How 'Mamma Mia!' brought me closer to my mom
Happy Mother’s Day! In honor of all the amazing moms, grandmothers, step-mothers, older sisters, aunts, godmothers, and female role models out there, we’re celebrating with stories of our relationships with our mother figures.
A few weeks ago, it was announced that after 14 years and 5,765 performances, Broadway’s eighth-longest-running show “Mamma Mia!” will come to an end this fall. I was sad about the news, but not just because I was a fan of the Abba-fueled musical. It’s because that show happened to be one that had a particular place in my relationship with my mother.
My mother and I had always had our differences. Our relationship, to say the least, has always been complicated. She is my best friend, my immediate go-to for advice, the one person in this world I know I can completely trust and count on. She’s also my biggest critic, the only person who can see completely through me just by hearing the sound of my voice. The one person I cannot bear to disappoint. We’ve been through, in the last twenty-five years, more than a few bumps in the road. We’ve shared laughs, tears, bear hugs, and many eskimo kisses. We’ve shared hurtful words that I, for one, would happily take back in an instant.
Growing up, I had been blessed, in my case, with an often-absent father, who was prone on the days he was at home, to unload his inner angst on his wife and daughter. Yet despite the constant parental fighting, I grew up in a pretty house with plenty of space to run in and with many opportunities to follow all of my dreams, with all the love and support a child could ever ask for. My mother bravely stepped into the shoes that my father might have filled. She is my hero, my rock. She is the one person who seems to love me unconditionally no matter what I do. Even when I am wrong.
As a child, my afternoons were chaotically filled up with various extracurricular activities that ranged from figure skating, piano, cello, ballet, drawing, and horseback riding lessons to algebra drill team practices and SAT prep courses. My mother drove me all across the Los Angeles County from one lesson to another for almost ten years, providing me the opportunity to develop not only as a student but as an extremely creative individual as well.
It was during these long car rides that we would listen to some of her favorite old songs. Back in college, she had fallen in love with Western artists such as The Carpenters, Anne Murray, Paul Anka, Andy Williams, and of course, the Swedish pop group ABBA. She had always had the singing voice of an angel, and when she immigrated to the United States, she had brought all of her musical treasures over in a cardboard box—a now worn out rectangular package filled with the numerous audio cassette tapes that she would later share with me on our fun-filled drive alongs.
Snug and tucked comfortably into the backseat, I would sing along with my mother, as she smiled back through the rearview mirror, to Carpenter hits like “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Top of the World” to ABBA favorites such as “Dancing Queen,” “Slipping Through My Fingers,” and of course, our inspirational happy-song, “I Have a Dream.” The hours and hours of nauseating car riding (and driving) always seemed to pass by more quickly during our musical adventures. By grade school, we both knew most of the songs by heart and even by high school, when we were having more petty disagreements than ever before, it was these journeys back to the musical culture of the ’70s and ’80s that quickly extinguished even our most fierce of mother-daughter spats.
Needless to say, when the songs of ABBA turned into a smash hit musical in 2000, both of us were more than ecstatic. For my eighteenth birthday, Mama Chan (as I often call her) gleefully surprised me with the gift of experiencing our first live Broadway show. Together, we were to see and hear all of our favorite tunes and numbers being performed live at the Winter Garden Theater in New York City. I, for one, could not have asked for anything better. Not only was this an experience that we would both relish in. But it was also the best thing I could have asked for during such a monumentally life-changing coming-of-age event.
I was about to turn eighteen. I was still in many ways a child, not yet ready to completely leave the comforts of home, not to mention the safe and protective arms of my mother. The Catherine Johnson musical deals with similar ‘letting go’ issues between Donna and her daughter Sophie who, during the musical, is set to marry Sky in just a few days. Minus the plotline of having three possible fathers, Johnson’s story showcases many of the various loving and joyful moments that have been experienced by me and my mother. It’s a story that we both can relate to. It’s familiar territory.
In many ways, my mother and I could be nothing more than different. She was raised in Taiwan and is still very set in the Eastern traditions that she was brought up with. She’s a master at stressful situations, and manages, through everything, to still find time to say her prayers every single night. She is always warm, full of wit, and can fall asleep anywhere and anytime in a matter of seconds.
I’m very different for my mother. Change makes me anxious and I don’t handle stress very well. I’m famous for having poor circulation and ice-cold hands. I’m not the best of public speakers, and I am, on most nights, tossing and turning.
But at the end of it all, I’m my mother’s daughter. I am who and where I am today only because of her continued love and support. Our relationship isn’t very different from Donna and Sophie’s in Mamma Mia: rough in patches, but solidly built on love. Whenever I hear any of those twenty-four infamous ABBA songs—whether while driving along to work, watching the musical live on stage, or sitting in an empty waiting room—my feet begin to tap, my eyes begin to water with nostalgia, my mind begins to race, and the corners of my mouth begin to curl upward towards the sun. I am reminded of how much my mother loves me.