Your Mother Should Know
Your Mother Should Know
Mother-daughter relationships can be tender, volatile, or even aloof; no two are the same. These storytellers run the gamut of what it means to be a mother and a daughter.
Guests: Jenny Laden, Audri Thomas, Michele Chapman, Erin McNulty, Cecily Kellogg, Charlie O’Hay, Sok Be
Photo: Johanna Austin
Read the transcript
COMMONSPACE: YOUR MOTHER SHOULD KNOW
Vox Pop: “I would say I definitely owe my mother a phone call. I’m overdue…”
Jamie J: Call your mom! From WHYY and First Person Arts in PhIladelphia, This is Commonspace...I’m your host, Jamie J. Here on Commonspace, live storytelling connects us to each other— and the world. And I’ll take you deeper into the stories with conversations that might just challenge your perceptions.
Today we’re focusing on regular, run of the mill, stories about mothers and daughters… Just kidding! There’s really no such thing as a real simple mother-and-daughter story, because there’s nothing more involved, heartbreaking, beautiful and even painful than that universal relationship.
You know, I read somewhere that storytelling is as human as breathing, and if that’s true, what’s more human than stories about motherhood? Most people have stories of how their mothers resolved whatever came their way, though some better than others. So I’m sure you‘ll relate to the experience of Jenny Laden, who on a recent plane trip found that seemingly every woman around her felt compelled to offer advice to help her ill daughter. It’s almost instinctual for mothers to want to share tips to help a child in distress even when there’s no request for assistance. I mean, you just do it!
Jenny Laden: Last summer my daughter and I were visiting my mom in France and we came back on a plane and as we're getting on the plane we're both exhausted, we haven't slept much the night before. We woke up in what seemed like the middle of the night to leave and it was a long day. My daughter said "Mama, my head hurts a little" and I thought "Oh no I don't have anything in my bag. We'll get you something on the plane, don't worry. You probably just need to drink some water."
So we get on the plane, we get situated we got our headphones watching our movies and she says, "Mommy, my head! My head! My head, it really hurts, it REALLY HURTS. It REALLY hurts!" And she begins to freak out very quickly and escalating very quickly and I'm, "Oh my god, I don't have Ibuprofen, drink some water." And I call the stewardess and the stewardess comes over and she says "What's wrong?" and I said "I just need some aspirin or Tylenol or Ibuprofen or something" and she said "I'll go get you some." She comes back, she hands me aspirin and she says, "She has a headache?" and I said, "Yeah, yeah she does." And she says "Have you ever tried Reiki?" And I was like "What?”
I mean I had tried Reiki when I was like 25 but I didn't understand what she was talking about, how one would relate to this situation as my child is clenching her head, and…so I give her the aspirin and the stewardess says, "Do you mind?" and I said "Uh…okay, what?" And she just took her hand…is it ok if I put my hand on your head? And she put her hand on my daughters head and she closed her eyes and maybe it was even hovering above -- and she just stayed like that. And my daughter sat back and tried to breathe and I just said "You know, it's gonna be OK" and she took her hand away and she was calm for a little bit and then she said "Mama, it's not working. It's not working, the aspirin, it's not working yet. Why isn't it working? Why isn't it working? My head hurts SO MUCH!!" And she starts to cry and scream again.
And by this time a woman sitting on the aisle right across from her has gotten up off of her seat and I'd seen her in the London airport. She was travelling with a much older woman and they both wore hijabs and I don't know where she came from originally, but she's kneeling beside my daughter and she says, "Does she get these often?" and I said "Headaches?" and she said "Yeah," and I said "Not really. Not that often, why?" And she said "My daughter gets them. Do you mind?" I said "No, no."
And so she took her hand and she put it on her forehead and she began muttering something with her eyes closed almost looked like she was praying and I don't know what she was saying because I couldn't even hear her, but we sat like that for I don't know, three, four, five minutes. She just stayed with my daughter and she leaned back and she kind of just like melted to this woman's touch. And I was you know, crying, from just having been so freaked out and then being so relieved that she was calming down and that someone was being helpful in a way that I, in that moment, couldn't be. And so she was quiet, she calmed down and then right in front of us a woman stood up and I had noticed her, she was traveling with a one year old and a two year old inexplicably, alone traveling internationally with these two tiny little children and she stands up, having rummaged through her bag and says "Would you like one of these?" And she hands me one of those blinding masks because “maybe the light is hurting her eyes.” And I said "Thank you so much." And by then she was calmer but she began to get a little bit flustered again and a woman from the other side of the plane came all the way around and was like basically waiting in line. She said, "Do you mind?" and I said "Not at all." And she put her hand-- had these long nails and these long braids and she's like "My daughter gets this too." And she puts her hand on her head and she closes her eyes and she’s sort of going like this and it seems to me like she's also praying. And by then it was like all of the stress and the panic had just seeped right out of my daughter's body and she finally just put her head down on my lap and she fell asleep.
