Scattered to the four winds…

On Friday my husband and oldest son traveled by sleeper car to his weeklong music composition workshop in Illinois.

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Yesterday morning my daughter and I dropped off Boy #2 at the airport at 5 am. He is now somewhere in Colorado on a pilgrimage with his Sunday School class. We are keenly missing him today as it is his 15th birthday!
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My girl and I made a lightning strike visit to Arlington to see my parents and to wish my dad a Happy Father’s Day.

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We tried to get him to smile for a special Father’s Day picture and this is what happened:

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My mother, observing all of this from her couch throne, commanded him to smile in her most imperious tone and this is what happened:

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Happy Father’s Day, Dad and Happy Father’s Day, Colin. You’re both my favorites.

 

 

 

Migration

I miss those gypsy parents of mine. They moved back to Korea a little less than a week ago. I’ve been scanning old family photos and came across a couple that capture my mother at the liminal moment of another, earlier migration – between earth and sky, between two continents, between single and married life.

I believe it is February 1963. My mother is twenty-six. She is getting ready to board the plane that will take her to meet my father in San Francisco, where he is studying. In her suitcase already loaded in the cargo hold is a carefully-folded, white silk hanbok. She will wear it as her wedding dress when she gets married, just days after her long journey to America. I’m guessing it’s her father who is taking photos of his eldest child as she leaves home for the first time – to go so far away, and for who knows how long?

She looks jaunty in her black coat and kitten heels. Her departure was delayed when an x-ray scan revealed traces of the tuberculosis she once had. She was required to wait out a year-long quarantine before being cleared to fly. A year is a long time to wait for the next part of your life to begin. She smiles boldly now as she waves goodbye to her parents.

She has always been a pioneer: the first-born, a big sister and second mother to her siblings:

Mother

Mother

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Mother

She is a drama queen:

My mother...on the left!

My mother…on the left!

She has always been known for being brash…

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the leader of her pack:

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Mother

I imagine she is trying to reassure her parents with that cheerful smile and wave she gives as she walks towards the plane. I imagine she must be filled with anxiety. She has never been on a plane before. She has never been so far away from her parents before. She is flying to a new country where the language is foreign to her, to be married to a man she hasn’t seen in over a year.

At the door of the plane she turns back for one last look. Her father takes one last photo of his daughter before he loses sight of her. She thinks she’s far enough away so that her parents won’t see that she’s crying.

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By the end of the year she will be a mother. In no time at all, there will be four of us – too many children for a graduate student to support. My mother will take us all to go to Korea to live for a couple years while my father finishes up his degree. My father must be miserable to see his family depart, especially his beloved, long-awaited son – finally born after three girls:

He sends postcards like this one in which he enjoins his infant son to be the man of the house and to take good care of his mother and sisters:

And though my parents try to bridge the great distance with letters and by mailing audio tapes back and forth, our father will become a stranger to us during those years.

In this photo we’re getting ready to board a plane to reunite with him at long last. He has found his first teaching job in Florida. We will meet him there.

 

Farmette

As I write this, my parents are on a plane heading back to Seoul. They are moving back to the high rise apartment they left – (we had thought for good) – about six years ago. I wonder how my dad will get on without the garden he was so happy to come home to in Arlington. Will he dream about the row of pine tree saplings he planted when they first arrived…the ones which my mother would scornfully refer to as his “sticks,” when she’d see him from the window tenderly fussing over them? Will he regret not seeing the peonies, peach and cherry trees bloom in his own yard this spring?

For many years, my dad tried to put his farm boy roots behind him. He ferociously, voraciously pursued degree after degree. Even today, at the age of 80, after acquiring a couple masters degrees, a doctorate, and a J.D., he still seriously weighs the possibility of going back to school again. But no matter how many degrees he accumulates, no matter how many scholarly tomes he writes, he will always be a man of the earth. The proof is in the combination arboretum, botanical garden, and vegetable plot he manages to cram into every tiny suburban yard he’s ever had at his disposal. The proof is in the quail eggs and incubator he ordered from an ad he found in a Field and Stream magazine. (If they had hatched – Lord knows where we would have kept them)! The proof is in his book shelves, in which Goats and Goatkeeping can be found among volumes on philosophy, theology, and law.

 

Goats and GoatkeepingSometimes genes express themselves in the weirdest ways…

I’ve always been an animal lover, but my husband is an animal-barely-tolerator. Every now and then I indulge myself in a little harmless entertainment…I freak him out by suggesting that I’m going to bring home another puppy, or by getting all misty-eyed as I rhapsodize about a long-cherished fantasy. I describe to him my dream of having an animal farmette, populated only with cute animals: a sheep or two, some goats, a few fluffy little bunnies, some ducks, a bunch of dogs, and maybe a miniature pony. He listens to me in silence, with growing waves of alarm clouding his face as I wax on about my little menagerie.

“What is it with you and animal husbandry?” he will finally ask in utter bewilderment.

One day I was looking out of my office window, which overlooks the Amphitheater at the University of Virginia. Pens were being set up with miniature llamas, sheep, cows, goats, bunnies, horses, and chickens. It turns out that the University Programs Council periodically brings in a petting zoo for the students’ pleasure. I was at once elated, and filled with burning, insane jealousy of whoever stole my dream:

We’ve moved to a new house with a two stall barn, a paddock, run-in shed, and chicken coop. They all stand empty.

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So far, I’ve parried and dodged the many earnest entreaties for livestock that my children have thrown my way. (Of course, they know better than to importune their father). I’m trying to stay strong, but every now and then I sense myself weakening…

Every day on our way home, we pass two different herds of goats. I can hear my daughter coo and sigh with delight in the backseat whenever she catches sight of them.

