Do you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Poem excerpt: Still I Rise, by Maya Angelou
Photo: In Roma with my crew.
December 26, 1933 – April 26, 2016
I haven’t answered phone calls. Or returned emails or texts. I’ve just stayed in the cocoon of our close family. My sisters and brother, our children and in laws have been grieving together and working together in preparation for mom’s celebration of life this weekend. It has all been quite hideous and wonderful all at the same time.
Mom’s obituary details an amazing life. Chinese immigrant parents. The seventh of eleven children. Third woman to graduate in chemical engineering from the U of Illinois. Going to UW Law school with two babies and graduating three years later with two more plus being 7 months pregnant with the fifth.
This is mom’s law school class. She received an offer from a big downtown firm upon graduation, but wanted to be closer to her family. She first worked for a grumpy old man lawyer who pretty much terrified me. After a few years she left him and opened her own general practice a few miles from our house. She was very high energy and slept 3 to 4 hours a night. Her favorite time to do laundry was at 2:00 a.m.
Mom was the most untraditional person I’ve ever known. The phrase: she walked to the beat of her own drum – is an understatement. She was a true Maverick in every sense of the word. She always believed she was right. She never gave up. And she fought like heck for everything. I once watched her sock a lawyer in court because he pushed her. The judge heard about it and after emerging from recess scolded the two of them.
In the 60s through the 80s when mom practiced law, she experienced racism and sexism. She could care less unless it was from a judge. This is because the judge was supposed to be fair and impartial. And because he had the final say like it or not. Otherwise if it was from opposing counsel or their clients she either ignored it or went into attack mode.
She loved people and would not give a second thought to starting up a conversation with a total stranger. To the contrary, she would attend any public meeting or function where she could go meet even more people. When we were children this embarrassed us to no end. As we grew into adults it still did periodically. She felt completely connected to people and did not need time to warm up to them. She had no boundaries whatsoever and would talk about whatever was on her immediate agenda. Whether the recipients liked it or not.
As she grew older mom became more unique. She introduced a bit of magical thinking into the equation. Being such a brilliant person, it was interesting to watch people trying to follow her train of thought. She felt she was on another sphere of intellectual and spiritual being and she was right.
Three lessons I learned from mom were: 1) tell the truth even if bluntly; 2) be strong enough to fight for what is right; and 3) always be there for your family.
Mom had many other sayings and pieces of advice. This collection comes from memories of my childhood:
- sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never harm me
- to be Eurasian means you are the best of both worlds
- ignore them – they don’t know what they’re talking about
- eat everything on your plate – there are children starving in (fill in the blank)
- your hair needs to be cut
- what is that stuff (makeup) on your face – you don’t need anything
- beauty is skin deep
- women can do anything men can do and usually better
- stand up straight
- don’t slouch or you’ll grow a hump
- you have your grandmother’s hands
- tell them you can see better with your four eyes than they can with their two eyes
- next time he socks you, sock him back as hard as you can
- it’s a natural bodily function
Perhaps the most wonderful quality of mom was her brightness. I cannot remember seeing her depressed. If she felt down she didn’t show it. If she was unhappy or upset she did not cry or mope. Instead she came out swinging as hard as she could. Granted if you were a victim of her wrath, it was no fun. But mainly mom was elated with life. Whether it was beating someone in a game, winning a motion, playing with her grandkids, getting a great deal during her bargain hunting, predicting something correctly or eating an ice cream cone – she laughed and crowed and whooped in utter delight.
We will miss her forever.
Photos: (1) our family archives; (2) my partner Paul Whelan dug this up for me the day after she died; (3) mom and the five kids.
Saturday morning. Am going through and dumping old files. The box catches my eye: “Business Junk – Old School Records.” All neatly organized. Typical.
Find a two page writing sample entitled: “Where will I be in ten years. Karen Kathryn Koehler. English 181 Milbauer, May 9, 1979.”
This would have been typed on an IBM Selectric. The three pages of onion skin paper are a bit wrinkled.
