Yesterday was Mother’s Day. My mom was on a plane over the Pacific Ocean. When she landed in Los Angeles, she called and I wished her a Happy Mother’s Day.
She said, “Oh, it’s Mother’s Day here?”
This happens every year, for every holiday. My family forgets them, we do them half-heartedly. I always resented my parents for it — resented how all these celebratory moments were whittled down to an annual ritual of awkwardness. These holidays were forced, and we only celebrated because we were afraid that ignoring them would signal unintentional neglect. So I always watched how other Korean families interacted, hoping to strike that harmony with mine.
So a few years ago, as I tutored a Korean kid who recently came to America, I made him learn English by having conversations with him about his family. And almost always, these conversations ended up being about how he couldn’t play soccer or he couldn’t get out of the wrong math class, all because his mom couldn’t speak English very well. He told me his mom was too afraid to go to the school and convince the teachers that he didn’t understand polynomials yet. He said his mom didn’t know how to ask for the soccer registration forms.
And that used to be my mom — the English part, at least. But my mom overcame that fear.
Once, my teacher accidentally took off too many points on a math test. My mom marched right into the classroom after school, and she fought for those points. She tried explaining it in English, but that failed, so she worked the problem on a piece of paper, scolding her for making a calculation error. I was so embarrassed that I yelled at her in front of my teacher. But Mom kept talking.
Her words were tattered, cryptic and loud — a lot like a 5-year-old’s outfit. So eventually, I avoided these moments.
In fourth grade, when I showed up to soccer practice and realized I was on a team of random kids, I told her I wanted to quit.
“I hate soccer,” I told her.
But, really, I wanted to be on the same team as my friends. I only told Mom I hated it because I didn’t want her to call the league and try to get me on a different team. It seemed too confusing for her — too embarrassing.
But the next week, Mom said I needed to go back to soccer practice. “I already paid for it,” she said. I cried, but, eventually she dropped me off at the park.
So there I was, facing the field, holding my size-4 soccer ball and donning oversized shinguards. I saw a random kid on the team run toward me, probably trying to get me to join the drill. But I felt myself about to cry, so I bent down, hid my eyes, and acted like I needed to strap my shinguards tighter. I wiped my tears, cleared my throat the stood back up.
But it wasn’t a random kid on the team. It was my best friend.
“You’re on our team now,” he said, smiling.
Years later, I found out how hard it must’ve been to make that happen. Mom had to call my friend’s parents to find out what team he was on. She had to call the league and convince them to let me change teams, which was against the rules. And she had to convince me to go to soccer one more time. On top of that, she had to know that I didn’t really want to quit. She had to read my mind — my anxieties, my fears. She had to take a risk.
I never thanked her for that, or the thousands of other times she quietly made my life better. Because she is always so subtle; she always passes it off as something moms just do.
The thing about moms is that they work in the background. They do the little things we barely notice, like making sure there are napkins in our lunch sacks.
And, almost unfairly, by the time we notice how extraordinary this is, we are closer to parenthood than childhood. It just doesn’t seem right, being unable to thank them in the moment.
But perhaps that’s a mom’s ultimate gift: showing us how to love, quietly and humbly, so we can do the same.