It was Christmas Eve, and everyone was still merry after opening presents and eating birthday cake. The cake wasn’t for Jesus, but for my grandfather, who was also born on December 25th. We were in Demarest, New Jersey, and three generations were packed into my grandfather’s modest 1970’s suburban colonial with its pink brick façade and four decorative white aluminum pillars. With work and kids, the grown ups rarely had time to get together so everyone was catching up, and all of my younger cousins were running around the living room while my father and uncles talked about the Giants and politics. In the linoleum tiled kitchen, Mom and Little Mo were sitting in the breakfast nook chatting while Big Mo was washing the dessert dishes, and I was drying them.
I named Big Mo. In Korea, a mother’s sister is called an e-mo. When I was younger, I could not pronounce the word e-mo properly and made the sound “mo” instead. Since then, my two aunts, Mom’s younger sister and Mom’s older sister, became “Little Mo” and “Big Mo”, respectively.
Sara, Big Mo’s daughter, ran into the kitchen crying, “Momma, Momma, Momma,” and grabbed Big Mo’s right leg tightly saying, “ I’m tired.”
Big Mo smiled down at her tiny blond, half Asian, four-year old and said, “We’ll leave soon.” Big Mo, a Korean American immigrant, has shoulder length black hair, soft cheeks, and a pert nose. I think Sara looks like a blond preschooler version of Big Mo.
Sara smiled then pranced back to the living room. Looking exhausted, Big Mo sighed then stared down at the dishes, “ She constantly needs me to comfort her to go to sleep.”
I glanced up from my drying duties.
“Why?” I asked, putting away the dry dish in the cupboard.
“Well,” she said, “She wasn’t sleep trained.”
I had no idea what sleep training was so I asked what it was. As it turns out, sleep training is a procedure where you let babies cry themselves to sleep.
“I don’t know how young you were, but you were less than a year old when your parents decided to start sleep training you. Your mother had read a book by some guy named Dr. Weisbluth who recommended this idea.”
“He was five months,” Mom said.
Big Mo ignored her. “You were still in the first week of sleep training when your parents had to go out on some sort of work dinner, and I was the baby sitter. They told me the whole situation about sleep training and told me to put you down and then close the door! Then simply ignore your cries! Oh, yeah, they also gave me this small black and white notebook which was probably for me to write down when you fell asleep and stuff like that. Then your parents left. ”
Mom and Little Mo were listening carefully now.
“But that’s not exactly what I wrote down. After I put you in your crib and left the room, you promptly began to scream. My natural instinct was to go inside and comfort you, but I couldn’t because of your mother’s orders. I kept thinking about how you might become traumatized for life after this and would later end up in a psychiatrist’s chair for mental instability because I couldn’t go in and comfort you. You cried and cried and cried; it might have been 20 minutes,”
“ It was probably like five,” Little Mo said.
“It might have been two minutes,” continued Big Mo, raising her soapy hands in the air.
“ That’s more like it, ” Little Mo said.
“ To me, it felt like days and days and days.”
Suddenly, Mom interjected, “Tell us how you cried.”
Big Mo rolled her eyes, put her hand on her hip, and exclaimed, “Yeah, I cried and cried, and I don’t know if your mother still has that journal, but I wrote page after page about how terribly I felt about the fact that I couldn’t go and hold you. I think I actually at one point went into the room because I couldn’t stand it.”
I tried not to snicker as I imagined my confident Big Mo lying outside my bedroom door weeping while a younger version of me was crying as well. Both Big Mo and I noticed then that Mom and Little Mo were laughing.
Big Mo appears to be the toughest of the three sisters, all former lawyers, but she’s the softy who cries easily. For all of her professional life, she has defended the poor, the imprisoned, and generally, the defenseless. Currently, she is the Executive Director of Jumpstart, a non-profit organization that promotes early childhood literacy for the indigent. This month, she will become the Deputy Commissioner of Child Care and Head Start for the City of New York. Despite her five foot two stature, her commanding stride gives her the aura of a leader. Big Mo talks fast and precisely which helps when she gives out orders or tries to explain something that should take days to explain for most other people.
The dishes were done. Big Mo wiped her hands and turned off the sink faucet and faced me.
“ Why didn’t you sleep train Sara?” I asked.
She narrowed her thin eyes, “Well, I’m not the girl for it.”
“So,” I smiled, “How long did I actually cry for?”
“ I already told you. It felt like forever.”
“ It was 9 minutes,” Mom said. “And he never cried again after that night, because he figured out how to fall asleep by himself.”
“Whatever,” Big Mo said. “Once you stopped crying, I was worried that I would go into that bedroom and find a dead baby. I waited for a long time. Perhaps 90 seconds, but those were the longest seconds in my life. ”
“Yeah, right,” said Little Mo.
“Did you really go into the room?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, seeming genuinely spooked. “I crept inside, and there you were. Wearing your footy pajamas, totally knocked out.”
“And he still sleeps beautifully. Maybe a little too beautifully. We should un-sleep train him so he can wake up earlier. I should find a book on that,” Mom said.
“Thanks, mom.” I mumbled.
I hung up the towel. Big Mo headed to the living room to get her sleepy child.
“Thanks for crying with me,” I said.
“It’s my job, kiddo,” she said and marched to the living room.
 All personal names have been changed.
Samuel Duffy, Age 14, Grade 9, Collegiate School, Gold Key