Ordinary Yet Extraordinary – Ruth Mulan Chu Chao’s Story
By: U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao
Above: Photo of Ruth Chao and her three daughters: Elaine (future Secretary of Labor), Jeanette and May in Queens, New York shortly after their arrival in America.
(Editor’s note: Secretary Chao’s
mother passed away on August 2, 2007 after a courageous battle with cancer. This is her
daughter’s celebration of her mother’s life. It is a profoundly personal and
inspiring story of a typical sacrificing mother, yet one who also became a
trailblazer. Likewise, it is a compelling cultural journey of one immigrant
family in America. Readers can also view the entire text online at www.asianfortune.com)
With my first breath, I began my life and she became a
mother. I am blessed to be her first-born. Over the years, she became the
mother of five more daughters. Named Xiaolan, which
means “little (Mu) Lan,” in
honor of my mother, I am an extension of her, forever linked to her through
shared ancestry, blood, and spirit.
PART I: COMING TO AMERICA
As is our family tradition, the whole family returns home
every Christmas from wherever we are to celebrate the holidays with our parents
and siblings. Every Christmas Eve, we gather by the glittering Christmas
tree, where we joyfully reminisce and recount entertaining and poignant
childhood memories. We listen to stories from our parents’ childhoods and
how they grew up in their hometowns. Our parents share their blissful times
together and sorrowful times apart and they discuss the challenges and rewards
of raising six children. We are mesmerized as they relate their emotional
journeys, spiritual beliefs, and greatest hopes.
Over the years, we have formed an
image of our mother as unflappable, optimistic, and
resilient. So it was quite a surprise a few Christmas Eves ago when Mother
revealed another facet to her perceived persona: Though she put up a
brave front, she had suffered and suppressed deep trepidations and fears at
various points of her life’s journey. The fears were so deep that it was
only recently that she was able to talk about them.
In the 1960s, traveling from Taiwan
with no other adults, Mother brought three young daughters–Jeanette, age 5, May
the baby at age 2 1/2, and myself, then eight years old–to America. She managed
to purchase four highly-sought after train tickets. We traveled first on an
overnight train from Taipei to Kaohsiung where we boarded an ocean freighter, “Hai
Ming”, across the Pacific Ocean and through the Panama
Canal. Our family crossed
thousands of miles of ocean to reach New York City, where we were reunited with my father whom we had not
seen in nearly three years.
At that time, I did not understand
the reason for this transcontinental journey, nor the impact this fateful move
would have on our family or on our individual lives. I was simply
overjoyed to follow my mother and to be reunited with my sorely missed father.
Since this was my first
transcontinental voyage, I was enthralled by the majesty and the power of the
sea from our small, lone freighter. At dawn, the emerging sun leaped out above
the horizon against the glowing vermilion sky. At dusk, the sun lethargically
dissolved into the golden twilight. The resplendent moon rose high above
the darkness amidst a galaxy of sparkling stars, which blanketed the sky over
the boundless sea. While standing on the ship’s deck on one seemingly calm day,
I could observe the dynamics of the waves while they sluggishly rolled,
extended, and zoomed into the magical place where heaven and earth converge.
Dreamily, I surveyed this peaceful scene when quite suddenly, the day’s mood
changed, and the sea roared tempestuously, flinging the waves sky-high and
dungeon deep. The ship’s decks were my playground, which I explored with great
curiosity and I found everything fascinating. While onboard, I also
learned to play the Chinese board game, “Go,” with the ship’s very kind captain
in matches after dinners, and occasionally even won some games.
Despite the extra care given to us
by the ship’s officers, crew and other passengers (several students also bound
for America), we were baked under the scorching sun and stifled by the
tropical heat while passing through the Panama Canal.
More gravely, my baby sister May, became terribly ill with a very high fever.
The situation was further complicated by the absence of a doctor and the lack
of appropriate medicine. With limited means, Mother was forced to use
rubbing alcohol to wipe down May’s boiling hot little body in hopes of taming
her fever. It seemed a futile effort. We were consumed with despair. As
young as I was, I felt the palpable tension in the air as my mother fought for
Although Mother was extremely
alarmed, she resolutely soaked May, who was losing consciousness, in cold baths
and continuously wiped her little body with a cold towel. Looking like an
elegant sculpture, Mother knelt beside the tub holding up baby May in the water
with both arms throughout the night. My mother’s heart was breaking and
her eyes were red from exhaustion. I watched Mother and wished I could
alleviate her burden and assuage some of her grief. I heard her prayers
to God to heal baby May and to save her little life.
