Someday you’ll understand–and other wisdom from my mother

There is a picture of my mother and I standing in front of a cactus that sits directly in front of our house in Vietnam, next to the wrought-iron gate. I must’ve been around seven or eight years old, so this was in 1992 or 1993, several years before my family and I came to America. My mom and I both appear happy, with big smiles on our faces. Her face is hollow, while mine is chubby. I remember posing for this picture, which in essence, is one of the few remnants of my childhood, along with the picture of me as a baby being baptized, another one of me as a grumpy-looking toddler (presumably because I didn’t want my picture taken), and another one of us when I was around 12 years old, at a relative’s barbecue.

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In these pictures, my mom appears to be a relaxed, fun-loving mom who was always around, but in reality, she was anything but. In fact, my mother was an untactful, hard-to-please, working mother. Minus the working part, she is still alive and kicking. My mother is a tough woman–she survives on a cocktail of pills (including vitamins), religion, and spewing out words that goes into the ear of an individual (like myself) and out the other in less than a minute.

For as long as I’ve known her, my mother has never been without “words of wisdom.” I put this in quotation marks because I’ve never really taken her words seriously until I became a mom myself. With five years and two kids under my belt, I feel like I know something about motherhood, but certainly not everything. For one, there’s the fact that you make sacrifices for your kids. If you’re down to the last bit of food, you’re going to give it to your kid and allow yourself to starve. At least, that’s what my mother claimed she did during those years of suffering, as she calls it, from 1976 to 1979, right before the Vietnam War ended.

I don’t know much about those years of suffering, just as she doesn’t know much about mine. She survived the War in her twenties whereas I survived the Great Recession of 2008-2009 in my twenties. It’s one of those things that we don’t discuss in depth, because for one, due to my lack of communication skills in Vietnamese (I can understand a lot and read a little bit, but not to the point of deep conversation), and also because it brings back treacherous thoughts that are much better off being bottled up and left in the attic of someone’s mind. It’s the fact that we survived that matters more, I think.

My mom was born in 1947, thus she became a woman and a mother in the midst of a historic war in our country. She married my father at the age of 17 through an arranged marriage, and four years later, had her first baby, my brother Long. Because she wasn’t the most fertile woman in our village, or perhaps because she wasn’t that interested in making babies with my father, she didn’t have another child for six years. After that, God deemed her too unhealthy to have another kid–she had certain medical issues that required operations–and was told that she would most likely never have another child. That must’ve been hard for a 27-year-old woman to hear, I bet. I was not supposed to be born, and yet I was, ten years later, in 1985. By then, she was 37, normal by today’s standards, but very old by our country’s standards.

Because of the fact that I was born to an older mother, I always felt that this was a barrier to our relationship. The age gap created an invisible path that I couldn’t cross, and that she couldn’t pave the way for me to cross.

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Growing up, I saw her as a working mother. She’d wake up very early in the morning, prepare the food that she would sell, then put all that food in two baskets strung by ropes held together by a long wooden stick, similar to this one, and she’d be gone for many hours. Often, she wouldn’t come back until the wee hours of the evening. She either left me with one of my aunts or my father. She used to tell me that I was a tough customer–I wouldn’t let anyone give me a bath except her. Although this may indicate fondness and preference for my mother, I never thought of her as the type of individual who I would “prefer” to be around, the favorite parent, or even the lovable one.

Our personalities clashed as I grew up and she continued to work. She was absent from my life a lot, and I resented her for that. I didn’t understand why she wasn’t there to provide snuggles or kisses like other moms. It took me awhile to understand that she wasn’t the affectionate type–my father was. Whereas I was/am a complete introvert, she is more of an ambivert. She thrives in certain social situations but also prefers to retreat to a quiet world with God.

So it should not have been surprising to her when I decided to leave for college after my father died. After all, why stay for something I never had in the first place? Frankly, I wanted to get away from her as fast as I could.

Throughout college, there were periods of time when we didn’t talk at all. She continued working while I continued college. Months would pass by without conversation. Whenever we did talk, it was a one-sided conversation in which she called me, and immediately after I answered the phone, she’d spew out a slur of criticisms, starting with, “Why haven’t you called me?” I didn’t really have an answer, except for, “I don’t want to talk to you,” but of course, I didn’t tell her that. Instead, I’d mumble something about being busy with schoolwork and whatnot. She’d then proceed to talk for the next five minutes, and in one continuous motion, let out more complaints than I cared to hear about. If all she wants is to complain, why would she call me? I thought. Needless to say, I ignored her phone calls a lot. Simply put, I did not want to be yelled at. I wanted to avoid any contact with her, because I knew she wasn’t calling to give me advice; she was calling to get on my nerves.

I always thought of my mother as someone who’d tell it like it is. My husband always says that she has no sense of tact, and he’s right. She never had it. But where she lacked the ability to maintain an intimate relationship with other human beings, she held a strong belief in a relationship with God. This was, and still is, one of the things that bothers her the most about me, the fact that I strayed away from God. In reality, I still believe in God, but not in the doctrines of Catholicism anymore. The main issue that I have with the religion, or faith in general, is the fact that I was never given the option to choose my religion. Instead, I was born into it, and according to my mother, if you’re born into a religion, you have to stay in it, no matter what.

It’s hard to convince her otherwise, so I gave up trying. And she continued to believe that I was following the devil, that I betrayed God. She’s not completely wrong, but she’s not right either. I don’t follow the devil, but I also have betrayed God, in a sense. I don’t frequent the church as I used to, mainly because I don’t feel like I could connect with God in an intimate way.

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Lily, baby James and my mom

Last night, a New Yorker article serendipitously appeared in my inbox called, “The Unmothered” by Ruth Margalit. Although the author talked about loss and grief, about losing her mother to cancer, she used the term coined by another writer to describe the absence of a mother, I felt that the term “unmothered” also applies to me. For many years, I felt unmothered–the absence of a mother in my life. Even though she is still alive, she was not physically in my life that much. I did not see her for long stretches of time for over a decade.

It wasn’t until the past few years that our relationship started to move in a different direction. I felt that she started to dial down the criticisms a little bit, and I became softer when I became a mom. I understood the struggles of having to take care of kids, of trying to make money while also balancing familial responsibilities. My mother always said, “When you have kids, you’ll understand,” so often that I came to associate the phrase as my mom’s mantra, the other religion that she lives by.

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Perhaps because of the fact that she was a working mother, or because she felt guilty, my mother chose to help with daycare after my daughter was born so I could go back to work full time. I say “chose” because my husband and I gave her a choice–it wasn’t like she had to spend time with my daughter all day, especially since she was still working the graveyard shift at the time. But in the end, she reasoned that she wanted to have an influence on our daughter’s life, so she decided to do it. I felt that she knew she was being given a second chance. She wasn’t there for me, but she could be there for her granddaughter, and start fresh with her. Giving her that opportunity, knowing that it might not work, terrified me. Fortunately, she became a strong influence in my daughter’s life, something that I am truly grateful for.

These days, we talk a lot more on the phone. She calls me if she needs help with something, or if she wants to see her grandchildren. We don’t have in-depth conversations–we never have, but because she loves my kids, I decided that the least I could do is make an effort to stay in touch with her for their sake. If I have a missed call from her, I’d call her back. We still do not understand each other on a deep level, but we are united by my children and liaised by my husband. She’s still hard to understand, but at least we’ve come to a point in our lives where we can remain neutral.