My Mother

My mother came to the U.S when she was four years old, and spoke no english. Her parents, my grandparents, owned a shoe repair shop in Tampa, which they operated from  5am-9pm Monday through Saturday.  On school days, my mother and aunt would rise in the grey mornings, dress themselves in their homemade clothes, fix themselves a bowl of cheerios and skim milk, and walk to the bus stop in the frequent rain.

My mother attended the public schools of Tampa, where she was the only Korean girl in her class ten out of her twelve years in school. In fifth grade, she sat behind a boy who wore the same Transformers shirt every day of the week, and who had dirt behind his ears and on his kneecaps, which were visible even in the winter because he didn’t have a pair of blue jeans to wear. It was sitting behind that boy that made my mother hug my grandmother everyday, and thank her because they had a tub to take their baths and clean, well-fitting clothes to wear to school.

When my mother was in 6th grade, she got a pair of white mary-jane shoes for christmas. They were her pride and joy. She wore them every sunday to church, to birthday parties, and to school on picture day.

One day, my mother’s friends decided they disliked her and stopped sitting with her at lunch and playing with her at recess. Though she was aware of this, she attempted to make peace and tried to invite her ex-friends to play kickball. They responded by stomping on her white shoes which she had worn for their choir concert. The stains left by those girls’ soles never came out, and of course my grandparents couldn’t afford to buy new ones.

My mother always maintained stellar grades. During her freshman year of high school, my grandparents couldn’t keep up with the rent for their townhouse, and their family was forced to move in with friends for a month and a half. My mother worked on her homework in the basement bathroom that her whole family shared, and never let her average dip below an A.

My mother never had help with her schoolwork; my grandparents spoke minimal english and my aunt was academically unambitious. She came home from school and made dinner for her family, cleaned, did chores, and worked until midnight nearly every day.

My mother fluctuated between valedictorian and salutatorian of her class all four years of high school, and got almost perfect SAT schools. No one ever congratulated her. No, instead her classmates accredited her success to the fact that “she is asian.” What did they know, what did they know of those long nights, of studying in the bathroom of someone else’s house, of cooking and sewing up shoes in spare time.

When my mother was a junior in high school, my aunt got accepted to the University of South Florida, and majored in art. When my mother was a senior, she got accepted to Yale University. She would major in archaeology.

My grandparents never sent her or my aunt to summer camps growing up. Instead, they helped with repairing shoes during their vacations. My mother said goodbye to my grandparents the fall after her senior year on their doorstep, and took a train by herself from Tampa to New Haven. It was her first time leaving the state, and her first time being away from home.

She had never seen the Yale campus before, so after an hour of searching, she found the orientation hall, collected her room key, and dragged her luggage to her dorm which she shared with three other girls. She was homesick and friendless in Connecticut, a poor girl educated in the public schools of Tampa, surrounded by the rich, high-maintenance children of America’s social elite.

My mother cried herself to sleep for that first semester of college. She was the poorest, least connected student she knew. On top of that, even her grades and high academic standing seemed dwarfed in comparison to her classmates who hailed from Dalton, Andover, Exeter, and the like.

Many of my mother’s classmates dropped out of Yale altogether, unable to handle the academic rigour and homesickness of the first semester of college at an Ivy League school. My mother certainly wanted to do the same, but pushed herself to stay in what seemed like impossible conditions. By her sophomore year, she had managed to find a group of close friends and a major she genuinely enjoyed.

My mother loved archaeology. She had a singular interest in her major and won the respect of her teachers, many of whom advised her to continue studying it in graduate school. However, my mother parted with this dream after visiting my grandparents during the spring break of her senior year. The worn linoleum floors and stained walls of her childhood home were clearer than ever to her juxtaposed against the lofty marble ceilings and oaken doors of Yale.

And so, instead of studying archaeology in grad school, my mother applied to NYU Law, was accepted, and began her quest to hold a career with a salary that would better the qualities of life of those she loved.

After graduating from NYU Law magna cum laude, my mother married my father and took a job at the Bear Stearns Law Firm. She worked from 9 to 9 every day, six days a week.

Her boss, who came to work with gin on his breath every morning, yelled and swore at my mother and threatened to fire her almost every despite her diligent work.

Despite the job being insufferable, it garnered my mother a hefty annual salary. While the other young lawyers at the firm made use of this money in expected ways, the men flashing new Patek Philippe's and the women Cartier jewelry, my mother wore the same pantsuit she had received as a graduation gift almost every day like clockwork, adorned only by her wedding ring.

And, noticing the high prices at the firm cafeteria, she packed her lunch in a brown paper bag every day for five years, until she was transferred to J.P. Morgan Chase. By the end of those five years, my mother had maintained the same wardrobe, eaten the same lunch every work day, and paid off all of her student debt.

Now, fifteen years later, my mother owns a beautiful house with stainless walls and wonderful wooden floors. Just last summer, she bought my grandparents a house in Atlanta on top of the house they own in Tampa. And most importantly to her, her three children will always have their own room to study in, and can buy new shoes whenever they need them.

When I was younger I would constantly fight with my mother about school. In 10th grade, she bought me several PSAT practice books and got upset when I didn’t crack one of them open all year. I shouted back at her that I was too stressed with my regular schoolwork, with sports and spending time with my friends.

I complained to her and I’m sure I irritated her to no end; I always wanted money to buy clothes, shoes, or to go out with my friends. I slacked in school and rolled my eyes when she took me to an archaeology symposium.

And still, my mother just scolded me with pursed lips and a sharp glance. Never once, never once, did she tell me out of spite of how she sewed shoes in the summers, of how she did her calculus homework on the sink in the dim light.

With all my complaining, my mother never once did so herself.


Submitted: February 27, 2018

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