Together, many of us tried to put
our heads together to find a solution; none were forthcoming. The air of
hopelessness was like a shroud suffocating us. I wanted to scream, “Fever,
please free my baby sister! Don’t be so cruel! Her life hasn’t
truly begun!” As the freighter plied across the open sea with no land in
sight, we felt lost at sea. I was impatient and restless, and tried to
will the freighter forward to reunite us with my father. I thought, “If
only we could find father, he would save little May!”
No longer enthralled by the sea, I
was struck instead by the fragility and insignificance of humanity.
Although I was only eight, I knew if this resulted in tragedy, Mother would
have to endure an unbearable trauma. In fact, it was not until recently - only
a few Christmas Eves ago-decades afterwards-that Mother was able to reveal how
helpless and frightened she felt during this ordeal.
Mercifully, Heaven heard Mother’s
prayers and May’s frail, little body started to cool. She gradually
blinked and opened her eyes whereby she softly parted her lips and faintly
called out to Mother. Released from death’s grip, May returned to our
embrace. She had inherited my parents’ resilient nature, fought
tenaciously for her life and won. Everyone rejoiced. With her watery eyes and a
relieved smile on her pale face, Mother appeared even more fatigued. Yet, at
the same time, her eyes gleamed with calmness, and she exuded strength. Mother
always said with conviction, “Tomorrow, the new buds of opportunities and hopes
will flower, and it shall be more beautiful and bountiful.” To be by
Father’s side helping him to succeed and to expand her children’s horizons were
two of Mother’s goals. She worked tirelessly to meet these goals and never
looked back, always looking ahead to the future.
After 37 days and almost 11,000
nautical miles, we finally reached our destination: New York City! Father had been anxiously awaiting our arrival, and his
gaze pierced through the crowds and scanned the horizon for a glimpse of his
family. Our eagerly anticipated family reunion dispelled any unfortunate
memories of our journey. From that moment to the present, our family has
stayed together. We followed Mother and Father with confidence to this
fertile land of dreams and opportunities which rewarded our diligence and
sacrifices with fulfillment and happiness.
Structures of Love
We are a large and loving family; just the thought of our
family brings a smile to my face. Our home is a peaceful haven that
shelters us from the world’s troubles and pains and where we go to reenergize
and heal our wounds. It is where we find unyielding support, unreserved
acceptance, and unconditional love.
While my sisters and I were growing
up, our parents instilled within us a deep sense of responsibility and
duty. Regardless of what age we were, each of us was responsible for our
share of specific domestic chores. Moreover, we viewed ourselves as
members of one unit, we bore each other’s pride and shame, and we worked
shoulder-to-shoulder for our family’s honor.
In the Chao
household, dinner was scheduled upon Father’s return from work. The
moment he walked through the door, we would welcome him and then help our
mother prepare for dinner. My sisters and I would set the table, scoop
rice into the rice bowls, and then sit down at the dining table. Only
when Father picked up his chopsticks did we start the meal. My sisters
and I savored Mother’s appetizing, home-cooked dishes while listening to Father
recount his day in the world outside.
Another familiar and treasured
childhood scene was the Chao household dinner
parties. My father was very gregarious and enjoyed entertaining family
and friends at home. My sisters and I were assigned to greet the guests at the
door, take their wraps or coats, and present tea. During dinner, we would
act as the serving staff, bringing each dish to the table, pouring the wine,
clearing away the dishes and courteously helping as little hostesses. I
enjoyed these occasions and thought they were good opportunities to practice
good manners, hone my social skills, and make my parents proud.
My mother’s refined upbringing in
an affluent family never hindered her success in managing a full household;
Mother budgeted wisely and skillfully and lived a modest lifestyle. Even after
Father achieved great success and earned a generous income, Mother still
maintained her modest and frugal ways. She emphasized the importance of
financial freedom. The key was not simply to make more money, but to be careful
in our purchasing habits and to make sure that we made the most of every dollar
spent. Our expenses, regardless of the amount, were reported back to
Mother with receipts.
