My mother was the first child to survive and thus was also the first in the line for duty, meaning that of her five siblings, she spent the least time as a child.
The eldest daughter in a Khmer family in rural Cambodia, my mother had learned to build a fire, cook, and sew at the age when I was learning the alphabet, jumping off of swings, watching Sesame Street. She was charged with helping to care for her younger brothers when she was a child herself. My mother wore that stole of responsibility into the workcamps, into the refugee camps, into the United States, into her marriage, into her parenthood; she has worn it all her life and it will always be a part of her.
In California, my mother was there for my grandmother while the rest of the family was out making their own way in the style that is typical of the Western world. From grocery shopping to doctor visits, from watering the garden to cooking, my mother would make the twenty-five minute drive to help with whatever was necessary while others were usually “too busy.” I doubt it ever crossed my mother’s mind to see my grandmother less than once a week even when one of my uncles moved back to be with her.
My uncle told me that my mother was always the target of the harshest and, at times, cruelest criticism from my grandmother. That rarely was a kind word ever spoken to my mother, yet there is no question of which of the six siblings was the most loyal to their mother.
It is typical to speak of children seeking compassion from their parents; it is rarer to speak of children giving it to them.