By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R. Published in Bangkok Post, Spectrum, Feb. 19, 2012
Mother Gung says her own mother used to tell her, "Daughter, you were born just after sunset in the Year of the Tiger _ that time of day when Mother Tiger is hungry and going out to look for food for her babies. Sometimes you find food, sometimes you don't. There will be tough times."
And her mum was right, as mothers usually are.
This past month Mother Gung was in the afternoon fresh market, pushing the cart carrying her mob of four (her tiger cubs, as she calls them), warning them not to stray from the cart and run around, as three-year-old kids like to do. Mother Gung was on a mission to buy red chillies, the hottest she could find.
In this same market was an old fortune-teller, down on his luck - not begging, of course, as fortune-tellers consider doing so below their station - but desperately looking for folks who might want their fortunes told. He told Mother Gung he would "take a reading" from an old tree near the market, a tree well known for giving winning lottery numbers, but also known for being quite moody and at times arbitrary, meaning it also gives non-winning numbers.
He would do this for Mother Gung for only the price of a bowl of noodles. So it was agreed.
The fortune-teller said the tree told him that in this Year of the Black Water Dragon there would be no conflict in the cosmic elements for Mother Gung and her children. Nodding his head wisely, he continued with the observation, "Dragons are water creatures and you, Tiger Mother Gung, are a land creature. Seldom do dragons and tigers cross paths. He cautioned her to "be careful when giving the children a bath. Don't talk about dragons near the water, and be sure to towel the children properly, with no water splashing around."
She's the seventh of eight children, and came to Bangkok from the Northeast when she was seven. Dad, a harsh man, felt she couldn't watch and control their water buffalo, or climb on its back to ride it, being as she hobbled and couldn't really walk. Best to send her off to Bangkok, to clean and sweep her sister's house.
Mum, pregnant with her eighth child, combed her daughter's hair, making the parting in the middle straight, gave her a hug and walked away, not wanting daughter Gung to see her tears, thinking she would never see her crippled favourite daughter again. Trying not to cry, afraid somehow that the baby in her tummy would feel her sadness and be born sad. So she whispered the words of an old love song. "Somehow, we will meet again, in a happier place, happier times."
They dressed her in her school uniform and put her on the overnight bus alone. No suitcase, no toothbrush and just a torn-away piece from an old rag blanket to cover her shoulders.
Mother Gung had had "schooling" - first and second grade. She had begged her dad for more. He told her: "Daughter, I let you have your way. You and your mother. Even against my better judgement, you got your reading and writing. It cost me five baht a day for you, and frankly, you're a girl, crippled and you simply aren't worth it."
As she remembers, her second grade teacher came to their house, also pleading her case: "School is her only chance. She's a smart kid. I'll buy her a new school uniform."
Dad didn't put much stock in teachers who weren't from the village and didn't know much about water buffalo.
Even worse, the teacher hailed from somewhere down around Bangkok. That ended that. Mum cried. Dad said, "You've got other kids."
On the overnight bus, she sat up by the driver, as her mother had told her to, though she was probably safe anyway. Crippled seven-year-old girls, even with their hair combed properly and parted in the middle, don't score high on the "Let's grab a kid and sell her" list.
Older sister was supposed to meet the bus, but she overslept. Some "john" had kept her busy till almost dawn. Gung hobbled off the bus, recognising no one, and sat on the floor of the bus terminal for several hours. She wet and soiled herself, as she didn't dare ask anyone where to go to the toilet. Plus mum had told her not to talk to anyone.
The first thing her older sister said was, "You stink. Shame on you."
Older sister was tall, svelte, too popular. Certainly too busy to care for her two babies, whom she bottle-fed lest nursing warp her figure. Besides, it was best no one knew. Bad for business. Crippled baby sister Gung was the perfect solution. Like a servant, but better even, as she didn't have to pay her. Just feed her and give her a place to sleep.
Years passed, Mother Gung met a man, a factory worker, who spoke nicely to her and stole her heart. He loved his crippled bride and even asked proper permission from her family. But the family was absolutely against the wedding and refused to meet the groom.
The deal was this. Gung's family owned some farmland and figured that if Gung married and then something happened, her husband would inherit the land.
But she decided she could find happiness living in a rented shack with a man who worked in a factory - a man who spoke nicely to her, didn't drink, didn't even know how to gamble, gave her his pay, even washed her clothes for her. They saved and bought a small TV and Gung had an old radio to listen to music. They loved each other dearly. He'd always wanted children, but somehow that didn't happen. His only weakness was that he did tend to wander a bit. Three years later, he suddenly fell sick with the virus and died.
She stayed in their rented shack after he died. The landlady said she could stay free for a while, and just pay the water and the electricity.
She began spending her mornings in nearby Lumpini Park, usually getting there before dawn, where she met and became friends with the "Lumpini Park girls" - the women who stand outside on the street beside the park in the early mornings before daybreak seeking customers. That's where she was given her nickname: They affectionately called her Mother Gung. She'd sit at the bus stop and comb their hair, making it neat and pretty like her mother used to do for her.
Eventually, she realised she had that virus, too, so she decided to end it all. She pawned the TV, radio and gold ring her husband had given her, thanked the kindly landlady and gave her money and pawn tickets to her new friends - the Lumpini Park girls. They asked her why she was saying goodbye, so she told them. They held her, cried with her and wouldn't let her harm herself. They told her to sleep in the park and they'd come as they always did, tomorrow morning before first light to see her then.
One of the girl's brothers had died here at the Mercy Centre. So the next morning the girls gave her bus fare and directions. Then they hurried to stand street-side under their umbrellas. Business is slow on rainy days, and they didn't want to miss a customer.
She came to us at first light, hobbling up the steps, asking if she could stay a while. Months later, she said she had promised the Lumpini Park girls who had saved her life she would someday go back, comb their hair prettily, parted in the middle and they would all have a party. Just them, no customers allowed.
Here at Mercy, she's Mother Gung. Our children collect fallen flowers for her on their way home from preschool. They're happy - three years old in school with a nice teacher and a mother who seldom scolds you and buys you ice-cream.
Mother Gung teaches them a lot. Like how to remember the smells of flowers, leaves and plants that you can eat when you're hungry - a skill that lasts a lifetime. And of course, those fire-hot red chilli peppers.
After her husband had died, she took blood tests at the hospital. The doctor asked her: Do you know? The hurt was so great, she couldn't bear it. So to forget the pain, she started to eat the hottest peppers in the land.
Mother Gung takes the anti-virals twice a day, together with her four children. They take their pills together, so it's a fun game.
What are the secret ingredients of a Mother Gung? Maybe we adults need a secret decoding ring to understand. But the children? They know. Kids know everything.
She can't walk through walls, run fast or leap over tall buildings; in fact she can only hobble. So the kids help her along. They walk together.
When the virus hits them hard, they're off to the hospital. Hospitals have scary sounds in the night. Mother Gung, born in the Year of the Tiger just after sunset, sleeps on the floor next to their bed - Tiger Strong against the orcs and trolls and goblins and other creatures of the night who might lurk under the bed. Then when they're sound asleep, even though it's kind of against the rules, she curls up on the bed next to them, whispering in their ears that she loves them and so do their guardian angels.
The kids say she's powerful that way. Especially the next morning when she buys them ice-cream.