Archive for July, 2016

In memory of Barbara Surwilo

July 18th, 2016

A friend of mine, 75 year old Barbara Surwilo, died this weekend. She was technically the mother of my childhood best friend, Steph May. But I consider Barbara a friend, too - or more accurately, like another mother.

1980? Rocky Hill, CT, in front of the Surwilo house: Barbara Surwilo, me (ugh), Steph, Robin, Lance Morton, Lisa.

1980? Rocky Hill, CT, in front of the Surwilo house: Barbara Surwilo, me (ugh), Steph, Robin, Lance Morton, Lisa.

It's interesting how a fleeting period of time with someone can leave a lasting impression on your heart, as she did for me. I spent about four years of my elementary school life in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, where her middle daughter, Steph, and I were stuck together like glue.

Steph, me, Robin

Steph, me, Robin

Small in stature - maybe five feet, tops - Mom Surwilo was an intellectual giant, with an indefatigable personality that persisted after a cause until she won. Brilliant, she held doctorates in biochemistry and endocrinology, and worked as an environmental consultant and longtime politician. She was Rocky Hill's first female mayor.

She juggled career and family perfectly. Mom Surwilo had her priorities straight. Every bill she supported, every cause she advocated, was for love of family - and the knowledge that keeping her family safe meant keeping other families safe.

That's what I remember most about her: her nurturing motherliness. She had three daughters; the younger two were a year older and younger than me, so we formed a tight trio and are close to this day. The eldest, Lisa, got stuck with babysitting us.

Mom Surwilo opened her house and her heart to me, this wayward Chinese kid in a 1970's, very European Connecticut. I was probably the only Asian kid in Rocky Hill.

I spent so many nights sleeping over the Surwilo household, she laughingly proclaimed she had a Chinese calabash daughter. What I remember most is passing long summer days playing in their backyard, picking raspberries off the bush, swimming in their pool so much my hair got crispy and brittle (it'd have turned green if I were blonde.)

Mom Surwilo took me camping with them, let me visit for a month after my parents moved away from Connecticut, and acquiesced to Steph and Robin's pleas for me to accompany them on a RV trip across the country.

I have my own mother and I love her and appreciate her dearly, but Mom Surwilo was an excellent complement to all the things my Chinese mother is not. An effervescent Italian in a very Italian community, she was open, loud, and expressive. She was life itself, and drew others to her by virtue of her incandescence.

Both women taught me by example how to own my power. My mother did it in her quiet way, forging a career in showbiz at a time when that wasn't done for Chinese women, and earning a master's degree at an Ivy League university (Columbia), which still isn't that common for people in general today.

Mom Surwilo did it entirely differently. She got atop the bull that was life, rode that bad boy for way more than eight seconds, and only stopped when the bull got tired and asked to take a rest.

Most people live in fear; she lived with ferocity. Many spend their lives timid; she was tenacious. She was something to behold. I was lucky to be in her presence, to know this woman, to be embraced in her circle.

I loved going to her house. It was boisterous where mine was still. Mom Surwilo was the neighborhood mom, the house where all the people dropped in to visit, where all the neighborhood kids zipped in and out of doors yelling and screaming in delight. She'd interrupt a weighty conversation about the planning and zoning commission to occasionally holler at us to shut! the! door!

She was a little bit like the stereotypical mother of Hallmark channel shows - the kind that sits her daughter down and has an uplifting talk after a disappointing day at school or after a boy breaks her heart for the first time.

Here's a story about my moms that illustrates it:

When I was in seventh grade at Kamehameha Schools, I was doing my homework for Mrs. Lindblom's English class. (Remember that yellow book of grammar, anyone?) I was very good at grammar.

My mother walked in my room nervously and asked me in one big breath, "Doyouknowabouttheperiod?"

I couldn't believe she was asking me this. This was like, so Mrs. Smith's third grade? Impatient to finish my work, I said, "Yes?"

My mom seemed relieved. "The period. You know about it?"

"Yes," I repeated, puzzled as to her sudden and remedial interest in my English class. She left in a hurry.

Later, when the school year ended, I flew to Connecticut to spend a month at Steph's house. I missed my friends so much.

I remember lying on her living room couch with the worst stomach ache ever, which lasted for days. Pills didn't help much. And then came the blood.

Mom Surwilo attended to me, and then her eyes lit up amusedly when I told her what happened in the bathroom. She laughed and told me about menstruation, which I already kind of knew about from reading "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." But I got the endocrinology end of it.

It wasn't until a long time later that I put two and two together. Yeah, it was Mom Surwilo who coached me through The Change, while my own mom happily avoided any topics of uncomfortable discussion involving reproduction.

I'm disappointed that cancer took away a vital and vibrant woman who could still do so much good. In her last year, she decided she was going to get her real estate license. It wasn't at all about the practicality of it, as it was about the act of continuing to live, to pursue dreams, to expand that ingenious mind of hers.

