Mama’s Ship


  1. This is intended as a companion piece to ‘A Little Slice of History’ (posted at this website). For any overlap/redundancy the author takes full responsibility.
  2. All photos provided by S M Chen.

My mother stood on the deck of the ship that would transport her from her homeland and watched land give way to endless sea. Little did she know that she would never see China again.

Helen Feng. Immigration photo. Late 1920s.

By virtue of her father’s being an herbalist physician, she was accustomed to an above-average middle-class standard of living and was able to attend aMethodist high school for girls as well as commercial college. When she was eight, her parents converted from Islam to Christianity, becoming first Methodist, then Pentecostal. Theirs was a close, loving family.

Helen Feng’s parents. Peking.

Upon marrying my father, also a student at Michigan State Univeristy, a future chemist destined for decades of teaching at small parochial colleges, her living standard descended to a level more familiar to him.

Wedding. Chicago. 1931.

Their firstborn arrived during the Great Depression. To clothe #1 son, mama took some of her hand-woven silk finery brought from China, and cut it into pieces, which she then sewed into baby apparel.

They spent five years at a self-supporting institution in Tennessee, where, in the pervasive spirit of communal sacrifice and equality, everyone, from babysitters to professors, earned an astounding income of ten cents an hour. When I asked Mama why she didn’t stay home rather than engaging a babysitter for the identical pay she herself earned making salads at the cafeteria, she replied, “The babysitter didn’t know how to make salads.”

Papa came from a small family (one younger sister) near Shanghai; Mama’s was a large family (she was the 10th of 12) from Beijing. They compromised by begetting 6.

When, on occasion, the wolf seemed near the door, mama would comfort us by saying, “Just wait till my ship comes in.”

Maybe it was just an expression of the time.

At any rate, I remember feeling better knowing Mama’s ship would come in some day and our lives would be materially improved.

America was, after all, the land of opportunity. My parents elected to stay, and eventually became naturalized citizens, whereas papa’s sister and her husband decided to return to China from Tennessee in the 1930’s. Little did they know what lay in store — civil unrest, Communism, and the Great Cultural Revolution, with its accompanying purges.

The consequence of their different decisions struck me with great poignancy when I visited China in 1980 and met a number of first cousins with whom I could hardly converse. I was awed by both their Spartan existence and their cheerful acceptance of living circumstances with little hope for improvement. When I contemplated the ease with which a twist of fate could have reversed our roles, the potential irony was almost unbearable.

Author as a (very) young man; held by father (mid 1940s).

Being the youngest, and one of four boys, I wore hand-me-downs for years. I believe I was seven when I acquired my first new shirt, a pink flannel with black trim and zipper. Upon seeing me beam in the mirror, Mama said, “Wait till my ship comes in. We’ll get you more new clothes.”

Christmas was a special, magical time of year, despite the fact that I never really believed in Santa Claus. I was ecstatic to receive one nice gift each year. In retrospect, the best gifts were intangible: those of family, of sharing, of belonging, of being part of a celebration ritual. I know my parents wanted to be able to provide us more, but they did the best they could, depriving themselves in ways both small and large for the sake of us children.

They remained optimistic and supportive of each other and the family.

Mama was a woman of great faith. Her prayers, sometimes in Mandarin, sometimes in English, were once likened by papa to the Great Wall of China. I was unsure whether he was referring to their length or to the perception that they constituted a bulwark against the enemy — in this instance, all things inimical to our family.

Her mealtime grace was legendary for her initial mention of all six children by name, starting from the eldest; she would then thank the Almighty for something else; finally, papa would nudge her gently and whisper, “The food, ma, the food,” whereupon she would give an embarrassed little laugh and end with thanks for the food she had herself laboriously prepared.

Family. MA. Circa 1950

We were closely knit for at least a couple of reasons. One was that, particularly in the early years of marriage, my parents did feel, appropriately, like strangers in a strange land. That they were. We children also felt, at various times while growing up, like strangers. The small towns we lived in were provincial, and the times of our formative years no less so.