Jamie J: Oh, sweet comfort. Jenny Laden is an artist whose work has been exhibited nationally and internationally. Her story made us wonder about all the things we owe our mothers. So Commonspace Associate Producer Ali L’Esperance asked some daughters, and sons, at a recent First Person Arts event.
Voice 1: My first thought was what don’t I owe my mother! Really, I mean…
Voice 2: Off the top of my head, I would say I owe her my sense of responsibility. My parents are divorced, and my dad was very lax, more of a friend, my mom was very strict, which was annoying throughout high school and for most of my childhood life. But in hindsight it was very important and has done me a lot of good, so thank you mom, I receive that message.
Voice 3: I owe her a very deep approval and appreciation of all the different facets of like a woman’s power coming through at a very young age. When I was growing up I would start to get that little bit of like, edge and instead of shutting down the little girl who starts to spout her mouth off, my mother and her sisters would just go, “Oh, tell me!” and my mother taught me how to bellydance too, and so she’d like tell me “shake your hips for me,” and I’d be like so angry, and she’d be like “shake your hips, show me!” and it was just this really deep approval for just like natural bodies and being like a flesh and blood woman.”
Voice 5: Well other than the fact that I’m here…I would say that you know, kinda of a sense of self…she was good at instilling a sense of self. She allowed me to make mistakes and kinda go out and not overprotect or things like that, that gave me the freedom to do what I needed to do to in order to find myself.
Voice 6: I owe her everything, I mean she raised me, she loved me…she’s my best friend! So…everything.
Jamie J: So…the general consensus is…everything! It’s clear that motherhood is never easy, but I can’t imagine the trauma of having a really difficult pregnancy, and having to face tough medical decisions. I’ve heard some people say, it’s relatively simple to have a baby -- what’s hard is to raise them afterwards. Not exactly accurate, but close.
I did a bit of research for this show and I found something extraordinary: it’s really NOT that simple - a recent study published by the Journal of Health Affairs found that babies born in the United States are less likely to reach their first birthday than babies born in similarly wealthy countries. It blamed the high mortality rate in the US on poverty and an inadequate social safety net. Imagine…
Well that’s an apt backdrop to better understand the choice faced by our next storyteller, computer instructor Audri Thomas.
Audri Thomas: I chose to be a mom the evening that I got the call that I was pregnant. I was 20 years old and I was afraid and shocked. I had all these emotions running through me. My pregnancy went fine until my 6th month and 3rd week. I went into premature labor. And I gave birth to a son that was 1 pound and 14 ounces. He was very ill. He was sick, he had lots of problems. Underdeveloped lungs and various other problems he suffered.
Along that journey I recall an evening that the doctors called me and they told me that I had a choice. I had the choice of allowing him to live or to have them pull the plug on him. To have him die.
My choice was never that. I would never allow my child to die. That was my choice.
So I continued to visit my son in the neonatal facility and
after my son had gotten a little bit better after about 18 months being in the hospital he came home. And he was the joy of my life.
I was 20 then, I'm 60 now. And he's 39 years old. And he's one of the best things to my life. I made that choice of being a mom.
Jamie J: This earlier experience with her newborn baby’s brush with mortality, prepared Audri for what was to come more than two decades later…as her mother was facing death.
I realized my mother was a human-- a person -- when she'd been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My mother was the kind of lady that was very materialistic, and uh, she was a nice lady but her and I didn’t have the best relationship. Our relationship was somewhat strained. And she invited me to come and sit on the side of her bed! That was weird. Being that that was the first time in my life and I was about 45! And I got to sit on my mom's bed. So I'm looking at her and she says to me, "You know, I really don't feel like I have The Big C. Maybe God has had me do all of the things that I needed to do in this lifetime." So I looked at her and I felt really sad, but then I felt really honored that she would share that kind of emotion with me at that particular time because in the past we hadn't shared many things.
So I sat there on the side of the bed and I collected myself. My mother, she was always a bit standoff-ish but at that time I realize that my mother was just like everybody else. She was just a human. She was just a person and she was grieving for her own life and she wanted me to know that, and I felt special because she thought that I was special enough at that moment to share that emotion with me. I love my mom and I miss her so much.
Jamie J: Storyteller Audri Thomas is a computer instructor for the City of Philadelphia.
Now, let me tell you that the stories on this episode came from a First Person Arts festival event, directed by Suli Holum, which featured mothers from many walks of life and experiences. One of those stories was really a conversation – between Michele Chapman and her daughter Erin McNulty – who was born with Down Syndrome. Erin is all grown up now, and beginning to build her own life. They talked about what it was like to raise – and be – a special needs child…
Erin McNulty: I wonder what's it like to have a baby with special needs?
