My mom – MFK
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.
Pick up mom from Shoreline. It is 58 degrees out and she is in a faux fur black maxi coat with brass buttons. She bought it for $25. Half off at the consignment store. Brand new from Sears.
Take her to late lunch at Din Tai Fung University Village. Hour and a half wait. Meet up with my brother Greg and his wife Laurie. We say forget it. Go to Boom Noodle. Eat lunch. Not as good as Din Tai Fung but quicker. Greg and Laurie take Nala for doggie sitting play date. I drive with mom to the movie theater at The Landing in Renton. My sister Jenny pulls up. Out jump her boys Ben and EJ. We eat popcorn and watch Paddington Bear. Quite delightful.
Movie ends. Jenny retrieves the young ones. Take mom back first to get Nala then back to Shoreline. It is a bit of a haul. She talks nonstop. Her memory has been returning.
MFK: You know when I was in the Bureau of Mines (she was a chemical engineer), I was third in command in case someone had to push “the” button.
MFK: Yep. At one point, everyone got a promotion. I was waiting for mine. I was seven months pregnant with you. Boss said – well, you’ve got me over the barrel. If I give you a promotion (and raise) how do I know you’ll even come back. I said – if you don’t give me a promotion and a raise I will leave right now. I wasn’t going to let him get away with treating me like that. Just because I was a woman and it was 1960. Not to mention the Chinese part. The next day he gave me a promotion and a raise.
K3: Smile. (No response necessary).
MFK: His name was Ken K__ K___. That’s when I decided if he could live with those initials then so could you. (Laughing raucously). Anyway you’re just K cubed.
K3: (Thinking, ah so there was a scientific reason beyond all of this). That’s real nice mom.
MFK: So the next day he gave me the raise. I had you. And then a year later we left for Europe (for your dad’s post-doctoral program in Zurich).
Photo: Mom (Mary Fung Koehler) and I in Switzerland
Motion to permit Skype testimony at trial: newMtoallowSkype
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.
The air starts crackling.
My mom, Mary Fung, has come to watch opening. Her smile stretches the width of her face. She is wearing a polyester blue and white teeny striped suit that I distinctly remember from the 1970s. Over a blue pair of Nike shock sneakers that I used to run in. Hair pinned up in its forever bun. She looks fairly adorable. Everyone in the courtroom smiles back at her.
Am thinking – uh oh.
She tells me to comb my hair. Offers me a comb. Remind her the hair is not able to be combed. She starts picking at my jacket. There are strings hanging. She starts to dig out a pair of clippers from her purse. Tell her this is the style. It is meant to unravel. She wrinkles her nose up, scowls and makes a sound that sounds like this: ugh. Ron (co-counsel) comes over and says, just focus on opening. Am thinking – no way. Have to keep eye on mom.
She begins to take cosmic readings. Tells everyone that I don’t believe in her powers. That doesn’t bother or stop her.
Tells our client she will heal him. Tells the bailiff and clerk their I.Q.s aren’t bad but she can help them improve. To put this in perspective, she previously determined my brother’s dog Izzy had a higher I.Q. than George W. Bush. Mine, if you must know, was quite high at birth. Then my uncle Timmy dropped me on my head when I was two and that was that. I’m pretty sure Izzy’s is higher than mine as well.
Her favorite thing to do in court is to sketch everyone (she’s really quite a good courtroom artist). She then does their “readings.” This is good because it keeps her occupied and I don’t have to worry that she’ll break out the crystal pendulum and start twirling it around. It aids in her ability to make predictions and decisions. Actually, probably should worry but have determined it to be a useless exercise. The woman is incorrigible.
Judge Hill returns. The jury files in. She reads the preliminary instruction. The ritualistic words wash over me. Mind grows still and focused. Eyes close even though they physically are open. This is what I say to myself:
This opening is for our client. Let me speak the right words in the right way for him. Give me calmness of spirit to do what needs to be done. Give me strength for him. Let the jury see the truth. I am nothing but a conduit. Let me do a good job for this man.
Don’t repeat it like a mantra. Just let it cycle through once. Breathing slows. Can feel the air as it rests in chest. Breathe more slowly so it can rest more deeply. Down to the center of where it needs to be.
Judge H finishes and says – please turn your attention to Ms. Koehler.
Walk back out, face the jury, and let it Flow.
After openings are over, check on mom. She has made drawings of everyone. There are mathematical calculations and little notes by all of their faces. Instead of a jury consultant, we have a jury psychic. She has to leave to babysit for my little sister. She’ll share her findings with me later.
Walk her out to the hall. Kiss her goodbye. She says she is proud and gets a little tearful. Am truly touched. Watch the little polyester suit walk to the elevator. Go back in.
Drawing: Clark v. State jury by Mary Fung Koehler.
Note: This is an excerpt from my trial diary day 2 Oct. 2011.
A letter from Tom E:
Karen, you story reminds me of someone, equally devilish, who rammed a jury verdict right through my professional reputation 33 years ago, after I lost a supposedly unlosable case. Only it wasn’t a He. It was a she.
As the then City Attorney for Lake Forest Park, it was my duty to prosecute a gentlemen who was accused of unlawfully aiming and pointing a firearm, and attempted assault for throwing Ninja Stars. Seems he had challenged a patron of our City’s Dance Club – Fandango’s – to a Kung Fu fight in the parking lot. A fight witnessed by close to 100 patrons, all of whom were more than willing to testify the Defendant had indeed drawn a gun and thrown a Ninja Star.