The 54 year old me reads what the 19 year old me has to say. Oh the arrogance of youth!
The teacher docked me for poor punctuation. Never mind the run on sentences.
Where will I be in 10 years? It’s a question I hardly ask myself as I am young and still not worried about my future. Yet, when I examine my past upbringing, present living situation, and various expectations of life, I find I can pretty accurately predict what my place in society will be by that time.
My past plays an important role in determining my future. I am the product of a family in which I was the oldest child. Not only did I have my younger siblings to boss around act like a queen to, but I also had a substantial amount of responsibility placed upon me by my parents, which included setting a proper example for the rest of the kids, and often being placed in charge of things, like cleaning up the living room. To my childhood under these circumstances, I attribute my current ability to be authoritative and my general nature of being very self-assured.
Ah, yes, the hardships of cleaning up that living room.
For more insight into the analytical brain of a 19 year old future lawyer (and to see if the predictions came true) here is the full unabridged and uncorrected text:
Photo: Nala helping me to go through a few boxes of old papers.
Mary Fung Koehler is 80 today. So far, these are the lives that she has led:
- Child number 7 of 11 to immigrant parents
- Worker in the family Chinese restaurants in Chicago during the depression
- 3rd female to graduate from the University of Illinois in chemical engineering
- Employed as a chemical engineer
- Married to Jim and a wife for almost 3 decades
- Mother to Karen, Debbie, Susan, Jennifer and Gregory
- Law student when pregnant with Susan, Jennifer and Gregory
- Practicing lawyer in Lake Forest Park for 2 decades
- Real estate agent
- Predictor of IQ’s – the most famous being that Greg’s dog Izzy’s IQ was higher than that of George W. Bush.
- Dowsing fanatic and believer in all things intuitively magical.
MFK taught us to stand our ground. To fight for what is right. And that women were just as capable as men, if not better (she was and is a bit of a female chauvenist).
Happy Birthday Mom!
Photo: MFK on graduation day from UW Law School in 1968 standing in front of our garage. I was 8, Debbie 7, Susan 3, Jenny 1 and Greg was 7.5 months in utero.
Prologue: The best and worst outfit I ever wore to the Hollyball was when I was President of WSTLA. It was an election year. We were fighting for the insurance fair conduct act. And if you added to all that -raising my girls and handling my job…well….There was no time for shopping.
The theme was the Red Hot Hollyball. And I was determined to do it right. So a few days before the big event, I went online. Promdresses.com or some such website. Found a red hot hollyball dress.
The dress arrived two days later. But didn’t have time to try it on until the night of the Hollyball. It was red and slinky and actually fit which was a good thing. But there was a problem. The neckline was more like a chest line. It was broad and deep and plunged down to my navel. Real fitting for the president of the trial lawyers.
It fit though. And since there was no time to do anything about it, I put on a smile and sashayed forth.
Today, as usual, the Hollyball arrives before I have figured out what I’m going to do about it. A couple months ago I had a few plans and ideas. But one of my cases exploded and that was that.
Get up. Go to office. Work.
Anne comes in around one. She is the opposite of me in terms of being put together. Her hair is curled, she is wearing sparkles, her lips match her nails. I am wearing yoga pants, a sweater hoodie, nike boots, mascara, trader joe chapstick, hair yanked back, and my nails are uniformly chipped and raggedy looking.
I tell her my goal is to spend an hour getting ready for the Hollyball. Even if I didn’t buy an outfit, I can dig around and find something. Anne gives me a pep talk. Something about Sharon Stone tying a plain white shirt around her waist with a long black skirt.
Work more. Need to get going soon if am going to stay on schedule. Plan is to go for run with Nala before primping.
Text message bleeps. Open phone. Photo of smashed bumper. Alysha has been hit. Call her. She’s okay. Happened up on the hill. Some dummy drove throught the intersection without yielding. All but admitted he was texting. She manages to drive the few blocks home.