We eagerly anticipated summers and
Christmas because that’s when we embarked on family adventures, especially as
our father achieved greater financial security and was able to take us to
interesting destinations. My sisters and I were involved in every aspect
of planning for the family outing: researching various destinations, devising
the itinerary, comparing hotels and their respective packages and prices,
recommending a hotel to our parents, booking the airplane reservations,
arranging ground transportation, and other trip details. We were expected to
help with arranging the family vacations if we were to enjoy these trips. And
the tasks were delegated among the six of us. My parents wanted each
family adventure to be an educational experience, to open our eyes further and
broaden our horizons. We did not just loll around doing nothing. Wherever we
went, we toured the local sights and attractions. We learned about the local
industries and history of the places we visited. In so doing, we gained
knowledge that could not be gleaned from textbooks and experienced more than
could be learned in a classroom. The benefits were innumerable.
On an average weekday morning, my
sisters and I would be awakened by our alarm clocks. Mother would make our
breakfast and then, we would catch the bus around the corner from our home.
After school, we returned home and did our homework. After dinner, Father set
the tone in turning to his reading and work. Television was rarely his,
or our, companion.
On early Saturday mornings, we were
roused out of bed to clean our rooms, help clean and vacuum the rest of the
house, and wash our own clothes. Even though there were gardeners, we were
armed with garden tools and expected to help weed the acres of front and back
yards that could spawn unsightly dandelions. Our property was maintained
immaculately and everything looked beautiful. Each sister also took turns
in cleaning our swimming pool. The clear, sky blue water was at all times clean
of leaves and other debris and alkaline-perfect. Although the pool is now
nearly 30 years old, it is in pristine condition.
One summer, under Father’s and
Mother’s directions, my sisters and I paved the entire 300-yard U-shaped
driveway in the front of our property. The black asphalt that we laid
with our sweat and hard work remained one of our proudest family
accomplishments. It was a symbol of our family’s teamwork and, in our eyes, it was like a functional, practical piece of
contemporary art. Since Mother and Father have an affinity for bamboo because
it reminded them of their native homes, we planted bamboo toward the back of
our property. The area has now grown dense and richly green, elegant and
vibrant. The bamboo acclimated so well in our yard that it looked like it
always belonged there. It was a sweet remembrance of our parents’ ancestral
Our home is our Garden of Eden. It
occupies a very special place in our hearts. Some people used to say my
family resembled the Von Trapp family in the well-known musical, “The Sound of
Music”-an extended, orderly troop. We prefer the Chinese proverb, “Those who
plant melons produce melons; those who plant beans produce beans.” I have
always believed that we would grow up to be like our parents, progressive and
capable, and making a difference in the world.
Part II: MOTHER GRADUATES
Mother’s ancestry can be traced to the Chu
District of Anhui Province. She was the second of
five children of Wei Qian Chu and Hui Ying Tien. Growing up in a prominent, affluent family, my
mother lived on a fertile plantation and a massive estate. When Mother was
eight, Grandfather was appointed to a position in the Judiciary Yuan in Nanjing; hence, the family followed and relocated to the new city.
From childhood, my mother stood out
as bright, sweet, and mature beyond her age and was my great-grandmother’s
favorite. Although Great-grandmother was a traditional woman of her era, she
held progressive beliefs about gender equality and women’s independence.
Keen on formal education for girls as well as boys, she sent her three great-granddaughters
Ming-Teh Girls High School, a reputable Christian school for girls. My mother
was a well-rounded student and was enlightened by teachings of Christianity.
There, she found her deep faith in God and began her lifelong devotion to the
Lord. Observing her devotion, my sisters and I were inspired to follow
During the war years that marked
20th century Chinese history, life in China was chaotic, and its economy was unreliable and
unstable. Gold became the preferred mode of currency over paper bills
which were inflation prone. My mother’s family sometimes concealed bullions of
gold in the walls of the ancestral house or in the backyard.
Since a child could move about without
attracting undue attention, my precocious eight-year-old mother was enlisted on
a “Top Secret Mission”-to retrieve gold from their Anhui estate hundreds of miles away. My mother who had memorized
the location of the hidden gold and sworn to secrecy on its position traveled
through many dangerous restricted battle zones, accompanied only by the family
housekeeper as her chaperone and companion. She was determined to save her
family from its financial plight. Bold, prudent, and composed, Mother was often
entrusted with such weighty tasks. These experiences helped her to mature more
quickly than her peers and her parents’ heightened expectations of her inspired
her to take on more responsibilities for the family.
