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. 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.

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 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. This is that story I had in mind and what I alluded to with regard to my wife in my comment on what I’d like to see covered. My daughters and grand daughters also struggle with the huge chasm between them and their mother. They grew up in the American school system with all the influences of American culture. My wife imprinted in rubble accepting oatmeal for her and her little brother from American soldiers because there was no rice. I think one of the biggest struggles is the adaptation of the first born generation to the American culture versus the immigrant parent’s own perceptions and holding on to the old ways. There was a bit of irony in that. My wife’s mother tore into her one morning and I had no idea what for. It seems she woke up and found my wife still sleeping while I sat on the floor with a cup of coffee and no breakfast. It was an unpardonable sin. Apparently my wife had become too westernized to suit her mother. 🙂 We did not try to change Mom. We did what she told us to do. We didn’t have to like it, we just had to do it.

      • I do bloviate profusely at times 🙂 I started blogging in march 2014 as Willy Nilly the Philosophy of Inanity but I let it get the best of me. I did away with the old Centurion and his pet dragon, Willy Nilly and later picked back up again with Hyperion Sturm. So total blog time is about a year. (Yes, I’m a Noobie) 🙂

    • The post made me smile, among other things. Your blog brims with a remarkable love for Your Father and your girl; she is a thousand-fold blessed to be able to claim you for her daddy. You sure are right. We get one shot at this pony ride. Piggy Paint, by the way, (you can Google) is nontoxic nail polish, in case you’d like to look into it. =)


      • Dear Diana, your words are to Morgan whereas I only shared his post with you coz it rang a bell in my heart, reading about your Mother and your attitude I remembered his writing, happy you liked it 🙂 feels Morgan should hear your graceful words 🙂 Alice

  2. Beautiful post, really well written. Thanks for stopping by my blog- I’m looking forward to reading more awesome posts 🙂 Cheers!

  3. Cheers to your mother! She sounds a lot like mine. I always ponder how they did it. But, believe it or not, we women have it all within us. Thanks for sharing such heartwarming piece of yr life. Cheers!
    P.S. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

    • I appreciate the thoughtful read, M. I really believe we have it easier than our mothers did. Yes, we have our personal challenges. But advances in the times (cultural, technological…) make a difference.

  4. I came back here to read again because I knew I could be encouraged by your devotion to your mother. Sometimes we women need that.

  5. Many parents sacrifice for their children. I am so glad you realize your beautiful mother did so, for your future and your education. I can see how pretty your mother is and can hear how special she was, too. Lovely post. Wishing you a wonderful new year! 🙂

    • Thank you so much for the sweet word. I can only imagine your own story and heritage. We are – in this age of all things fast and technologically easy – so blessed. I hope we don’t lose something of our character in the path of lesser resistance. I appreciate the follow. Happy new yr.


  6. Now I know what you mean by Measure of Woman now that I’ve read the post. It seems your mother is a typical, hardworking, graceful Korean woman you should feel proud of. Relationship between a mother and a daughter is often difficult but as time goes by they become strong. My mother has been long gone but now I realize how beautiful woman she was and how bad daughter I was. Have a happy new year.

  7. Diana,
    What a powerful witness to the changes our country has gone through in the turnover of generations in the late 1900s. The lives of my great grandmothers, grandmothers, and mother seem to have happened in another world far away from my world. Women in my generation muddled through through, with and without our men and sometimes our families, to figure out what our lives are and would be about. I’m grateful my Christian faith survived intact. The church hasn’t always helped women then or now. On balance, it seems we women have lost a bundle and gained a bundle–though without knowing for sure what’s in the bundle. I’m grateful to be part of my generation. I could not have survived what my mother survived. Thanks for this sweet, thoughtful post. I love the photo of your mother!

    • El, you’re right. The gains have come with cost. I think, for one, we’ve lost the art of slow in the conveniences that dictate much of feeding and running a home. Who preserves and dries food nowadays? (I do have a dehydrator.) There are (inordinately time-consuming) Korean staple dishes that my generation of women just grab at the market. The art of preparing them will soon die out. And this applies across cultures. Oh well, some would say women’s suffrage is worth it! Thank you for the thoughtful feedback.

      Light and love,

      • Blessings to you, Diana. The list of forgotten skills is huge–to your list I would add sewing and canning food for the winter, making cottage cheese and sauerkraut. And bread, jam and home-grown honey. Our hurry-up world has all but obliterated much of the artistry that went into homemaking when I was growing up in the 40s and 50s. Even though I’m all for women’s suffrage and equal opportunities…..

  8. How many of us feel as if we could never out-sacrifice our Mothers? And yet, I am so glad that I do not NEED to do so! Your post touched my heart, for I am the daughter of one who gave her whole life, every cell of it for her children.

    • This is something I’ve been thinking about, actually. I realized yesterday that I’ve felt I NEEDED to suffer bc that is how mothers show their love – esp in the Korean culture. Of course that is the last thing they ever wanted for us. It’s just that it’s all I saw of my mother and grandmother, to embrace suffering. Thanks so much for the support today.


  9. I remember my mother in an idealistic way. She was my idol. I wanted to be like her. She was stronger than my father and made everything work without ever letting us kids know there was a problem. It was only in later adulthood, 50’s, that I finally understood my mother was human, too, and had flaws. Now I’m 63 and she is 85, post stroke and needs care much like a child in caring for her basic needs. And I got angry at her flaws, things she said and did that hurt. Now our roles are reversed. I need to care and protect her. Do for her what she did for me as a child. Everything has gone full circle.

  10. Pingback: Don’t Wait For Your Life | A Holistic Journey

  11. Beautifully written. I’m always humbled by what my ancestors endured to get to this country and establish themselves. I try to keep that in mind when I complain about having wasted so many years of life in an office building!

  12. Diana, l’m in awe of your mother and grandmother embracing life with hard work and love. It reminds me of my ancestors and how they sacrificed in the name of making it through the day, year or an entire life. Congratulations on your many deserving successes. I’d like to think as our friend Diana wrote that heaven has libraries and we’ll all be there reading our stacks of unread books. With the time left, I’ll continue to write, and measure success in the satisfaction I kept writing no matter what. Happy holidays and many blessings to you and your family. 🎄📚 Christine

  13. As the granddaughter of immigrants (on both sides) who suffered similarly, I can totally relate to this tale and I thank my ancestors for giving me the opportunity to make a life here in this land of many rights and resources. Beautiful piece, Diana.

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