Finish up stuff at office. Head home. Park in front of her car. Get out. Look at the crumpled little bumper. Neighbor drives up. Examines it with me. Go inside house. Hug Alysha who is calm. Wait for tow truck. They come. Drive to Hertz downtown. Drop her off. Drive home. Consider getting gas. 12 miles per warning light. Will get gas later. Don’t make a wise route decision. Get caught in traffic. Finally arrive home. Gas down to 6 miles.
3:15. Look at computer. Handle emails until 3:40. What am I thinking. Sunset is at 4:18. Throw on running gear. Nala twirling around in circles of excitement. Go for run. Sun goes down. Run in the dark. Make it back. Go to put Nala’s booties back on. She is filthy. It wasn’t raining but the sidewalk/roads/grass/weeds and mud puddles were wet. Give her a shower. Dry her off. Send her on her way. Take shower. Look at clock. 5:45. How did that happen.
Look in closet. Nothing is inspiring. Close it. Get out hair dryer. It is happy to see me. Usually just let hair air dry or pull back in a pony tail. Get most of it dry. Decide to put on more eye makeup than usual. This means some gold and dark gray. Red lipstick. There we go.
And now comes the hard part. What exactly am I going to wear.
Open closet back up. Look at the dresses. Decide am not in the mood. Pull on some black velvet bcbg leggings, add a draping blouse tunic type thing that came from Barneys about four years ago. Grab pencil heeled velvet black boots (these at least are Hollyball worthy). Little Prada silk bag have had for over a decade. Throw on Nike boots and black puffy coat. Out the door.
Car is giving me angry red warnings. Am going to run out of gas. Stop at station. 6:30. Hollyball is starting. Drive downtown. Three miles. 25 minutes. It’s that time of year.
Get to the Four Seasons. Pull off Nike’s and put on lovely boots. Valet gives me stub. Walk into hotel. Turn right. Head towards Spanish Ballroom. Reach it. Empty. Oh dear.
Rush back to valet. They have driven off already. Talk to the door man. He has been here over 20 years. This hotel is the Fairmont. Used to be the Four Seasons. So I wasn’t totally dreaming. The correct one is on First and Union.
Go inside until he comes and gets me. 20 minutes later. Tip him for being nice. Tip the driver for having to drive it for nothing.
Drive down around and over to the correct Four Seasons. Arrive at destination at 7:20. Head toward garage but valet motions me over. Obey. He hands me a stub.
Head upstairs. There are tuxedos and nice suits. Superbly coifed women in sparkly dresses. Everyone looks like they have made an effort. They are so lovely and festive.
And then there’s me. Looking like I’m going to the club.
But no one seems to think it odd.
And we hug and kiss and Hollyball the night away.
Photo: Paul Whelan in his tuxedo with his dear friend Larry Barron
Reid is my daugher Alysha’s boyfriend. He comes bearing gifts. An ornament for the tree from Denmark where he was studying abroad. And this poem that he wrote last night on his way to see The Elf musical.
I come to Seattle, walkin’ down Pike
I hear the sound of silence, that’s the Velvet Hammer strike
She’s a charged pack of power in an unikely form
A tiny little mama whose heart has only warm
Don’t let that fool you if you’re an opponent of hers
Her soft little voice is safe as Mountain Lion purrs
And…that’s not all please don’t get me wrong
She raised her girls like herself
so that’s four women strong
video version by Reid: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQ3cRx2ICKo
No matter how hard I tried to sweet talk her out of it, Alysha wanted to be a toad.
What about a witch – no.
Simba the lion king – no.
Ariel the little mermaid– no
A ghost – no. no. no.
But honey, toads are gross.
Don’t care. I want to be a toad.
What about a frog – they are cuter. Plus we might be able to find something at the costume store.
No. A toad.
Cristina and Noelle had their costumes already picked out. But as October 31 approached, I began to get that sinking/anxious feeling that procrastinators get.
Every day, Alysha stayed on her message: did you find my toad outfit yet.
Necessity is the mother of invention. Accordingly, the day before Halloween, inspiration hit.