Mother’s mother was a sensible and
practical woman who supported her husband and family with courage and
determination through the vicissitudes of fate that marked early 20th century China.
Grandmother retired in Taiwan and moved in with us in America when she was in her 60s. At the age of 90, still
young at heart, Grandmother decided to undertake a new mission to become a
naturalized citizen of the United States. We were impressed by her confidence and boldness.
Determined to ace the naturalization exam, Grandmother diligently did her
research and studiously prepared for the exam.
On the appointed day, with her
neatly combed hair and dressed in her finest attire, she approached the
naturalization office with great seriousness. After only two questions,
the test examiner indicated she had passed. Surprised, Grandmother exclaimed
that she had more knowledge to share and said disappointingly, “Why was I only
tested on two questions? I prepared for a lot more!” Seeing this kind-faced and
silver-gray haired gentlewoman’s earnest reaction, the test examiner expressed
his admiration and respect for her by personally escorting her to her waiting
The saying, “The apple does not fall far from the tree,”
definitely applied here as well. There were similar stories about my mother,
too. When she was 51 years old, after most of her children had grown, my mother
decided to return to St.
John’s University to obtain a Master’s degree in Asian literature and
history. My mother always tried to fulfill her goals and to live her life
with no regrets. And, one of her goals was to obtain a graduate degree.
At first, it was hard for us to understand why she would put herself through
such a potentially stressful experience, especially at her age.
Kindheartedly, we tried to convince her to pursue a different dream. But
Mother’s persistence, perseverance, and love of learning convinced us to
overcome our doubts and we cheered her on with our total support.
In a sleek, white Mercedes that
Father gave her as a gesture of encouragement, Mother drove three roundtrips a
week between Westchester County, north of New York City and St. John’s
University in Queens. For the following two years, rain or shine, she
never missed a class. Once, during a particularly harsh winter blizzard,
through mounds of snow and brutal winds, Mother still managed to arrive at
school in time for her class. Once in the classroom, she found she was
the only student who made it through the storm. Her professor and she
were the only two who showed up that day. They looked at each other and
Her classmates described my mother as
an older, motherly figure who stood out among her younger peers with her grace,
poise and intelligence. She was always completely engaged in the class
lectures and raised her hand often to ask and answer questions. Her notes were
neat and detailed and were generously lent to those less diligent. On campus,
Mother ate with her much younger classmates in the dining hall where she
participated in deep discussions on various issues and engaged in passionate
debates before, during and after classes. At home, she took great
pleasure in studying her lessons, preparing thoroughly for exams, and
researching extensively in writing her thesis. Simply put, Mother was a model
student. The opportunity to relive a youthful ambition of attaining a graduate
degree, even at the age of 51, was a true accomplishment. She still
radiates enjoyment and contentment at the mere mention of this period of her
This period not only satisfied a
lifelong ambition, but also provided her with a unique opportunity to associate
with and understand a younger generation. The interaction with this younger
generation also yielded the ancillary benefit of giving her greater insight
into the world in which her daughters lived and made her an even better mother,
if that were possible.
After two years, Mother
successfully earned a Master’s degree with distinction. Commencement day was a
day of celebration. In a maroon graduation robe with its complementary tasseled
cap, Mother looked especially scholarly, and contemporary. We were overjoyed
for her, surrounding her in posing for the camera in every possible permutation
of family groupings. We were so proud of our mother for having accomplished
this milestone! After Mother supported us on so many public occasions to
celebrate our achievements, we were able to celebrate for her.
Mother always loved literature and
history, and had always demonstrated a great aptitude for these scholarly
topics. During high school she wrote (in Chinese) a short essay titled “Rain,”
which was published in her school paper. The essay was profound, with symbolic
and insightful meaning. To this day, former classmates still compliment her on
“I’ve loved rain since the first
memory. Sprinkles and squalls are adored alike: the constant spring shower, the
violent summer storm, the chilling autumn rain, and the wind, rain, snow, all
inclusive wintry mix. Each season has its own reason, each I adore just
the same; not because of a certain affinity, but because it embodies the
essence of nature, which is ever changing. If there are sunny days, there
must be rainy days; each is merely the other’s rotation of change.
