A Tale of Two Mothers

Short-listed Entry: Non-Fiction Category

By: Diana Ng

The bride peeked out from underneath the bright red veil.  Ignoring the background music and the chatter of the wedding guests, she was deeply absorbed in her own thoughts.  The man who she was about to marry was a complete stranger.  Her mother had shown her a photograph and people in the Chinese village said that he was of respectable lineage and was a good man.  They told her that she was lucky.  “How lucky can a person be in an arranged marriage?” she thought bitterly.

My grandmother told me her story.  How she grew to love my grandfather even though she was his third wife, how she suffered from the abuse and mockery of the two elder wives, how she learned to withstand the pressures of loss and devastation.  It is one of those stories with a bittersweet ending.

Fighting back tears as the two elder wives berated her for non-existent wrongs, she tried her best to be a good wife.  They had been unkind to her since the day she stepped into their house as his new wife.  They did not like the way he doted on her, buying her trinkets and spending much of his time with her.  The elder wives went out of their way to be mean and nasty.  They made her do the work of servants.

A year later, her first child was born.  It was a girl.  Disappointed, my grandfather buried himself in his work.  The elder wives mocked her for having only a daughter.  She cried herself to sleep every night, knowing that he thought of their daughter as a dowry burden. A few years later, their second child was born.  It was a boy.  Elated that there was at last someone who would carry on the family name, my grandfather spent more time at home with the newborn baby.  Then there were two more daughters and another son.  For a while, the family seemed to be prospering happily.

Suddenly, it was all gone.  There was nothing left.  My grandfather’s business venture had failed.  All of his money was lost and selling his assets barely covered his debts.  Devastated by the losses, he did not return home for weeks.  My grandmother sent my dad to find his father, who had become very weak and ill.  My grandfather died of a heart attack two weeks later.

My grandmother did not know what to do.  Why were the fates so cruel to punish her like this?  In an instant, she went from having everything to having nothing.  Forced to work in a clothing factory, my grandmother asked her two oldest children to drop out of school and help earn money to support the family.  She allowed the younger three children to stay in school.

When he was twenty-two, my dad moved to Hong Kong, where he discovered many wonders.  He worked hard while going to culinary school.  He worked in fine restaurants and along with my elder aunt, continued to support his mother and younger siblings.  Later on, my dad met my mom and they were married in Hong Kong.  A few months later, they moved to the United States and eventually, the rest of my dad’s family moved here too.

* * *

There is another story, the story of my mom.  I know her story like the back of my hand, because I have heard it countless times since I was a child.  She is so strong and she has sacrificed so much for my father, for me, and for my siblings.  My mom grew up as an orphan.  Her mother died during childbirth.  When her father died a few years later, her older sister sold all of their property.  My aunt even sold my mom as a servant for another family in a Chinese village.  My mom was not allowed to continue schooling past the elementary levels, and instead worked on the farm.  Only when she turned 21, was she able to escape the family and move to Hong Kong.

She was introduced to my dad by elderly matchmakers and in a whirlwind, she was married, pregnant and on her way to the United States.  When she came to New York City, she could have abandoned me at the daycare center and gone off to learn English and other new things.  But she chose me.  She worked from home as a seamstress so that she could also take care of me, and eventually had three more children.  She made sure that she was always there for us, giving us advice and loving care.  My mom gave up her freedom so that we could have a mother at home.

Having never known familial love, my mom often tells us that she is very grateful and happy for what she has now.  She has done so much and I never fully appreciated it when I was younger.  It takes a lot of strength to be that selfless.

I reached an epiphany the night before my mom’s birthday a few years ago, and wrote her a heartfelt birthday card, expressing my love and gratitude for all that she has done.  I wrote it in English, and then translated it to her in Cantonese, because I am illiterate in Chinese.  My mom was moved to tears.

As a child, I used to cry whenever my mom told me stories of her past.  I could not understand why she had to suffer.  I was also moved by my grandmother’s story.  It amazes me that these two women in my life have gone through so much trauma and drama in their lives.  I feel lucky to have grown up in this privileged era, to have loving parents who will never abandon me, and to have what my mom and grandma did not have while they were growing up.

It is something that all people of my generation must feel.  When we look back at our family history, we see all the hardships that our ancestors endured in order to set up the future for us.  America is the land of the free.  People from all over the world come here to establish a new dream, to raise their children here so that they can have better opportunities, to build a new ideal.  For that, I am grateful.  The world is changing faster and faster each day.  What happens today or tomorrow may define our future, but what happened yesterday helped to define who we are today.

At her birthday party three years ago, my grandmother looked around the table at all the familiar faces of her sons and daughters and grandchildren.  The candles on the cake reflected in her eyes.  Her eyes were wet with tears as she felt the happiness welling up from deep inside her.  After all those tears of sadness, she now had tears of joy.

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