My Dragon Lady Mother


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)