EAGLE POINT, Ore. — My mother-in-law and her parents escaped communist China in a boat. She remembers the sound of gunfire in the distance, the threat of Chairman Mao’s persecution, and the task of starting over in Taiwan.
Her father had been an officer in the Army, who later became mayor of a province in China. After the move to Taiwan, he struggled to find work, and took a job as the principal of an elementary school.
Every day, they say, is an opportunity.
You may have noticed the dateline of this column. I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Jackson County, not far from the Rogue River. I’ve brought my wife to see her soon-to-be 80-year old mother, because I don’t know how else to thank that woman.
My wife and her parents are immigrants. They left Taiwan for Portland in 1979, seeking opportunity and more distance from the unrelenting threat of China. A Realtor seized the opportunity and took the Song family’s life savings in exchange for a small motel at the intersection of NE 115th and Sandy Blvd.
The “East Portland Motel” had 28 units. It rented to truck drivers, travelers, and had a couple of long-term rental units with kitchenettes. The neighborhood was riddled with prostitutes, violent crime and drugs. Railroad tracks ran behind the property. My wife was forbidden by her mother from playing there.
After several years, my wife’s parents divorced. Her father went back to Taiwan. This is how an 11-year-old little girl came to run the front desk of that motel, checking in customers while her mother cleaned the units. My wife often scrubbed the motel rooms, too. To this day, when we travel, my wife will tidy up our room before the housekeeping service is allowed to come in.
In the 1980s, my wife’s mother created an exhaustive checklist that prohibited hourly rentals and carefully screened the clientele. The signage outside their motel advertised: “HBO.”
It might as well have said, “Homicide-free.”
The adjacent motels on Sandy Blvd. weren’t as fortunate. One by one, they became crime scenes. The police came. The coroner showed up. Television crews did news reports. Years later, my wife would win a couple of Emmy Awards as an investigative reporter and news anchor. She knocked on Ward Weaver’s door, and spoke with the serial killer, alone. She did live TV shots from meth labs. The woman I married is talented and gifted, but beyond that — she is fearless.
Now you know why.
We pulled into her mother’s driveway on Saturday and found a line of American flags planted in the ground of her front yard. They stay up, year-round. She’s insanely proud to live in this country. Anyone who knows her story would understand. Her journey may have began in a boat, fleeing China. But it resulted in a daughter who emigrated to the United States, became her high school class president, and earned a full-ride scholarship to Pepperdine University.
A single mother.
The little girl, who became my wife.
I wonder how in the world they ever made it. Faith, for sure. Each other, definitely. Sports was the great unifier in my family of origin. We rallied around baseball games, played soccer, and watched football on the weekends. We also went to movies and bookstores. On Saturday, as we drove south on Interstate-5, I asked my wife what she and her mother did together for fun.
“There wasn’t a lot of time for going and doing things,” my wife said.
They sold the motel just before my wife’s senior year of high school. Another family knocked on the door, offered to buy it and took over operations. That senior year must have felt glorious for my wife, in part, because she got to share it with her mother.
One day, a few years ago, I was driving on Sandy Blvd. and realized I was about to pass the old motel. My wife, in her teenage years, rebranded the place. She changed the name to the “Prestige Inn” and designed a new sign that was erected over the property. It was teal and purple and made of thick, acrylic material.
I looked for it — and slammed on the brakes.
Workers were taking the old sign down and rebranding again. The motel was becoming the “BEST MOTEL.” It still advertised “HBO.” But I had to have the old sign. So I pulled into the parking lot and convinced the owner to sell it to me for $50.
It was mid-December and cold. The sign was longer and wider than an automobile. But for another $20 a motel maintenance worker helped me get the thing home. I dragged it to the side of the house and hid it until Christmas morning. I woke early and positioned the sign on a deck, outside a large window.
My mother-in-law happened to be visiting.
The scene was set.
I would surprise them both.
When I opened the blinds, I beamed with pride. There was a momentary silence. Then, some shock. Then, they both started screaming. Not in a good way. They howled and shrieked together. Then, fell over laughing at me. I’m nostalgic. But in that moment I realized I’d haunted them.
We spent that afternoon as a family, in the driveway, with a sledgehammer. We took turns telling stories and smashing the sign. It was reduced to splinters. Lesson learned. I’ve wondered for a while how to thank the resilient and relentless mother who fostered, fed and nurtured the woman I fell in love with.
I’ve settled on being intentional about bringing them back together.
We are here for a brief visit. Our children will get to read books with their grandmother and hear stories about their mom. My wife and her mother have plans to get a pedicure and go for a walk. Simple stuff wins.
When we arrived on Saturday evening, her mother had a giant pot of Taiwanese beef-noodle soup on the stove. We sat at the table, and I listened as they sat and slurped it together.
There isn’t a sweeter sound.
Thank you for reading. I appreciate all who have supported, subscribed and shared my new independent endeavor with friends and family in recent months. If you haven’t already — please consider subscribing.
Both sides of my family escaped from then Czechoslovakia. Both sides would now say they were Slovaks. One side escaped in a car trunk. Other side subsistence farmed in upstate NY late in the depression. Yes your wife’s family story resonates with me
My mom told a story of being housed in a catholic monastery in Manhattan post Ellis Island. She was told that in America they hand out candy bars to new citizens. That happened to her while in Manhattan. No one could say anything bad about America to my mom.
Most of us come from immigrant families, mine from Russia, my wife's from Italy. They came here and survived because they were resilient, tough, tireless, and brave. Far more than me, I know. Wonderful column.