Last October, three generations of our Lee and Young family burned incense and paper money to celebrate our Mom, Sister, Aunt and Grandma’s life, to help her on the journey to her next life — her “Home-going” as they say in Taiwan.
This is the story of my mother, Mary Feyuan Young, nee Lee. She was born in a small village on the lush green island of Taiwan, just outside of Tainan City in the south called Guanmiao — literally “old temple.” It is named for the oldest Taoist temple dedicated to Guanyin, the Goddess of Islands and Fishermen.
She was born in 1937, to a family of five brothers and three sisters. She was the youngest sister. Her father Wang So Lee was Headmaster of the. boys school in Tainan. When she married my father, Peter Teyuan Young — who was her father’s top student at his school — she was only 19. My brother John (Tson-chu) was born soon thereafter, then Jean (Chin-wah), Susan (Chin-en) and me Nancy (Ming-chang).
Just before I was born in 1963, my father won a scholarship to study for his Master’s degree in Civil Engineering at UC Berkeley. Mary joined him in California a year later and we kids were looked after by my grandma — Mary’s mother Chen-shao Lee. I remember her a tall, beautiful, gentle woman — my beloved grandma!
When Peter graduated two years later, we four children traveled alone (John was 8 and I was 2! Several airline hostesses looked after us apparently) to join our parents in Pasadena, California, where Peter had a job with the State of California.
A few years later, we all got US citizenship, and over the next several years, my father sponsored the immigration of my grandma, mom’s father, four brothers, two sisters and their children. Her fourth brother had died earlier of throat cancer leaving a wife and two young boys in Taiwan.
Mary loved to cook dinner for the whole family at our home in Pasadena, or the entire clan would go out on Friday nights for dinner and a movie in old Chinatown. Card games with the uncles and aunts were a regular occurrence. Mary was very close to her family and also loved going back to Taiwan every year to visit friends and my father’s family.
It sounds pretty idyllic but in truth Mary preferred life in Taiwan and grew increasingly dissatisfied by her lack of personal growth. My father got all the kudos for his brilliant career while my mother was just the housewife.
Many years later I would come to understand that this was a highly intelligent woman who was not allowed to follow her dreams of education beyond the fifth grade because of her gender, the times and the circumstances of her family. She was seven years old when WWII ended and the Japanese withdrew from Taiwan. Her father — the boys school headmaster and son of a former mayor — was powerful, but he was also found to be supporting a second family (with a Japanese mistress!), which had a devastating effect on my grandma and her family. My mother was forced to leave school and work to help support the family.
Years later, marrying my father and going to America seemed like a world of possibilities would be at her feet. Mom’s life was never dull. She was a fiery and highly capable woman, who was never afraid to speak her mind, or demand others to listen to her very detailed and rather traditionalist views on how one should live a proper life.
She was an extreme form of the Tiger Mom, intent on molding her children into model citizens. But the facade was cracking. Following an involuntary hysterectomy in her 30’s, Mary became hormonally imbalanced and she showed early signs of bipolar disorder although it went undiagnosed. The marriage was strained and her children were frightened to anger her. We became model citizens as she demanded, but slowly and surely the family nucleus disintegrated.
By 1974, my father began traveling overseas for work and eventually took a permanent job in the Middle East with his company. The family spent a summer in Saudi Arabia and travelled through Europe together for the last time. By fall of 1976, my Father left for Saudi alone and Mary and the family stayed in California. My brother John and sister Jean were in college and my sister Susan and I were in high school when my father filed for divorce from overseas. Shortly thereafter he remarried and had two boys, my half brothers, whom I’ve never met. My father never returned again until 25 years later, but that’s another story for another time.
When Mary became an unmarried woman, she immediately found work to support herself and. her younger children. Father sent money but by the time I left for college, it seemed Mary was on her own. She sold the Pasadena house and became parapethetic drifting between California and Tainan.
She worked in various hotel management and food/retail jobs for friends and relatives. After several years of a somewhat unsettled existence, she found a second life back in Taiwan, working as a personal assistant for a successful developer and school owner, Mr. Wu, who was a former colleague of her ex-husband.
Mary was a formidable aide. She translated English into Hokkien and Mandarin for her boss in business and legal meetings. She organized outings and real estate dealings. She was very intelligent, mastering Mandarin and English to a level of proficiency not expected of someone who only attended school to the 6th grade. She read the Taiwan Times newspaper every day to maintain her literacy and keep up with current affairs in Taiwan and the world.
She was Mr Wu’s right hand woman for nearly 20 years. It would have been easier for her — a beautiful and talented woman of a certain age — to become his wife, but Mary resisted. She preferred to be his employee until the day he died in late 2008. Mary returned to Alhambra, California permanently that year, coinciding with my return to the US after 13 years in Australia.
In those sunset years of her life, she developed severe Lewy body dementia, a memory disorder that causes paranoia and hallucinations. Unfortunately this alienated her from many of her family members to a point she refused to talk with anyone but her unseen friends.
After two stints in the county psychiatric ward and nine months in lock down assisted living facilities, doctors finally found the right level of medications for her condition, enough so that we could move her back into the condo she had owned for over 20 years.
Jean moved in with her to look after our ill mother and enforce the meds she did not think she needed, and last year Mom took her final trip back to Taiwan with Susan. Almost exactly two years after her first. breakdown, Mary passed away from a sudden heart attack at her breakfast table. She had her bags all packed to go to Australia where she was convinced John and I were going to take her to start over. Alas, she was ready for another life.
Our family grieved the loss of our mother, sister, aunt and grandmother, and remember her as a woman as fiery as a dragon and strong as an ox, and also a mother and grandmother who loved and protected her family as fiercely as a lioness. She is forever in our hearts as she looks down upon us from her heavenly home on her green island in the sky.