I cried and felt sad for days after I learned of her passing. I feel sad for her husband, her daughters, her grandchildren, her friends, her community. I feel sad for me, because of what she meant to me.

Then I realized she was showing by example once again how to best live: to give it all you've got until you reach the finish line, and then to surrender with grace and dignity, surrounded by what matters most in life - the people you love, who love you back.

I love you, Mom Surwilo. Thank you for everything.

More on Barbara Surwilo at


July 15th, 2016

My favorite part about the weekend isn't that I'm not working in the day. It's that I can be right next to Olivia when she wakes up.

She sometimes asks me to be there when she opens her eyes. We do the bedtime routine the night before and she often gets very chatty.

For two years on the morning show, I was exhausted by 7:30 p.m. and I had to cut her off. We'd already be lying there for half and hour or longer and I acquiesced to her desire to talk because I want to share in her thoughts. Darkness is when the most vulnerable thoughts come out.

"Mommy needs to sleep. Can we finish in the morning?" I asked.

I still rise at 4. The body is set for that. I get out of my bed and have my little routine: coffee, breakfast, etc.

"Will you come into my bed after you do your business so I can wake up with you next to me?" she asks.

So I do. I wasn't there five days a week and it's the least I can do. I go to her room at 6 because she rises around 6:30.

I plug in my headphones and watch Netflix (another excellent way to start my day! Hello, Sam and Dean of Supernatural!) so as to be as quiet as possible. I like to let her get all the rest she needs.

Often, though, I pause it and just look at her. This beautiful little slumbering figure next to me that I'm so lucky to have.

My absolute favorite human. I'm in love with this child.

Nine months pregnant.

Nine months pregnant.

I made this! I marinated this in my baby factory! I marvel at how lovely she's become.

Sometimes I see her in my head, morphing through all the stages of her young life - remembering how she looked next to me as a baby, a toddler, a preschooler, and then back to now.



It's like the scene from Kung Fu Panda 1 where Shifu has to kill Tai Lung, his adoptive son. He runs through all the stages of Tai Lung's life and how much he loved each stage. (I'm likening me to the love part, not the killing part!)



I immediately took to being a mother. I loved her fiercely, wholly, completely, more than life itself. When she was an infant, I lamented to my mother, "She's growing up so fast! I want her to stay my little baby!"

My mother said sweetly, "Don't worry. You'll love her even more each day."

Popo and Olivia, 2008.

Popo and Olivia, 2008

Not that I was worried about that, but I wanted time to slow so I could enjoy each phase a little bit more. But Mom was right. I love her more all the time.

I look at her now, lying next to me in her bed, and I see the little things that she did even as a baby. The little hand twitches while deep in sleep, the mouth sometimes moving and resettling.


Her body shifts to roll up against mine. She's warm and comfortable. Her breaths are deep and relaxed.

She is my love. She is my grace. She's at peace, and so am I.

Feeling old at Ice Palace

July 13th, 2016

On her exact birthday, a Saturday, we took Olivia to Ice Palace, per her request. We have a party for later, but there were schedule conflicts so we couldn't do it on the day of her birthday.

We met up with her oldest friend, Amanda, and her family, which we've become close to. The girls darted off on the ice and stayed there until "that slow moving thing that cleans the ice" forced them off for intermissions.


In the first 20 minutes, we parents jumped on the rink, too. My poor, poor husband. In the first ten minutes, he fell straight on his butt and hurt his back. Unfortunately, he was nursing a pulled muscle, and this aggravated it.

I'm certainly not an ice skater by any stretch, but balance is my superpower, and living a foot closer to the ground certainly is an asset here.


He's such a trouper. He got up and kept trying until he fell straight back again.

He was afraid of hurting his back again so he braced the fall directly with his elbows. So now those are deeply bruised.

Of all the ways to fall, this guy really took a licking. He took his cue and stayed off the ice for the rest of the time we were there.

The girls asked me skate with them now and then, and the other dad, Mike, challenged me to a race around the rink, so I stayed on for another hour.

I could feel my muscles hurting in new places, and my ankle and arch rubbing me a huge blister against the crappy rental skate, so I knew it was time to stop. Plus, racing Mike left me winded. When did I get so old?

The girls, however, couldn't be pulled off the ice. They'd come in for little intervals to eat their pizza and rush off again. "This is so much fun!" they insisted.

We old folks minded a spot on the table, chatting with each other and rubbing our feet. They'd burst over and interrupt us. Kids.

I kept trying to get a photo of the girls on the ice, but it was like herding cats. They totally ignored me. When I had my phone finally ready, one would be running off. "Hey! Come back! I want to take---" and they were gone again.

I remember doing things like this with my parents when I was a kid. No matter where we were - the pool/ beach, roller skating at Da Rink at Chinese Cultural Plaza, Castle Park in Halawa, or anywhere else active - they'd do exactly this. Stand on the side and talk.

How can that be fun?, I wondered. Parents are so boring.

Well, I get it now.

The kids didn't want to leave, but we all decided two hours was enough of the noise and the longing to recline on a sofa. Olivia ended up sleeping over at Amanda's house.

"Best birthday ever!" she pronounced before hopping in Amanda's car. No long hug, no kiss, just - parents as an afterthought.


You'd think that having a Saturday night would be all Party Town for Claus and me, but no. He sat on his heating pad minding the clock for when he could take his next ibuprofen, while we watched maybe 30 minutes of TV before calling it a night at 7:30 p.m.

I sank my tired body between the sheets, grateful that at least I had a body clock-schedule to blame for a socially unacceptable bedtime. Hey, I got up at 4 and that was sleeping in for me.

I don't know what Claus' excuse is. Or maybe, we're just old. We are officially now our parents.

Actually, our parents were smarter. That's why they never participated in the activities and just stood on the side. I didn't see them nursing a pulled muscle at night.

I still have much to learn from my mother and aunts. I'm going to take the tip for next time.

Nine, and embarrassed

July 11th, 2016

My love turned nine today. Nine! Where has the time gone? Next thing we know, Olivia will be 19.

I've read the tween years are considered eight to 12. Yes, some changes have been happening at the end of eight, including attitude shifts!

A few months before she approached her birthday, she started telling me she was EMBARRASSED when I did certain things: so far, it's been when I was dancing and singing, when we were ALONE with each other in our own house. Really???

Oh, and the times I picked her up at school and I had the nerve to say hello back to her male classmates who said hi to me FIRST.

"Hi, Olivia's mom! I saw you on TV today!" the boys said to me.

She darted out of the room and into the parking lot to wait by the car. "Mom! Don't talk to them! It's so embarrassing!"

"But they said hi to me first. Isn't it rude to just ignore them?" I puzzled.

"Don't! Just don't!" she chided. I'm not going to listen to rudeness, but I'm just... befuddled at what I did that is so possibly shameful.

The night before her ninth, I was very excited. As she got ready for bed, I kept saying things like, "Wow! You're going to go to sleep an eight year old and wake up a nine year old! You're such a big girl! It's your birthday tomorrow!"

Her dad was excited too, but he's a lot less emotional than I am. So yeah, I was the embarrassing parent, again.

Finally, she told me, "Mommy, can you stop talking about my birthday already? It's... embarrassing."


I really don't get it because it was just the two of us in her bedroom, and I don't get how I could embarrass her with nobody else present. But whatever. I stopped.

I honestly do not remember being like this when I was prepubescent, but I think Olivia and I are very different personalities. Or maybe I was and this is my karma coming around.

You know all those things you do when you're a kid and your parents warn you, "Just wait till you have kids of your own!" Maybe it's that.

Great, this is just great. If I'm already so embarrassing and she's been nine for a day, I wonder what's in store for me over the next five or so years.

If I'm lucky, I'll still get to keep writing this blog or showing up at school, lest my daughter convince me I'm a total social misfit. So embarrassing.

A late date for my little girl

July 8th, 2016

Otherwise known as Fireworks, part two:

It was 11 p.m. before Olivia finally was in bed after coming home at 10:30 p.m. from a fireworks show with her friend.

We sat in the bedroom tucking her in and trying to do our years-long nighttime ritual of recapping the day's highlights and challenges. "I love you guys, but I'm not doing that tonight. I'm tired. It's 11 and I have to get sleep so I'm not tired in Summer Fun tomorrow," she declared.

Claus and I were flabbergasted. She has never, ever said words like this. So reasonable!

"I thought 'Olivia's never tired'?" I asked. She has insisted on that many times before.

"I'm never tired until I hit my limit, and my limit's 9 o'clock," she corrected. Well, that's what a lifetime of a 7 p.m.-ish bedtime does to a body.

I'm actually proud of ourselves for keeping her so consistent. She's never tired in class. She almost always gets all the sleep she needs.

We put a high priority on sleep. I respect the need for sleep, especially after two years of working an early-morning shift.

Claus left the room first. I was about to go when she started talking to me. "Wait. Can I tell you something?" she asked.

"I thought you wanted to sleep?" I questioned.

"Yeah, but we always chat before bed," she countered. We - just she and I. Girls' Talk. So I snuggled under the covers with her.

She told me a little more about her day before I cut her off. "OK, Sweetie. I think we hit the talking quota for the night."

"I love you, Pastrami." That's her nickname for me.

"I love you too, Honey. You're my happy spot. I wish you would talk to me every night forever," I smiled.

"I want to live in this house when I grow up," she said. "Then we can talk every night."

"I would love that. I could even be one of your best friends!" I exclaimed. My mother was that, for me. It can be done.

"You already are," she said sleepily.

... you hear that? That's the sound of my heart melting in a happy puddle.

Happy mommy. I love this kid so much.


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