All We Need is Not Love…It’s Forgiveness
A daughter resenting her mother? Not exactly new. To me, my mother was a prisoner of traditional Chinese culture, valuing her sons over her daughters. A Chinese boy is the family pride; a Chinese girl is the family support. I was five when my family was smuggled into New York City from China via Hong Kong, and by nine I was working in my mother’s factory. I could hem 6,000 pieces a day — my older brother worked when he wanted. My destiny was to be a good wife to a Fujian man; the fact that I went away to college, that I earned a law degree, that my American boyfriend spoke fluent Chinese, never mattered. I was a Chinese daughter, one who never mattered at all. I was never enough for her, and I spent my life trying to make her proud.
But life’s greatest lesson is the clarity that comes with forgiveness. It is that powerful force that takes stock of what we have and illuminates what we have been given. My mother taught me this, and learning it was freeing, liberating. I finally saw her with truly open eyes. After a lifetime of rebelling against my mother’s culture, I now understood why she embraced it, finding stability in the familiar. Over time, she rose above its limitations and gleaned the best it had to offer.
Her courage and love of family saw her bring three young children across the Pacific on a snakehead’s boat to join my father in New York City. Her work ethic convinced her that she could run the factory better than her boss ever did — then she bought it from him, and proved it. After my father died, my older brother (now head of our household) told her that good Chinese women didn’t remarry after losing a husband, so she never did. But when my father’s family formally disowned us all, avoiding the responsibility for a widow and now four children, my mother responded by making a killing in the Chinese real estate market.
She was frugal to a fault, except to those who needed her help. Growing up, I watched her wash vegetables or clothes, and use the same water to flush the toilet. She owned only a few outfits, but could step off a trans-Pacific flight looking like she emerged from magazine pages. I still don’t know how she did it. Any struggling Chinese village she read about in the paper would receive a large donation — always anonymous. And as much as she followed Chinese tradition about honoring her sons, she treated us all the same. We all got college tuition; we all got new cars. She made sure each of us owned a home. Even her shame at my being a single mother (what would the traditional family think?) gave way to an overwhelming love of her grandson.
Her worldview was simplistic — in the best possible sense. Be kind. Honor your family. Don’t get attached to money; if you need more, make more. That thinking allowed me to give up two houses and a million dollars so I could free myself of my abusive ex-husband and get on with my life. She had faith that I could turn the $600 he left me with into real money, and I did.
She taught me to never put anything off. Dishes in the sink? Do them tonight. Project due? Start now, not later. When Parkinson’s confined her to a wheelchair, she still made every meeting and was mystified about the way others canceled for things like rain. “Why don’t they just put on a raincoat?” Once, when she needed a signature for a real estate deal, she befriended the man’s secretary, found out where he was having dinner that night, and waited outside the restaurant until he was done. “Never say never” could have been her mantra.
Doing what you say, when you say it will be done, no excuses, was the most valuable business lesson I ever learned, and I learned it from her.
Today, Parkinson’s is consuming her, taking her once strong body and fine mind. She refuses to leave my older brother’s care, even though we all know he can barely care for himself. It makes my older brother feel important, and that’s enough for both of them. In some ways, she is still a traditional woman. For me, for now, her care is a weekly visit and outing; it’s me looking into her eyes and asking if she still knows who I am and what I do. It’s me bringing my children, who can still make Grandma smile. My first-floor apartment is all ready for her when the family decides she’s ready, because to her, family is all that matters — and family is there to be forgiven.
In the end, it wasn’t what my mother gave me, it was what she taught me. That challenge is beautiful, because it tests our character. That family deserves your love and absolute sacrifice, even when they disappoint you. That however much I hated her methods of motherhood, her incredible, staggering efforts taught me all I needed to know about being a mother myself. Today I am her carbon-copy, without the traditional trappings, and I couldn’t be prouder. She is my hero. Without her, I would be married to Fujian man running a Chinatown restaurant, instead of being a well-traveled attorney integrating my children into my work life and investing in things I believe in. My life today was never her plan for me, but what I have, what I have done, is because of her. And I thank her for my greatest lesson of all, forgiveness.