In the dead of winter, dressed in a sleeveless top and sarong, my mother arrived, husband and 2 children in tow, to America, with not one lick of understanding of the language.
It was January 31, 1986, New York, a winter storm brewing outside customs office. We passed through and made it to Boston, my mother reunited with her best friend.
I recalled our first temporary home on Adam Street. It was one floor apartment. I don’t remember staying long. We moved to a 2 bedroom apartment with a family of 4 on Chelmsford St.
My sister was born in 1987. My baby sister in 1992.
Everything seemed well. We had moved to a beautiful 3 bedroom apartment and we were all going to school and doing well. Everything seemed like it was happily ever after. My parents took night classes to learn English. They met English missionaries who spoke Khmer who taught them the English and how to adjust to American lifestyle.
1998. My parents divorced after several years of fighting, affairs, and family embarrassment.
I resented my mother. I resented my cousins who turned their backs on us. I resented the world. I made a pact that I would leave that town and find a better future for myself. I never returned back to Lowell, except to visit her.
When I graduated college, my mother had never been more proud and at first, it embarrassed me how she flaunted me around. I am her only child thus far with a college degree. She had every right to flaunt it when everyone mocked her for being divorce, cursing our family to being high school drop outs, joining gangs, and becoming a teen mother.
Looking back, my mother was a single mother, struggling to raise 4 children ranging from the age of 5 to 16 on minimum wage. Pictures showed a woman strong enough to be alone and face criticism but sad to be alone and world weary from what life threw at her.
For a long time, I never understood what my mother’s life was like until I became of a certain age. I never asked about her past or how she escaped the Khmer Rouge. It wasn’t until my boyfriend, curious, had asked me to question it.
Knowing what my mother went through, seeing her through hardship, and starting to be the age of reason, I learned to curb my complaint about my first world problems.
Despite all the struggle, my mother never loved us less. She never resented us. She taught me everything I needed to know about life, from basic cooking, sewing, cleaning, and being a good woman. At first, it felt un-modern and clung to the past. But becoming a woman myself, I started to see these were life lessons she gave me that I see not many other people have and see how envious they are of my life.
All she wants for her children is happiness, food, shelter, and a partner who will love, be honest, and stand by our side through thick and thin.
35 years later, my mother at 52, reunited with her siblings and a half sister. It was also the first time she had returned to Cambodia. Needless to say, lots of crying and rehashing the past.
My mother and I don’t aways see eye to eye on certain matters. She is from a different generation. But knowing her hardship from Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, the refugee camp, acclimating to a country she did not the language, careening through a divorce that was unheard of in our community, and seeing it from an adult’s eyes, I appreciate all that she has done for me. I have never been more proud of my mother who has raised me to become the woman I am today.
Then & Now: My mother and me