May you be a free-spirited
traveler, or a troubled wanderer, although rainy days possess charm and flair,
the finessing raindrops could certainly dampen your spirit. Hence, some
praise rain, some curse at rain. However, rain is worthy of tribute; it
can soothe your worries, add dimensions, and enhance colors. Foremost,
rain is a harbinger of a bright, sunshiny tomorrow. As in the proverb “Clear
sky follows rain”; darkness awaits the imminent light.”
Growing up, my sisters and I were
not ordered around with robotic commands of “yes” and “no.” Instead,
Mother and Father gently motivated us to think for ourselves, make decisions,
and accept the consequences. We learned that good decisions are not made in the
heat of the moment nor to gratify our base instincts. Mother carefully showed
us a more complex world where some things do not fall into simple right and
wrong categories. She discouraged self-doubt and stubbornness and instead
encouraged rationality and accountability. As a result, their daughters’
capacity to solve problems and take control of complicated situations was
carefully cultivated as we matured.
Since my sisters and I are different people, it is not surprising that we would
have different points of view. Moments of tension and friction are
inevitable. When these moments occurred, Mother did not directly
intervene, nor did she assume the role of referee. On the contrary, she allowed
us to discuss and resolve the disputes ourselves. We sometimes voiced our
complaints loudly. We often had passionate debates. But, we always managed to
reach some compromise and common ground. Before long, the heated discussion was
forgiven and forgotten. Afterwards, our satisfied mother counseled: “Big or
small, it is not as important as sisterhood. These insignificant quarrels are
not worth harping on.” Even today, my sisters and I talk quite often. We
understand each other and share many things with each other. In fact, we
are each other’s best friends.
As the youngest, Angela, who was
such a happy and smart child, was adored by everyone. Despite this, my parents
never babied Angela but applied the same discipline that the rest of us had
experienced. When Angela was in the fourth grade, unlike her older sisters who
all learned to play the piano, she decided she wanted to play the French
horn. She begged our mother to support her. Our mother replied, “If
you are serious in your request, then we will support you. But you have to
persevere and not abandon it quickly if you find you do not like it. Once you
reach a decision, once you start, you have to commit to it for at least one
year.” Enchanted by the rich baritone of the French horn, Angela declared she
was ready to take on this challenge and agreed to follow the guidelines as set
forth by Mother.
Soon after, Angela’s wish was
granted. She got a big, shiny, bronze French horn. Unfortunately, some
unexpected challenges surfaced the very first day. Angela, who was then
ten years old, was petite and delicate. The French horn, on the other hand, was
big and cumbersome. They were nearly the same height. Angela was required to
lug this gigantic hunk of metal to and from school three times a week. Each
step was a chore. Never mind mastering the instrument; even with her
deepest intake of breath, Angela could barely manage a peep from her horn.
Mother told Angela to figure out a
solution. While she wanted to admit defeat, Angela was determined to win this
battle. There would be no retreat. She hauled her horn like a modern day
Hercules and played it for 365 days. Her older sisters watched from the
sidelines with sympathy. Yet, when we saw little Angela struggling with this
huge French horn, it was hard to keep our amusement to ourselves.
Once the year came to an end,
Angela quickly unburdened herself of the French horn, with which she had
endured a love/hate relationship and wiped her hands clean. Although Angela
suffered through a stressful interlude with the French horn, she learned a
valuable life lesson: every mistake can be a lesson learned. With Mother’s
sagely parenting, Angela gained a valuable lesson about perseverance and
commitment that would serve her well as she navigated into the future.
PART III: FAMILY LEGACY
A Mother’s Love
My mother is blessed with many talents, one of which is
calligraphy. One of her brush calligraphy masterpieces still hangs in my room.
On the oversized, vertical scroll, the characters are upright, elegant, yet
forceful. The proverb, “Strokes in the character mirror the characters in the
artist,” can be readily applied to her.
Constrained by their times,
Great-grandmother, Grandmother, and Mother conformed to the traditions and
expectations of Chinese women; their family was their career, passion, and
life. They sacrificed heart and soul for their family. At all times, family was
put first and self was relegated last. Despite the vagaries of fate and life,
Mother was unwavering in her devotion to us. She provided a warm, loving home,
sharing the family responsibilities with Father, supporting him and her
daughters throughout our careers and lives. She did all this in her usual
self-effacing manner-she is the undisputed anchor of our lives.
