Reflections on My Mother’s Life

Mothers are the figures of our lives, whether our maternal relationships are happy or complicated otherwise. Guest author Christina Vo reflects upon her own mother, the present yet absent figure who continually shapes her daughter’s own life. Here, “My Mother” offers a quiet meditation on one daughter’s experience of her mother and the ever changing perspectives of that one unique woman.

“My Mother”

I never really knew my mother when she passed away.

She died when I was 14—before I could really see her as a person, or ask questions to better understand the decisions and sacrifices that shaped her as a woman.

At the time of her death, her primary and only role seemed to be that of caretaker to our family.

Over the years, I’ve put together pieces of her story based on conversations with the few people who knew her intimately—her siblings and one very close friend. Her death, as much as her life, helped define the woman I am today. Her absence gave me a space to imagine my mother—this woman I barely knew. Her life, once I could form a somewhat coherent narrative about it, inspired me and gave me courage.

As a child, when I’d seen black and white pictures of the younger version of my mother, I was struck by her beauty. The young woman in Cambodia, where she was born and raised to Vietnamese parents, was so stylish and slim with her bold-printed headbands, a bobbed haircut, and a broad smile. I would pore over these photos quickly, unable to believe that the intriguing person staring back at me could’ve actually been my mother. What remains most disturbing is that it wasn’t so much her beauty that I disbelieved, as the fact that she looked so happy, effervescent even. That bold, radiant joy never seemed to surface in the daily monotony of child rearing.

I’ve never forgotten those photos, remaining in awe of the woman I saw in them.

In my own reality, I never thought my mother was beautiful. She was điệu, the Vietnamese word I would learn much later in life that described a person concerned with their appearance. When I think about my mother’s wardrobe and the walk-in closet I’d sometimes peruse, I recognize now that my mother cultivated a powerful sense of style. She shopped compulsively—at my father’s expense—and seemed equally as obsessed with her children’s appearances as she was with her own. She dressed my sister and me like dolls—in matching outfits from expensive children’s boutiques that we could never really afford. Every evening before we went to bed, she demanded that we select our clothes for the next day. She made sure she approved of the chosen outfits, assuring herself that we’d be presentable and put-together. If we didn’t make a decision, she would select an outfit for us.

Strangely, my mother never talked about her history. On occasion, my parents would make a passing reference to how my mother had been a doctor in Vietnam (she’d met my father in medical school in Saigon). My father once mentioned that when we lived in Connecticut, she had opened a restaurant. I was too young to remember my mother’s restaurant. “But she was too nice,” he added, shaking his head. “She gave too much food away to people she liked, so she could never make a profit. She wasn’t a good businessperson.”

From my uncle, I learned a little more about the young woman from Phnom Penh. He told me how she loved to dance and play ping pong. The mother I knew, by contrast with this vital young woman, was too timid or embarrassed even to play ping pong with me in the privacy of our basement. My uncle told me she was beautiful, fashionable, and loved to dress up. He told me she had a crowd of fans and admirers—not only because she was attractive, but also because she was kind and giving.

I knew for certain that my mother cared deeply about other people. My mother didn’t drive, but she had an unusual capacity to befriend strangers and neighbors, who would eventually become our willing transportation—rides to the hairdresser, the mall, even the farmer’s market. My mother, always generous and gracious, would return these favors tenfold. She wrote thank you cards in response to thank you cards. She would make egg rolls and other Vietnamese dishes for anyone who helped us. She prepared food for the salespeople at HH Gregg, an appliance retailer in Indiana, and at JCPenny, where she purchased her jewelry on layaway. I still remember the plastic plates stacked with spring rolls left on the kitchen table, carefully prepared for my father to bring to his colleagues at work. Her primary—perhaps her only—currency was her food.

She was a domineering parent, to put it mildly. She was strict, volatile, often inconsistent. But as quickly as she rose in anger, she would calm again and rest in a place of unconditional love. Needless to say, for a child, this repeated experience felt confusing: one minute I was grounded for “not listening”; the next moment, out of guilt, she would be excessively doting and loving. “Next time we go to the mall, I’ll buy you something,” she would say, trying to regain my affection.

My mother was totally and entirely dependent on my father—for rides, for money, for almost everything. Once, after they’d had a huge fight, she told us that my sister and I would move out with her and live in a place on our own.

Initially this sounded fun, maybe even somewhat liberating. Then I thought about her plan more carefully and wondered how we would possibly be able to survive.

“We can live in an apartment in town, behind the mall. Then we can just walk everywhere,” she claimed.

“But what are you going to do for a living? How will we have money?” I asked.

“I can work at the grocery store and bag groceries,” she responded.

Her idea didn’t convince me because I could never imagine my mother working—and I doubt she could have either.

At times, I remember feeling the weight of my mother’s sadness and loneliness. As much as she gave to us, she also needed us desperately. My sister and I were more like companions to her than offspring: we softened the solitude, along with anyone—the Avon lady, the Schwann’s salesperson, the Electrolux man—who might so much as pass by the house during the day

When we were in elementary school, I remember she would often ask us to stay home with her. “I’ll write a note to the teacher and tell her you were sick,” she would say. But her efforts to keep me near her, only made me want to leave even more. I could never imagine other mothers asking their children to stay home from school.

She loved us, I never doubted this. In fact, she loved us to the point of smothering us, never allowing us to be free from her reign. Rarely she would loosen her grip, ultimately only to pull us back more tightly. Had she lived until we were much older, I am certain she would likely have found it anguishing to watch us grow into adults, to let us live independent lives.

After a time, I reached the conclusion that her love was fragile because it was constructed out of need. At certain points in my life—often during the periods when I was living abroad—I would consider the idea that there was no way my mother could have been satisfied with her life. I felt certain that she would’ve chosen a different path if she could have, if she’d only had the option. My aunt told me once that my mother never wanted to go to medical school, and that in she’d loved languages and her real dream was to be an interpreter for the United Nations.

Often, I’ve wondered why she hadn’t pursued her own dreams.

On a recent visit to my older sister and her family in Indiana (she married in her early 20s; her children are seven and nine years old), I saw my mother in her, in the way she cared for her kids and the razor-like focus she placed on family life. Like my mother did, she seems to live for her children, and she excels at showing them love and support. She rushes them from soccer practice to dance to basketball to roller skating birthday parties. When they come inside after playing with their neighborhood friends, mugs full of warm hot chocolate await them.

My sister, I believe—though we have never talked about this—interpreted my mother’s life differently from me. I believe she saw my mother as generally happy and that she derived joy and satisfaction in raising us, in being there for us, taking care of us. My sister seems to know that exact desire: to give almost all her time and attention to her children. Whereas I viewed our mother as a strong, capable woman who never lived her full potential—something that made me fearful, in my own adulthood that if I gave too much, there would be nothing left for me.

I was surprised to hear my sister talk about how she pictures her life after her kids are raised. “Maybe I’ll go to nursing school, and then work as a traveling nurse. I’d love to work in another country,” she told me. “After the kids grow up, I’ll have time.”

It would surprise her, I’m sure, if I confessed that I love the idea of raising a family and living a domestic life. But that image sometimes contradicted the woman I wanted to be—the one who was independent and self-sufficient. The woman who was well-traveled, career oriented and lived life on her terms, not at the whims of another’s wishes or desires.

I wanted to talk to my sister about those contradictions. I wanted to tell her that there were a few years in my life when I thought I’d be devastated if I were to remain childless. And, at the same time, the thought of having children and relinquishing my freedom felt equally as devastating.

During my visit, I observed my sister’s life—the quiet comfort of family and the love between her and her children. One afternoon, when I asked my niece where my sister was, she responded, “Mom is in the kitchen. She’s there, she’s always there for us.”

“Yes, your mother is always there. That’s true,” I responded. Then—silently—I wished that when she grew older, she’d be able to see and know my sister as more than just her mother—the person who was always there for her. I wanted her be able to know her mother as a whole person, someone with complex feelings and tastes, with a unique history and ultimately, distinction.

That visit, I think, helped me reach a more nuanced understanding of my mother. Feeling more comfortable in the gray areas, the zones of contradiction, I recognized that both my sister and I have lived out different facets of my mother’s personality: the devoted caretaker and the free spirit.

By choosing a domestic life, my mother didn’t outright disregard certain aspects of her own character. She made a choice, I tell myself. And while I’m sure there were many moments of unhappiness and uncertainty, she negotiated and overcame those challenges, like we all do. Now, I take some comfort knowing that she must’ve derived satisfaction from loving us, giving to us, and creating an environment in which we would feel safe, secure, and loved. Maybe raising a family was her dream?

I have also recently decided that the vivacious spirit—the one I thought existed only in black-and-white photos from Cambodia—was very much part of my mother’s personality. I see it more clearly now, a more complex image of her comes to the surface. She was an intelligent woman, she was a devoted mother and wife, and she was a good friend. She was a creative woman who put such passion in the food she prepared for us—trying new recipes, baking homemade bread, buying at least a hundred cookbooks to line the bookshelves in our sunroom. She was the woman who planted a beautiful garden and enrolled in a correspondence course to study interior design. She was the woman who in the last months of her life found two French women in our small town in southern Indiana to teach her to knit and crochet, leaving behind a half dozen blankets that she labored over—two still drape the sofa in my father’s living room.

I still wish I could again hear her words, her thoughts about what she might do differently. On the one hand, I think she’d tell me that we make choices and live through the consequences, and that life will always require a delicate balance of love and commitment to others, as much as to oneself. That’s something we learn to negotiate, and hopefully get better at with time.

But, in other moments (and this is probably the more accurate picture), I imagine sitting at our kitchen table. She would put a homemade meal—maybe a yellow chicken curry and a warm baguette—in front of me.

And then she’d say:

“Oh, Tina. Don’t worry about it. You are like your father, you think too much.”

Born in Connecticut to Vietnamese parents, Christina Vo grew up in Tennessee, Utah, Illinois, and Indiana, and then attended college in North Carolina. Unable to decide where to live after she graduated, she tried as many places as she could: Hanoi (on three separate occasions), Saigon, London, San Francisco, and Geneva. While in Vietnam, Christina worked as an account executive for JWT, a communications officer for UNICEF, a program manager for Solidaridad, and even toyed with the idea of designing handbags. She happily and thankfully settled in San Francisco and spends as much spare time as possible working on her first book.

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