On the day of my dad’s funeral, she examined our aching hearts. With the keen acumen of a seasoned diagnostician, she prescribed a potent medicine for us. She generously loaned us her sweet old dog, Pinot.
Pinot has been hard at work. She has tirelessly padded around the house after us, keeping us under her watchful eye. She is half toothless and elderly, yet she has bravely protected us from menacing squirrels and mailmen with her fearsome growls. She has cuddled up next to us whenever we’ve fallen still, and has lulled us to sleep with her old lady snoring. To fill the void after months of a harrowing round the clock caregiving routine for my dad, she imposed on us a new, gentler daily routine of walks, snacks, and belly rubs.
Tomorrow I’m heading back home after being away for more than two months. I’ll bring this old girl back to her own home too. We have been grateful to have the company of this fellow traveler, who helped us navigate a difficult stretch of this terrible journey.
About nine years ago, my sisters and I made a pilgrimage with my parents to a place that was dear to my dad’s heart. He was so happy to be able to see the first home he and my mother shared as newlyweds in a foreign land. It was a joy and privilege to share the experience with him. A man so stoic, so impassive, we nicknamed him the Easter Island Head, he couldn’t help beaming as we walked around Hamilton Square Baptist Church and the apartment they lived in under the belfry.
We’ve been accompanying our dad these past couple of months as he embarked upon another long journey. He died this Thursday with his family around him. My dearest hope is that he has reunited with my sister Annabelle, with his beloved little brother whom he spent a lifetime remembering with wistful longing, and with all of the saints who have gone before.Tomorrow we will celebrate his life in the chapel where he preached for many years.
This is the essay I wrote as we headed to San Francisco on a Fall day nine years ago…
I’m on a plane heading to San Francisco for my cousin’s wedding. My parents are using this happy pretext to revisit the place where they began their own life together as a married couple.
In February 1963, my father was a student in San Francisco. Against all odds, he had managed to make his way to the U.S. to pursue the education that had cruelly eluded him during a childhood filled with adversity and suffering.
School was a luxury, a beautiful dream that was constantly interrupted, snatched away, and cut short by real nightmares: air raids, forced labor by the Japanese occupiers, disease…The sudden and premature death of his father was disastrous for his family, already reeling under the privations brought about by the occupation. My father witnessed beloved siblings die from malnutrition – the very thought brings me to my knees. The family was able to scrape together enough money to pay for only one son’s school fees. The others had to help on the farm so that the family could survive.
When my father’s older brother saw how desperate he was to get an education, and though he would sorely miss his help on the farm, he gave him his blessing to leave home at the age of 13 in pursuit of his dream. My father would have to find a way to support himself through school. He still remembers his brother’s sacrifice with deep gratitude.
He walked for days to get to Seoul, where he found a job sweeping glass in a watch factory. He worked during the day, went to night school, and at the end of every long day, he would sweep clean a place on the factory floor where he would sleep. Eventually, he enrolled in a new college that had the lowest tuition he could find.
The school’s president was the scion of a family of Catholic martyrs: three generations of his family were wiped out on one day. His own father had physically survived the massacre, but was a ruined, broken man. The president had gone on to become the leader of a Christian underground resistance movement. He was repeatedly arrested and tortured by the Japanese for his activities and was always on the run. Fearing for her own safety, his wife would dress as a beggar and hide in the busy marketplace all day, returning home to their children only late at night. Eventually, he led a large group of hundreds of refugees to Manchuria, an arduous journey on foot during which his youngest child, an infant, died. When he was finally able to return to Korea, he founded the college.
My father became the president’s star student. He had a fierce hunger and passion for knowledge. He gorged himself on philosophy, history, languages. Emboldened by a degree finally under his belt, and encouraged by American G.I.s he met while doing his compulsory military service, he took and passed a test, which would allow him to continue his studies in the U.S.
Before he was about to graduate, my father went to the president’s office to tell him that he was getting married. The president congratulated him heartily, and it was only then that my dad revealed that he was going to marry his own daughter, my mother. The college was (and is) an institution where skirt hemlines are strictly monitored and relationships between the sexes are discouraged. How my dad worked up the nerve to court and get engaged to the president’s daughter behind his back is unfathomable to me. His placid, gentle demeanor belies the steely determination that has carried him throughout his life.
So in February 1963, my mother stepped off the plane in San Francisco to meet her soon-to-be husband. Their separation had been long. Her arrival had been delayed by a year when an x-ray revealed that she had had tuberculosis as a child. She spent the year listening to tapes, trying to learn English. She still sometimes mimics the stilted, heavily accented recordings that she would listen to over and over again: “I am a boy.” “I am a girl.”
It was a difficult first year for my mother. She cried every day because she was homesick and so far away from home. The birth of my oldest sister, and my second sister soon after, brought comfort and joy. As their family grew and they settled into their new country, my parents began to build a happy life together. Painful memories of the past receded as they made new memories: outings to the zoo with their daughters, the taste of sourdough bread, eating watermelon in their little apartment under the belfry of the Hamilton Square Baptist Church.
My mom and dad want to go visit the church that was their first home again. In fact, they’re dragging us all to the service there this Sunday. Because that’s what you do when you fly across a vast continent to spend a weekend in one of the coolest cities in the world. That’s right. You go to church.
According to my mother, the only reason she ever regretted not teaching us Korean was that we could never appreciate my dad’s sermons. I grew up hearing my dad preach every Sunday, but never understanding a word. As you might imagine, Sunday mornings were a kind of mild torture for me. I would zone out through the sermon and the endless prayers, (so very many prayers!). My only relief came whenever it would be time to sing a hymn. I knew every hymn we sang, because I’d been singing them with my family my whole life.