Growing up, we were often teased by
my parents’ friends and even acquaintances on the challenges of finding
husbands for six sisters. They would jokingly conclude that having to provide
six dowries would certainly bankrupt my parents. Once, Mother remarked with a
smile, “Education of the mind and love in the heart is the handsomest dowry
we’ve provided.” A truer statement was never uttered. Even when my parents were struggling financially during their initial
years in America and maintained a simple, frugal lifestyle, they always
said their greatest legacy and investment was to provide us with the best
education possible and to be good parents to us.
Mother is the ideal to which we
aspire. She emphasized relevance for women, and inspired us to develop
self-respect, self-esteem, independence and competence. These four virtues
armed us well in our search for fulfillment and happiness in life. To help
instill within her daughters these enduring values, Mother invested great
amounts of time and energy in us. A progressive thinker, our mother taught
us to treasure these virtues regardless of whether they were popular or not and
raised six well-rounded, intelligent, able, compassionate, and independent
Most young girls adore playing with dolls and doll houses
while growing up, I was no exception. One of my most fervent wish was to
have a Barbie doll. My parents knew my heart’s desire. Despite our
limited financial means at the time, they budgeted for the purchase of a Barbie
doll and brought her home to me. Barbie was perfect, and I was on cloud nine!
My eyes beamed with delight as I delicately cradled Barbie in my arms.
Sadly, Barbie did not come with any of the advertised accessories such as a
wardrobe of fancy dresses or a house. Since my parents had already given
me so much, I could not ask for more. But Mother kindly asked, “Why don’t we
build a house for Barbie?”
Mother had a magical touch. Taking
an ordinary, common cardboard box, she cut out windows and a door. She
transformed a tissue box into a perfect lounging bed and used scraps to make a
table, a bookshelf, and other basic pieces of furniture for a comfortable, cozy
home for Barbie. With leftover fabrics, she sewed stylish ruffled curtains and
designed matching sheets and pillows. Of course, Mother would not deprive
Barbie of an equally fabulous wardrobe. Barbie’s outfits quickly expanded from
none to many. I spent countless hours playing with Barbie, showering my love on
her and, in return, she brought me immeasurable amounts of joy. Even the thought
of her today brings back sweet and nostalgic memories.
When we were growing up in the
suburbs of New York City, we did not encounter many other Asians in our
neighborhood, school or community. Consequently, we were often the first
or the only Asians many Americans had ever met. Being ethnically and racially
different, my sisters and I sometimes felt slightly insecure and confused.
Our mother sensed our discomfort.
Regaling us with fascinating personal and historical stories, she taught us to
be proud of our ethnic origin and heritage. She conveyed the richness,
splendor, and sophistication of Chinese culture and traditions. In
addition, she maintained and celebrated Chinese customs and traditional
holidays, which took quite an effort, given the lack of Chinese food
ingredients at that time.
Likewise, she also taught us to
understand American culture, which though dissimilar, had admirable qualities
as well. Americans valued individualism, freedom, and candor. America’s strengths lie in the diversity of its population and
also in its ability to tolerate and absorb these differences. As in all things
multidimensional, each culture had its respective strengths and weaknesses.
My parents always encouraged us to
combine the best of East and West. It was this bi-cultural understanding
and appreciation that enabled my sisters and me to navigate successfully
between two worlds. Mother patiently helped us to increase our understanding of
life and the tremendous opportunities that existed in this new country to which
we immigrated. Because of her, we believed the sky was the limit, and
confidently aspired to be heroines of our own destinies.
A beautiful person inside and out,
my mother was graceful, composed, soft-spoken and strong-willed. She treated
others with kindness, sincerity, and generosity. Because she was a woman
of few words, the few she uttered carried much weight. Mother had a keen
sense of humor. She could drop a humorous punch line that made us laugh until
our sides ache. Those who knew her described her as the ideal confidant whether
the news is good or bad.
Mother’s love was like the spring
rain that quietly and gently waters the world’s budding vegetation and quenches
the thirsty awaking earth. She celebrated others’ fortunes and comforted them through
their misfortunes. Mother maneuvered adroitly through life’s unexpected twists
and turns and confronted life’s challenges fearlessly. Rarely did she
complain and amazingly, she never got sick. It was hard for us to imagine the
vigor and strength in that small delicate body. She radiated a positive energy
about her which others around her find very uplifting.
