My parents became schoolteachers when they were eighteen. They gave me a stable lifestyle, but it didn't satisfy my young, curious heart. I wanted to break free from the traditional Chinese family; so at sixteen I left home to study and only returned at weekends. When I went to university, I even stayed away at weekends, which annoyed my parents, who complained to my sister about my lack of care for them.
It was a privilege for me to study in Britain and to experience life with several host families. My hosts were the same age as my parents. I enjoyed chatting with them and watching them cook and do the housework, etc. I discovered that their own children seldom stayed at home, which they usually complained about. An unforgettable experience was when my host phoned his son and begged him to return on Boxing Day for his mother's sake. I suddenly saw myself very clearly.
During my five and a half years overseas, my father wrote me a letter each week, with fresh news about the family as well as encouragement. Gradually I learnt how to communicate with my parents by telephone and letter. Last December I received the final letter from my father, saying `I am not sure how much what I said in the letters meant to you. At least I have tried to improve communication and understanding.'
I am now living with my parents and appreciate the opportunity of chatting with them before I leave again. Although sometimes our opinions are quite different, I believe there is still a way to communicate with each other. It is important for me to know about their lives and for them to understand me. When I look back on the difficult times I have been through, my parents have always supported me unconditionally--being tolerant, and wanting the best for me.
I have learnt that we can't choose our parents, but we can choose what sort of children we are. It is only when we know how to get on with our parents, that we understand the responsibility we have for our own children.
Sam Lai, Taiwan
My newborn baby was crying his heart out. He was supposed to be asleep; in fact he usually went down happily after each feed. My Mum was watching me across the Sunday roast. I was suffering and could feel the baby's cry right through my body. Eventually he settled down and was peacefully asleep. He was fine and so was I. Wisely my mother looked at me and said, `This is how your life will be from now on. When he is sad you'll feel sad, when he is happy you'll be happy. You MUST start to let him go NOW or you'll be forever living your life through his!' I had made the discovery that all mothers do: the umbilical cord might have been cut off but there was still an extremely strong, though invisible, tie between me and my child. And I will probably spend the rest of my life trying to work out what to do about it.
At this point I am in a very interesting position. I am still a daughter in that my Mum is still alive. I rely on her, ring her up about how to make a sauce to go with salmon, or about what to do with the rest of my life. She is always there for me and I know I can turn to her about anything. And I do.
I am also a mother, to a son and a daughter in their teens. They still live at home and I have no idea how I will react the day the first one flies the nest. I could almost do a drawing of the invisible links that go from me to Mum and from me to my kids. They are many and varied, some strong, some in colour, some very thin and weak, and others like cables in durability and clear communication. Are these helpful I ask myself? Are they healthy? Are they needed?
I know for a fact that at times I feel so strongly for and with my children that I nearly go under. Not so long ago one of them had a very big upset and I was awake all night, empathising so much it took over my life. In fact it was nothing to do with me... well not really, it was just that it was my child who was affected. `My' child, there is the key. I became too involved and it wasn't good for either of us, helped neither of us.
On the other hand there is an awareness that comes with this invisible cord that can work wonderfully. It can be a warning or just an inkling. There have been many times when my Mum has phoned at just the right moment--when I needed to talk. And vice versa. I know of someone who cancelled a long-awaited holiday to go home to be with her elderly parents earlier than planned. On the journey home she received a message that her father was critically ill. She was soon at his bedside thankful for the inner prompting. Had she gone on holiday not only would she have been far away but also out of contact. This time the invisible cord was definitely a fully working lifeline.
The other day my Mum rang from Sweden, where she lives. I could tell as soon as she spoke that something was wrong. She had difficulty breathing and something strange was happening to her voice. Was she having a heartattack? After all, she is 81 and has angina. I was concerned although she tried to assure me all was well. Ten minutes later she rang back, free to talk. It turned out she was seriously worried about her `child', whom she had been spending time with. So I quoted what she had said to me when my first-born was crying--something about keeping a distance and living one's own life. Hmmm, wise words that no doubt someone will have to tell me again and again.
Elisabeth Peters, Sweden/UK
I was fourteen, and standing in the kitchen of our bungalow in Surrey one August morning. My foster mother had a letter in her hand from my mother in London. Apparently she'd booked me into a boarding school in Devon, starting in September.