Michele Chapman: Well. It was scary at first. I remember many years ago when I was watching Mystery on channel 12 and Daddy was asleep upstairs, he was working the night shift and we got the phone call from the doctor with results from the amniocentesis and he told me that you had trisomy 21, which you know is Down Syndrome. I remember saying to daddy that I didn't think I could handle having a baby with Down Syndrome. And he said "Yes you can." And deep down inside I knew he was right, I knew I could handle it. But we were scared. We didn't know what to expect. And we knew that life was going to be harder for you than it would be if you'd been born as a typical child. So that made us a little bit sad. We both took off work the next day and somehow we ended up at a mall.
Yeah…and as we're at the mall I see mommies pushing their babies in their strollers and I couldn't help but think, after you were born if I were pushing you in a stroller would someone come up and talk to you like moms and other people do. They talk to babies. Or would they avoid you because you look different? And I saw a mother helping her baby to drink from a cup and I wondered, "Will my baby ever learn to drink from a cup?" I had all these questions I just didn't know.
And then when you were born I was so focused on milestones. Would you learn to walk and to talk and to sit up and be toilet trained. And all mothers are focused on those things, but mothers of typical children assume that these things are going to happen, they take it for granted. When you're a mother of a special needs child you're never certain if those milestones would be reached, and so when you did reach one of those milestones it was such a sweet, sweet victory. Because I knew you had worked so much harder to get to that point. And I remember when I worked with Cathie, you know Lena and Daniel's mom. They're both very bright kids and she came to work one day and said "Lena and Daniel got their test scores back. And they scored at the 98th percentile in every subject they'd taken." And I said, "Oh yeah? Well Erin learned to tie her shoes!" And I saw it as an equivalent victory and we were both very, very proud mothers. And I learned as a mother of a child with special needs to appreciate the teeniest and tiniest of things because they're all very important. And now here you are, a lovely and capable young woman. Did you want to ask me something about into the future?
Erin McNulty: What happens when you die?
Michele Chapman: And that's a very hard question also. But we've been to 8 funerals in the past year so I understand why it's on your mind. And it's also why Daddy and I want you to be living fairly independently with a friend or two before we die. So first we have to find a friend you can live with or two friends. And Daddy and you have already been working on cooking together. You and I have been working on doing laundry together. None of us is really good about cleaning so you'll have to hire a cleaning person. (laughter) And we know that you're already capable of traveling by public transportation but we might want to also think about Uber? Cause bus schedules aren't always convenient for where you need to get to on a certain time. So in order to get to girls night, or Special Olympics practices, or anywhere, you might want to consider Uber, you and your roommate
As far as money goes, you have two part time jobs now. And you've been putting money into your ABLE savings account so that's good. And you and your roommate, I expect, will have some waiver money that will allow you to hire an in-home support person. Not someone who lives with you but someone who's there when you need them, to maybe take you food shopping or maybe help with cooking or cleaning or checking bus schedules. And Daddy and I have set up a special needs trust so that after we die and the house is sold, the money from the sale of the house and any other we might have would go into that special needs trust for your needs. And in our will we designated two of your cousins. One who will look after you and your needs and the other who will be in charge of the money and the special needs trust. So when you need something you communicate it to your cousins and they can get what you need. Now again over time those people might change. It might not be the same cousins but you have a lot of cousins who love you and who would be willing to step up to the plate and assume those roles.
So Erin I think there's lots and lots of “I wonders” still in your future. But there's a lot of “I knows” and I know that you are capable of standing up for your own rights and you'll be able to vocalize whatever your needs are to get what you do need. So I'm pretty confident that you're gonna do just alright.
Jamie J: And so are we. Again that’s Michele Chapman and her daughter Erin McNulty…sharing their story of overcoming the challenges of a special needs child.
Jamie J: You’re listening to Commonspace, from WHYY and First Person Arts, where live storytelling and conversation connects us to each other — and the world. I’m your host, Jamie J. You know, after all the years of hearing hundreds of great stories with First Person Arts, I’m still amazed at the courage and the willingness of many storytellers to share some of their deepest and more personal experiences. That brings me to Cecily Kellogg, a writer who runs her own digital marketing agency. Her story tells of the harrowing journey to becoming the mother she is today. And it’s not a story for the faint of spirit.
Cecily Kellogg: The first time I got pregnant I was 19. I didn't know who the father was. I was a young alcoholic still accelerating on the on-ramp up to my bottom. I chose not to be a mom that time. For the best.
The second time I got pregnant my husband and I, we'd been together for a long time, we'd been sober 5 years and we were ready to start our family. And it turned out we actually couldn't do it! We had to go and get a lot of medical intervention and a lot of help. Blessedly, we finally went and did our first IVF cycle, I responded like I was a 22-year-old egg donor, even though I was a 37-year-old woman. Collected 35 eggs, 27 were good, 17 were fertilized. That's 17 possible babies.
