I must have been only 9 or 10 when one of my aunt-in-laws became the head of a clothing factory (a woman, in charge!!! I was beyond impressed), and an opportunity opened up for the women in my family: my mom, my older sister by 5 years, and me. The factory churned out traditional Chinese clothing, mostly women's tops, to ship overseas, but the workers and machineries they had at that time were not quite fully equipped to finish everything. For a few cents per top, we could help them finish hand stitching the seams and sleeves, as well as sewing handmade butterfly buttons onto the shirt front. What a windfall for us!
No longer were we "leisurely" after school and work. We checked out pieces of clothing to stitch and sew as much as we could, as often as we could, sometimes working into the wee hours of the night to finish up a load before a deadline. We competed against each other on how fast we could finish a shirt, and we calculated our net worth after we were done. We started to have a bit of pocket money because my dad was not able to keep up with the counting of the pieces of clothing we finished (we did literally countless pieces over the years until one day our labor made my aunt-in-law so much money that she finally bought the machines to replace us), so we did sneaky things like buying grapes that we could otherwise not afford.
It was a sunny afternoon. My mom and I had walked all the way to the clothing factory with a finished lot of clothing on our backs. The receptionist had checked our work for quality, counted the pieces, and checked the number against the record to make sure that we had returned everything, and then she counted out the money to us. It was always such a sweet moment when she handed us the money. So light in our hands in comparison to the heavy load of clothing on the way there, yet with so much more promise. "Perhaps we could get rich doing this!" My innocence couldn't help but dream for a more abundant future.
Side by side my mom and I walked out of the steel double door of the factory, down a little slope, made a left turn into the main street, and started the 10 minute walk back home.
I was happy that I had helped to make a little money for our family, because we always seemed short. Month to month my mom calculated every cent she had and spent it on daily necessities, and most of it was for food. From time to time my parents would get into an argument about a few dollars if my mom had to ask my dad to supplement when mom's salary ran completely dry. I don't know exactly how my dad spent his salary, but he smoked a lot, drank a lot of rice wine, and often gambled and lost. He was also very good to his mom, and gave her money every month like a good son would. My mom only gave her parents half of what my dad gave his mom, and still, we barely scraped by each month. After we had started the "lucrative" business of sewing clothes, my mom was able to buy us a few more things here and there. On the rare occasions when my school asked us to bring in money for something, we no longer had to wait for an opportune moment when my dad seemed to be in a good mood to ask him. Every year, school organized field trips in spring and fall, and students brought what they could on the trip with them. My mom used to have to calculate extra carefully to make something happen for me, but now we had more to spare, and she was able to prepare for me the same sort of snacks all the other kids would get.
But on this particular sunny afternoon, not a special occasion at all, we passed by a fruit stand with a man peddling fresh grapes. I might have drooled a bit. I might have tugged my mom's hand and slowed down my home-bound feet a bit. I don't remember exactly how it came about, but she stopped, and with love in her eyes and a beautiful smile on her face, she haggled with the peddler and bought a string of grapes for me with some of the money we had just gotten from the clothing factory.
To this day I still could hardly believe that she did that for me. I mean, she ruined grapes for me. They could never, ever, taste like those grapes on that sunny afternoon when my mom and I walked back from the clothing factory.
When I got into college, I felt my wings hardening. I could sense that I had a brighter future, and when I graduated I could buy a lot more grapes and support my mom. So one day I tried to convince her to divorce my dad. I remember getting very frustrated with her because she said she couldn't. That she had nowhere to go. She told me that she had tried to run away from dad when she first got married to him at 19, and when my sister was born just a year later, she had run back to her parents, determined to never return. But my dad begged and groveled outside of my grandparents' house for days on end and made such a scene that my grandparents finally kicked my mom and my older sister out (no wonder my mom only gave her parents half of what my dad gave his mom). Ever since then, my mom said, I was stuck to him. I had nowhere to go.
No amount of convincing would budge my mom. What can you do when someone's that stubborn?
So I left. I flew over the Pacific Ocean, across the entire United States, and ended up in New Jersey, in pursuit of a brand new life. I was fleeing from an old life that was filled with anger and terror, and its name was my father. I removed myself from my parents' lives, as far as I could, as fast as I could.
When I got married in 2009, my parents didn't make it to my wedding. My dad had complained about weaknesses, and of course my mom couldn't make it either because of that. When my first child was born in 2011, my parents did not come either, as my dad was then diagnosed with lung cancer (all those cigarettes finally got him). Less than a year from that, we flew back to see him at his death bed. When he took his last breath, a big tear rolled down his left cheek. I don't know if he pitied himself, or the rest of us.
After my mom's liberation, she finally made her first trip to the US in 2013 and stayed with us for a whole year. When she came back again for her second visit, I put her on a diet and exercise regimen. Many people knew that, because we tracked her progress on a Facebook thread and a lot of people followed her journey, sending words of support and encouragement along the way. She lost some 20 pounds over 5 months, and then stopped. She had complained about aches and pains as the weight came off, but I might have been a bit too enthusiastic about the successes we were seeing to take her seriously. Her third visit was shorter, as the differences between her ways of living and mine became more and more pronounced and unbridgeable. When she left for the 4th time in 2019, I was running my own fitness studio and was hardly ever home, and we knew that she had had enough of living in a household and culture that did not speak her language or share her cultural values. We wanted her to enjoy her retirement years where she had the freedom to do what she wanted, so we said goodbye knowing that she might not come back to stay with us any longer, but we never knew that we would not get a chance to see her in person anymore. She had a heart attack in July of 2021, and passed away quickly, without a word.
So little said, so much left to say. But let's go back to the sunny afternoon when my mom bought me a string of grapes and gave me a taste of possibilities and love. If we do just one thing right by our sons and daughters, we would buy them a string of grapes. That taste would light their paths through the darkest hours, and warm their hearts through the coldest winter. We would be able to rest in peace and leave without a word. They'd know.
Rest in peace, mom. I remember the grapes.