My mother’s fondest fantasy was that we would be the Korean Von Trapps. She even went so far as to make us matching purple crushed velvet pantsuits out of entirely unsuitable heavy curtain fabric. In her fanciful vision, we would trudge together in velvet splendor through some alpine landscape singing in close harmony not Edelweiss or Do-Re-Mi, but Amazing Grace and What a Friend We Have in Jesus! The closest we ever came to fulfilling my mom’s most cherished dream was during church services. My dad never remembered to turn off his microphone, and his booming voice would fill the chapel. My mother would sing the alto part to my dad’s melody in her beautiful and powerful voice. My siblings and I would play supporting roles, singing in English while the rest of the congregation sang in Korean.
For me, my inability to speak Korean was never more painful than when my grandparents came to visit us. I felt acutely that they were bitterly disappointed that we couldn’t communicate with them. On one of their occasional visits, my grandfather took his customary guest turn at the pulpit and suddenly broke out into song in the middle of his sermon. His rich a cappella voice reverberated around the small chapel and roused me from my usual Sunday morning reverie. I knew the song he was singing, because I’d sung it with my own family hundreds of times. Higher Ground connects me to my childhood, and always makes me think of my father and grandfather.
Dad at the pulpit in 1984
My grandpa at the pulpit in 1984
My father preaching at my grandfather’s church in Korea.
When my friend told me she’d been doing quarantine hymn sings with her in-laws over FaceTime, I knew my parents would love this idea, and I knew Higher Ground was one of the songs we had to sing. My husband and kids learned the hymn and we made this recording for my parents:
It was such a joy to work on this song with my family. Now if only I knew how to sew! I’m sure I could rustle up some old curtains we don’t need anymore…
I just wanted to send you this picture of the primula you brought me when you came to visit us years ago. It’s blooming again in the garden of our third house in Charlottesville, after making the trans-Atlantic voyage wrapped in a tissue in your handbag decades ago, after being transplanted from your garden in Scotland to your garden in Altrincham many, many more years before that. Every year when those faithful little flowers bloom so steadfastly and so generously, it makes me happy to think of you, and all the friends with whom I’ve shared it over the years. I’m sure those little divisions are blooming in gardens all across America right now. I imagine it’s still blooming in the first beautiful garden you planted in Dollar. I picture Colin as a baby in that great big pram, parked like a little prince amidst those flowers. I think of the small miracle that the American daughter of Korean immigrants could fall in love with and marry a boy from a third continent. In these days of “social distancing” and closing borders, the flowers remind me that enduring friendship and love are constants in our lives, even when things seem so unstable, and the world so dark…even when we are so far apart. I think of you both often with love and deepest affection.
I began the year with a trip to Charlotte for the annual reunion of my college roommates…It just so happened that two of our daughters were there for different sports competitions. I was so grateful to my friend, who drove me to my daughter’s four games and even stood out in the freezing cold rain with me to watch a little. Now that‘s truly a good friend!
A few weeks later, our oldest headed back to school in NYC.
I went to New Jersey to visit my sister and her faithful dog Daisy.
Maybe she’s born with it? Maybe it’s Maybelline.
My apricot is blooming!
My friend Katherine and I woke up at an ungodly hour to board a 6 am flight to NYC to check in on our kids, who are both studying there…
We stayed in a hotel at Hudson Yards, right next to The Vessel.
Our hotel bathroom must have been three times as large as the one in my son’s apartment…
Teeny tiny sink in my son’s Lilliputian (shared) bathroom.
Brobdingnagian Friday afternoon tea at Alice’s Teacup
On Saturday we went to Chinatown for dim sum and found ourselves wading through huge crowds that had come out for the Chinese New Year parade:
This last Sunday my second son gave a sermon during the youth-led service at our church…
So proud of him. So not ready for him to leave for college next Fall.
Meanwhile, Gingersnap continues her ruthless and devastatingly efficient campaign to conquer the universe with expressions like these…
Why am I down here on the floor when I’m supposed to be enthroned upon your lap?
This winter I started wearing a brand new, never before worn coat that’s been hanging in my closet for…the last decade. I know this is extreme. I blame it on what my husband likes to call “genetic garbage.” It makes me who I am, and marks me as a member of my own little tribe of weirdos.
A couple years ago, I was at an event with my two sisters. Two of us couldn’t stop cooing over the dress our sister was wearing.
“You look so chic!”
“How come we’ve never seen you wear that before? Is it new?”
Our sister sheepishly confessed that it wasn’t new, but she had never worn it before. It had been hanging in her closet for a while.
“I have this thing about wearing new clothes…I’m too embarrassed to wear things right away when I buy them. So then when I eventually do wear something and someone asks me if it’s new, I can honestly say: No, I’ve had it for a while.”
“I DO THAT TOO!!!” I shrieked.
“SO DO I!!!” our other sister said.
We’ve made other discoveries like this over the years. Once my sister told us that she would hate it when people sang Happy Birthday to her, because it always made her tear up from embarrassment. Until then, I thought I was the only who had that weird reaction.
The classic example of genetic garbage on my husband ‘s side of the family is “concentration tongue.” Whenever my father-in-law, husband, son, or daughter are performing a task that requires focus, their tongues slide out of their mouths. If the task is really demanding, the tongue starts to waggle back and forth. The harder the task, the faster the waggle:
Ping-pong induced concentration tongue: barely detectable, but present.
Impossible to miss concentration tongue
“I think I almost have it…”
It’s like the swoosh…
…concentration tongue makes you run faster.
Anybody else share “genetic garbage” traits with their family members?
Happy Weekend! It looks like we’re going to get walloped with snow in our corner of the world. Good thing I have a coat to wear! ; )