We decided to transfer three of them and see if any would stick and two did. With early testing we found out they were boys. I didn't know much about boys other than the obvious, being a straight woman. But I was so happy. We named them Nicholas and Zachary.
It was a terrible pregnancy; I was sick the whole time.
Bloated like, I mean people get bloated when they're pregnant but we're talking 2.5 shoe sizes bloated. And we should have known that sickness was a sign of something, but it wasn't until I was about 23.5 weeks along and my husband and my best friend Sarah and I all went to the hospital together for an anatomy ultrasound. We were in the room for a moment, the tech gelled up my belly and looked at it and then she said, "You know, I'm gonna move you guys to a better room with a better machine."
That's not a good sign.
So we went to the other room. She still didn't say anything after checking me over, and the doctor came in. And that's when they told me that sometime in the past 2 weeks one of the boys had passed away.
It was devastating, but I have to admit a sense of relief because after all the months of trying and tests and procedures, the shoe had dropped. So we go, but then we went to see my doctor who was an amazing man who's - not joking, this is really his name - Dr. Mama. And they did the routine tests that you get when you go to see your obstetrician: your weight, your blood pressure and you pee on a stick.
There was not good news. My blood pressure was through the roof, I gained 18 lbs in 10 days…and I had so much protein in my urine the stick turned black. My doctor said you have to go to the hospital and check in right now. And I said, being a fat woman, "Can I have lunch first?" And he said, "No."
While I was in the hospital I got hooked up to more machines than you can possibly imagine. I got catheterized, which was kind of a relief honestly, with twins I didn't have to get up and go to the bathroom anymore. But I got sicker overnight. They gave me medication to try to slow down the progress of the disease I had, which turns out it's called preeclampsia, which effects 5-10% of women, usually toward the end of their pregnancy where babies can be safely delivered but I was 23.5 weeks and my surviving twin was very small. And after a horrible night where my head almost split open in pain, my husband thought I was gonna die. They came in the next morning and told us the news. We had two choices: my surviving son and I could die. Or just my son.
This is not a choice a mother ever wants to make. It sucked.
So I'm gonna talk about politics a little bit. This was 2004, it was a few months before the partial birth abortion ban had become the law. It had been passed but it was still working its way through the courts. If the partial birth abortion ban had been in effect, I would have had to wait for the hospital to convene a panel of doctors, ethicists, lawyers, to determine whether or not my doctor was allowed to treat me for the medical condition that was trying to kill me. I didn't have a week to wait and that's how long those panels took. Because it wasn't the law, once the decision was made I was in surgery within the hour.
I don't remember much but I did wake up on the table and try to run away. Doctor Mama put his hand out on my thigh and said, "Cecily, you have to stay still."
Later I woke up in recovery, alone and empty. I have to say, too, that Dr. Mama, the procedure I had was known as a partial birth abortion but we all know that's not a real medical procedure that exists. I had what's called an intact dilation and extraction, which happens in less than a tenth of a percent of all pregnancies. And only one percent of all abortions happen after the 20th week. I was one of the rare ones but I was lucky. My doctor was one of the three--three! In Philadelphia trained to do this procedure. How many teaching hospitals does this city have? There's only three doctors willing to do it. And you could ask Dr. George Tiller why, except he was shot to death in his church for performing that same procedure. So I was lucky. Now the third time I got pregnant, it worked out great. There was a little drama at the end, but I had my daughter, my gorgeous, lovely, Victoria Anne. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I really am lucky. I’m so glad I chose to be a mother.
Jamie J: If you remember the newspaper headlines, Cecily was referring to Dr. George Tiller, who was the abortion provider gunned down in Kansas in 2009. Cecily Kellogg runs her own digital marketing agency. She lives in Philadelphia with here daughter Tori, and her husband Charlie O’Hay, a widely published freelance writer and poet. Well, we want to thank Cecily for telling us her story. But we also wanted to hear more, so we invited her, and her husband Charlie O’Hay - to come and talk to us about their family’s past…and present. Cecily and Charlie…welcome to Commonspace.
Charlie O’Hay: Thanks for having us.
Cecily: Glad to be here.
Jamie: Cecily, you know, you seem to be a woman who has had all the experiences that a pregnant woman can have. After all these experiences, brink of life and death, why move forward with being a mom?
Cecily Kellogg: Well, I'll tell you I didn't have a vision necessarily of what motherhood would look like for me. I just knew with Charlie I had the opportunity to parent in a way that would be amazing. And we're both only children so we weren't really married to having, like, more than one kid. But, I don't know, when you’re with that person it feels like…And also once you get in the mix of treating infertility like it just becomes your entire focus. People did ask us after the twins why we decided to proceed with an actual pregnancy again as opposed to adoption or anything…and people don't know this but it costs a lot of money to adopt a baby. A lot of money, a lot of time and a huge amount of risk.
