My Mother, Dong Tsuey Oy Lee (Chin) 11/30/10 – 08/16/05
My dad, Jung Lim Lee (Chin), died when I was 8 yrs. old, he was 45; … my mother lived till almost 95 years old, and I happily shared life with her for 55 of those years. Her story was one of following in the traditional footsteps of the Chinese ancestral daughters for centuries past. She was humble and dutiful; a righteous, gentle soul. She fulfilled her role as daughter, wife, mother, bread-earner, and grandmother in an exemplary fashion. Her trials and tribulations were great … I shall never know the depth of her sufferings not only in China but here in America, raising 3 young daughters and running a laundry store on her own in the Bronx, not speaking much English, and suffering the unspeakable pain of losing not only her husband, but both of her sons to illness, surviving her husband by 46 years in this new homeland of America. We three little girls never heard the words “I love you” from mom, the word “love” was not in our Chinese vocabulary … Yet we never, ever felt unloved. Mom had a beaming smile and she managed to negotiate buses and subways to take us on excursions, on her one day off when the laundry store was closed, to the Bronx zoo, to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, to the beach at Coney Island, to visit relatives in Chinatown, in the Upper East Side, or the Bronx. Sometimes we’d get lost, then mom would splurge on a taxi to get us all home, a costly endeavor. When mom was in her 80’s I asked her why she did not remarry after dad died … Silly girl, she said … this was not possible in her mind … It was not an option. She lived a life of duty. My sisters in turn took great care of mom in her latter years, and mom came to see her legacy grow and prosper … all college graduated professionals and business people with fine homes raising beautiful families. My loving husband of 30 years is of Jewish ancestry, another culture of people steeped in ethical traditions. He quickly embraced the Chinese ritual of annual visits to the gravesites and he looks forward every year for the chance to thank mom and dad and my brother Danny for making the journey to America. And each year the family they brought to life come to honor and pay respects to these titans of our own unique history (her-story). Here is the eulogy I wrote in August 2005 for this humble woman I love so dearly:
8/16/2005 E U L O G Y by Helen Lee Weinberg
Dong Tsuey Oy Lee (Chin)
01/02/1910 – 08/16/2005
No more gentle, graceful person passed on this earth than you, Mom. A modest, unpretentious, courageous woman, you conducted your life simply and ethically. You were not one for scolding, but for charity and understanding. You were not one for many words, and never had a bad word to say of anyone. With your soft smile and kind heart, you earned the highest respect and love from anyone whose life you touched. Selfless in your goals, you sacrificed so much so that your children could have a better life.
Born in a small Toy San village in China, your path was steeped in tradition, a path of very little choice. As a young girl you learned to sew, cook and maintain a good household. You were fortunate to have 2 years of formal schooling and learned to read and write beautifully. After an arranged marriage to a young man you had never met, you gave birth to one son, then another, and your young husband left for America to earn money to provide a good life for the family. You cared faithfully for your mother-in-law (who was a very good woman) and your 2 sons, until the day you, and 16 year old son, Danny, arrived in America, after a grueling journey in the belly of a ship and a frightening immigration interrogation …
At last … America, to join your husband again, after 16 years. He brought you to your new home and new life: a laundry store in the Bronx. How strange it must have all been for you. Of course, Daddy wanted more children, preferably sons, and then 3 girls were born. After being ill for several years, Dad left us when I was only 8, Amy was 9 and Annie only 6 years old. What despair you must have felt, barely able to speak English, having to raise 3 little girls and run a laundry store on your own. How fortunate that Danny was there for you and helped in every way possible. But you had surmounted so many other burdens in your life … having to flee to the hills with your sons – twice when the brutal Japanese invaded China, and then to avoid the scourge of the Maoists. You also survived times of famine and drought in China … Hardships we will never know. My brother Danny, told a story that, as a young boy, there were times he had to go up in the mountains at dawn and collect dewdrops from leaves so the family would have a little water for the day.
What overwhelming sorrow you must have endured at the loss first of your husband, later your eldest son, then your beloved second son … none reaching past the age of mid 50’s. What courage you had to persevere.
But your life was etched not only in hardship … we have many, many hundreds of photos that attest to the joy you created and shared in with family members. All the birthday celebrations, the purchase of new homes, the births of grandchildren, a few vacations here and there, the graduations, the joys of seeing the grandchildren grow into exemplary young adults. You were so very special to each of us. At your bedside those last days at the hospital, you were surrounded by so many loved ones. At one point there were 15 of us: your daughters, their spouses, your grandchildren, their spouses, your great granddaughter. Your legacy of three generations were present and we rejoiced in recollections of special moments we each had with you …
I am 8 years old … I see you rushing across the street outside the laundry store in the Bronx because “Holly-up” was here, the man with the horsedrawn fruit cart. It wasn’t until years later that I learned the fruit & vegetable vendor was saying “Hurry up” … it was not his name.
I am 11 … it is summer at dusk and I am still at the park playing stickball … you are calling out: Howlen, fi fona kee, hac ton … waving for me to come home for dinner.
I am 16 … we are living in a tiny tenement apartment in Chinatown … I see you working diligently and chatting with the other sim-mu’s at the sweatshop sewing factory, smiling when you see us arrive. We three girls are here to help you finish your day’s work so you can come home earlier than 9 or 10 pm.
I am 37, you are 77, we are all vacationing for a week at a beach house in North Carolina … I see you laughing and strolling down the sunny beach swinging a green pail in your hand, trailing after 5 of your young grandchildren …
You are 82, I see you squatting in the garden in my country farmhouse in Bloomville, NY, admiring the huge broccoli, the carrots, the onions, the corn … we talk about the good earth and your life as young girl in China.
You are 94, and in the nursing home, your roommate, Olivia is gasping for breath. You scream for help … in Chinese (though no one on duty understands you) … shue nieu, shue nieu … fi loy … kue um souca hee! And a nurse hears your plea and comes rushing in to help.
These are a sprinkling of my memories … my sisters and each of the family, have their own wonderful, unique memories. Thank you Mommy for making the journey to America … for giving us all life … for nurturing us … you taught us well. Though quiet and small in stature, you were a pillar of strength, a woman warrior.
Mom, we celebrate your life … you led by example, and will live on in each of our hearts and souls as an inimitable, humble, yet so noble a spirit.