In those days, even gross misdemeanors could go to Superior Court, de novo, for jury trial. And my opponent, unfazed by the municipal court conviction, demanded de-novo 12 person jury trial in King County.
So, during the trial, my opponent kept referring to me as, “Tom.” “Why’d you do that for, Tom?” “Boy, that was sure dumb, Tom.” “Think the City Council will vote to approve your bill, Tom?” “Your not gonna call all 10 of your witnesses, are you, Tom?”
Just like you, I was soooo polite. Figuring Jesus must have been right “…the meek shall inherit the earth…” I knew I could count on, at very least, the minds of 12 jurors in an unlosable prosecution.
Then my opponent did the unthinkable. She called the Defendant to the stand. Had him explain the Rules of Ninja. Why he was so good at throwing Ninja Stars. Had he really intended to Star-Stab his challenger, he would have. And, he wasn’t pointing the loaded gun at just one person, he was pointing it at the whole crowd, because they were taunting him!
But the worst thing she did, was to make this Defendant into a really likeable guy!
In retrospect, probably my best move during the entire case, was to make sure the Judge did not let any bullets go back to the jury room, along with the gun.
The jury was out, lets see, maybe 10 minutes. It was unanimous. 12 – zip. Not guilty. As I was leaving the court room, the Defendant, now a star a/k/a Bruce Lee, was instructing some of the jurors on how to throw a Ninja Star.
And the name of my opponent? That dreaded terror, seared into my memory, whom I am sometimes reminded of when someone says “Hey, Tom” (which can happen a lot when you are named Tom).
Mary Fung Koehler. Your Mother.
Photo: Mom before she became a tiger lawyer
We used to call my mom “The Dragon Lady.” I haven’t yet read Amy Chau’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom.” But hearing the buzz, I can tell there are many mommy similarities.
My mom was a chemical engineer who went to law school after my younger sister Debbie was born. She gave birth to my siblings Susan and Jennifer the first two years and was seven months pregnant with Gregory when she graduated the third year. To this day, her classmates recall that she seemed to always be “sick” and lying down in the black of class.
Here are a few of my memories:
- Piano. We all learned how to play the piano. This included learning classical music only. We only played pop music when the parents weren’t around. When I practiced she would yell out “You Made A Mistake” every time I made a mistake.
- Orchestra. I wanted to play in the school band. I was only allowed to take the violin and be in the orchestra. Eventually the horrible screeching paved the way for me to switch (slightly). I took up the string bass.
- Brownies. I really wanted to be a Brownie and go into the Girls Scouts. This conflicted with piano. So it was a no.
- Ling Gok. This is a disciplinary technique that involves bending the second and third fingers and rapping them quickly on your head. This can also be done with chopsticks.
- My hair. My hair was disobedient. It curled. My mother felt it looked best when trimmed no longer than one inch in length. In my grade school pictures, you can only tell I’m a girl by the clothes I’m wearing. I have vivid memories of her chasing me through the house wielding scissors. This didn’t stop until junior high school.
- Reading. We were encouraged to read anything and everything. There were no filters placed. When she was in law school, she had me read her law books so I could learn to sound out complicated words. We went to the Lake Forest Park library every week. By high school I had read almost every book in there.
- Television. We were not allowed to have a colored television for about a decade after they were in use. We always had to sit at least six feet away from the tv so we would not be radiated.
- Eye for an Eye. Kirk Gifford pushed me off my tricycle and I came crying inside. Instead of giving me TLC, she had me march back out there and punch him.
- Cleaning our plates. My mother would let her clients pay her “in kind.” One client paid her with a load of smelt (little disgusting fish). She boiled them and served them for dinner. You are supposed to eat them by popping them in your mouth head and all – or at least that’s what she said). Jennifer was too young to know better and ate her smelt. The rest of us sat there for hours, gagging and retching. We weren’t allowed to leave until they were all gone.
- Clothes. We were not allowed to wear what was in fashion. Clothes were about function. I learned to sew at the community college. With money earned from teaching piano, I made my own wardrobe by high school. One time I was given blue corduroy and made an outfit for each of my siblings. Just like little house on the prairie.
- Running away. When I was about six, I just couldn’t take her anymore. I decided to run away. I told her I was going to. She said – good go ahead. I got on my tricycle and drove down to the mailbox crying. I stayed there for a while. That’s as far as I got.
- School. I had a lot of leeway here. Both parents worked and I got good grades. I can’t remember ever doing homework. From time to time they’d complain to the school that I wasn’t being kept busy or learning enough. One year they pursued the matter and had me tested. The recommendation was that I skip a couple of grades. After that I developed math aversion and was allowed to stay with my friends.
- Friends. This about sums up how much friends liked to visit me. My neighbor and friend Jayne knocked on the door. My mom answered it, looked her up and down and said – Don’t worry, one of these days your breasts will start to develop.
- Boyfriends. This is what she said to the person who would become my husband (now ex) the first time she met him. John came to pick me up for a date. She was up in the loft, leaned down and said – You don’t look as dumb as you sounded on the phone.
- College. I announced I was going to be an English literature major. She pursed her mouth and said – that’s not a real major.
- Law School. When I announced I was going to law school, she didn’t say anything. It was expected.
- Oh paying homage. Everything we have ever done in life that is good is because of my mom.
Mary Fung Koehler is now 78 years old. She still thinks she knows everything and her way is always right.
(Pictured: Mom with grandkids Cristina and Ben at Dim Sum)