Jamie: Has anyone ever judged your decisions?
Cecily Kellogg: [Laughs]
Charlie O’Hay: A little bit.
Cecily Kellogg: [Laughs] well, I started blogging while I was going through infertility treatments. So I had this little blog in a little corner of the internet that nobody knew about but then after I lost the twins and I had a medical termination, it was right before George Bush got elected the second time.
And I went on my blog and I said "Look, don't vote for him. Cuz he wants me dead" I was saved -- my life was saved. I didn't go into labor and delivery. So they did a basically partial birth abortion. It's an intact dilation and extraction procedure to save my life because that was the least harmful route. So when I talked very openly and honestly about that, absolutely, the judgement of the internet came down upon me. [Laugh] But um, my personal life, my immediate friends, the people that mattered the most to me, they were all just as grief stricken as we were. And there was no judgment there.
Charlie O’Hay: You'd be surprised how many people will say things like "Oh, I would have died in that situation. I would have gladly died." And I think that's nice to say-- easy to say when you're in your chair at home and you know, but if it's you. If it's you and the doctors are standing at the foot of your bed, I bet you'd choose to live. I bet most people choose to live.
Jamie: Charlie, let me ask, have you ever written a poem about being a father.
Charlie O’Hay: Oh, several. I wrote a piece specifically about the loss of the boys. That’s still a little hard to read--but it came from a place where I was dealing with a lot of the grief right after it happened and you know grief is funny. It strikes when you least expect it. So I'll be driving along and have to pull over to the side of the road and have a little crying jag and then kind of gather myself and I had this awful idea that the boys were, in my head somehow, toddlers and were lost. Either at sea or in the woods. And this vision would repeat to me at random times and it was so devastating. It was emotionally, it would just shut me down. And so I wrote this piece about, you know, um, you're starting from there. That what if they were, you know, lost in the woods. And by the time…I did not know where the piece was going…and by the time I came to the conclusion of the piece there was a sort of acceptance that…that this is a loss that we have to live with. This is something that happened. You can't unring that bell. But that they're not suffering. That they're not in some horrible place. They're not looking for me. Or for Cecily. Um…they're whole, wherever they are. And that’s how the poem…the poem basically ends with an image of how we as adults deal with loss. And it's – uh…have you ever seen a tree? A really old tree? And how it was fenced in when it was a sap thing? And they never took the fence down. And the tree grew and grew and finally just incorporates the fence into it's own body? And that's how the poem ends. With basically, this this something that we carry. The fence, the iron bars of this grief are now part, they're inside my body. But they're part of and I accept them as such. And it's not a happy ending. I don't do a lot of those poems. Um…but I think that's where I was at. That's how I came through to the other side of that phase of that grief.
Jamie: Cec, did you ever have a similar experience to Charlie? Charlie said their images kind of haunted him for a time.
Cecily Kellogg: Yes. But not in the way that Charlie talks about. I didn't worry about them being lost. I suddenly understood women who go to hospitals and steal babies. That made complete sense to me. Because once you have that baby taken from you that you wanted so desperately. I mean I was like "I'm really hoping that somebody finds a homeless baby in a dumpster so I can nurse it with all this milk I'm making for nobody."
Jamie: You know, in listening to you two both, it's profound. You know grief is not just about who you've lost. It's acknowledging that you've lost something.
Cecily Kellogg: One of the reasons we've always told Tori about her brothers., she gets to know she has these guardian angels in a way that are her big brothers. She gets to understand if I say I'm really sad about the boys today. She gets it. She understands and knows what I'm talking about and gives me space to deal. But probably the best thing for healing was having her.
Jamie J: Well what I see when I look at you, is joy that comes after sorrow.
Cecily Kellogg: Well there’s a reason I have this tattoo’d on my arm, which is an Octavia Butler quote…”In order to rise from the ash, one must first burn.”
Jamie J: We’ve been talking with digital marketing manager and writer Cecily Kellogg, and her husband, writer and poet Charlie O’Hay.
Cecily and Charlie…thanks so much for visiting Commonspace and and being so generous about sharing your story with us.
Cecily Kellogg: Thank you.
Jamie J: It’s a funny thing that perhaps our greatest fear as women - and our mother’s fondest hope – is that we will become just like them when we grow up. So Commonspace Associate Producer Ali L’Esperance asked participants at a recent First Person Arts event: “What were the biggest things you took from your mother that made you who you are today?”
Voice 1: Let emotions subside before you decide
Voice 2: To not hide who you are, really, just tell it like it is, and whatever happens, happens.
Voice 3: Probably her work ethic, because we both are very hard workers and very committed to what we do.