I knew nothing of this move. I'd been fostered on and off since I was six months old, by a couple who lived with their son in Worcester Park. But for some time my foster mother (whom I called Missy) had been getting fed up with me. Since I was 11 there'd been growing difficulties. Finally, when I was 13, my mother had found another foster home in nearby Banstead. They were a nice couple, and I felt quite happy there. Then I got a letter from Missy, saying ``You'll always be my second son,'' and other surprisingly nice things, which made me weep. Next day her 18 year-old son came to see me and said she was willing to have me back.
Oh dear. Dilemma. `Just get the bus back after school,' he suggested, `on the other side of the road.' Feeling under an obligation to be grateful, I ran away, and went back to Missy.
After that, there were angry phone calls between London and Worcester Park. The phone was a recent installation, and I dreaded it ringing. A `tug of love' ensued, with court proceedings threatened. This went on for months, and gradually the situation deteriorated, with me in the doghouse most of the time. Then the boarding school idea came up. Strangely, my mother had never discussed it with me, so it came as a surprise.
Did I want to go, Missy asked me. Inside I felt exhilaration--most of the books I'd read were stories based in boarding schools--and also trepidation. I didn't realise I had a choice but she was implying I had. She was dead against it. `If you want to go there, after all I've sacrificed for you--well!'
I was in turmoil. If I said yes, it looked like rank ingratitude. I wanted to go but mumbled that I'd stay. That was my first really bad decision.
I was `encouraged' to write to my mother saying I never wanted to see her again. I broke off `all diplomatic relations'. It meant not going up to London to see her, or her partner, in the big house they had in Bedford Square. He owned an advertising agency, and I used to play on the typewriter. I enjoyed those visits and was sad to make the break. My mother then stopped her weekly payments of 25/- ('A31.25p) for my keep.
One evening my Scoutmaster came to see me. He explained how difficult it was for my foster mother to keep me without any money, and now that I was 14 I really ought to start work. After all, her son had gone out to work at 14, why shouldn't I?
That Christmas I did a postal round, and was able to hand over a princely five pounds. After New Year I went down to the Labour Exchange and got a job as a routing boy, starting on 11 January 1945 at J Walter Thompson, the best ad agency in the world. I must have had a good guardian angel to fix that!
Ten years elapsed. I was having a quiet time one morning, reading my Bible. As I prayed the Lord's prayer, I suddenly stopped at the bit where it says, `Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us'. Out of the blue I thought of my mother. I realised I'd held a grudge against her all that time. For what? Well, for having me in the first place, then for not looking after me herself, or for providing the father. Dimly I became aware I needed to put this right--that I should apologise for holding that grudge.
This meant finding her. I quaked at the thought. I confided in a friend, who suggested I phone the ad agency. A woman's voice told me my mother was away. Could I have her address, please? Majorca. Life was busy, and I'm a born procrastinator. It took a month and seven drafts before I was ready to post my letter.
My friend said I'd better ring up and make sure she was still out there. `Oh, she's back. Would you like to speak to her?' Hurriedly I put the receiver down. Oh dear, that meant I had to go and see her. Finally, with feet dragging like they were turned backwards, I took the tube to Tottenham Court Road, crept up to that impressive front door, and rang the bell.
The door was opened by a lady, and I glimpsed my mother on the staircase behind. Next moment she swept down and embraced me in a huge hug. I had been expecting surly resentment--`What d'you want, coming round here...?' But no, just unconditional love and a warm welcome. I might have been the Prodigal Son (except no Dad).
I can't remember any more of that day. I must have stumbled out my apology, but I don't think she heard. Maybe we had a meal together, or maybe I made my excuses and ran. I was overcome.
Within a couple of weeks she arranged a holiday on the Isle of Wight, and I nervously got to know her. She kept herself sprightly and I enjoyed playing table tennis with her. A little girl watching us asked me, `Is she your wife?' Mum dined out on that for weeks.
That was my first experience of forgiveness. It was the most creative step I've ever taken and has since brought me untold blessings.
It took me much longer to realise I needed to give up the grudge against my father, whoever he was. I was 44, on a social work course, and it dawned on me after a fellow student described me as an angry person. Me? Mild and gentle me? He'd detected, under the mask, real currents of anger and unhealed hurt. I've tried since to find healing, through psychotherapy, but it hasn't been easy. I still choke up when I see fathers on TV being nice to their sons.
