On Meeting My Mom (Again) at 40

My mom and me, less than a year before she died at one of my HS cross-country races

For my 40th birthday, I asked friends and family to help me find my mom again.

If you follow this blog with any regularity or if you know me in real life, you will know that it has been almost 25 years since my mom passed away, suddenly, in a car accident.  It is the single event that has most shaped my life and defined who I am as a person.

I was 16 when my mom died.

In the last 10 years of her life, I was arguably the closest person to her on a consistent basis.  My mom was a single mom.  My brother left for college when I was 7 and although we lived close by to my aunt and her family, it was really the two of us, most of the time (except for school and work, of course) for many years.

But, I was 16 when she died.  And the memories of a 6-16 year old about her mom (and who my mom had to be for me during those years) are different than those who knew my mom before there was a me, or as someone other than mom, or even, in the case of my brother, as a mom in very different circumstances.

Several friends and family members shared memories of my mom with me — photos, small stories, longer letters.  Some of my favorites were memories of my mom climbing on the roof of our house to fix something on our roof (instead of calling a repairman) because she thought she could just figure it out and do it for cheaper (and this was pre-internet days where she could look up how to fix it).  I also loved the memory of my mom caring for my brother who got a very serious case of the chicken pox as an adult.  I remembered driving down with my mom and her bringing down thick Chinese loquat syrup to help sooth my brother’s throat and making a special savory egg custard (she did this when I was really sick too) because he couldn’t swallow much more.  I loved her entrepreneurial spirit, starting small businesses selling tiny “huggie bears” (clip on Pooh knock-off bears from China) until Disney put a cease and desist on those imports (the irony of now living down the street from the Mouse) and flavored popcorn that she used her chemistry background to make just perfectly, in small batches in our kitchen.  A friend shared with me that my mom’s smile always came out when she talked about me, and how proud she always seemed to be.

There were also stories from before I was born: My mom carrying my brother through snow in the driveway when the family lived in upstate New York after trying unsuccessfully to shovel the deep piles that had collected during the day.  My mom, as a young person, in Taiwan, raised by my grandmother, who was also a single mother (widowed when my mom was 75 days old), being a very good student, tutoring others to help earn extra money.  My mom always having a “famous grin” and a no-nonsense attitude. My mom always supporting my brother through every violin concert, play and award ceremony, “even when the budget said she couldn’t.”

Like any person, my mom wasn’t perfect.  She could be stubborn and angry. She could hold onto anger and be loud in that anger, fighting passionately when she believed she was right. But, as my brother said, she was also the first come to our rescue when we fell, and the first to comfort us when we didn’t succeed at something we tried.  She was the one who told us to stay true to ourselves, to marry for love and not for any other reason, to stand firm in our convictions.

In meeting my mom, as an adult, I see so much of myself.  Of course, I realized some of this before reading the memories shared with me, but, in reading them, I see it even more. My mom was fiercely independent and she wouldn’t back down when she believed she was right.  She was courageous, the first in her family to immigrate to this country, alone, as a graduate student.  She loved her children, her sometimes grumpy son and her headstrong daughter whom she sometimes failed to understand.  She could become super frustrated easily, but was incredibly loyal to those she loved. She had an unforgettable smile, an undeniable kindness, and a deep faith.

The best gift of my 40th birthday has been having my mom there to celebrate with me.  She is always with me, but now, more than ever, I realize that who I am is so much my mother, in big and small ways. And that gift is so incredibly precious.

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