During the 1930s, my grandmother could barely feed her five children. In their village in China, they tilled their bit of land for bok choy and yams; any extras were sold to buy oil and salt. Japan had already invaded China. Desperate, my grandmother begged her well-to-do sisters for help, so they sent my mother a third-class ticket for the SS President Coolidge bound for San Francisco. She was 13 and traveling alone.
Eighteen days later, my mother arrived at Angel Island, where the authorities quarantined her for three months. Once released, she lived with her aunt, cleaned her house, cooked meals, and worked six days a week at a hardware store in Chinatown. From her meager earnings, she sent money home. My grandmother’s reply? “Send more.”
Years later, while my father toiled as a dishwasher, then a cook, and eventually kitchen supervisor at a restaurant in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, my mother stayed home to raise their six children. Still, she picked up piece-goods work from a Chinatown sweatshop. For a dozen finished garments, she’d earn a couple of dollars—“enough to pay for milk and bread,” she’d say. We never once went on vacation, nor did we eat in restaurants, but all six of us graduated from college.
Long before it became fashionable, we recycled aluminum foil, string and wrapping paper and wore hand-me-down clothing. To this day, though she wants for nothing, my 82-year-old mother leaves restaurants with boxed leftovers plus several extra napkins “in case I need them.”
I clip coupons and read the weekly supermarket ads, stocking up when chicken fryers are on sale, when cranberry juice is buy-one, get-one-free. Why do otherwise? As my husband says, it’s all about value. Like our parents, we work and we save, and we put our children through college.
My legacy? Not a trust fund, nor a family compound, no yachts or jets either. Instead, I have riches beyond measure: gratitude for the sacrifices of prior generations, the love of family, willingness to embrace hard work, and the wisdom to pass it on.
The AARP Bulletin’s What I Really Know column comes from our readers. Each month we solicit personal essays on a selected topic and post some of our favorites in print and online. Laurie Owyang is a reader from Los Angeles.