Turning into My Mother


All of my life, people have commented on how much I look like my father.  When I was very young, it was confusing to me because I absolutely did not want anyone mistaking me for a boy, especially with the requisite Asian bowl cut I suffered with, and given the unnatural planes of my unusually square head, it was not a good look.  I would frown and refute these statements, preferring to believe instead that I looked like my mother. As I grew older, this did not really change except that I inherited my mother’s naturally thick and voluminous hair which in combination with my father’s wavy hair and Michigan humidity made for freakishly bad frizzy lion-head days.  Looking back at pictures of my mother when I was a teenager cursed with heavy brown plastic-framed glasses and never-ending adjustments at the orthodontist, I was always amazed at her perfectly straight teeth and glowing skin despite never having medical or dental care growing up poor in Vietnam. Most of her pictures were taken in the time after she met my father, given that pictures were a luxury then. In these pictures, she always looks steadily at the camera, beautiful smile captured perfectly, without a hint of the awkwardness I feel whenever the camera lens is turned towards me.

My mama is second from the left in the second row.

My mama is second from the left in the second row.

Recently though, a family member posted a picture of her on Facebook from what looks like sometime in her teenage years.  She’s in the back row, tentative smile on her face, and I was struck by how much daughter #2 looks like her in this picture.  I realized then that though I don’t look like my mother, I’ve managed to pass some pretty awesome genes on.  And though people always joke that they are turning into their mothers, here are the ways I would love to be considered to be like her:

1.My mother is generous, giving of her time and talents freely.  People I didn’t even know would show up at her garden and she would give away bushels of vegetables.  When our next-door neighbor was ill, she was there helping to care for the lady we called Grandma, though she was not blood-related.  Family members call her all the time to take them to doctor appointments, to help them negotiate vehicles, or navigate government bureaucracy.  She’s held the hands of two sisters as they got the same diagnosis of breast cancer she received years before.  When my uncles came over from Vietnam, they stayed with her, and another aunt until they found a house of their own, adding their family of 9 kids and 5 kids respectively to a house with 8 of us already living there. When her sister was doing the flowers for a cousin’s wedding, my mother ran to get flowers and vases, and helped with arrangements late into the night before the wedding with my aunt, sister, and I. When family calls from Vietnam asking for help for sickness or a death in the family or even helping to build a new church, she responds without hesitation, remembering what it was like to be in need.  She loves to volunteer at church, and hopes someday to volunteer with Catholic orphanages overseas.

2.My mother is patient. My grandmother lived for years with us, and I can’t recall her ever losing her temper or raising her voice in anger to her.  Grandma was kind and loving, but it must have been difficult for my mother not to be the boss in her own home, as my grandmother ruled the roost as is the way in most Asian households where deference to elders is the norm. Caught between a very traditional Korean husband, and her own mother’s traditional views, it must have been a difficult place to try to raise 4 rascally, mischievous kids in a new country.  She has always taught me to honor where I came from and to respect others through her example. By watching how she lovingly and respectfully cared for my grandmother, and my father’s mother when she lived with us for a few months, I learned the true meaning of patience.

3. My mother is practical.  She knows how to stretch a dollar better than anyone I know.  She has always been a savvy saver, which enabled her and my father to buy a house shortly after we arrived here in America, and put 4 kids through college.  We didn’t have a lot of toys growing up, but we always had good food, and we all ended up with a good education, and that could not have been accomplished without her hard work and ability to save money.  I know she went without a lot of things to sacrifice for her children, and I’m grateful to have learned the value of a dollar from her.

4.My mother is an incredible cook.  She cooks by smell, unable to stomach some of the spicy foods my father and the rest of the family loves. I am forever grateful that she parked me at the stove at age 11, telling me:  “This is how it should smell.  Food should look good, too, because it makes it taste better,” and countless other nuggets of wisdom which she picked up through the years.  When they were dating, my dad marveled at her ability to go to restaurants and then come home and recreate what she had tried, especially because she hadn’t been exposed to a lot of fancy cooking growing up poor.  To this day, she continues to try new recipes, and learn how to make new dishes.  Some of my best memories are of cooking new foods with her. I think her love language is cooking for others, and so as soon as she walks into the door at my house, she is already planning what she wants to make for us.

Bánh da lợn, a traditional Vietnamese dessert that we learned how to make together from watching YouTube videos.

Bánh da lợn, a traditional Vietnamese dessert that we learned how to make together from watching YouTube videos.

5.My mother is fearless.  She left her home and everything she knew because she had to, and was successful here in a completely foreign country which I dare anyone of us to try. She has always encouraged us to try new things, move to new places, and not to be afraid to spread our wings a little further.  And at a very young 62 (soon to be 63, as her birthday is tomorrow), she is still game for new experiences.  We recently went to Disneyland, and though she is definitely not a fan of roller coasters, she went on 2 different roller coasters with her grandbabies, including Space Mountain, which scared me!  I don’t think she’ll ever do it again, but her and my dad were the only senior citizens on that roller coaster, and they deserve credit for that.