Voice 4: I would say her sense of curiosity, number one thing.
Voice 5: My damaged liver. She’s the queen of Whisky Wednesdays, Tequila Tuesdays, Thirsty Thursdays, and then Friday Saturday, Sunday. Only break is on Monday. She’s the best. (laughter)
Jamie J: Cheers!!! This is Commonspace, a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY, and it’s been supported by the Pew Center For Arts And Heritage. Listen to Commonspace every Sunday night at 8 pm, and subscribe to us any time, at Apple Podcasts and Stitcher. I’m your host Jamie J.
Jamie J: Think about it, we all owe something special to our moms…sometimes those things are monumental and crucial, other times seemingly trivial…but still significant, in one way or another. But imagine, if you will, that your entire life rests on a journey your parents took to escape danger and violence in their home country just to get here. Such an immigrant story is what brought Sok Be from Cambodia to America…She spoke with Commonspace co-producer Elisabeth Perez Luna...
Elisabeth Perez Luna: Tell me about your mother.
SB: My mother is a strong, powerful woman who’s carried on her shoulders our family all of her life. Her mother was a strong, beautiful, smart, powerful woman who was also carrying her family on her shoulders. My mother was the eldest of six children and came from a family that was poor. Where my grandfather had his own weaknesses and left it to my grandmother to figure out how to survive in Cambodia in a small city where everybody knows each other. Where my grandfather was getting into gambling debts and would leave the house and leave the family for periods of time and then leave it to my grandmother to figure out how to pay those debts. And then leave it to my mother, then, and her siblings on how to then survive on not having a man in the house to bring in the income. And my mom said that when they saw that this was the kind of person that my grandfather was that they got together as a family and said, "Well, we can't depend on him. So we have to come together and figure out how to pay off his debts, keep our family together and continue forward." And so that really created for them, and through her, a really strong bond. And with that she carried us through a war, through coming to America. Through creating a business. So she and my father have operated a business for over thirty years. Put my brother and myself through college. So yeah, my mom's a strong, strong woman.
EPL: You know you often hear that. The strength of my mother and she was resilient but what does it really mean on a day-to-day thing. What are some examples?
SB: Well you have to make sacrifices. Right? I think about the sacrifices that I've had to witness -- I mean there's the material things. You don't buy new clothes, you don't buy new cars, you don't move into a bigger house when you can afford it. There's also that when you have some, you give it away. That even though you gain a little that you have to think about this greater good. This is how I felt it. I wasn't always number one. And that was something that I had to come to terms with because my mother put the family and the greater good of the family ahead of -- not her relationship with me, because everything that she did for the family was because of me. But the journey that she took to show her love and her value towards us was not about putting me as an individual first but really about putting the greater good of our family first. So I didn't get a new car, I didn't get a new toy but that's because we then took that money and gave it to our cousins who were in Cambodia who needed that money more than I needed that toy. And when I say needed it, it’s because someone had a medical emergency, like my aunt got diagnosed with cancer in Cambodia. And in Cambodia there's not insurance or anything like that so you have to pay cash in order to go to the hospital. And so it comes from out of what would have been spent for us. So you'll hear at the dinner table, who we're helping, who's in need right now. How much money do we have to send over there to get them the kind of care that they need so that they'll survive.
EPL: What are the stories you hear about war?"
SB: I was only three or four years old when I came so the stories I hear are second hand stories. And what's interesting about the life that we have now is that family gatherings for us are a really important time to pull everybody together. It was also the time then, where, because everybody was getting together, where they could talk about what happened in the past. I'm thinking about the kind of luck that we had as a family. Let me say that in the war of Cambodia, a lot of people lost family members. We had friends and family who we call them uncles now, but who…they were the only living survivor of that family unit. Every single person in that family, the six, her four brothers and my aunt. We survived.
EPL: Your parents went to a refugee camp and all that, but it was impossible to be during the war under Pol Pot and all that without seeing some ugly levels of violence and mayhem. Did they ever speak to you about it or they said "that's not something you need to know."
Sok Be: They did but only when pressed. And in fact recently I had this memory and I asked my mom about it. We were just talking and I said "Mom, can you let me know if it was true or not." I said "I had this dream that we were walking and you were holding me and you were holding me close to your chest but that you were crying and that there were people carrying, it looked like bodies," is what I said to her. And I was like " I don't know. I can't imagine when this would happen. Where would I have been at that time and do you have any history for me on that?" And she said "Actually probably when you were around one or two years old, this was during the war, we had to walk through a field of dead bodies. We were walking on this trail and as you know in Cambodia they put land mines everywhere. And so we were walking in single file and every once and a while you would hear bombs go off and somewhere far ahead of us, a mine would go off and it would detonate and it would kill people. You would have to walk over these bodies as we're making this journey. And so we tried to shelter you children from that but you could smell the burning carcass, you could also imagine that this is in Cambodia where it's hot, where the sun is beating on you. There's no shade. It's not only that the bodies have exploded and they're dead and there's blood everywhere but that it's rotting, it's decaying." And she said "Yeah, that was a real memory".