I could make a toad costume by mutating Cristina’s outfit from the year before. She had been a caterpillar. (Seriously – right? I mean these kids had high expectations). I had gotten some Kelly green polyester, sewed it into a body bag and glued black fuzzy round patches on it. The mask/helmet went over Cristina’s entire head. With a hole cut out for her face. A couple more black fuzzy spots were strategically placed. And…well…here’s where I messed up. Couldn’t quite manage the antennae. They wouldn’t stand up straight. Plus the black fuzzy fabric was a bit hard to sew. So the antennae ended up looking like skinny droopy Basset hound ears. She was a caterpillar puppy. But cute.
This was the outfit destined to become Alysha’s toad.
Halloween fell on a work day. But I wasn’t panicked. I arrived home with a plan. Cristina and Noelle were getting dressed up. Alysha confronted me. Chin slightly quivering. Mawwwwwm. You Promised.
It’s going to be great Alysha, I said. Go have Cristina make your face look like a toad. It should be greenish brown and ugly. She looked at me suspiciously. But went off to the face paint room.
We lived in a Halloween hot spot. Families would come from all over the county in order to trick or treat in our neighborhood. There were not only the typical jack ‘o lanterns, spiders and cobwebs, graves, ghosts, and other scary decorations. But haunted houses that you would walk through. Some people handed out giant size candy bars.
Darkness was falling. I needed to hurry.
The caterpillar/toad suit was long and straight. Toads as I recalled, were squat and bumpy. Swept up in a creative frenzy, I began wadding up newspapers. Then stuffed them into several black garbage bags.
The girls emerged from the makeup room. Cristina had decorated Alysha’s face blotchy toad green with black warts. Alysha looked at the green spotted fabric tube and said – it doesn’t look like a toad outfit. Her bottom lip jutted out.
It’s going to be perfect, I smiled with great certainty. Here get in.
She stepped inside the green fuzzy spotted thing and it puddled around her feet. Cristina and Noelle were watching in fascination. Waiting for the miraculous transformation that was about to occur. Confident that their genius mother would work magic.
Now, I’m going to make you puffy like a toad, I said. And began to stuff the lumpy newspaper filled bags into the outfit.
This isn’t working, Alysha worried.
No problem, I said. We just need to make it puffier. Here, lie down so I can stuff it in better.
Cristina and Noelle offered to help but I had it covered. All under control.
Alysha was lying flat out on the kitchen floor. I was jamming the puffy bags into her outfit until there was no more room left. The fabric was as tightly packed as it could be.
I lifted her until she was upright. Stood back to look at my handiwork. And before I could suppress it, a bubble of laughter escaped. I tried to keep a pleased-yay-mom-made-you-into-a-toad looking face. But the guffaws had a mind of their own. Cristina and Noelle started howling.
Can you walk, I asked between snorts and giggles.
She couldn’t. She couldn’t move at all. She was so completely packed that if I had tipped her over she would have bounced right back up. Like one of those plastic punching bag pop up toys.
Alysha couldn’t see what she looked like. But suspected it wasn’t like a toad. She was becoming upset. Tried to walk. But all she could manage was a teeny waddle. Her eyes started to well up. Then overflow. What a terrible mom I was to make my child cry on Halloween.
I kissed and hugged her and somehow managed to keep her from completely degenerating into total tears. Cristina and Noelle joined the effort of positive thinking. Oh Alysha, you look scary… It’s going to work… Oh, you look (hahaha) like a monster.
Eventually Alysha chose to suspend her disbelief.
We ended up taking the stuffing out of the green black spotted fuzzy outfit. Turned Alysha into a “Halloween Creature Thing.” Whatever that was.
I armed them with flashlights. Gave them their candy sacks. And Raggedy Ann, Zelda the Witch and The Creature Thing went out into the Halloween night.
Photo: Alysha after removal of the bags.
I think it’s a mouse, says Noelle.
Um. Let me go look. She is in her nighty. Walks on tip toes, bends down, looks under the t.v. cabinet. Jumps up runs back and springs onto bed. Yes, it is.
