Our Poor Mother

Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang

My little sister, Hlub, is at school in Bradford, Pennsylvania. This spring break, she yearns to come home to Minnesota. She had this idea: She would buy herself a Greyhound ticket and pay for it when her student loans came through. Her loans took longer to come through than she hoped. My mother, like many mothers raising children in poverty the world over, tells her, “I can pay for it, Honey. Come home.”

Janet is the manager at a Sunoco in Bradford, the only place in town where you can buy a Greyhound ticket out of town. She ran my mother’s check card for $342. Hlub had gone into the gas station a week early to process the ticket for a more affordable price—$292. Janet had made a mistake. Every dollar counts when you don’t have many and you know your mother doesn’t, so Hlub took the campus bus to the station once more to ask the woman to process the ticket for the right amount. Janet retracted the purchase on the card.

Today, Hlub took the bus back to the station, a sad, cloudy place, bits of fallen snow on the hard pavement beneath the gray sky, heavy air floating like mist, to pick up her ticket home. Janet printed out the ticket. She ran my mother’s check card number again. The transaction was declined. Perhaps Wells Fargo’s fraud division got involved? What would a middle-aged Hmong woman whose home is in Minnesota be doing in the outskirts of Pennsylvania? Janet told Hlub, “Why would you buy a ticket you can’t afford?”  She added, “No more discount. You are no longer a week early. Three hundred and forty-two dollars or nothing.”

Hlub didn’t have money. She called me. She was frustrated. She could see the ticket right there on the counter. I asked Hlub to give the phone to Janet. I told Hlub, “I’ll have her run my card. It won’t be a problem. It’s OK, Honey.”

I was wrong.

On the phone, Janet refused to process my card.  I asked why.

She said, “I don’t want to do that.”

I asked to speak to a manager.

She said, “I am the manager.”

I asked for her name.

She said, “Janet.”

I asked for her last name.

There was a small hesitation.

She said, “I ain’t going to tell you that.”

I can hear the phone go down.

Hlub gets on the phone again. Janet is saying things I can’t hear. I can hear Hlub begin to cry. I can hear the effort it takes for her to get words out. I can hear the shuffle of Janet in the background. I can hear Hlub apologize to someone for standing in the way through her tears.

I tell Hlub, “It’s OK. I’m going to go online. Go buy the ticket from greyhound.com.”

She says, “That won’t work. I tried. You have to buy it here.”

She says, “I just want to come home.”

I go online. I want to try myself. I go to the website. I put in the appropriate details. I get to the part where I get to pay for the ticket—never mind that it is now $392 for a roundtrip ticket. The screens loads: You can’t purchase that ticket online. You have to go to the local greyhound station. The only station listed is the Sunoco—Janet’s place.

I call Greyhound. I wait to speak to a representative. It takes 10 minutes. I check expedia.com and find that flights were upwards of $772. I go to amtrak.com and find that tickets were $500 plus. Every dollar counts when you don’t have enough dollars. I have been broke for months. I google travel possibilities. There are no feasible ones.

The bad music stops. A woman’s voice comes on the line. I tell her I want to purchase a ticket for my little sister to come home for spring break from Bradford, Pennsylvania.

The woman says, “You can call the local station and buy it from there. Do you need their number?”

I begin to explain that Janet, from the local station, has refused to take my name or my credit card, but there’s a click. The line dies.

I call Hlub. She is still at the station. Her bus back to campus has just left. She has to wait for the next one. She doesn’t know what to do. I tell her I’ll keep trying. We hang up.

I get a call from my husband.

He says, “How is your day going?”

I say, “Bad … Hlub is trying to come home but the ticket lady won’t sell her the ticket.”

He has a great suggestion: Tell Hlub to go to a counselor or someone at the University and have them go to the station with her and help navigate the process. I start thinking along those lines. Yes, if Hlub can find one person who would do that—it might be all that is necessary. We can charge the ticket to my card.  I hang up.

I call Hlub and tell her the exciting possibility. Silence as she thinks through it.

She says, “Maybe the admissions counselor who got me here …”

I tell Hlub to tell him the whole story on email:  how she had gone a week ahead to ensure that she would get a good price, how it was agreed upon, but then the fee they processed was wrong, and how she went to ask them to correct the figure, and what has happened since then.

We hang up.  I continue looking at amtrak.com.  I find that Buffalo, New York, is only an hour and thirty-four minutes away from Bradford, Pennsylvania. Perhaps Hlub could get a ride up there?  The ticket is expensive, but a backup plan is not a bad idea.

I call Hlub to talk about the backup plan if the bus ticket purchase doesn’t go through. She tells me that Buffalo is too far. The cab fare up would be expensive, combined with the Amtrak ticket, it would all add up to a plane ticket. I can hear the despair return to her voice. Hlub reminds me that this is only her first semester at this college. She doesn’t have close friends—or friends, period.

