Remembering Mama Tan

This is for those who knew her, for those who didn’t have the opportunity to do so and for those like me who may be trying to somehow define those memories just a little more.



Yesterday, my mother-in-law—legally named Li Dejun, but always Mama Tan or “Mom/Mama/Ma” to me—died after a two-year or so bout with cancer. As strong as she was, she couldn’t overcome this terrible disease. Still, I am reassured that much as her passing was too soon for so many who love her, that she was at peace with herself, the life that she lived and whatever awaits her (and all of us one day).


In truth, I don’t know what awaits all of us—and will only suggest that those who do have more of a sense of this (I’m not yet one of them) probably approach their life with more of a sense of confidence, or at least self-assurance. Whether it was her own spirituality (steeped in Buddhist teachings), her own nature, or both, Mama Tan had that sense of self-assurance about her. She seemed quite secure in her own skin, and turned her attention to making lives brighter for others.


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             I’m sure she will be remembered in a variety of ways by all those who knew her, and indeed, my perspective is simply that of a son-in-law who knew her for a relatively brief portion of her life. We were further distanced by a language barrier (yes, I speak Mandarin Chinese like a semi-educated warthog) and whatever cultural differences would result from her being born a generation earlier in China—a country in which she experienced plenty of changes.


I remember when I first met Mama Tan. Ruby and I made our first trip (together) to China around Christmastime (neither of us ever celebrated it) in 2000. A few months prior, Ruby’s dad had passed—before I ever had the opportunity to meet him. After a long day’s journey into night and back to day, we took a ferry from Hong Kong to Zhuhai—where Ruby’s family had an apartment. Mama Tan, along with Ruby’s oldest sister (the middle one was already in the States) and her daughter (just 3.5 at the time) met us.


One did not need to speak the same language to feel the warmth of Mama Tan’s smile and grasp the intelligence behind it. I also remember marveling at her physical strength. From the time I knew her, she was short and stout with a smile that completed her features—I’m not being irreverent to say that there was a beauty, but almost a handsome quality in her appearance. And her energy, while not quite boundless…check that thought…I’m not sure where the bounds were…I recall her also carrying my heavier suitcases at various times, and not taking “no” for an answer.


Mama Tan was the quintessential “mom” in so many ways, always taking care of everyone in the family, with hardly a concern for herself. Perhaps, she was part Jewish—only she made, and not just consumed, all that delicious Chinese food. During those early years of my marriage to Ruby (hey, it’s only been 12 years now), I think that she was also convinced that I weighed what I did in my wiry high school and college days. If I didn’t leave that mentality behind, I certainly left behind (pun not avoided) my trousers and shirts of those years. Whatever the reality of the situation. she seemed to be on a mission to fatten me up, and one of the first Mandarin expressions I learned was “B’yao Xi, Xi.” (I don’t want any; thank you.)—not that it always worked.


On one memorable occasion on that first trip to China, Mama Tan or someone in the family paid for Ruby and I to have this elaborate photo shoot: wardrobe changes, different backdrops, a whole production that neither of us had experienced before. It was a long shoot—sounds weird, I know—and we ate a big lunch at her sister’s apartment afterward. From there, we went almost immediately to a very nice dinner. And Mama Tan still made sure we were covered; she brought a bag of snacks for our bus ride to the restaurant. I am not exaggerating, and Ruby and I still enjoy hearty laughs at this memory.


Mama Tan was always quite accepting of me, despite whatever religious, cultural, age and personality/style differences there exist between Ruby and me. I always felt more than welcomed, and loved. I was also touched by how well she bonded with my parents. I would say that I grew up in a very insular household, and that may be putting it mildly. If memory serves, by the time my parents met Mama Tan, they had already come to know and love Ruby. What may have been a tough sell categorically (Chinese/non-Jewish) became a whole lot easier once they actually met Ruby and saw what type of person she is.


Mama Tan, just by being her warm-hearted, approachable, charismatic self, charmed and delighted them in person. I can still envision her showing all of us some of her tai chi moves. She was in the living room of our townhouse at the time; my parents had also come over for dinner. She quite gracefully leaped around with a sword in her hand, grinning with pleasure at both the joy and silliness of it all. We smiled; we laughed; we were impressed by her grace and skill.


Mama Tan was the athlete in Ruby’s family, yet forgive me if that is damning with faint praise. Raising three girls (actually, the oldest daughter [a fourth] died very young, a short time before Ruby was born) in China, it’s not as if they grew up watching football, tailgating and singing Fly E-a-g-l-e-s, Fly! At best, Ruby tolerates my incessant sports watching and weekend warrior action, injuries and mood swings. Mama kind of got it.


