eyes lighting up large and hopeful. I imagine her looking back at him, smiling, “The biggest wish you can think of.”


When I’m a graduate poetry and fiction student in Scotland, my mother and I take the few hours train ride from Edinburgh to Yorkshire to see Old Rose Cottage, Poet Aunt’s home, where my uncle still lives. He’s kept the home just the way she left it, twenty-four years later.

My mother and I don't say much the whole way; we just watch the countryside roll by. Walking up to the house, there’s the smell of Earl Grey tea and wildflowers from the garden. At the entrance, on a small bay window, are her photographs from another time. All the children, my cousins and I, now grown, preserved there as babies—people full of life, who don’t remember the pain of losing an aunt, of a husband losing a wife.

Upstairs, I find her office and look through her books. Some of them are hundreds of years old, their spines frayed but sturdy. Others are newer. Each one represents the few hours that she spent with it, holding its cover, her fingers turning to the next page. I pull one off the shelf, put my nose to it, and breathe her in.


I am eighteen when I first hand poems to my mother, terrified, anticipating her reaction.

“You’re like her,” she says. I know she means Poet Aunt. “I wish I could send her these like I did with the letters you wrote.”

I’m relieved that there is someone in my family like me; these poems mean I belong.

“I don’t understand poetry,” my mother says, “but I appreciate it because of her.”

Poet Aunt mothers me through the photographs and through the things she left behind, but most of all through my own mother who understands me because she knew Poet Aunt.


When Brother was three, Poet Aunt visited our house in Virginia. My mother was pregnant with me, shuffling around the house because I was big, pushing her belly out. Poet Aunt liked to sit on the veranda with the view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, book in lap. In nature, she said, she always found something of the truth. Brother pulled his miniature lawn chair out to sit with her, and they watched the mountains’ crags fill with sunlight and empty as the day passed.

On the last day of her visit as they sat outside together, Poet Aunt saw a vision: faded, cloudy images of women past, who died years ago. Her mother, her sister, her cousin. “They must be coming for Papito,” she said, partially to my brother but mostly to space. Her father was sick with emphysema.

My brother looked at her and said, “No, they’re coming for you.”


Published April 28th, 2019

Ella Mei Yon writes her family allegory, exploring how memory creates meaning beyond generation and culture. Her work is published in Glimmer Train, Under Water New York, and elsewhere. Her writing has earned her three-time acceptance to the Tin House Writer's Workshop. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College and an MSc in fiction and poetry from The University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Ella uses the stories of her Chinese-Nicaraguan family, her English heritage, and her own experience growing up as a mixed-race, first-generation American to find inspiration. To fuel her work, she also conducts extensive research, records family interviews, and catalogs family photographs, ephemera, and notebooks. By day, Ella is a director of content strategy at a technology company. She supports teams who use language, information, and storytelling to design stronger products.

Rachel Whiteread was born in London in 1963. She studied painting at Brighton Polytechnic and sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art. Whiteread is one of the few artists of her generation to have produced important public sculptures, some of which have achieved a monumental status and significance. Whiteread represented the UK at the 1997 Venice Biennale and created Monument for the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2001. One of her most recent solo exhibitions, Walls, Doors, Floors and Stairs at Kunsthaus Bregenz in late spring 2005, where Untitled (Room 101) 2003 was on display, was dedicated to the house as the central theme of her work. Whiteread was awarded the Turner Prize in 1993 just after creating House (1993; destroyed 1994), a life-sized replica of the interior of a condemned terraced house in London’s East End made by spraying liquid concrete into the building’s empty shell before its external walls were removed. Whiteread’s winning proposal for the Holocaust memorial for the Judenplatz in Vienna was one of the most prestigious sculptural commissions in Europe in the 1990s and involved placing the cast interior of a library, including the imprint of books, in the centre of the square. It was unveiled in October 2000. Whiteread lives and works in London and her work is represented in many private and public collections worldwide.