She says after some thought, “If we can put money into my account, I can use my debit card.”

I wonder why my brain is working so slowly. Of course, Janet wouldn’t be able to come up with a reason not to sell Hlub the ticket—even the hiked fee—if it was on her card.

I call our mother. I tell her what’s going on. I tell her the tentative plan. As I am talking, I can hear the highs and lows of my mother’s voice go up with surprise, grow cloudy with frustration, the rising anger, and then the husky break of tears as her words fold.

Up to this moment, I had been angry, frustrated, but the tears hadn’t come. I listen to our mother. I listen to the birds chirping outside. I listen to the tick-tock of the clock on the wall.

Our mother collects herself. She asks questions I can’t answer. Why hadn’t they processed the right fee the first time when the transaction went through? Why wouldn’t they take my credit card number for the ticket? Why do they have to say the hurtful words—“why buy a ticket you can’t pay for…”

Then, I hear helplessness enter our mother’s voice.

I remember wanting toys for Christmas like my classmates.  I remember my mother disappearing with my aunts all Christmas day, to come home at the dimming of the day’s light, with a plastic bag full of stuffed animals, a few coloring books, containers of Play-Do.  I remember the day I volunteered at Toys for Tots in high school, noticing a woman who looks like my mother standing in a long line, seeing her approach me at the table, realizing that it was my mother, understanding where all the toys had come from all those years, asking, “What are you doing here, Mom?”—realizing the helplessness in her voice then.

This, I cannot forget.  I cannot forgive.

My mother says, “Your father and I don’t know the English words to make a deposit at the bank into Hlub’s account.” She says, “We don’t have much right now, but Hlub had her heart set on coming home and I on seeing her…”

I can hear my mother silence herself on the other end of the line.

I try to stifle my own tears, so that my words can reach her, “I know how much you love us, Mom.”

Why do mothers like ours have to cry, again and again, in their efforts to bring their children home, to give us toys, to keep us safe?

Hlub is not white. Bradford is. Janet is.

Hlub is the daughter of a poor man and a poor woman. Poor men and poor women the world over are questioned again and again— directly when they are fortunate enough to occupy the same space, and indirectly, like this, when the tides of power and geography are at work.

What breaks my heart is our mother’s love for Hlub and for me. A love that at times, feels so futile for the money that she has spent her whole life toiling to earn and has never been able to save for love of us. It is the powerlessness and the disrespect, the lack of humanity in those who look at us but do not comprehend the heart that has kept ours beating the hard years through and the hard years to come—that I cannot forgive or forget.

Is Janet a mother? Does she have a daughter who she yearns to see come home, too? Is she also poor? Why else would you work in a place where the sky feels like it is coming down, and the measly flakes on the paved ground speak of winter’s abandonment?

I ask myself questions so I can feel for Janet—beyond the hurt and the betrayal, the frustration and the pain—of being mistreated, one more time, for the color of our skin, the language we speak, and the lack of dollars to our name.

I cry for Hlub, for myself, for our poor mother—who in her poverty gives us riches of love—whose heart has not hardened for all the harshness the world has shown her.

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9 thoughts on “Our Poor Mother

  1. I am so sad and mad to read this. Did you call Wells Fargo to ask why the charge was declined? You are right, it might have been flagged for fraud. You just have to call them, verify the transaction, and they will remove the fraud hold. Please keep us updated.

    Also, which Sunoco in Bradford is this? There are three in town.

  2. Kalia, I remember you telling my students the toys for tots story at North HIgh school. Made me cry then and made me cry yet again. – Ying

  3. omg…it make me cry at the end…this remind me of my sister who go to college out of town…i can understand the pain.

  4. Is there anything we can do? Call and complain on your sister’s behalf? :( This is so frustrating and sad. Thank you so much for writing this.

  5. What a sad story. My brain has difficulty understanding what makes someone so cruel, and my heart breaks for the repercussions of the cruelty. Thank you Kao, for sharing. Perhaps we will begin to be better humans, if we expose examples of unkindness.

  6. Thank you for sharing this story. I had a recent incident (nothing serious), my mother bought me something and it was accidentally thrown away. When I had realized what happened, I was not mad but hurt that my mother’s money had gone to waste. Even I was surprised at how emotional I became. Coming from a poor family, I agree that every dollar does count.

  7. This is a accurate account of what many first generation college students go through when coming from poverty and being people of color. The fights with financial aid and desperate fight to pay bills, fees, etc. College excluded it is a common obstacle that never ceases to be painful. It chips away at the heart a little deeper every time.

  8. This reminds me a lot about my experience and struggle to finance my way through college as a first generation Hmong student in college. Thanks for writing this.

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