Let me go look again. She repeats the whole thing. Yes.
Yelling, screaming, and a twitter rant ensue as follows:
@union station hotel Nashville supposedly one of the best. And there is a freakin rat in the room .
Apparently it sniffed a kernel of white cheddar popcorn that Noelle dropped
They said they would be up 15 minutes ago. Still not here. Mouse has popcorn and just scooted under the door.
Back to the hall of this hotel To snif out more foodies
This is the worst. Where the heck is @union station security
I screamed and started shaking just like they do in the movies. Makes me really want to stay here again. Not
@union station just called us to tell us they are coming. Don’t hurry too much. Take your time. We are hoping more mice will come to visit
Noelle is laughing. Bit she was shaking too. She kept peering under the cabinet. Yup it’s a mouse she said
An ugly gray gross mouse. I didn’t want to see it. Bit it really wanted that dumb piece of popcorn.
Hurry up and get us OUT OF HERE
I’d (if) you come to the @union station hotel on Nashville. Bring a cat.
Nala would have protected us. We are still waiting to leave.
I would like to go out to the hall to wait for the hotel people. But the mouse is out there and will get us.
We ate (are) leaving. Noelle is in her mitt. We don’t want to stay here anymore
The porter they sent up didn’t speak English.
We have now been moved to a room that is under the main lobby. That’s right folks. The only good thing
Is that we are now five floors under the rat
$399 a night for two. And they’ll throw in a rat for free. pic.twitter.com/SOrc10Xf
Photo: Noelle’s anti-rat strategy for the new room.
Mary Fung cured me from saying “um” when I was still a teenager. Here’s what she would do:
- Count out loud each time I said um
- Tell me how silly I sounded
- Tell anyone within earshot how silly I sounded
This is what any good Tiger Mom and in her case – Dragon Lady Mom would have done.
I am a little kinder with my kids. They don’t say “um”. They say “like”. They say it so much that I now say it. Even though I don’t like it (pun intended). Here are some of the tactics I’ve urged them to try:
- Wear a rubber band around your wrist and snap it each time you say “like”
- Record yourself and hear how many times you say “like” and it will convince you to stop
- Occasionally they will let me count them but this usually lasts for about an hour before they say stop.
So far nothing has worked. And yes, there are actually moments during a solemn trial when I sound just “like” Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde.
Just how awful is it to use a filler word or say like “um” or “like” when speaking in public.
Well, if you ask anyone they will tell you it sounds bad. The speaker is anxious or unprepared or grasping to sound believable.
But in reality when measuring how an audience is listening, they are not that obsessed or distracted by the filler words. If used in moderation. And if the talk is interesting. (Two big “ifs”).
An interesting psychological analysis can be found in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 19(3), Fall 1995. Conclusion: if you are talking about something interesting, the audience will overlook the prevalence of fillers – if they are not too prevalent.
So exactly how perfect am I in trial. Well, from time to time I use “um” and “like” and other sounds or words that may not be properly grammatical. This is because I am who I am. Like it or not.
I had to bribe my children to read.
It started when Cristina reached Junior High and the other two were in grade school. They never wanted to read for enjoyment.
Growing up – I made weekly treks to the Lake Forest Park library underneath the neighborhood shopping center. It was small. I read every book in there – sometimes more than once. So it was disorienting that my girls could not conceive of reading a non-school book.
For their first summer reading program I offered $5 per book over 200 pages. They were not impressed. Bargained me up to $10. I figured they’d read five books max. That first year all of them read over 20. Laughed at me for being such a sucker.
I let them buy clothing with their newfound wealth. Too late they realized that I would have furnished their back to school wardrobes anyway. Next year they imposed a new condition on the bribe – it had to be paid it in cash. Which I countered with – half cash, half to their savings accounts.
In the end the strategy worked. The girls stopped reading for dollars and found themselves in love with various authors and stories. This translated to the fact that all of them write beautifully.
Here is Alysha’s latest blog. It puts mine to shame.