May 7, 2009

Mothers teach us true strength

Posted in Between Us column, Relationships at 10:50 pm by dinaheng

My mother is the strongest woman I know.


Born in China, she lived with her grandmother when her parents left to seek a better life in the United States during World War II.  I can’t imagine what it must have felt like, at 9 years old, to suddenly lose your parents like that.


She used to tell stories about hiding in the caves in the mountains when the Japanese invaded, going hungry, and taking an orphan into the house with her grandmother when the fighting ceased. After the war, she moved to Hong Kong to live with an uncle, and it was there that a marriage was arranged with my father.


My dad, who had left China as a teenager to work in the United States and send money home to his mother, had become an American citizen. After dating each other for a month, they decided to forge a life together and got married.


It was because of that marriage that my mother was able to come to the United States, and see her parents again for the first time in 12 years. 


If you ask anyone who they most admire in life, I would wager that most people would include their mothers on the list. My mom’s story is not unique. Many families have similar stories of separation, sacrifice and hardship, particularly those who immigrated to this country. 


No matter how old we are, we look at our mothers with mixed emotions until we understand that for all her strengths and weaknesses, she has her own life story — separate from ours — that is worth honoring more than just one day a year.


I remember when I went off to college in New York that my mom was both proud to see me go, and terrified that I’d never come back to Houston. Being the oldest of seven girls, I wanted to explore the world and get as far away from family as I could. I didn’t understand then why she begged me to return after graduation, saying, “You could live on the other side of town. You don’t even have to see me.”


It wasn’t until years later, when I traveled to China with her to see the village where she was born, that I understood her fear of abandonment. A fear that on some level no doubt drives my own unconscious behavior at times.


Today, three of her daughters live in Houston, and the rest of us live elsewhere. A part of me is sad that families don’t stay in close proximity to each other as they did generations ago. But without the ability to branch out and explore, we would never really discover the meaning of home.


I visit Houston as often as I can, and whenever my mom goes on a trip with one of my sisters, I try to meet them wherever they go, just to have more time with her. Last week, I met Mom and my sister Linda in Las Vegas, where the two like to go to play the slot machines once a year. 


I hate smoky casinos, but I go anyway, just to sit next to them to see the joy on their faces when they occasionally hit a jackpot. And to grab the money before they put it all back into  the slot machine.


This trip, I rented a car because it’s harder for Mom to walk very far every day. We made sure she stopped playing each afternoon, and would go back to the hotel room to watch TV and relax. Inevitably, she’d fall asleep for an hour, then say she was ready to go again.


She never admits when she gets tired, and it’s easy to forget that she’s not as energetic as she used to be. Her inner strength — having the ability to grow and change over time — continually amazes me.


But that’s what mothers do best.


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