A high school (and perhaps, college…this was before my time) volleyball player, she showed some skill on the few times we played ping pong or badminton. And she came to like baseball somewhat, even asking Ruby to turn on the TV to watch the Phillies a couple times when I was away.


Let me share one more of many shared laughs with Ruby. I think it was 2001, shortly before or maybe just after our June wedding—on her first trip to the States since we were together. We’re sitting at our dining room table, and I’m explaining the rules of baseball to her, with Ruby translating. Did I mention that Ruby still knows almost nothing about my favorite sport? Ruby hung in there like a trooper while I tried to convey everything from the nine men in the field to the vagaries of the infield fly rule. We all hung in there with some success, and perhaps Abbott and Costello would have approved of our dialogue.


Mama Tan was always a tower of strength to all of us. Sadly, in that relatively short time that Ruby and I have been together, all four of our parents have now passed. Mama always was there to ask about, or if practical, to visit both of my parents during the good and the trying times. Even if our language barrier and other trials of life sometimes made our own conversations somewhat abrupt, I knew that she respected how much I loved and tried to be there for my Mom and Dad, especially during the final stages of their lives. Mama was always there, and treated them at all times with great love and tenderness. It was always sincere, heart-warming and special to see them together.


Great energy, terrific humor and spirit and the generosity of her soul all defined her, and she certainly brought all of that and more to her role as Waipaw. I suppose that you’d have to be there to see how she uniquely cared for all three of her grandchildren, one per sister, who are now ages 15, 8 and four…sorry, Benny, four-and-a-half. To say that she stopped her own life to care for each of them during their first respective year or so on the planet is pretty accurate. And if she spoiled them emotionally to a fault, can you really fault her for doing so. It all came out of genuine love—to her very last moments.


Early evening this Tuesday, less than 24 hours before she passed, Benny and I met Ruby and her sister in the ER where Mama Tan was prior to being transferred…all too briefly, as it turned out…to another room. She had wanted to see Benny, the youngest of her three beloved grandkids. Against some objection from security and the nurses, we came in together for just five minutes or so. Suffice it to say that Mom had been through a lot in the last couple years with the last month or so being extremely difficult. But seeing her look at and hold Benny’s hand and mine, she was wide awake, and if you will, happy. Perhaps, that was yet another gift from her.


As I did with Dad, who died when Benny was only two-and-a-half, I wonder what Benny will remember of Mama Tan. Put another way: What events and people do you truly remember that preceded your fifth birthday? My optimistic sense is that he will always remember how Waipaw held him, bathed him and dressed him when he was really young, (and she would gladly have continued to do so…indefinitely?)


Maybe, Benny will remember Waipaw working long hours in the extensive garden she made in our backyard. (Yes, there are some humorous stories there, too—for another time.) My son may even recall the exercises she did with him after he took his bath. I am sure that he will remember and take joy in how much she loved him and beamed with pride when she saw him doing, well, anything.


And there was always that enormous heart and the smile that matched it—a smile that revealed so much intelligence, warmth, kindness and love. It was unforgettable. And by any name—Waipaw, Mama Tan, Mama, Ma and her own given name, Li Dejun—so is she.



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10 Responses to Remembering Mama Tan

  • Erik Travels says:

    Wonderful tribute, Matt.  There's a lot of honor and respect in your words.

  • admin says:

    Thank you for your read and comment, Erik. She was an amazing woman, and I tried to do her a little justice with my words.

  • Lorre says:

    Matt, that was a beautiful tribute to Mama Tan.  You write so well.  I was laughing and remembering along with you.  Mama Tan is lucky to have been remembered by your wonderful gift with words.  Yasher koach!


    • admin says:

      I very much appreciate your read and gracious comment, Lorre.  I certainly was blessed to have a wonderful mother-in-law.

  • Akweli says:

    Matt, I never met your mother-in-law, but can form a very clear (and very admiring) picture of her from your beautiful written remembrance. My deepest condolences to you, Ruby, and Benny. Thank you for defining your memories of Mama Tan and for sharing them.

  • Chao says:

    Matt, I was fortunate enough to meet MaMa Tan and come to know her over the years. She is such a kind and loving soul. "Mama Tan, just by being her warm-hearted, approachable, charismatic self, charmed and delighted them in person." I could not say it any better. I read this article completely in tears. Thanks for sharing your memories.

    • admin says:

      Hi Chao,

      Thank you so much for reading and leaving your own warm comment – I just shared what you wrote –  with Ruby.

      My love to you, Peter, Helena and the twins.



  • Meesh Morris says:

    Beautifully written Matt. May you all find comfort and pease with your memories of Mama Tan :)

    • admin says:

      Thanks so much, Michele…I was blessed with a wonderful mother-in-law, and Benny had a world-class Grandma (Waipaw).