EPL: I think you tell the story that you had a bunch of people on a bike. Your escape of Khmer Rouge.
SB: Yeah…so this is our escape from the Khmer Rouge to the Thai border and eventually to the refugee camp on the Thai side. So at that time the only way to kind of see that hope, to think about another day is to think about escape. To think about escaping this place where you're being asked to work all the time where your family is being threatened by the Khmer Rouge. Where every night you go to bed you don't know if you're gonna wake up or if somebody's gonna come and pull you out of your house and kill you, or pull family members from their homes and kill them. So my mother and father made a plan to run to the Thai border, where they knew that there was a refugee camp where they would be saved. The only way that they could get there though was by a bike. It was too far to walk. And so my father loaded this bike, with my mother, holding my infant brother, myself on the middle bar, and him riding us through Cambodia, basically from the city to the Thai border. And as I understand the story, we actually had to do this trip twice. So the first time we did this we had gotten to the border but when we arrived they had closed the border. And so we weren't able to make that escape. And what's scary about that is if the Khmer Rouge had caught you, you would have been shot on the spot. And so when we saw that the border was closed then we were able to divert and go back to the place where we were. The second time we actually were able to make it through.
EPL: So how did they get here?
SB: We were apart of, I believe it was Lutheran Social Services that did resettlements through the UN and so we were resettled. In fact my grandmother and her children were resettled in America first. They were sent to Detroit, Michigan, and then because we when were in the refugee camps in Thailand and the UN had asked as part of the application do you have family in America? We were able to say “Yes, we have family in Detroit, Michigan” and that's how we were then brought here. So there's a lot to be said about America and the services that we offer and being able to help people out of harms way I think is something I really am grateful for.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: You know one of the things that happened a lot with sons and daughters of refugees and immigrants is that they have to negotiate the balance of keeping the traditions and then understand the new nation and the needs of a new country that-- it's hard for people to understand that living in those two worlds is never that easy. So do you remember that?
SB: Oh yeah! I mean the first thing I remember was one day I invited a friend over for dinner, which it's uncommon for my family. We just never did that. And people were arranging playdates and what not…we would see "oh, so and so got invited to somebody's house for dinner." And I said "Mom, can I invite somebody home for dinner?" and she's like "Ok! You can try. But we won't be there. You guys will have to take care of dinner on your own." And so we invited a friend over and we had rice, which is typical Cambodian-Chinese, we have rice at every meal! And I was thinking about what are going to serve this person, this American friend for dinner. And so we cut up hot dogs because that's very American and we served it with rice. And the person was like, "Oh this is interesting." And then they asked "Well, can I have butter with this rice?" And all of us just sat there and just looked at this person, like, shocked. Who puts butter on rice? Like, if you're gonna put anything on rice you're gonna put soy sauce on rice. I mean that's just a small example. I think there's also the kind of deeper values like the choice to go away to school or stay at home. Right? As a daughter I should have stayed at home and been close to my family but instead I chose to go away to school. Not only that I eventually moved to China for two years. Very far separated from my family. And these are negotiations between what do I value as an independent person as a strong, free thinking person growing up in America as an independent woman and then this kind of tug with tradition where my mom says, "As my daughter you must stay close to me." Not mentally. Not emotionally, but physically. I need you next to me. I need you living in the same house as me. You cannot be far away from me."
SB: So imagine that clash, right? And this is me. I'm like 18. So there's that rift, right? And there's that tension and there were times when we weren't speaking for months on end because I was trying to find out who I was as an American, as a Chinese American, as a Chinese Cambodian American. As a woman.
EPL: Your grandmother was not with you when you came?
SB: Um, no but we eventually lived with each other so imagine this house in Michigan with three generations: grandparents, parents and children. And not only that but there's another house next door to it where my aunt bought her house so it was a little corner house or two houses on a corner with a fence. We took down the fence between the two houses so the only time I was apart from my cousins is when we went to bed. So it was my grandmother, my grandfather, my mom, my dad, my aunt, my uncle and we at some point there must have been 25 people, just…Chinese people, Asian people, and we were the only Asians in the community so just “oh yeah it's that clan” right there.
EPL: Did you feel like a clan?
SB: Uh, not until after I had perspective on it. Because what I didn't know then was this wasn't what other people did. This was not normal. For me it was normal to be ensconced in a family unit. It was normal to have your aunts and uncles around you. It was normal to have your grandmother telling you what to do. It was normal to have your grandmother cooking for you every day. It was normal to have your mother working at a restaurant. It was normal to kind of just be part of this unit and not normal to be searching for your own story. That you are kind of protected in this nest that they created for us.
EPL: Well, at the same time you felt you needed to leave to find yourself. Did your mother speak to you ever about her process of becoming, understanding what an American woman and an American mother is supposed to do or does, or…?
EPL: You're laughing. You're smiling
SB: Because she started going to therapy, and she uses therapy as an excuse to kind of manipulate me. But she said "Well now I go to therapy and this is what the therapist told me." And she tried to use that as an influence, as "She said that you should be on this part of your development path." So yes my mom did start thinking about her own journey. Not just to America but her own journey as a person. I don't think she realized in the time that she was here that she had her own journey to be on. And it took us until very recently, probably in the past two years. And so this was thirty years later to say like "Oh. I have something to contribute that's not about my family but that's about me, that's about my own story as a daughter of a very strong woman, as a daughter of a refugee but as a person who came to America as an immigrant.
EPL: Are you a parent yourself?
SB: I am not.
EPL: Ok. But what are the things if you have children. They say "I'll NEVER do this to my kids or on the reverse, I'll teach them to do this, to understand traditions on both sides, how would you see parenthood?
SB: I have nieces and nephews and not having children of my own I think it's for me, to make sure that I'm the aunt who actually holds the family identity for our family because my cousins, my brother, they're busy parenting. I think the one thing that I want to make sure is to make explicit that our story is unique and that where we've come from also determines where we'll go.
EPL: How do they see that knowing that they're surrounded by people who either don't understand immigrant experience or heritage…
SB: Well that’s the struggle that we all have and that has to do with our own search for our own identity. My brother has married a caucasian woman and his daughter is half Chinese, half German-Polish-American. So she has many identities to draw from. My cousin has married a Vietnamese-Chinese so there's going to be a search for identity across all of these identities. Across all of these countries. I don't know how anybody's going to navigate that. I know I had my own journey and the funny story is that I actually found myself drawn most closely to African American culture. Because growing up in America and growing up in the suburbs of Detroit in a very caucasian/white neighborhood, the only "other" that I could find to identify in literature and popular culture and media was the African American community. And so I was reading Malcolm X, I was reading Martin Luther King, I was reading Maya Angelou… and so I found then that creating a sense of culture and identity in that community, led people to say like "Who are you to be in our community? To be identifying with this?" And also led my mom to say "Where are you? Who are you hanging out with?" I think one day my uncle was looking at my Facebook page and said "How come all of your friends are...black?" And I was like "Oh that's because that's who I identify with right now". That's changed I have a bigger variety of friends now.
EPL: And was your mother curious about why?
SB: The things that drove my mother were not questions about me per se and my interest. The things that drove my mother about me were what was I accomplishing? What was I doing-- and this was my perception so I don't know that it's true-- but what was I doing that she could then tell her friends about, about who her daughter was? And so sometimes she would ask "what are you studying in school?" Only sometimes, because when I told her I was studying sociology she says "I don't understand that. Can you tell me what else you're studying so that I can make it understandable for my friends." She was really happy when I went to law school because then she could said "Oh, my daughter's a lawyer." The problem was then after I left law school I didn't practice as a lawyer. I started doing other work and she said, "I can't tell my friends that you're a lawyer anymore because I don't even understand what you're doing." When I said I was in fundraising she was like "I don't know what that means so I'm just going to tell them you're a lawyer."
EPL: So are you a good daughter?
SB: I think I'm a great daughter. I'm a fantastic daughter because I now know that my mother is a person. I know that sounds odd but like I think -- and this is probably natural in our evolution as daughters to mothers and children to parents. I finally see my mom as an individual and as an incomplete person. As a person on her own journey who also struggles with her own identity here in America. And her own legacy for her family. So yeah I'm a great daughter but it's only because I come from a great mother.
Jamie J: Sok Be and her family came to the US as refugees from Cambodia in 1980. Sok currently lives in Philadelphia where she is the Director of Grants for the American Friends Service Committee. She spoke with Commonspace Executive Producer Elisabeth Perez Luna.
I’m Jamie J and this is Commonspace, a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY…and it’s been supported by the Pew Center For Arts And Heritage. Listen to Commonspace every Sunday night at 8 pm, and subscribe to us any time, at Apple Podcasts and Stitcher.
Our Commonspace team includes Executive Producer and co-writer Elisabeth Perez Luna, Producer Mike Villers, Associate Producers Ali L’Esperance and Jen Cleary…Dan Gasiesky and Tenesha Ford from First Person Arts, and Archivist Neil Bardhan. Our Engineer was Charlie Kaier and our theme music is by SUBGLO. On behalf of my mom Barbara, and Elisabeth Perez Luna’s mom Natasha, Thanks for listening.