My Mother Before She Was a Mother

My mother in 1972, age 22, in Hong Kong. (Photo cred: my dad, the original Instagram Husband.)

My mother in 1972, age 22, in Hong Kong. (Photo cred: my dad, the original Instagram Husband.)

Um, hello, LEGS. Now I know where I get my penchant for short skirts and posing.

When I look at this never before seen photo of my mother before she had us, I see everything I wasn’t. I see a young woman who already knew herself, who was clear on a life path, and decidedly strong and capable. In 1972, at age 22 she was almost ready to graduate from nursing school in Hong Kong, which she put herself through without anyone’s help. Coming from a poor family, she funded her own education and basically raised my aunt, her sister 14 years younger. She and my dad would soon after immigrate separately to America to begin their new life.

When I was a child, she once told me that she made her own clothes and also painstakingly sewed sequins onto cardigans. Funny how the part about sequins is what stuck out after all these years — this story passed down must be why I have such a reverence for sparkles now. Just before this Mother's Day, I asked her to tell me more about this time in her life. When she was of elementary and middle school age in Hong Kong, she told me she produced work for a company that exported high-end cardigans and beaded necklaces all over the world for high-society and clothing boutiques. She would take a bus to the company (a factory), gathered the appropriate number of materials (beads, sequins, whatever applied to the particular job), signed everything out and took it home to complete the job. After it was finished and returned to the company, she would get paid.

She described all the necklaces she laboriously hand-strung together — beautiful, many colors, different size beads — and also her favorite dress — “it had orange and white polka dots and was gorgeous” — that she made for herself to wear in 1972 when bidding farewell to my dad at the airport before he left for Colombia (where he lived and worked before joining my mom in America). In those days, she told me, if someone is going away, a lot of friends and family would go to the airport — it could be up to 100 people. In that era, it was considered a big deal to fly out and “you most certainly don’t go wearing flip flops to say goodbye.”

1972, age 22. My mother bidding farewell to my dad at the Hong Kong airport in her favorite handmade orange and white polka dot dress.

1972, age 22. My mother bidding farewell to my dad at the Hong Kong airport in her favorite handmade orange and white polka dot dress.

But the posing. The posing! It slays me now to see my mother before she was a mother, by at least a good eight years. It’s completely refreshing, complex and eye-opening all at once.

This Mother's Day I was inspired to write a piece about my own mother after reading this NY Times op-ed called Our Mothers as We Never Saw Them. The author put out a call on social media for photos from women of their mothers before they were mothers. I love this passage from the article — because it articulates everything I have wondered about motherhood — “In studying these photos, and each daughter’s interpretation of them, I’ve come to wonder what traits we allow our mothers to have, and which ones we view as temporary, expiring with age and the beginning of motherhood. Can a woman be both sexual and maternal, daring and responsible, innocent and wise? Mothers are either held up as paragons of selflessness, or they’re discounted and parodied. We often don’t see them in all their complexity.”

1971, age 21, Hong Kong.

1971, age 21, Hong Kong.

I think it's possible for mothers to be and to bridge a dichotomy of traits, judging by these photos of my mother before she was a mother. It was always in her. She, too, appears to be Not A Rose Girl.

And also this passage from the article: “I asked contributors to tell me about their moms or the photo submitted, and they often wrote that something specific and special about their present-day mother — her smile, say, or her posture — was present in this earlier version. What solace to know that time, aging and motherhood cannot take away a woman’s essential identity.” 

The author’s last point hugely strikes a chord for me as I venture deeper into my own motherhood journey and try to balance who I was before I became a mother and now. My mother now still has the carriage and quiet grace that exudes from her 22-year old self in these old photos. I also see fearlessness and strength and a total babe (I mean, just look at those legs!). I don't really recall my mother being so playful with us when we were little, so it's fascinating to see an old nursing school photo of her doting on a baby in the pediatric ward — very much present in today's version of my mother and how she interacts with my babies, her grandchildren.

These never before seen photos of my mother allow me to see the woman I know as Mom in a different light. (She's also way more natural in front of the camera than I ever will be!) She had her first child at age 29, and I had my first when I turned 30. What will my sons, when they are grown up, take away from looking at my old social media and blog photos? What will they tell about their mother, now and then, then and now? One thing is for sure, I better start printing out some photos…