My mother the sparrow: Lessons from a humble mother

‘Don’t be like me,’ has been my mother’s mantra for as long as I can remember.

My mother the sparrow - illustrations
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

My mother is a sparrow.

Humble, small. Muted of colour and quick to dart away for cover at attention. She fades into the underbrush with a flit of a wing, a whisper of a rustle … then nothing, leaving in her wake just a feeling of warmth at catching in action something so typically below the radar.

After all, have you ever been able to examine one? To see it up close, to touch its soft feathers, peer into its bright black eyes, and feel the scraping of its delicate feet on your skin?

“Don’t be like me.”

For as long as I can remember, that has been my mother’s mantra.

She says it with a sheepish smile sometimes, confessionally; at other times, with an open laugh that peals like a bell through the room; and recently, a bit more somberly, regretfully.

I always took this advice to heart, advice more alien today than ever before in an age where social media commentary of one’s children are often squeals of “She’s such a mini-you!” and delighted mothers respond: “OMG, I know!” Where “mummy pride” is taking the form of onesies printed with “I Got it from My Mama” without any specification of what “it” might be, and why “it” was good.

It was strange guidance to be given growing up in the 1980s through the early 2000s, and it is stranger still when today’s parents are complimented on creating carbon copies of themselves as opposed to individuals, helicoptering their interests, designer preferences, and lifestyle choices upon their offspring.

In a society that is becoming more self-accepting or intrinsically narcissistic – depending on how far one takes their pride in trait replication in the next generation – it is outright strange that I was raised with the explicit direction to “not be like [mum]”.

And yet, it served as a deterrent guidepost – constant, solid, a clear vision of where I was not to go.

My mother is a sparrow.

They are a bird species that originated in the Middle East, that were then brought to other parts of the world where they learned to adapt to other conditions – the only method of survival for fragile creatures displaced outside of their own volition.

Sparrows are social, able to mingle with other types of birds without causing much of a fuss. They are unassuming, taking up as little space as possible, chiming in cheerfully when the situation warrants, but otherwise staying beneath the radar and close to its kind.

The house sparrow typically covers a radius of no more than a few kilometres in its life. They find where they are comfortable and settle in. They do not ask for much more.

She came to the United States from Hong Kong when she was 12. Her father was already there, but she had not seen him for quite some time. That was OK; it was not the first instance her parents had spent an extended time apart.

It was a necessary sacrifice in those days, par for the course with my grandfather’s desperate quest to find a better life for his family. Twice, he blazed a trail away from their poverty-stricken town in the countryside of the Fujian province in China, “test driving” it before sending for them. The first time he took them from Fuzhou, where they were born, to Hong Kong, then a busy port city outside of their motherland’s jurisdiction. This second time, my redoubtable, steel magnolia of a grandma packed her bags and four children to make for yet another unknown land far from whence she came.

They landed in Lake Ronkonkoma on Long Island, New York in the 1970s, and became strange folk in a strange land. They shared a house with several other families, learning English, now with an American accent as opposed to Hong Kong’s British, a world away from anyone who looked like them. Her parents worked in a Chinese restaurant typical of that time, with wood-panelled walls and red vinyl booths, serving flaming PuPu Platters with Orientalised gimmicks to customers who did not know, did not care how Americanised and inauthentic their experience was.

My grandfather worked his way up to achieve the classic American dream: a home of his own, a car, a family restaurant that belonged to him … and a family that was close, tight, and insular.

My mother was proud of him, even though she did not have much opportunity to say that outside of the small circle that was her family. She grew to love this pocket of New York, where she knew where everything was, watched it change, and had a sense of permanence. After all, she had covered enough distance in her life already to quell any urge to travel, even though it would be by choice this time. It was still something that was scary, the unknown. The uncertainty, that feeling of newness – it was just not for her.

My mother the sparrow - illustrations
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Everything a sparrow does is for the chicks in the nest, giving up the very food in her belly and out of her mouth to make sure they were not left wanting. It did not matter if hers was empty, her energy stores depleted. She gladly set aside any dreams she had to ensure that the ones she loved could achieve their own, while assuring them all that she did not have any, to begin with, other than to see them thrive.

But then they grow up. We grow up. We leave the nest.

My mother graduated from high school and went on to college. As the oldest, she was the first in her family to do so. It was a community college that she attended, and she went for accounting and it was fine.

But more importantly, it kept her near her family so that she was able to help out, giving her brothers and sister more freedom to go away to school. “I like to be close to family,” she told us. “But don’t be like me!” she would reiterate as her siblings took flight.

She said it again as we did the same. “Go to a good school, build a good future. Don’t be like me and limit yourself; don’t just work in a restaurant. Because the family is always there. If you want to explore, explore.”

But what was always there, unspoken, was that any of us could come back to an open door and open arms.

“I’m a homebody; I like to be home, I don’t want to go anywhere,” she would say as she puttered around in her carefully tended garden in the hours before she went to work. “I want people to come to me because – don’t be like me! – I’m lazy,” she would say with a big smile, even as she wiped the sweat from her brow with her dirt-stained gloves.

Because haphazard and underprivileged as it was, our house more than a home – it was, and remains to this day, a hub. A stopover point for the rest of us transients, where aunts, uncles, and cousins would float in and out with barely any notice. It was her rooted permanence that made it not uncommon to find relatives helping themselves to leftovers – which there always were – in the fridge, or for handfuls of keys to be distributed to close family.

