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Remembering Mom: Exploring my guilt over the sacrifices my mother made

Blast San Francisco Bureau

I was having coffee with two of my closest friends the other day when we happened on the topic of mothers.

"My father never even bothered to wait for my mother at the dinner table, he would just start eating without her. And my mother would just quietly take her place at the table without ever raising a single objection," said Ann, who never sees her parents anymore. They kicked her out of the house 10 years ago after she brought the wrong boy home to dinner.

"Well, at every meal my mother always gave us the choice portions of the dish and we would watch as she served herself the burnt pieces of food stuck to the bottom of the pot," Kevin said. He was the good boy who became an engineer just like he was supposed to.

As I listened to my friends, each raised by Asian immigrant mothers like myself, I began to make sense of a well of stored guilt I'd been carrying around for the past 25 years. My mother rarely ate with my family, not even on holidays. Each night after she prepared dinner, my mother would serve us and wait until we finished eating before she sat down alone at the table and ate our leftovers. She always busied herself cleaning up while we ate and it didn't matter how much I pleaded with her to join us, she always refused and said she was too busy. My family had an unspoken understanding that we'd always save food at the table for mom.

I remembered when I was in middle school, going over to a friend's house for dinner and watching my friend's mother be an integral and lively part of the meal. She'd ask each of her kids about their classes, activities, she even asked me about my family. Witnessing this, I felt like this was the way families were supposed to be. And my family came up terribly short. The sense of shame hit me deep, and I never did invite my friend to my house for dinner.

Now, here I was decades later making some sense of those feelings that were such a source of pain and confusion. Perhaps my mother could not rid herself of the culturally ingrained habit of putting her children and family first more than she could the heavy accent that remained with her even after 25 years in the United States. It was something that would always be a part of her.

I breathed a sigh of relief. This realization helped lighten the load of responsibility I felt over the years as I watched her eat quietly alone at the dinner table.

I learned bits and pieces of my mother's childhood throughout the years and it was like a sad Joy Luck Club tale. My mother was one of six children born into a Chinese household in Thailand. She had a very nurturing mother who always put her family first. She once told me how her mother took a 200-mile train trip to her college so that my mother could have a home cooked meal. She watched her mother sacrifice for her -- as mothers do in all cultures -- but she also watched her mother's sacrifices destroy her.

My mother's father was a very wealthy man, which meant that he could afford mistresses. My grandmother struggled with this and became increasingly obese. She died at an early age of complications caused by her weight.

Years later, my mother met my father, whom she married for money not love, repeating her mother's cycle. My father was the epitome of the immigrant who made good, working his way from a desk clerk to a successful businessman. In my father's case, his mistress was money. He regularly risked thousands on the stock market. After he went through his money he went through hers. Even after he gambled away her savings she stayed with him out of some cultural sense of duty.

I told myself I would never be like my mother. I've grown up in a society where women can be independent and are not tied to the patriarchal expectations of the past. And I will marry for love not money. But no cultural training can free a child of the responsibility she feels for her mother's well-being.

Each time I see the sadness in my mother's eyes, I am drawn back to her world again, and I see the same reflection of sadness she once felt for her own mother.