Zuko’s Prodigal Mom

Image from The Search, Part 3. Copyright Dark Horse Comics.

When I found out that there was a trilogy of graphic novels, The Search, that told the story of Zuko’s Mom from Avatar: The Last Airbender, I was desperate for it. The relationship between Zuko and Ursa appeared to be very tender and very formative of Zuko’s young life. I was intrigued by her character and was dying to know what happened to her.

The Search takes place after the defeat of Fire Lord Ozai and the establishment of Zuko’s reign. Things are pretty peaceful in the Fire Nation, so having received some info on his mother, Zuko decides to go looking for her, leaving the kingdom under the watch of Uncle Iroh. He takes along his friends and Azula (who is completely nuts and seeking revenge on her mother) with him.

Before Ursa had disappeared, she had been in some of the worst circumstances a woman could find herself—forced to marry a cruel and abusive man she didn’t love and required to publicly play the part of a princess that she never wanted to be. She attempted to protect her children from her husband’s tyranny and ultimately had to abandon them for their own sake.

So much of motherhood is forgiving and being forgiven, forgetting and choosing not to forget.

After she runs away, Ursa goes back to the town she grew up in and reconnects with the man she wanted to marry, Ikem. Having rediscovered her true love, she also becomes aware of a spirit called the Mother of Faces. The Mother has the ability to change the appearance of anyone, which seems like a good idea for someone being hunted by the Fire Lord. Ursa is conflicted with whether she should stay away or watch her children from afar.

Ursa: There’s so much about my life in the royal palace that I want to leave behind…but I’m a mother now. You understand? I can’t leave my children behind. But, if I got a new face… a new identity… maybe I could return to the capital city undetected! Maybe I could at least see my children again… make sure they’re okay!

Ikem: But what then? Would you stay in the city, hoping to catch a glimpse of them from time to time? Watch them grow up from afar? What kind of life is that?

Ursa: You don’t know what it’s like. They’re always here. A part of me wonders what they’re doing… wonders if they’re happy or sad or in pain… always. It’s torture.

The Mother of Faces offers Ursa a new mind, as well as a new face. She will have the opportunity to forget all of her painful memories. I’ll admit—I’ve spent my whole life wishing for a different face, and the idea of forgetting everything and starting over is, at times, extremely attractive (I have not been above threatening to run away from home from time to time). But I know because of the crazy love I have for my kids, I couldn’t actually go through with it if I was offered the opportunity. Ursa, on the other hand, makes the choice to forget herself and her children—she takes on a new face, a new mind, and a new name.

Zuko and the gang are successful in discovering Ursa (now named Noriko) and when she is confronted with the story of who she really is, her memory is recovered. She is able to be reconciled to who she is, and to her son who never stopped loving her and never gave up on finding her. I believe that his selfless love, in part, made her able to embrace her true self—to become who she was meant to be. In their recovery of one another, they are both healed in memory—not losing it, but being restored to joy by accepting it.

The idea of forgetting everything and starting over is, at times, extremely attractive.

Motherhood is the single most challenging, heartbreaking, frustrating, confidence-destroying, elating, rewarding adventure I’ve ever had. I could never have imagined the love that I have for my children until I first held them in my arms. There isn’t a sacrifice in the world (that isn’t illegal or immoral) that I wouldn’t make for them, and I can’t imagine what my life would be like, or what I would be like without them.

But, I mess up—Every. Single. Day. I am not a perfect mother, and sometimes I “forget” my children. Sometimes, in an effort to avoid the pain of failure—past and present—I put my own wants before theirs. Sometimes I block them out when it gets to be too much. Ursa is sort of a “prodigal mom” and I have been, too.

Ursa’s story, and my own, reminds me of a particular favorite scripture of mine. God says to the people of Israel, “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.” (Isaiah 49: 15)

I take comfort in my belief that, wherever I fail, my kids have a perfect parent in God, who never fails. I take comfort in God’s unconditional love and constant reminder of who I am meant to be, and that I can be restored and reconciled when I do mess up. So much of motherhood is forgiving and being forgiven, forgetting and choosing not to forget, reconciling and being reconciled. I am grateful, that as a mom, I’m not in it alone. More important than my spousal and family support, I have the support of a perfect Parent who loves me through my foolishness and helps me love my kids through theirs.

Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry

Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Jen is a pastoral minister, wife, mother, ninja and writer. She loves sci-fi, superheroes, and classic literature, and prefers to share her Catholic faith through such lenses. Her book, "Comic Con Christianity" is available from Paulist Press.
Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry