The Measure of a Woman

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. I am not only a verbal woman, I am a vocal wife. 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 man who works to give me all I need and ask for. And most absolutely thanks to a nature that still begs tempering. I’ve been able to trace my defensive offense to the years of feeling my needs were not met. Many things in the home needed my care,  including my parents, at times. So the anger is really fear. As helpful as this insight has been, it’s no ticket out of jail. I need to be humble. Need to love. I worship a God who exchanged his rights for a cross.

MomKitchenI 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.

282 thoughts on “The Measure of a Woman

  1. A beautiful tribute to your mother. I think all the women in our past make us the women we are, so your mother’s struggles and sacrifice ultimately allowed you to be the more outspoken woman you are. She prepared you for a different type of greatness to hers – both in the ways you don’t want to be like her as well as in the ways you do.

    • I feel your heart, Andrea. It’s funny. Something came together really clearly and firmly for the first time right after I posted this, how my parents always told me to speak loudly and write large. I won’t say more in case I add this in a future post but it hit me that as you say, Mom literally groomed and freed me to speak up. She gave me voice. And the miniseries on motherhood I found myself falling into like Alice in Wonderland the past week is my way of giving voice to her story. I so appreciate your being here.

      Diana

  2. Your mother looked very thin in that photo. She probably worked hard and long.

    My mother is probably different from yours –mine tends to be impatient, etc. However she did have great patience to feed us healthy…all 6 and be there in…a 1-bedroom apt. for 5 children before we moved to house and she had her 6th child a few months later.

    • You would be shocked, then, to find me as thin as I am. That was a whOLe lotta work, I tell you, feeding you all as well as she did. Very conscientious and diligent of her. I am knee-deep in the next post…where I may mention the one-bedroom. It’s amazing how immigrants stuck it out like that.

      • No kiddin’. My mother has been a full-housewife. I can’t even imagine staying sane in an apartment of young children running around in a 1 bedroom, some crying, etc. The older kids slept in the living rm.

  3. My mother too worked harder and struggled far more than I ever had to, not to mention complaining far less. I think you’re right, generations past were stronger. She lived through a time when bombs were falling and nothing was certain and she lived through it alone while my father fought in World War II. The world was a far tougher place then.

    • Case in point. The picture you repaint of the drama your mother lived through with grace and indomitable strength is exactly what I had in mind and have said in some of the other comments, Marie. Thanks for sharing your amazing mother with us.

  4. Wonderful writing. I’m guessing from your post that you are a first generation American? I know I am, and I think with that comes a certain kind of awe for what our parents endured. It was another world back then, eh?

  5. Beautiful tribute…. although I must say that I would hardly call you the weakest link. The times we are in today probably thankfully call for something different from you… and if you are living her dreams realized then it makes what choices she made worth it and you can now carry the baton forward so the children that come after you can continue to live the fruits of your dreams and their dreams and so on.

    • Yes, each generation and era calls for its own strength, but I can’t help wonder how all the postmodern acoutrements cushion us from developing hard muscle. Seems those before us went higher and deeper when they chose to rise to the occasion. My son has it even easier than I did at his age. His room is the size of the living room I’d known all my life until a few years ago! And his playroom/learning room a jawdropper from what we see of guests. He doesn’t know how good he has it and that worries me. Oh well, guess we know who’ll be volunteering in soup kitchens and homeless shelters in his tweens. =) Thanks for the encouragement, my friend. And your precious time – in your busyness bringing the book to light.

      D.

  6. I have had similar ponderings and truly appreciate your elegant words. While I have no answers to some of these questions, I do find peace in knowing that I’m measured by my task at hand. Just like our mothers, I can only do the best I can given my circumstances. And like you point out so well, I wouldn’t be here (literally) if it wasn’t for my mothers before me. I tell my 21 year old daughter that this is her life to live as best as she can, happily. Be grateful for what has been given to you, add to the gift, and pass it on ❤

    • Wise, lovely input, Angie. I take to heart every bit of it. After all, I am not to live out of guilt and my mother certainly did not live as she did so that I would. The challenge seems to be gratitude in the midst of the relative wealth that is ours today. Thank you for adding richly to the discussion.

      HW

  7. I enjoyed reading this. Your mother obviously was as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside. We are often given unexpected gifts as a result of difficult circumstances. I’m sure your mother is very proud of the woman, wife, and mother you have become.

    • Very sweet and gracious of you. I love how you put it: “We are often given unexpected gifts as a result of difficult circumstances.” I do believe God gives us strength commensurate with the task.

      Thanks so much for your time.

      Xxx
      HW

  8. “I am not only a verbal woman, I am a vocal wife.” “I don’t have the patience and gentleness for my son that Mom had for me.”
    –You and me both, my friend. Oh how I’d love to have the patience as mothers from the past. My mom raised my autistic brother and I don’t remember ever losing her patience with him. He autism is much more severe than my son, yet not a day passes that I’m not impatient, and often yelling at him 😦
    My mom also didn’t have it so easy. Leaving my alcoholic father when I was almost 13, we lived in a very tiny apartment. My mom slept on the couch, and my brothers and I in a very small bedroom.
    🙂

    • Thanks for sharing that, Staci. A shero in every sense she was. They really do put us to shame. We are so comfortable in very many ways compared to them.

      And would you believe — your like came through just when I was thinking about you? Happens to me all the time. Thanks for sharing in this part of the journey.

      Love,
      me

      • Haha, how about that. Yes, funny things like that happen to me too. Like a friend of mine that was following my blog through his work email address. I hadn’t heard from him in a long time, and he always comments on my posts. I was just thinking about him and, all-of-a-sudden I got a message from him on Facebook. He’d been on extended absence from work for the last two months.

        Oh yes, definitely. It really does seem like people from the past, before a lot of the effects that post-modernism has brought with it, seem so much thicker skinned. Wish I was more so.

        Love and blessings
        Staci
        🙂

      • Hahahahahahahaha. Sooooo true. I wish I had just a fraction of the support systems that North America has now-a-day for autism. For crying out loud, my son is in a class with 29 other kids and one teacher and I’m the one trying to educate them on how to deal with aspergers and autism. I’m going to Canada next month and I’m going to be getting all the info I can possibly get from special ed teachers and all.
        🙂

  9. Such a great tribute. I, too, am constantly amazed and in awe of what the women in my family endured (mostly in silence without whining) motherhood, running a home while sometimes running someone else’s home or working outside the home. My life today is the result of women who were immigrants with aspirations and determination.

    • Ginene, I extract comments that warm me or blow me away on a separate list so I can show my son someday when he’s grown. I don’t mean to sound boastful but it’s hard to pick ’em out for the quality of the comments here. I just added your dear feedback to the list. Thanks so very much for every word, esp how you were led to feel toward my mother. And I appreciate the follow. Welcome to this special community of thinkers.

      Xxx
      Diana

  10. A wonderful post, a great tribute to your mother. I think a lot of us realise that our parents, especially our mothers, did so much for us. I often wish I had known this more while mine was still with me, but I feel it is the passing of years which helps us to understand what they did so well and without complaint.

  11. A thought-provoking and lovely tribute to your mother, Diana! I’ve been pondering the concepts of sacrifice and greatness for the past thirty minutes, still without anything more worthwhile to say. 🙂

    • Hi Shirley, you started reading today just when I’d been thinking of you. =) I’m surprised and pleased a post about my mother and my past ended up being thought-provoking. And you kidding? You don’t need to add anything. Means a lot just to have you walk alongside. =)

      D.

  12. It’s amazing what immigrants have to go through in another country. Parents don’t like to talk much about their struggles, but I know there were many. I really enjoyed this piece HW, thank you for bringing it to my attention 🙂

  13. HW … This post the kind of post that draws me into blogging, continuously. Your story has power, redemption. You bless your Mother with your words. I illuminate some words of your post: “My anger is really fear. As helpful as this insight has been, it’s no ticket out of jail. I need to be humble. Need to love. I worship a God who exchanged his rights for a cross.” I have been blown off course from the winds of adversity over the months, and I drifted away from all but a few of the blogs I have been following … and to come back to visit the Holistic Wayfarer brings me some joy. I will try to get back to visit more. Peace to you, and thanks … by the way … for taking time to visit my SpeakListenPrayDon’tBeStupid blog.

    • Really appreciate this heartfelt feedback. Thank you so much for reflecting back to me what you got out of my story. I think you nailed it: suffering really is all about redemption. That is our deepest hope, isn’t it? Else we perish. It is humbling and remarkable that my words should bring you some joy, as I stagger under my own load. Only goes to show that is grace at work, a power greater than our own. I hope you find yourself on higher ground. Thank you for your time.

  14. It’s been a long time that I’ve read something of yours. But for some reason, something called me here to read this article. I guess these days I’m struggling as a mother, and almost step mother. Times are hard, and I wonder what the measure of my motherhood is. For some reason I have always felt you strong in your conviction and belief. Well, all this to say you write very well. And this post really helped in some ways to remember perspective.

    • So good to hear from you, Belinda. Sounds like you have some heavy stuff to deal with. I appreciate knowing this post spoke to you in some way. Of course there is more than one model of motherhood. But it amazing what the human spirit is capable of – ESP in the hardest times. I hope the challenges you find yourself in forge a spirit of steel as well as of compassion in your mothering. Helps to remember and accept our own frailty. I ask my son to forgive me often.

      Xxx
      HW

  15. The lack of complaint. The long hours. Being available–to me and my brothers, and my dad–when he was alive. We are blessed to have such mothers. Thank you for your tribute, for your realization of who and what she was.
    There is much of that in you, I would wager. Let it come out.
    Be blessed.

    • Thanks so much for the glimpse of your amazing mother, Samuel. Precious. As I wrote, I wish there were more of the abiding grace and longsuffering in me, But you know what? You all who have commented actually motivated me to honor better both my mother and my own family, to stand and flit and labor in her steps. Thank you for blessing me. I feel so unworthy.

      Diana

      • Diana, your post brought tears to my eyes. It all sounds so familiar… We can never thank our mothers enough for everything they have done for us. I hope your mother read this post. She must be very proud of you!

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  17. Dear Holistic Wayfarer,

    Your voice has power, passion and impact. No, you will never live up to your own standards for your mother, but you contribute in a way that does the legacy of your mother proud. You have your own voice and soul journey. She spoke through her patient loving silence.
    Noel

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  19. Your grandmother’s hardship and heartache remind me of things my grandma went through during the India Pakistan bloody partition. She was an eastern European lady married to a hindu pakistani and it was horrible for her trying to flee the bloody aftermath. She buried her husband, her eldest children and fled in a crate with my mom. Unimaginable to me who has too many choices and freedom in life. Sometimes I believe I am not even half a woman she or my mother is.

  20. I have one thought, maybe your mother wasn´t chasing your dreams, but try in her own way to let you have what you wanted to chase your dream. Hard to say(and I´m not a parent) what you do better or not, since it´s all quite relative being different generations and societies. To me, as long as I know my mother loves me, she can make mistakes as well as I´ve done mistakes, no parent is perfect since parents are humans. But the underlying thing for me is the love, it may manifest in different ways but once you have grown up I find it a waste of time to go back in time and find grudges about what my mother should have done better for me or what I should have done better for them to make them proud. Now as an adult, we have the best time we have ever had in our 31 year old relationship. Just speaking for me. Nice post.

    • What thoughtful feedback, buddy. Am impressed. With all of it. I think it comes down to the same thing with the dreams. Her dream was every opportunity I would have to secure mine. I am humbled by the matter-of-fact take on your mother, how you release her from any other obligation than love. That is so good to hear, that you enjoy such a great relationship with her. You aRe aware that input like yours takes these “nice posts” to another level…?

      *Smile*

      Thanks for your time.
      HW

  21. My mum was a dressmaker/sewer so although she wasn’t responsible for garment district output, our kitchen was a garment district all of its own when I was growing up! And I hated it–dust and thread balls everywhere, always messy and embarrassing if people came round to visit. I griped and moaned which must have been so annoying for her to hear as she was lugging those big lumps of crushed velvet curtain pieces about so that she could feed and clothe us.

    • I certainly can relate, J. I didn’t enjoy helping out w/ the pieces. I hated hearing the whirrrrrrr through the door before I stuck the key in. Of course I am immensely grateful now. A bit late. :/ I’m sure your mum is very proud of you now. =)

  22. I think there are as many ways to measure a woman as there are women. For instance, my own mother endured intense abuse and poverty, and went on to provide a home and something better for her own children (still abuse, but of a less horrific nature, and, although money was never abundant, there was always food, shelter, and clothing adequate to the weather).

    She also suffers from depression, but refuses to take any steps to deal with it- and that was a weight on my childhood (I tend toward intuitiveness and empathy).

    I am not the martyr mother my mother was. My house is nowhere near as clean – but there is a cheer in our lives, a joy and peace, that I never knew growing up. My children know I won’t hit them or belittle them to deal with my own frustrations.

    I’m a different kind of woman, with my own focus, and my own failures and successes. I choose to define myself and my value by how well I hold up my own ideals, not anyone else’s, or even the prevailing cultural climate.

    Your circumstances are vastly different – probably something your mother was striving to give you. If your son’s are, because of your efforts, then maybe you aren’t so unlike your mother, after all…

    Here’s hoping you can see your own true worth – as the only you there will ever be.

    • You are amazing, S. It is so lovely getting to know you. Thx for the glimpse into your own childhood and the struggles of your mother – sounds like she did what she could. I love how grounded you sound, secure and okay in being less grounded in certain areas. =) You know who you are, what you can offer, and know we are all in process – our OWN process. You know, I really appreciate how you put this: “your own true worth – as the only you there will ever be.” A timely bit of encouragement, actually, this wk. My readers make such an impact on my journey.

      Thank you so much for being here.

      Love and light to you,
      Diana

      • There’s only one of each of us, and we all have our own unique talents to offer. We’re all moving through our lives, and, if we choose, we can keep growing and learning throughout our lives.

        Being more aware in some areas than others is a natural part of life. No one’s perfect at everything. My biggest goal is to come closer to my own ideals. I figure that’s challenge enough for one lifetime! =D

        I’m glad to be here, and for these glimpses into your life, and a culture very different than that I was raised in.

        And I totally know what you mean about readers making a huge impact on your journey – I think that’s a huge part of the reason why I blog – to connect, share, and grow.

      • ” My biggest goal is to come closer to my own ideals.” Not someone else’s.

        Will let you know if I quote you one of these days. You’ve blessed me.

        I hope you saw Mona’s comment on your comment, =)

        Diana

      • Being quoted would be an honor. Knowing my words touched you is a greater one. =)

        Feel free to quote at will!

        Thanks for pointing out Mona’s comment. I hadn’t seen it, and it made me happy. Happy is good. =)

    • It’s probably just as well, because our family life doesn’t match the prevailing cultural climate. I figure I’ve got this one life – and I get to decide how well, and by what terms, I want to live it.

      Glad that line touched you, Mona!

  23. My Dear Diana, that is a Very Beautiful Tribute to a Very Beautiful Lady, and to All Our Mothers. My Mother’s life was similar, in that she too worked very hard, particularly after my father passed away.
    Hearty Congratulations to You on this Beautiful post. 🙂

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  25. D., that’s an outstanding post. It’s so hard to grasp how strong some women had to be in even the recent past. My wife’s grandmother found herself supporting ten children during the years of hunger under Stalin in the former Soviet Union. She used to go out at night to see if she could steal a tuber (punishable by death) from the edge of the collective farm. The tuber would be wrapped in muslin and given to each child in turn to suck on.

    • A whole post in that tuber. Go for it? =)
      Augh, breaks my heart to hear stories like this, MG, for both the woman and the children. It hadn’t occurred to me you missed this post. Must say I’m glad you caught it. Appreciate your entering my story.

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  27. your writing is wonderful and beautiful, just have had enough time to read a few of your posts but loved them all, looking forward to reading more…. I think all woman are tough, just depends on our life circumstances, if we need to, we will rise to the occasion to do what ever we need to do to take care of our families, our children. Being a single mom is hard work for any generation.

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