93: Thanks to My Nine Moms

93: Thanks to My Nine Moms

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom

Thanks to My Nine Moms

There is nothing to suggest that mothering cannot be shared by several people.

~H. R. Schaffer

How did I acquire nine moms? This is the first question people ask me when I speak about unconditional motherly love. Before I have a chance to answer, they usually follow up with, “Is it a blessing or a curse?” My answer: It is always a blessing, a tremendous blessing.

I was adopted at birth in Melaka, Malaysia by my mom, Nyah. I spent my first eighteen years learning from her. One of the lessons she taught me was that everyone possesses a seed of greatness. She believed this seed was the key to success in life. The essence of this seed allows our dreams, goals and wishes to develop.

At nineteen, while attending college at Louisiana State University, I received the news of my father’s sudden passing. I had just completed my freshman year. The timing of his death produced both emotional trauma and a financial crisis for my mother, my sister and me. The ensuing challenges led me to make decisions setting the course of my life, which caused me to not set foot in Malaysia again for fifteen years.

During this time, while living on my own in Baton Rouge, I began the journey of meeting my eight other moms, one at a time over the next eighteen years. I met my first two moms during my college years. My next three moms came into my life after I had begun working. I met my last three moms during my leisure time in the ballroom dancing community. The timing of these wonderful women appearing in my life was God-sent. These ladies found a way to mold my soul and guide my heart. They were my teachers, coaches, and counselors, always available to listen to my ideas and console me during times of need. Most of my nine moms have since passed away, but each of them left me with timeless recipes for living life that collectively formed the basis of my success.

I remember just before leaving Malaysia for the United States, my mom, Nyah, said to me, “Since you were a child you have been exposed to all kinds of experiences. Your father and I have done our best in raising you. Now you are about to embark on a journey where you will continue to encounter and gain new life experiences. Some of them, good or bad, will stay with you for the rest of your life. Always remember, it is how you manage these experiences that will ultimately determine your idea of success or failure in both your personal and professional lives.” I didn’t fully understand my mom’s advice at the time, but since then, having gone through a divorce, leaving a corporate career of eighteen years to start my own business and surviving a personal financial reorganization, I can attest to the profoundness of her insights.

Coming to America at a young age was a dream come true for me. I was eager to embrace the new culture. My excitement to assimilate myself into the new surroundings and lifestyle led me to engage my Southern belle mom, Eleanora Carter, to teach me what I needed to know in order to blend into the community. She was part of my host family. Thanks to her, I learned proper etiquette and manners, adding to what I already knew from my years growing up in Malaysia. Eleanora taught me that, although a warm and engaging personality may open doors, it is one’s character that will keep the doors open.

Youthful and energetic, I was always impatient when it came to getting things done. Quite often, I realized the decisions I made were not the best. If only I had given more thought before acting on my enthusiastic impulses, the outcome would have been better. One of the many memories I treasured about my Italian foster mom, Carol Wisdom, was her wise and logical approach to situations. Carol always reminded me that time is a luxury, and having faith that the right thing will come along at the right time and in the right way is a belief I should make room for in my life. This advice has helped me to pass on opportunities that initially looked perfect, but eventually unraveled after failing to endure the test of time.

A consummate perfectionist, I have been told by others that I radiate an aura of stiffness with my one-track mind always on business. This disposition was also the impression my sanguine Savannah mom, Toni Winters, discovered when we first met. Always happy, with a carefree attitude, she taught me how to live each day with gusto. Her self-assured personality convinced me to try new experiences. Toni made me laugh and lighten up by sharing this wonderful recipe for living: “Live like there is no tomorrow; however, always plan that you will have another day to live. What the caterpillar sees as the end of the world, the butterfly sees as the beginning of a beautiful life.”