Church was another home to my
mother; it is a sacred ground where she conversed with God. On Sunday mornings
while growing up, rain or shine, we attended church services and asked for
God’s guidance. On some Sundays, there would be a potluck lunch after church
service to which congregants contributed individual dishes to the communal
meal. Mother always volunteered to help in any way possible in the
kitchen. For days, she would spend hours at home preparing various dishes
for the church family. She was a great cook. Her dishes were delicious, and
were always the first to be consumed by church members.
To give back to her native
community, my mother established the Mulan Chu Foundation in 1984, when China first opened its doors to the outside world. Later, in
November of 2006, it was officially renamed the Shanghai Mulan
Education Foundation. Its mission is to award scholarships to help
students have the opportunity to access higher education in Asia and America. Although seemingly a small initiative in a world filled
with many other charitable efforts, my mother’s foundation has sponsored
thousands of students for study in their chosen fields.
Life can be fortunately forgiving
or unfortunately unkind; the moon can be flawlessly full or in wane. Since the
dawn of time, nothing is eternally perfect. Similarly, in the twilight of
her life, a time when Mother and Father should have been enjoying their time
together after a lifetime of hardship, Mother fell ill. Despite her illness,
she comforted us with the words, “At some time, someone must get sick in the
family. You all have many responsibilities with work and family; if it must be
so, I’m the fittest to be sick.” We were speechless. Mother’s love was
profound, pure and so selfless!
Suffering quietly the torturous
nature of her illness, she bravely fought the disease. She still wore her
signature warm, gentle smile and still devoutly prayed for each of us every
day. My sisters and I are now all grown and have found our places in our own
fields of interest. But in her eyes, we are God’s children, bestowed upon her
to raise and protect. We are God’s gracious gift, her life’s purpose and
My sisters and I would rush home on
the weekends whenever possible to be with her. As we did during our childhood,
we sat around Mother and listened now with a special intensity to her life’s
stories and experiences. We laughed about humorous incidents, savored the
memories of the wonderful times together, and celebrated the many special
occasions that mark our lives.
We flipped through our many volumes
of cherished family photo albums. Some pictures are in black and white, others
are in color. Each photograph captures a footprint of the past. Together, they
record the path of our family’s journey. These photographs chronicle our
family’s life together and we treasure them as mementos of our collective
journey, collective challenges overcome, and celebrations of our collective
accomplishments. We knew the time with Mother was closing and we
treasured our moments with her.
We accompanied Mother on strolls in
our backyard to help her get exercise. This spring had been particularly late.
The yard, full of bright, yellow winter jasmine called out to spring, urging
its arrival. Reluctantly, spring crawled out and graced us with its presence:
The soothing spring breeze, the warm caressing sunbeams, the exuberant blooms
of the cherry blossoms, and the bamboo forest coated in nature’s first green
form a peaceful and scenic landscape. In the front yard, there are three
giant evergreens. Once they were saplings, but now they are thick with
needles and confidently reaching for the sky. The garden provides respite
and tranquilly; it is our heart’s fondest mooring.
I recall a few notable quotations.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., American poet and writer (and father of the famous
jurist of the same name) once wrote, “Youth fades; love droops; the leaves of
friendship fall; a mother’s secret hope outlives them all.” Another is by Kate
Douglas Wiggin, a popular American author of children
books and educator in the late 1800’s, who said: “Most of all, the other
beautiful things in life come by twos and threes, by dozens and hundreds.
Plenty of roses, stars, sunsets, rainbows, brothers and sisters, aunts and
cousins, but only one mother in the whole world.”
Some claim mothers are the third
gender of human race; they are in a category of their own. It is only in
mothers that we are linked to the creation of life and the miracles of nature.
Mothers are our greatest love and our path to home. Each of us is some mother’s
child; in motherhood, humankind is united as one.
A mother is incomparable; a
mother’s love is irreplaceable. Mothers are commonplace; but a mother’s love is
everlasting. A mother’s gentle touch, soothing voice, and sweet scent weave a
child’s cradle of paradise. A mother’s love is as vast as the sky, as abundant
as the earth; it surmounts the highest peak, and is deeper than the bottomless
sea. A mother gives life, protection and education to the body and the
soul. She is humankind’s utmost treasure.
To all mothers, for their children
and the world, please take great care! Furthermore, with everlasting love, I
thank my ordinary yet extraordinary mother, whose loving memory we will always
cherish in our hearts.