6.My mother is a wonderful gardener.  She knows plants, and I always say that if I had to be stuck with anyone on a desert island, it would be her, because she can spot edible plants anywhere.  She has green hands, not just a green thumb, and is able to coax plants into growing anywhere.  She has always been grounded, literally and figuratively, and we have had a garden since we had enough room to plant one. I grew up with organically grown fresh fruits and vegetables before it was a thing, and can thank my mother for my love of both.  My kids grew up with baby food lovingly harvested by her hands from her gardens.

7.My mother is funny.  You might not know it if you don’t know her well, but she has a silly sense of humor, which balances out my father’s seriousness.  She loves to laugh, and play jokes on people , and some of the best memories of growing up are of watching her laugh until she falls down, tears streaming down her face, that beautiful smile wide and effortless. Just a warning–one of her favorite pranks is boxing up a large squash from her garden to give to you at Christmas, hidden beneath layers of newspaper.

My mama and baby brother giggling like mad over a program on the Ipad that alters pictures of people by giving them squished or enlarged heads, eyes or bodies.

My mama and baby brother giggling like mad over a program on the Ipad that alters pictures of people by giving them squished or enlarged heads, eyes or bodies.

I am blessed to have my mother in my life still, watching over me and her precious grandchildren. I’ve also been blessed to grow up with the loving influence of my grandmother,  and aunts who have mothered me through all kinds of ups and downs. Heaven knows I have not been a perfect daughter, but the day someone tells me, “You’re just like your mother,” I’ll take it as a compliment, and thank my mama and all those who have mothered me for the wonderful examples they have set for me.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers I know and love, of babies and fur babies, of babies here on Earth and in our hearts,  and especially to my mama.  And happy early birthday, Mama! Wish we could be there to celebrate with you!

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A Heart Like No Other


I had the privilege of being the last to hear my grandmother’s heart beat.  When you pronounce someone in a hospital, there are usually heart monitors and other machines to confirm their passing.  A host of other medical professionals are usually standing by, and a curious stillness after the cacophony of chest compressions and beeping machines enters the room.  It is like a held breath, just long enough for the exact hour and minute to be noted, and then everything begins again, the clock restarted, time marching onward.  Gloves snap, charts close, trays rattle, and all the people melt away, on to the next pressing task.

In hospitals, signs of holidays are everywhere to keep patients oriented to time and place, and to cheer up staff and visitors.  Valentine’s Day is no different, red and pink hearts decorating hallways and doors.  Perhaps because my work was in cardiology, Valentine’s Day always carries a different meaning for me, all the emphasis on hearts reminding me of the steady beats I listen to every day.

The night my grandmother passed away, the rhythmic rise and fall of soft, sad voices in prayer filled the spaces between each beat and breath.  I knelt beside her bed, my fingers on her pulse, feeling the erratic beats slow.  Without a monitor, I had to trust my trembling hands to lay my stethoscope on her chest.

Absence of sound is a funny thing.  You have to listen longer, to the in-between spaces that stretch out, a ribbon of silence, and it is you that pulls away, weighing the likelihood of sound against your willingness to listen further.  I bend my neck, a prayer, the blessing of this moment heavy on my head.

In that moment, I am a child again, kneeling at my grandmother’s bedside, hesitantly echoing her words, the air in the darkened room heavy and still, time marked not by the ticking of a clock, but by decades of Hail Marys.  In those hours at her feet, the sounds of my mother’s country molded my tongue, and I say the Sign of the Cross in Vietnamese, joining my family in benediction and intercession.  I look at my watch, unable to see the numbers through my tears.

My grandmother was born in the Year of the Snake. Like clocks, a calendar in those days wasn’t important, the tasks of the day tied to the setting of the sun and the turning of the seasons from wet to dry, harvest to sowing, and so we don’t know her exact birth date.   It seems wrong somehow, that instead of honoring the date she came into this world, we observe the date of her death.  She was not sad, but ready, longing to be in Heaven with her angels, two little boys who died in childhood, in the days before vaccines or antibiotics.  I learned about the power of grief from her, as she told me stories about her clever little boys, rheumy eyes still wet with memories from decades long before, when she was a young mother losing her sons.

I grew up under those watchful eyes, her hands always slightly gnarled, but soft and smooth, as if the years of running rosary beads between her fingers had transferred the smoothness to them.  My earliest memories are of being with her, eating crusty French bread dipped in Borden’s condensed milk, or walking around our apartment complex through early morning dew.  She never really seemed to age, until after I moved out into my own home, married with children of my own, carrying my stethoscope like a talisman as I made my way through the world.

In the year before she died, my grandmother was hospitalized where I frequently did rounds.  In that hospital bed, surrounded by those beeping machines, she was so much smaller than I remembered, and so much less herself.  The nurses and physicians would comment on what a sweet patient she was, and how attentive my family was, as she was never left alone.  Though she received excellent care from the staff, I am grateful that she did not die in that hospital bed.  Instead she died at home in her own bed, surrounded by family.  The oxygen saturation of her last breath was not measured, her arms lay untouched by IVs or needles, my stethoscope the only foreign thing in her room.  Hers was the most peaceful death I have ever witnessed.

There were no machines, no trays, no gloves, just the soft touch of loving hands folded in prayer.  I do not know the hour or the minute of her passing, and it is not noted in anyone’s chart. I know it was the year of the Dog, and that my grandmother finally went home to be with her angels.

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/02/10/writing-challenge-valentine/