Mother’s Day is a time to celebrate the women in our lives who have shaped us into the women we are today, whether they are our own moms or other individuals who helped us in our journey.
As many of our moms have told us for years, the only gift that they want on this day is the gift of “our love.” I always thought this meant I should include a sincere note of appreciation or a heartfelt hug with my bouquet of roses or box of chocolates, all of which were always welcomed. But it wasn’t until this past year that I fully understood what this meant, at least from my mom’s perspective.
I had been so focused on my own hectic schedule with kids, work, and life in general, that I hadn’t give much thought to what my mom was feeling or thinking about. We always chatted about the day-to-day stuff—kids’ schedules, Dad’s health, what to bring to family potlucks. But I realized that I really didn’t know much about my mom before she was my mom. What made her into this woman I knew today?
So for several hours one day, we sat together at the kitchen table, and I asked her questions about her past. I was already familiar with the barest outline of her life—where she was from, where she grew up—but what she shared in that short time would fill that outline with incredible color and depth. It would also change my understanding of her and the meaning of motherhood.
My mother had immigrated from China to America as a teenager in 1951. Her father had left ten years earlier, taking his two oldest sons to work in Hawaii, and leaving behind his wife, daughter and newborn son. A few years later, the communists would invade the region, and people fled in droves. Although my mother has fond memories of growing up in China, she also has nightmarish ones, like when a planned escape from her village was thwarted by an air raid, and a fellow villager—a woman dressed in her finest for the journey—was killed, because she refused to take cover under the bushes for fear that she would ruin her outfit.
My mother was told that she would live a long life, because she had already died three times in her childhood. She would not remember the details of each “death,” but she knows that her mother, my grandmother, had carried her on her back as she fled their village and stumbled their way to Macau. My mother had fallen ill and was too weak to walk on her own. She was a teenager then, much too big to be carried. But it didn’t matter to my grandmother, a tiny woman just over 5 feet tall.
Mom came to Hawaii in the belly of a ship, arriving on the island of Oahu after a harrowing journey across the Pacific. She knew no English, and joined a father and brothers she barely remembered. Her father was there to support the family, but it was her mother who carried her through these difficult times. When my mom came home crying after her second day at the local public school, because she couldn’t understand a word spoken by either the teacher or the students, my grandmother would enroll her in a small private school. She paid the $13 a month fee, a considerable sum at a time when she herself was making less than 75 cents an hour.
My mother worked nearly every day at various odd jobs, finally settling in a job that never paid more than minimum wage in over 20 years, serving up food at a family business. Every penny she earned went to me and my four siblings, to pay for our education. We lived a modest life, wearing clothes she often sewed for us, eating home-cooked meals, and polishing off every bit of anything leftover.
As I listened to my mom recall these moments of her life, I began to understand her motivations, her fears, her regrets, and what made her the woman she is today. Although tragic experiences propelled her along a certain path, my grandmother guided her to work hard, be humble, and learn compassion and generosity.
In those moments, I saw her as her own person, not simply as my mom. I also understood what it meant to be a mother—to literally carry your child on your back because she needed you, or to give up everything you earned so that your children didn’t struggle the way you did.
And I saw that by listening to her story and seeing her as her own person, perhaps for the first time, I had given my mom the gift of love that she had been wanting all these years from me.
Lynn Ink is a university-level educator, writer, editor, women’s rights advocate and mom to three teens and a Border Collie. She loves Netflix binge-watching, blueberry pancakes and researching everything from historical events to remote places. She squirrels away most of her writing for no one to read, but is happy to share her work with LiveYourDream.org to help women and girls achieve their fullest potential. Currently, she’s working on a novel about a caregiver who chucks it all for an epic road trip and an In-N-Out burger. Maybe she’ll share it one day.