Then last summer I attended a conference on `Cleaning the Slate' before the millennium. I'd come to realise how much I'd run down my foster mother in conversations with friends, and totally written off her husband. There I was, still holding a deep grievance fifty years on. On the last morning we were invited to shred our resentments and leave them behind. In tears I determined to do it. Whether it made a difference to them up in heaven I don't know, but it gave me a freedom I hadn't had before.
Nobody's ever had perfect parents, and no one will ever be a perfect parent. It has taken me decades to realise how forgiving I must be of other people's failings; then they might be inclined to be generous towards me. That's what the Cross is about, after all.
John Munro, UK
My mother is a good example of bad luck in accounting. After 20 years as an accountant she started to hate her job and left it with no regrets. However she still wanted me to be a student of economics.
At the beginning of 1990 some economists working on the programme of reforms in the Soviet Union (later, the Russian Federation) were recognised by the Russian people as experts in their field. As a result, faculties of economics in the universities became popular among young people and began to attract the best brains. I did not listen to my mother and entered the Faculty of Philology. Cultural Studies, Philosophy and Literature are more my field--I feel a calling and a confidence there which enables me to give most to my students. But my mother wondered how I would be able to support a family.
While I was studying at the university teachers descended into the worst paid category of employee. When I started work as a university teacher I put my salary straight into my pocket because I knew it was not even enough for an ice-cream.
As a teacher and an academic researcher I had a lot of free time. I worked part-time for five years at different places; I was an assistant to many bosses, gave private lessons, and did translations. All that time my mother was reproaching me, pointing at my successful friends in banks, business and TV. My closest friend was one of the most influential businessmen in my home town. He offered to help me find a prestigious job. But going out to `make money' would have meant leaving the university.
I was tired of hearing from my mother that I was obsolete, out of date, stupid, giftless, an idiot etc. From time to time I also felt angry and started to believe that my mother was right. Still, I could not imagine myself as a big boss balancing on a leather armchair.
My friend became one of the most important oligarchs in the country, running the Russian Unified Energy System. This was a very difficult time for me and I gave a huge sigh of relief when he was fired for embezzling millions of dollars. But I was extremely happy when my mother said, `It seems you were right'.
My mother is awaiting my return from England (where I am currently working for a year) to continue our disputes. The departments of cultural studies in some universities are still waiting also. I'll probably earn more money there for my family, when I have one, because I don't like ice-cream any more.
Igor Smerdov, Russia
Stephanie and Camille are twelve-year-old twins living in London. Their mother, Viviene Witter, wrote them a letter to optimise home-life...
Dear Steph and Mimi
Today I think it would be a good idea for me to write to you about our relationship. It's important that I help you grow up to be good responsible citizens, in an environment of love and support.
Please understand me and my needs as I try to understand yours. You are growing up and that means all kinds of emotional changes. I realise that at times you will flare up and fly off the handle. In a way I am growing up too and changes are occurring in me as well. I can be cranky and miserable at times. As you can see we all have stuff to deal with.
So how about if we help each other? I will try my best to be patient, loving and understanding.
My pledge/promise to you:
*speak quietly even when I am mad with you
*listen*be supportive and reassuring
*explain and state clearly what I am not happy with
*stick to my promises no matter what (that includes when I say you are to be punished)
*give you your space and respect your privacy
What I expect from you:
*consider my feelings, be thoughtful
*speak to me and others with respect
*be consistent in the things planned, ie. your routine in doing your chores
*be more orderly, ie. do not desist from your planned activities no matter who is visiting
*treat our home with respect, show others by your example
*adopt an attitude of tidiness and leave things in the order in which you find them
*do all your homework in adequate time
*no television after 6:30pm on school days/9:00pm at weekends
I do not wish to keep repeating myself since you find this a great source of irritation. I also find it distressing. I have been blessed with two lovely daugthers and hope you will continue to grow up as the thoughtful, polite, creative and intelligent girls that you are. Keep your feet firmly on the ground; your mind on your studies; your thoughts on the great things you can achieve. Hold your heads high, always being proud of who you are so that I too can be proud of you!
Reproduced with permission only 'A9 VEW 1999