Lessons From My Mother

Yesterday I watched Beauty and The Beast with my mother. We snuck in breakfast sandwiches and soda from McDonald’s – the cup was the hard part, just know that Mommy can walk very gracefully-  and without the slightest bit of guilt she smiled at the other patrons and leaned over to me and said in her thick Korean accent: “they smell it and they are jealous.”

There are few rules that aren’t made to be broken, and many rules that ought to exist have never been instilled. This is one of the many lessons I’ve learned from my mother. Things like:

  • We tend to forget that we are animals as well. The food chain of the science book is not as accurate as the circle of life from Elton John.
  • Putting value on owning expensive things can make you forget that good things are better than pretty things.
  • Watching a movie always pales in comparison to experiencing something as a live stage production. Even in the cheap seats.

And, most importantly:

  • Nothing can break you without your permission. 

My mother spent her entire American working life as a waitress. A woman who is a classically trained ballerina, who correctly and insightfully filled in the blanks the history channel and text books left out of my “formal education”, who taught me the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky before I was a freshman in high school, who can thank and curse and bless in 8 languages, worked for twelve to eighteen hours a day serving and cleaning up after strangers. And she made pennies for it.

But she is not broken.

She had been without blood family for decades knowing only the family of her husband most of which had not been kind to this foreigner my Black father brought home from overseas.

Still, she did not break.

Many times in my life I have ran to her, hurt and weak and pathetically pummeled to pieces. She has cleaned me up, and rebuilt me. And when, after years, I did not buck up she no longer cooed me with the sweet sayings of motherhood. No. She was better than that. “Nikki-ah, do you know what strong women you come from?” She would tell me tales of my grandmother , too educated for Korean taste, and her iron strong will. She would tell me about the strength my aunt and mother pulled together to take care of their three younger brothers when they were left alone with no income and no prospects in Seoul. “This is not disaster. This is not the end. This sin’t worth your tears. Only when your mother is gone are you allowed to cry and even then only for a little while.”

I know some of you might think: but it is cleansing to cry. It is cathartic. It is natural.

You do not know how much salt water I have poured into this world over trivial things. You do not know how broken I allowed myself to become when things felt hopeless. How unresillient I proved myself to be.

I had assumed that the strength in my mother’s blood had skipped me. Don’t things like that always skip a generation? How could I be the offspring of these Asian Amazons?

But I am learning. And it is because of more time with my mother. It is because I am finally wise enough to listen, to take advice, to bend like bamboo. To refuse to break.

When she told me, at eight, that the other little girls who picked on me for my curls or my stubbinesss weren’t really my friends. I didn’t want to listen. I was a child, and I never thought I could be without them as my friends.

When she told me, at seventeen, that I didn’t have to worry about my laziness and lackadaisical attitude stopping me, that i would go to a University and make her proud, I didn’t trust her. I felt that I would never graduate high school, let alone college.

And when she told me at twenty-six that he was only a phase that I had held onto for too long, that I would find someone or find myself and love them more than I thought I could, I didn’t believe her. I was ashamed at having ended an engagement and thought I would be a pariah from then on out.

But mama really does know best, at least in my life.

I am not quite the wonder-woman she is, but I am proving to be a late bloomer so there is still time. I am, nonetheless, much more resilient and much stronger than I thought I’d ever be. More of her bamboo and less my plywood. Soon unbreakable.

And yes mama, they are all jealous. Jealous that you are not theirs.



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