Two posts for the price of one! These posts got the most views in one day…
“Don’t buy junks!” or: Spend money on people, not things.
Frugality is an Olympic sport for my mother. For example, she wouldn’t dream of buying waxed paper. Why would she, when she can use the perfectly good, free waxed bags that come in cereal boxes? She has an elaborate tiered system of usage for paper towels, which makes one roll last an entire year. They can be used multiple times (by the same person) as napkins. When they’re too dirty to serve this purpose, they graduate to the next stage, at which point they go into an old oatmeal container to be on hand for soaking up excess pan grease. When there’s so little toothpaste left that it becomes difficult to squeeze out, she cuts open the tube with a pair of scissors so that every last bit can be scraped out.
We’ve been chastised by a cousin for letting our mother dress in shabby clothes. She made the vest she’s wearing in the photo out of an old duvet cover and leftover material about a million years ago. It’s been washed so many times, it’s disintegrating. We’ve all begged her to throw it away, and you can bet we’ve plied her with new ones to replace it. She finally conceded that it was time to give it the heave-ho, but the last time I visited her, I blinked my eyes in disbelief when I saw her still wearing it.
“Wait a minute? Are those patches on your vest?” I asked incredulously.
She proudly showed off the new patches she’d sewn onto the most raggedy bits and said, “Now I can wear it until I die!”
Every time she receives yet another new vest, or indeed any present we or anyone else ever buys for her, her eyes gleam as she imagines how happy it will make the next recipient she’s already planning to give it to.
When she was still living in Korea, my mother would visit me once a year in Virginia. The minute she recovered from jet lag, we’d make a pilgrimage to Sam’s Club, where she’d spend a small fortune on medicines that would literally fill an entire suitcase.
“You can’t possibly go through all that before you come back for another visit!” I once exclaimed.
She looked at me like I was crazy and explained that she was taking them all back to give away to people, who couldn’t afford them. On that same occasion, I learned that she also regularly gave scholarships to students.
“Hey, Moneybags,” we’ll say affectionately, when we see her giving away money yet again, “Been shaking that money tree in your back yard again?” But the fact is: we all know that money has been extracted out of toothpaste tubes, alchemized out of used and reused paper towels, and saved by never spending a penny on herself…
People above rules.
When I was a child I would occasionally ride the bus in D.C. with my mother. She would always try to sit as close to the driver as possible. As I nervously eyed the big sign that clearly told passengers not to talk to the driver while the bus was moving, my mother would launch her irresistible charm offensive. In no time at all, stone-faced, surly drivers would fall under her sway. They would be laughing and sharing personal anecdotes like a couple of long lost BFFs. By the end of every ride, I swear the drivers would be ready to give up a kidney for her.
Her disregard, and indeed disdain for rules that hinder human interaction was never so clear as when she came to visit me when my first baby was born. He was going through a phase when he would torture me by never ever sleeping more than an hour at a time. I was thoroughly exhausted and was trying to rectify the situation by “Ferberizing” him. The “Ferber Method” is a technique developed by Dr. Richard Ferber to train an infant to learn how to self-soothe and put himself back to sleep. Basically, it involves a training period during which you let your baby cry for longer and longer periods of time. Ultimately, the method is supposed to result in a baby, who doesn’t cry and who sleeps soundly through the night. When my mother came to visit me and realized that I wasn’t leaping to rush to my baby’s side when he cried, she was outraged. She snorted when I tried to explain the rationale. Whenever my baby so much as peeped, she would pick him up and hand him to me and demand that I whip it out to nurse him. As I did her bidding, she would stand there watching me like a hawk with her arms crossed, shaking her head and muttering under her breath in a seamless blend of Korean and the Universal Language of Disgust the whole time, “Ay-goh!…’Ferber’ joah ha neh!…Tchuh!”
My mother has always been guided only by her own rule: to love and care for people with extravagant generosity. She is as warm and effervescent to gas station attendants as she is to her own children and grandchildren. At the same time, the truth of the matter is that she is a formidable, if benevolent force of nature, who always gets her way. The miracle of it all is that she manages to completely subjugate people with a weirdly hypnotic and bewitching despotism, which inspires only devotion and gratitude for her attentions.
In case you’d like to read more about my mother, here’s a roundup of all the posts I’ve written about her: