I don’t remember my mother ever having the cold or flu. She must’ve had her share, especially in the sharp New York winter. She remains healthy in my memory because she never took a day off, never took a nap, never complained. Not even when the needle flew off the Singer and disappeared into her finger. Between the waitressing years in New York, Mom sewed for the giant garment industry that Latino and Asian immigrants pinned their hopes on in the 70s and 80s. The heaps of cut fabric she brought home in the metal shopping cart, they literally called homework. It enabled her to raise her kids and stay involved in my early schooling. Mom did everything fast. She would feed polyester rectangles through the machine and recruit me and my little brother to flip them into shirt collars. At two cents a piece, time was the enemy. She ate a lot of dust.
The older I grow, the smaller I feel in the shadow of my mother’s sacrificial silence. I grew up exasperated with Mom, but her threshold of patience in marriage and motherhood was a lot higher than mine. Thanks in part to the freedom of speech this beloved Land of the Free so fiercely protects, the culture of rights I am privileged to claim citizenship in. Thanks in part to a nature that still begs tempering. I need to be humble. Need to love. I worship a God who exchanged his rights for a cross.
I don’t have the patience and gentleness for my son that Mom had for me. How dare I draw myself up to her small frame in these comfortable shoes that cost more than what she ever spent on her own tired feet? It wasn’t just waitressing that her legs ached from. She stood hours in the kitchen over the traditional side dishes that every meal called for. Did you know Korean food is misogynistic? When I dug up this picture of Mom, I was surprised at the poor quality of the photo. It had stuck in my head as a beautiful shot, one of my favorite of hers, because it shows her radiant slaving away in a hole with no ventilation in a tiny apartment. And then my grandmothers had it even harder. No appliances to keep up with the laundry for a family of eight or nine. My mother’s father passed away when Mom was three, leaving Grandma to flee on foot with six children when the communist North invaded Seoul three years later. My mother became the youngest in the family when her brother, three years old, died en route from the pneumonia they could not treat in the winter flight. They buried him on the road and this and the rest my grandmother endured with silent heartache and grace. If unassuming, unreserved sacrifice is the measure of greatness, surely greatness diminishes with each generation. Or is it just me? I am probably the weakest link in my line. No, I don’t believe all the women before me were virtuous, and I know of many among Mom’s generation who even abandoned their own. I’m talking of the times and culture. Though I may shoulder my hearty share of struggles, my days aren’t heavy with the desperation I sensed in Mom when I was a child. The small matter of war aside, she and the women before her had to push through resistance just to procure the basics. Korea was poorer then, and immigrant life tougher than the country that shut no door on me as I was growing up. Living seemed to have required more fortitude. There are things I do better than Mom did. Like many of us, I determined to be a different parent. But my savvy turns out to be simply a matter of knowledge and opportunity – from the education my mother paid for with her very self. I had set out to do better but I now see that every success of mine is the dream she chased.