As we celebrated Mother’s Day earlier this week, Christina Vo reflects on the influence of her mother in her life and those around her.
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Our mothers’ impact on our lives cannot be quantified by the years they are physically with us. My mother died twenty years ago (I have lived more years of my life without her than alongside her), and yet I am still learning from both her life and her death. Her legacy of kindness and generosity of spirit have carried on well beyond her 46 years of life.
For many years, I focused on what I lost when she passed, namely a loving, doting mother who was unbelievably kind and caring. We lost her energy, her spirit, the very glue that held our family together. Only after she passed and a cold silence overtook our house, did I understand how vital and integral she was for our well-being. We were left with a gaping distance between us; my father, my sister, and I each coping in our separate and distinct ways.
Recently, though, I have starting to reflect more on what I gained by her presence for the 14 years she was by my side. My mother was a dynamic woman, who possessed a unique ability to make friends wherever she went. She befriended salespeople in the children’s boutiques and houseware stores that she frequented, often receiving a hefty discount simply because she was kind. She was the type of woman who wrote thank you cards in response for thank you cards, and cooked large meals for my father to bring to his coworkers.
She never learned to drive when she immigrated from Vietnam to the States in 1976, so she collected a medley of friends to shuttle her around town. When we lived in northeastern Tennessee, one of her closest friends was Edna, a woman 20 years her senior who tended a garden and lived in our neighborhood. They came from two vastly different backgrounds: Edna was a southern woman, born and raised in the state we called home; my mother was Vietnamese but spent her childhood in Cambodia. The two women became fast friends, despite their differences. Edna drove my mother to the farmer’s market every Wednesday morning in exchange for my mother’s home-cooked meals. She instilled in me a sense of openness to people around me and the notion that anyone could be your friend, regardless of how different they might seem from you.
When we moved to Illinois, my mother met her lifelong best friend – a Korean woman, who owned a Peanut Shack in the local mall, and lived up the street from us. Kim made us jars full of kim chi, my mother made her specialty egg rolls. I still remember answering the phone and hearing Kim call my mother Lyne Bo because she could not pronounce the “V” in Vo. They spoke every morning after they perused the K-Mart classifieds looking for the best deals on plants. Years later, when I was in college, Kim moved from Illinois to North Carolina, only a thirty minute drive from where I attended school. Kim’s place became my home away from home and Kim was the woman I turned to when I faced difficulties in college. I can still hear her saying, “See, Lyne Bo made this happen. She brought me here to North Carolina so I could help you.”
To this day, her memory and the memories others have of her and share with me, have left me with a deep wellspring of love and experiences from which I still draw on to sustain me. Over the years, some of the people she befriended have reached out to me, curious about how our lives unfolded after her death. The other day one of our neighbors from Indiana, who we frequently visited, reconnected with me on Facebook. Another one of my mother’s friends sent me a handwritten beef and broccoli recipe that she had saved for over twenty years.
Losing my mother as a teenager, I also believe was one of the reasons I journeyed to Vietnam. I was searching for something, some way to fill the big hole in my life. If she had not passed, I am not sure if I would have ventured there. In Vietnam, I saw the hospital where she worked as an attending physician after the war ended and the home that she used to live in. I was able to picture my mother’s life in Vietnam. I could imagine her on the streets of Saigon, wearing a flowing ao dai for a special occasion, sitting with friends having a cafe sua da at an outdoor cafe, or riding on the back of my father’s motorbike down Nguyen Hue Street. I visited my great aunt who beamed when she spoke of my mother, remembering that she would bring her food in the evenings after work. My great aunt said, what others have also claimed to me, that my mother was one of the kindest people she had ever met. Wherever I went in the world, my mother’s spirit seemed to be with me.
To an onlooker, my mother might not have seemed to be very accomplished. While she was a doctor in Vietnam, she chose to live her life as a housewife and mother. She gave all of herself to a small group of people. But, in some ways, she never stopped being a doctor, or a healer rather, who carefully attended to the lives of those around her. A mother’s love and impact is never forgotten, nor can it be measured, because it remains in the hearts of all those, particularly their children, whose lives they have touched.
Christina Vo is a writer based in San Francisco.
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