Welcome to the next entry in our Aging in the 21st Century Series.
“This is the year that I finally need to take a break. My body is not like it used to be.”
I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of my mother’s mouth as she played patty cake with my 1-year-old daughter. I had driven four hours the night before, arriving around midnight, to spend Mother’s Day with her, and to be honest, I couldn’t tell if I was delusional from lack of sleep, or if she was playing a joke on me.
I waited about 10 seconds to see if she was bluffing, but I could tell by the tired look in her eyes and the way she stared at my daughter that she meant it.
“I went to the doctor last week because I’ve been so exhausted, and he told me that I need to take a few months off to rest,” she said.
If you’re wondering why I reacted the way I did, here’s why: In my entire 36 years of life, I’ve never known a day when my mother wasn’t working. So to hear that she might finally take a break, at age 71, was like music to my ears.
I don’t know anyone who deserves more of a break than my mother, Bok Ja Smith. Also known by her American name, Pepsi, my mom has been a brutally independent, constantly hard-working woman her entire life.
While living in South Korea as a young child, both of her parents passed away, so she learned to depend on no one, but herself.
During most of her globetrotting marriage to my father, a G.I. from Oklahoma, she was always working. She traveled with him everywhere he was stationed, working as a truck stop waitress in Oklahoma, a food caterer in Colorado, and a dietician’s assistant in Germany.
During his stationed time in Pusan, Korea, which was about three years, her full-time job on the army base we lived on was to raise me and my brother. That wasn’t an easy task considering we were super active preschool and grade-school kids.
Finally, after moving to Newport News, Va., in 1992, her more than 25-year marriage with my father came to an end. My mom’s friend, a fellow Korean in fact, helped her get a job as an electronic technician.
“I was scared to leave your father and to start over in a foreign country, especially because I wasn’t educated in America. But I knew that I had to do it for my children,” she recalls.
For the next decade my single mom would work in two different jobs as an electronic technician and even opened a shop at a local flea market to make extra money on the weekends.
“I had a mortgage payment and was raising two kids on my own, so I did what I had to do to make it, even if it meant taking on several jobs,” she explains.
Then she took on another part-time job when she got off her main job at 4 p.m., although it soon became a much bigger job than she thought it would:
“My Korean friend was looking for someone who spoke good English to work part time from 4-6 p.m. during the week. I started there, and then the company I was working for closed down, so I took more hours at the cleaners. It was supposed to be short term, but here I am, 15 years later, still working at the dry cleaners.”
Of all the jobs my mom has had, this has got to be the most demanding. She works four days a week, standing on her feet for 12 hours, answering the phone and helping customers with their orders. She always does it with a smile, and she never complains.
I’ve tried for years to tell her to retire, or to take time off, but her stubborn independence and desire to work is what drives her to get through each day.
“I’m not the person to lay around and do nothing. That’s being lazy. I have to do something because no one spoiled me when I was younger. I raised myself,” she says.
It’s that exact mentality that has been a double-edged sword in her life. On one side, this fierce independence and strong work ethic are what makes her such an inspiration to other immigrants and single mothers who want to make it on their own.
On the other hand, just like most immigrants who work tirelessly their entire lives, she missed out on a lot of quality time with me and my brother when we were younger.
She knows this, and now that she has a grandchild and is feeling the effects of over 50 years of hard labor, she’s going to do something about it.
“Nothing makes you happier than your kids. That’s why I worked so hard when you all were younger, to give you what you needed,” she notes. “But I realize that because of how hard I worked, we didn’t get to take any vacations together. Now that I’m past 70, I want to take time to go on vacation and create happy memories for my grandchild.”
That’s my mom. Always putting other’s happiness before her own. Never stopping in spite of some of the obstacles put in her way.
I asked her one more time if she’s actually going to take time off. This time, she had a much more defiant tone.
“When you’re young, you have to work hard to raise your kids right. It’s a lot of responsibility, especially when you’re single. You don’t have as much time to spend with them. But when you get older and the kids are grown and gone, then your responsibility is less. It’s just you. That’s your time to enjoy. That’s what I’m going to do, and no one is going to stop me.”
Trish Broome is a social media community manager, a web content writer and a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @NerdyNewMom.