We looked different, and always would. No matter how hard we tried to blend into society, we would never succeed completely. At various times, in various ways, by various individuals, we would be reminded. Sometimes it was intentional; other times not. And, like wounds, it hurt some times more than others. Also, like wounds, it left scars. Most are invisible.

There were also few other Asian families with whom we could interact. In New England, where I was born and raised, the nearest sizeable contingent was 40 miles away. Getting there and back in those days usually took a full day. Those Chinese we encountered were usually merchants, who came from the southern part of China, often retained the religion of their ancestors, and spoke Cantonese. My parents were not business-minded, were Christian, and spoke Mandarin. The gap was hard to bridge.

Papa never earned much as a teacher, and mama was mostly a homemaker. Both believed the notion that a mother’s place should be in the home, at least while the children are young. Papa had wide interests and talents, and sought to supplement his salary by writing and publishing books and a wall chart of the chemical elements. He championed the soybean as a near-perfect food and wrote about both it and health and longevity in several books (his bibliography includes 13 major works). He was also an amateur photographer, magician, horticulturist, linguist, sculptor, and practitioner of origami.

A half-acre garden yielded, to a large degree, the family provender. Each child, in various ways, learned to garden. We variously tilled, harrowed, planted, fertilized, watered, weeded, hoed, raked, and harvested. Some of my most and least fond memories have to do with that garden. Our crops were a virtual cornucopia, and included: soybeans, corn, tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, squash, radishes, potatoes, green beans, peppers, turnips, eggplant, peas; fruits included: strawberries, melons, blackberries, raspberries, and grapes. Initially, we canned the surplus over an outdoor fire pit.

On cold winter nights, whoever was bravest got to choose his or her favorite from among the many jars of canned produce stored in the cellar, which was dark, dank, and had not a few cobwebs.

Later, when food freezing came into vogue, our large chest freezer was filled to capacity with produce. Some years we had excess, and gave to the neighbors. Some had gardens but none had soybeans.

We took vacations during the summer, invariably by car. We would pile (all 8 of us initially) into the family sedan and tour various parts of the U.S. I got to see most of the 48 contiguous states that way. We always stayed in what would probably now be the lowest-rated (if rated at all) motels; in those days I’m not sure rating systems existed. We couldn’t afford better. But we were generally content. Mama would remind us how things would improve when her “ship came in.” We had that to look forward to.

As the children grew and needed her less, mama began to work outside the home. She became a college library supervisor, brightening many a student’s day with her quick, gentle smile and kind words. She loved music, and sang for a time in the church choir, particularly enjoying Handel’s “Messiah.” Like papa, she constantly sought self-improvement and, at various times, took voice lessons, Spanish, rug making and felt work. She made quilts, crocheted, and knitted, and was active in church community services organization.

It has been said that, in the final analysis, all parents are really able to give their children are two things: roots and wings. Our parents provided both — in abundance.

In reality, they provided more. They instilled many values — those of family, of friendship and hospitality (both were consummate hosts; they entertained frequently, and their home-cooked Chinese fare was considered “the best Chinese food in town” by many a student and visitor), of thrift, of diligence, of charity, and of education. Neither begrudged the government its due (taxes), nor the church its.

Retired in So. CA. Early 1970s.

By dint of hard work, odd jobs, and the good fortune of grants and scholarships, all six children completed higher education. Number One son is a PhD. Numbers Two through Four sons are MD’s. Both daughters hold Masters degrees.

In 1964, society honored Mama as Massachusetts Mother of the Year. While everyone else deemed the accolade to be well-deserved, mama, in typical fashion, took no personal credit; rather, she gave thanks to the Almighty.

Mother with MA governor Endicott Peabody. 1964.

Some years later, as I hadn’t heard her talk about her ship for a while, I asked her, “Mama, do you still think your ship will someday come in?”

She slowly turned to me and, with a faraway look in her eyes, gave a gentle smile. She said softly, “My ship did come in, son.” And she hugged me.

I thought about it a bit and decided that, as in so many other things in life, she was right.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.