A Son Remembering His Mother

When I think of my 103 year-old mother, so many memories flash through my mind, from her winning the 50-meter sprint championship as a teenager, to a mother who lost her oldest son at a young age, to her raving beauty throughout her life, to a woman who had to pull up roots five times, including a move to a country with no friends and not speaking a word of the language, to a 100+ year-old great grandmother who no longer recognizes me, his youngest son.

So much turmoil has gone through her life, including pulling up roots with the whole family on five different occasions, with the first four due to war and the last one due to wanting to provide more opportunities for her children. I started my life in my mom’s tummy during one of those tumultuous times when we moved (or ran) away from Japanese-occupied Hong Kong in the spring of 1942 to Taishan (also spelled Toyshan), a village in the Guangdong Province in the southern part of China that was not under Japanese occupation. We stayed in Taishan until the end of WWII in 1945 when we moved back to Guangzhou (used to be called Canton) which was my parents’ original residence before they moved from there to Hong Kong in 1937 due to China’s civil war and the impending Japanese invasion from Northern China to Southern China.

When she was young, my mom was very athletic.  Besides being one of the top players on her high school softball team, she was the county 50-meter sprint champion.

My mother winning the county 50-meter sprint championship

My mother winning the county 50-meter sprint championship

As a matter of fact, the photo of her breaking the tape at the finish line way ahead of the second place finisher was a photo that our family always treasure, and we made it into a small photo souvenir that we gave to each participant at her 90th birthday party thirteen years ago.

She was also a beautiful woman. People had always remarked about her beauty, and they were still doing so even when she passed her 70s.

My mom when she was around 45

My mom when she was around 45

She had many young suitors. But my mother chose my father, a young handsome civil engineer who just graduated from MIT in 1930 and returned to Guangzhou, China to start his career.

My parents were married on December 24, 1931. Their first child, my oldest brother Tommy, was born in 1932. My mother and father experienced one of the saddest things in a parent’s life, the loss of a child at a young age. Tommy died in 1946 before he reached 14, probably from spinal tuberculosis which was a fairly common disease at that time in a war-torn country without easily accessible adequate healthcare, especially when the family was often being uprooted from one location to another. His illness was probably compounded by an injury when he accidentally hurt his back from bouncing and then falling awkwardly on his bed, an accident that his nanny didn’t inform my parents until much later. I was then only a small child, but I do remember Tommy as an older brother who had a hunchback and was much shorter than children of his age.

The early death of her oldest son had a deep impact on my mother’s psyche. She changed from a gregarious, outgoing young woman to one who didn’t want to socialize and go out of the house. Around mid-1949, our family pulled up roots for the fourth time to move from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, then a British colony, just before the Chinese Communists won the civil war and took over Southern China. Although that was more than two years after the loss of her oldest son, my mother was afraid to take the short (about an overnight) boat ride from Guangzhou to Hong Kong. Or perhaps she just didn’t want to move away and could no longer be close to her oldest son’s grave. Finally with the company of a good friend who was also the wife of a good minister friend of the family, she was willing to take that trip.

With a change of environment after moving to Hong Kong, my mother quickly recovered and was her old self again. I still remembered vividly that once in a while, she would take me, or my younger sister and me, out shopping and then stopped for a delicious afternoon snack of pastry and ice cream before coming home. I also remember how I savored the delicious fried rice with roast pork that she asked our servant to make for me before I left for school in the afternoon when I was attending 7th grade in Hong Kong (my grade was in the afternoon session; there was a morning session for some other grades).

It took several years for my father to establish his career in Hong Kong as a civil engineer. Among the buildings he constructed were many new churches built for the rapidly increasing population in Hong Kong as more and more people moved from China to Hong Kong. However, just when he had established his career in Hong Kong, he decided that to provide better opportunities for his five children, we should pull up roots once again and move from Hong Kong to the U.S. Because my father was educated in the U.S. and we were considered to be refugees from Communist China, our immigration applications were approved relatively quickly based on the Refugee Relief Act of 1953. Although I never discussed this with my parents, my guess is that this latest move in 1955 was my father’s decision, and he had to do a fair amount of persuasion of my mother for her to agree with this move, since my mother didn’t speak a word of English and didn’t know a single person in the U.S.

The difference in lifestyle for my mother from this move was huge:

  • From a metropolitan city of several million people with many friends and relatives where she could go anywhere by herself via the public transportation system to a tiny town Placerville in Northern California with a population of 3,000 people and one other Chinese family, where she needed a car to go anywhere but without the English knowledge to communicate with anyone
  • From a household where she had a servant to do the household chores to a household where she did all the household chores. When my father’s boss who was a very nice person and owned a small civil engineering firm ran into cash-flow problems and owed my father nine weeks of salary, my mother had to go to work as a household servant in order to make ends meet.

Life was tough when we first moved to the U.S. We lived in a run-down house for a monthly rental of $35, with more than two dozen leaks in the roof, with cold drafts coming through the walls of the house that had little insulation but many cracks, and without any furnace during that first winter of 1955-56 where temperature in Placerville often dipped significantly below freezing. I remember clearly that a delegation from our church visited us at our house. But the inside temperature was in the high 40s or low 50s, so they left quickly shortly after they arrived. We also got used to sharing the house with many snails and other bugs. Since the water pipe to the kitchen faucet was exposed on the outside, in the morning that pipe was sometimes frozen, and we had to wait for the warm sun to thaw out that pipe before we had water from the kitchen faucet. Unlike today’s water pipes, that pipe was designed so that water inside the pipe could freeze and expand along the pipe without bursting the pipe.

I know that my mother was not happy with her life in the U.S. Often in arguments with my father, she would shout out remarks like “I don’t know anyone here, I can’t talk to anyone, I can’t go anywhere, all I do is housework, I have no friends, etc.” Looking back, I appreciate very much the great sacrifices my mother endured for my siblings and me. She gave up her own happiness and livelihood for the potential opportunities for her children. Fortunately, all five of her children took advantage of the education opportunities in the U.S., and she did not sacrifice in vain.

In spite of these legitimate complaints, my mother did make significant adjustments. From always having someone to cook for her, she became a great cook, and we frequently entertained, and sometimes she would just cook several Chinese dishes and asked my father to drop off those dishes at one of our friends’ house. She became well known as an excellent chef and the invited guests would always look forward to her food. From having servant(s) to do the household chores, she did all the household chores by herself for a household of seven, including the times when she had to work outside in various jobs. Gradually, she developed a more active and more contented life. She also learned a few sentences of English, but still couldn’t communicate much with non-Chinese speaking friends.

In 1971 after my father retired at age 65, my parents lived in several places, at first by themselves in Placerville, then lived with my older brother in Holmdel, New Jersey, and then with my other older brother in San Diego, California, and in each case helped to take care of my brother’s three children. Finally they moved into a rental apartment and settled in San Francisco where my younger sister also lived. In the last few years of my father’s life, he had developed mild symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. My mother took care of him which kept her extremely busy. She also read regularly and frequently sent me newspaper and magazine clippings, usually about health, recipes, and religion. It was during the last year of my father’s life with his deteriorating health from old age when my parents moved into my younger sister’s house, because it was just too much for my mother alone to take care of my father.

After my father passed away from a stroke in 1993 at age 86, my mother, with her beloved partner gone after more than 61 years of marriage, seemed to have lost some of the zeal for life. She gradually did less and less, including cooking and reading. Simultaneously, perhaps because of it, her mind gradually became less and less sharp, and she remembered less and less. It was painful to observe a once super sharp mind that remembered everything gradually losing the ability to think and remember. Starting around several years ago, she developed symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and no longer could recognize me. However, physically she was still in relatively good health and looked good for a centenarian until the last couple of years.

My mom at 100 years and 9 months

My mom at 100 years and 9 months

During the last two years, her health has deteriorated significantly and she now looks much older and frailer.

Not being able to recognize us is of course a great personal loss for my siblings and me, knowing how much she loved us and how much she sacrificed for us. But we are comforted knowing that God has allowed her to live a long, healthy, and by-and-large happy life, although with twists and turns in that long journey. We don’t know when God will take her away, but we will forever be grateful for her and treasure our memory of her long and fruitful life.

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8 Responses to “A Son Remembering His Mother”

  1. JULIET PAO says:

    Don,
    What a nice tribute to your mother! Thank you very much for sharing!

    Juliet

  2. Marjorie Collins says:

    Great tribute to your mother, such strong and amazing lady!

  3. Eugene Hannafey says:

    Dear Don,

    Your personal tribute to your mother is both touching and respectful. Although both of my parents have passed, your words touched a flood of memories of my own parents. May god bless her and your entire family. Enjoy the holidays—-best wishes, Gene

  4. Don,

    Thanks for sharing and documenting this history of your mother, truly an amazing woman. Give thanks that she has had the determination to live a long life and that you will always have these great memories of her.
    I’m sure your documenting this will be a treasure for your own descendants.

    John

  5. Don,
    This is a wonderful tribute to your beautiful mother. I am sure that much of your intelligence, strength, empathy and support for others is from your mother and will outlast her in you. Your father also sounds strong and intelligent.

    My own 91-year-old mother, now in a Vt. nursing home, has dementia, which is hard to bear in this beautiful former nurse. We only have phone contact and she does not always remember who my sister and I are. She has said that I am dead or “under water” in NJ. She broke her hip last Sunday and now, after surgery, does not seem able to hear on the phone.

    I am sure that even though your mother may not recognize you, she does remember and love you at a deeper level.

    Fondly,
    Carolyn

  6. Don says:

    Carolyn,

    Thanks for sharing your comments about your mom.

    Don

  7. Chungshu Yang says:

    Don,

    Really touched to read that she gained her old self back after moving to HongKong, and how she adjusted from knowing no one in Placerville to the point of sharing her food with friends. You have a great mom and she is blessed with a long life and a bunch of great kids.

    Chungshu

  8. Kimberly Tow says:

    Dear Grandfather,

    Thanks for the nice article on Great-Grandmother! You helped me a lot on my school project on our family.

    Love,

    Your Granddaughter,

    Kimberly

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