My pragmatic, part-Native-American Texan mom, Dee Jones, taught me to focus on today. Dee reminded me that what I did yesterday is not as important as what I am going to do today. It is my actions today that will define who I am tomorrow. This advice inspired me to fine-tune my personal mission statement. At the core, my mission statement is in many ways a reflection of the best attributes of my nine moms: a reminder to live with integrity, humility, kindness and a sense of humor; to seek healthy and loving relationships; and prepare to be of service to others. This declaration has guided my life choices as a young man and continues to impact my thoughts and actions every day.

I grew up in a spiritual family. My mom, a Taoism practitioner, prayed twice a day for her loved ones. When I was in high school, I enrolled for two years as a novice at a Buddhist temple in Melaka. I was intrigued by the philosophical way of living. In the United States, I enjoyed attending church with my moms. My spiritual and progressive mom, Elsa Mae Stevens, a Southern Baptist, was always thrilled to have me attend church with her whenever I came for a visit. One Sunday, while eating lunch after a church service, the conversation turned toward religion. She was surprised to learn that I was not a Christian but a Buddhist. Since the time we met, Elsa Mae had seen me as a Christian because of my values and how I lived my life. With a smile on her face, she said, “Regardless of what religion you eventually adopt, happiness is always felt by the heart and is not of the mind. Although you can choose to be happy, ultimately you still need to feel happy.” On Easter 2008, I received my confirmation and first communion. Elsa Mae was delighted.

Being single, with time to spare, I possessed the perfect credentials for my friend Vickie. She couldn’t wait to have me join her dancing group. Through her, I met my ballroom dance instructor mom, Betty Tamas. A professional instructor for over thirty years, Betty was a gifted communicator. She was a natural at conveying brief motivational messages to her students. One evening, I struggled to focus on my dance steps as I was still distracted by a challenging day. She whispered to me, “Dancing with heart and passion creates a lifetime of bliss in a three-and-a-half-minute song.” With a big smile she continued, “Do you remember how you felt when you were dancing with Carrie last Saturday? You two looked great and were pretty much glowing as you danced around the floor.” Betty reminded me to be deeply engaged in the moment. Since that evening, I have applied Betty’s advice whenever I find myself struggling or distracted by multitasking.

Growing up in a small working-class family was a wonderful experience for me. My father was the breadwinner while my mom kept the Tan family well fed and loved. Although my family didn’t have much, my parents taught my sister and me how to be generous with our time and resources whenever an opportunity arose to help others. My German mom, Dianne Hiese, took my understanding of empathy to a new height. I recall the year she spent much of her time caring, cooking and keeping company with a neighbor who was dying of cancer. This neighbor became a close friend. When I asked Dianne how she managed to endure the experience, she said, “Every once in a while a situation occurs that requires us to radiate our energy of positive goodwill, compassion and love for others. Until we try to put ourselves beyond our comfort zone, we will not realize we have what it takes to make a difference in that person’s life and in ours.”

A beekeeper by day and a ballroom dancer by night, my Cajun mom, Ginger White, is the most lighthearted person I know. She believes humor is essential in our daily lives. She uses humor to respond positively to challenging situations. With a big beautiful smile, she can light up any room and change any difficult situation into an inspiring one. Ginger taught me, “The natural life can always be funny and humorous. The most ordinary events usually end up being the sweetest memories. When we pay attention during the small moments, we will realize and appreciate the happiness when it happens.” Incorporating a touch of humor into everything I do has added a new dimension to my life.

It was eight long years after I left Malaysia before Nyah and I were reunited. We kept in touch as often as we could, first through letters and then by phone. When she finally arrived in Baton Rouge to spend six months with me, no words could describe how we felt seeing each other after all those years. In the months and years that followed she had the opportunity to meet my other moms. Nyah was grateful she was able to express her appreciation to these women, my surrogate mothers in a sense, who had contributed generously to my life.

The road to my knowledge and wisdom has been defined by the relationships with my nine moms. The riches I have accumulated from these relationships have helped me to experience the American dream in a unique way. I came to the United States to earn an engineering degree, but instead I received an education about the power of relationships, the nature of love and the meaning of life. Thanks to my nine moms I have learned that real connections, true love and success are the results of authenticity, humility and speaking from the heart.

~Johnny Tan

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