This is all you need to know about my mother: When my brother Dave and I came home from watching a movie one night, she greeted us at the front door holding a fireplace poker like a sword. Mom said with intense eyes, “I think there’s an intruder in the house.” She apparently heard a noise that sounded like a closing door, armed herself with the gold-plated hooked spear and began clearing the house from top-to-bottom, like SEAL Team Six with an apron.
We both started to move inside, but this tiny woman shoved both of us back with the poker. “I need to finish checking the house!” She added, “I’m old. You’re young. You need to live! Carry on the line!”
Ah mom, always with the drama. For nearly eight decades, she has taken shit from no one – a 4-foot-10 bundle of energy who puttered her way from Hong Kong’s crowded Kowloon District to the suburbs of Los Angeles, knowing not more than a few words of English and carrying little more than a couple of overstuffed suitcases. Daring, courageous, always sacrificing, always doting on her children, then her grandchildren – nearly driving us all insane – but only because she loved us more than life itself.
So there we were, my brother and I standing on the porch of our house, in one of the safest neighborhoods of greater metropolitan Los Angeles (and a finger on the panic button of the burglar alarm), while Mom finished clearing the house. All clear. With no intruders to impale, we sat down for dinner a few minutes later – the poker propped against a wall in case a burglar jumped out of the water heater closet.
When I was 5 and refused to go to bed one night (I liked “Fantasy Island,” what can I say?), she promised to smack me with a long feather duster. At my brother’s urging, I called her bluff and armed myself with a plastic baseball bat. My brother egged me on: “Do it! Yeah! Yeah!” To him, this was definitely more exciting than a midget shouting, “Da plane! Da plane!”
Mom disappeared into the hallway and returned with the feather duster. I had seen “Star Wars” the week before and held my plastic bat in front of my face, like a light saber. Naturally, this enraged my her further.
With my brother laughing like a hyena, Mom took a big swing at – I swear – my head, which I blocked. A split-second later, Darth Mother did as promised and rapped my knuckles with her bamboo weapon. It hurt so much that I can feel the sting to this day. I dropped my bat and surrendered, but she peppered me with additional strikes, all body blows that fell under the radar of the county child welfare case workers.
If I have any bit of toughness, I inherited most of it from her. The first member of my immediate family to experience war wasn’t me – it was Mom, as a young child living under Japanese occupation in Guangzhou during World War II. She occasionally told stories of the air raid sirens, and how she and her sisters scurried for cover in underground shelters while bombers laid waste to buildings, roads, bridges.
Japanese soldiers soon followed, rifles with bayonets at the ready and vicious dogs that lunged at anything that moved. One day, a young mentally disabled young man in the village meandered someplace he wasn’t supposed to go. A soldier unleashed one of the dogs, which began to maul the young man. Mom said she and her sisters appealed to the soldiers to pull the dog off the man. The soldier responded by slapping my mother across the face.
“You should never judge anyone,” she told me years later, “but you always remember something like that.” Years later after the war was over, old newsreel footage of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was shown in a nearby movie theater. As the newsreel showed a mushroom cloud blooming over one of the Japanese cities, the audience cheered.
Mom met Pop in the shoe factory where they worked and they married soon afterward. They were poor but had a plan – he would leave for Mexico and start a living there, while Mom would settle in Hong Kong to live with relatives, raising my brother by herself while waiting for a coveted green card for entry into the United States. Mom and Pop spent years apart and she raised Dave practically by herself.
That’s not to mention the other things Mom did on her own once they got to the States. She transformed a handful of broken phrases into passable English thanks to daily English classes. She learned how to navigate the mean streets of L.A., trusting the 483 and 485 lines that took us from safe, leafy South Pasadena to rough-and-tumble Chinatown. She learned how to drive, no small feat for a woman from a dirt-poor village where a wristwatch was a luxury.
She learned how to run a business, a strip mall in L.A.’s Highland Park neighborhood. When I finally got old enough to be useful, I served as her translator as she dealt with unhappy tenants and recalcitrant handymen. One of our handymen, named Eddie, even drunk-dialed her because “he just wanted to talk.” Mom erupted like Bob Knight after a loss to Purdue: “… You don’t call me to talk. I’m your boss!” (No translation from me was needed).
At the same time, she was an exceedingly kind person. She doted on us kids, and now dotes on her grandkids and other relatives’ kids. Of course, her doting can get a little extreme:
Don’t forget to take a sweater (on a 90-degree day).
Don’t forget to bring a jacket (while we’re in the Mojave Desert).
Are you sure you don’t want me to make you breakfast (before we go to Hometown Buffet)?
You’re in a hotel? Check under the bed and closets to make sure no one’s hiding inside.
Always thinking of others, making sure everyone else is cared for before herself – puttering around the kitchen, to the laundry room, downstairs to put away leftovers, back up the stairs to clean the dishes (and don’t you dare try to clean them yourself – you wouldn’t know how I like them cleaned, anyway), cutting up about 5 pounds of apples, oranges, pears, grapes, kiwis, mangos, grapefruit and bananas “just in case you’re a little hungry.”
A few months ago, an unseasonal frost settled across Southern California. Patches of black ice formed on streets and sidewalks accustomed to lows in the 50s in early spring. A neighbor leaving on vacation asked my father to pick up their daily newspaper while he was gone. After all, you wouldn’t want intruders sneaking into your water heater closet, would you?
My 82-year-old father agreed to a favor that my 75-year-old mother insisted on doing for him. It’s too cold, too slippery for you, I’ll be out and back in a few minutes.
She slipped backward on a patch of ice in the neighbor’s driveway, opening a cut on the back of her head that required six stitches to seal. There was apparently a lot of blood. She is small and frail, and the thought of her falling on her head – and my elderly father scrambling outside to help her – made my heart ache. They were quickly surrounded by family members eager to help, as well as a doctor acquaintance who happened to be in the neighborhood.
I waited a few hours for her to get treated and settled back at home before calling. Her head hurt, and so did her lower back. She didn’t remember landing on her head, which I think is a good thing.
But Mom didn’t let me dilly-dally about her for long:
Is it slippery over in D.C., too? Be careful in your car; I don’t want you sliding off the highway.
Is your job in danger? I heard they’re cutting defense spending.
Are you eating carrots? Vitamin C is good for your eyes.
She is the irresistible force who asks her grown son in public if he’s been eating enough salads to make him “regular.”
She is also the immovable object who stays awake late into the night, waiting for you to come safely home. Probably with a plate of fruit. And a fireplace poker.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom! I love you.