And yet … “Don’t be like me,” we would hear. “Have a nice home and take care of yourselves,” she still admonishes, even as the house continues to fill to bursting with family in need of sanctuary from whatever trouble they are running from.

“Have nice things,” she likes to say as she surveys the hodgepodge of additional bedding, the makeshift sleeping spaces that just appear, adding, “unlike me, you work hard to deserve them.”

After all, growing up, we did not have much. We got a single pair of sneakers each for Christmas. We shopped the season’s clearance racks for back-to-school clothes well into the year. We repurposed hand-me-downs that she would cleverly alter with her sewing machine.

She did not buy any clothes for herself until she retired.

My mother is a sparrow.

She typically exhibits a Type B energy – easy-going, patient, soothing. She is happy in what is familiar, a regular cadence of monotony. Not quite complacent, but at peace with whatever cards are dealt, and sure that no outcome is unlivable-with. There is a calm acceptance about her when she is in her space, the comfort zone of her family, despite a chipper onslaught of amused chirpings and high-energy hopping about in her expressive speech.

But beneath that, she is quick to fear. There is an undercurrent of turmoil, like the fast-beating heart of a tiny little bird, pitter-pattering at 550 beats per minute.

After all, sparrows are fragile, flighty creatures, susceptible to predators and misplaced trust. They are easily vulnerable, and fall victim to capture. They are delicate and easy to injure, often at the mercy of those around them.

My mother’s blood pressure runs high; her anxiety levels are typically even higher. With a world so small, everything within it is assigned a greater value – and therefore a greater risk. And with little to lose, no loss is small.

“So scary!” my mother exclaims to nearly everything. The things she is frightened of are innumerable and, at times, ridiculous. Like a bird, she senses danger in everything, always on high alert for potential threats. She worries when we travel, when we embark on soft adventure tours, when we try a new food or even go to doctors for tests. Allergies can spring up anywhere, bad news could be around the corner, and accidents happen.

“I’m a big chicken,” she will freely admit, meek and defiant all at once.

But we tease her about this, my siblings and I, and her own siblings in turn. And we troll her, taking courage from her fear. Choosing to do the opposite of what she would, to not be like her. Instead of WWMD standing for “What would mum do?”, I would ask “What wouldn’t mum do?” and make that my course.

Her reactions are sometimes even more fun than the risks we take, a perturbed furrow in her brow and the frantic slapping of her hand against my arm in disapproval as she worriedly repeats my name and says, “Don’t tell me these things; you scare me!”

My mother the sparrow - illustrations
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

I have gone skydiving, ridden a horse up a volcano, travelled alone internationally, moved across the country sight unseen. I have gotten tattoos and piercings, partied hard in several senses, and dated recklessly. I have chased a career dream and taken risks with it, left a perfectly acceptable marriage in the hopes of finding something more, pursued greater stages and the public eye, and I push beyond my comfort zone daily … because these are not things my mother would do.

I take road trips frequently, and exhilarate in driving fast, while she will not even drive on the highway.

Quick merges and high speeds frighten her, and years of experience on the ever-expanding, increasingly congested local roads on Long Island have not changed that a whit. She will take Route 25 – a traffic light- and speed trap-plagued multilane monstrosity that runs through nearly all of the island – before she will hop on the expressway.

“It’s the scenic route!” she says, jokingly. “It doesn’t add much more time.”

“That’s just me, though,” she adds. To us, she says, “Take the best way to where you need to go and don’t be afraid. Just be careful. But don’t be like me – don’t be scared.”

I have not been.

My mother is a sparrow. And because she is, I am not.

Most mothers try to be role models, to lead by example. They do their best to give their families something to look up to, struggling always to provide the best.

Mine took an entirely different approach, and for a time, I judged her for it. I thought her weak and small, emotional and unforceful. I actively sought out things to do that she would not, even if they were stupid, steering into extremes to be unlike her.

I venerated my dad. I have written a lot about my father. My father the chef, my father the adult immigrant, my father the scholar, my father the adventurer. There is no denying the impact his presence and example has had on my life. She did not want me to be like her, so I elevated what he is, what he has done, for lack of another role model. I see him from the distance of a pedestal, an aspirational figure. However, he remains out of reach in order to stay in this position.

My mother, on the other hand, I keep close. She is accessible, constant. Her love has never wavered, and was never a thing we had to reach for. It was just there, something I took for granted the majority of my life. From this proximal vantage point, I can examine in high definition all of her human flaws and foibles, the quirks and fears that she would laughingly put before us as she cautioned, “Don’t be like me.”

And so I am not.

But what I realise now, as an adult, is that her self-deprecating catchphrase, delivered with a jocular smile, was not one borne of poor self-esteem. It was quite the opposite.

It was a clever, adaptive way to deal with Type A overachievers like me. A subtle way to say that it is OK not to be perfect, OK not to be fully on my game all the time. That being vulnerable would not affect my intrinsic value, and I do not have to be so hard on myself. After all, if I did not love her less for her shortcomings, why would she if the roles were reversed?

It was a roadblock to keep me on my path. It gave me the courage to take the road less travelled if it was more direct to my goals, and the resourcefulness to seek alternatives if the way ahead was not clear.

In her sacrifices and nurturing, she taught me the importance of self-care. In her constancy and attachment to the home, she gave me the freedom to go. In her humility and eschewal of the limelight, she showed me how to shine. And in her fear, she taught me to be brave.

Perhaps brave enough to be a sparrow.

Source: Al Jazeera