“I wish we could have a baby goat,” she says in a voice filled with yearning.

I usually pretend I can’t hear her, but one day a couple weeks ago, I allowed myself to actually consider the idea.

“Do some research,” I told her, shocking myself as I heard the words came out of my own mouth, “If it’s really easy to keep a goat, maybe we could think about it.”

When we pulled into our driveway, she couldn’t get out of the car fast enough. She ran into the house and hit the interwebs. She was at it until it was time for her to go to bed.

She came to find me in the living room to report her findings…

“The only complicated thing is that they have to have some kind of mineral supplement that we, well you would have to buy…And you have to have a really good fence to keep them in, and to keep predators out. And even though they’re supposed to eat anything, it turns out that some plants like azaleas and cherry trees are actually poisonous to goats…”

“Hmmm,” I said, “I’m going to do a little research of my own and we can discuss it in the morning.”

I poked around on the internet myself and discovered a bunch of things my daughter hadn’t mentioned…The fact that they would require specialized veterinary care: the semi-annual filing down of hoofs, vaccinations, and deworming; the fact that they must have companionship; and the fact that they are master escape artists. It was all rather overwhelming.

The next morning I gave my unsuspecting husband a pat and said without any further explanation, “You don’t know how lucky you are.”

This time.

 

Old Photos

A few months ago, I offered to put all of my mother’s old photos together in an album for her. I was finally able to hand her the finished album the last time I went to visit my parents in Arlington.

There were photos I hadn’t seen in years, including this baby picture of me:

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In almost all of my baby pictures, my hair is soaking wet, because in its natural state it looked like this:

Baby

My mom told me she burst out laughing when the doctor handed me to her for the first time. Who could blame her?

And then there’s the one my sisters refer to as my refugee photo:

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When I was eight months old we moved to Korea from America for a year or two. The pile of shoes at the door in this photo is the telltale sign of a Korean household. I especially love the two pairs of classic Korean pointy toe rubber shoes to the left.

Scan 1My sisters explained to me that in this photo, they are both wearing school badges. The sister sitting next to me on the right is wearing a special badge, because she was class president.

As my oldest sister put it, “Even then she was an overachiever.”

This photo was the biggest surprise:

Scan (1) I puzzled over it for a while, trying to seek out a familiar face. I was expecting to find my mother or one of her siblings in the photo. All of the oldest family photos I’ve ever seen are from my mother’s side of the family. For all these years, I thought the earliest photos of my father were taken when he served in the army:

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My father grew up in the country. His family, like all Koreans of his generation, struggled  through the privations of war and occupation. When he was eleven, typhoid fever struck down almost everyone in his household. His father did not survive. His mother was left with young children and a farm to run. Time and money were scarce, and there was certainly none to spare for picture-taking.

I showed the photo to my mother, thinking that she would be able to help me figure out who was pictured there. She glanced at the photo and shook her head. She handed it back to me and suggested that I show it to my father, who might know something about the picture.

When I showed it to him, I was dumbfounded when he said, “That’s my elementary school graduation photo.”

He pointed himself out to me. He’s in the third row from the top facing left.

“Do you know why I’m standing like that? I knew I couldn’t ask my mother for money to continue my education. I understood that we couldn’t pay the school fees. I was so downcast and ashamed I couldn’t even look at the camera.”

At the age of thirteen, my father ended up striking out on his own. He put himself through another year or two of schooling by working in a watch factory. As a young man, he made his way to the U.S., where he earned a Bachelors Degree, multiple Masters, a Doctorate, and a J.D. Eventually, he became a professor.

This photo, the only existing one of my father as a child, captures a moment of despair in his life when that future was unimaginable.

Dog

Did I freak you out with the title of this post? 

Remember: this week’s Stories from Easter Island are all about the foods my dad didn’t eat. But let’s face it. It is a notorious fact that Korean people have been known to eat dog meat. When we were together over the holidays, my dad explained to us the background behind this practice…

In the old days, nobody ate much meat. People would eat it maybe just once or twice a year. Farmers, after a season of hard physical labor, would need to eat some meat to recover their strength. But because they were unaccustomed to eating meat, they would get sick as soon as they ate it. It would give them terrible stomach aches. The one kind of meat that wouldn’t have that effect was dog meat. Apparently, dog meat is very easy to digest and never causes stomach upset.

Seeing our long faces, he continued his story…

You know, whenever I would go back to visit Korea, people would always want to take me out to restaurants and treat me to the best foods. They were always trying to offer me dog meat. I didn’t want to be rude to them, but I always declined. I had to explain that my children had made me promise not to eat it.

He imitated us in a high-pitched voice that made us laugh, “Dad! Promise us, you won’t eat dog meat when you’re in Korea!

Even though I didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings, I couldn’t lie to my own children, so I never ate it.

And that’s the last installment of this week’s Stories from Easter Island. I hope you’ve enjoyed sitting in the basement with me, and that you have a wonderful, wonderful weekend!

Snake

When my father was eleven years old, his entire family was struck down by typhoid fever. Only his mother did not get sick, having developed immunity after surviving her own bout with the disease as a child. By the end of those terrible two weeks, my father’s father was dead. He left behind a widow with ten young children and a farm to run. This disastrous change in the family’s fortunes unleashed a whole chain of calamities. But this is the story of triumph over death in the midst of tragedy, and it came thanks to two venomous snakes. Here’s another installment of Stories from Easter Island, as told to me by my dad, whom we call (with great affection!) The Easter Island Head

My second oldest brother was thirteen or fourteen when our father got sick with typhoid fever. He tried to help around the farm, but he overexerted himself and hurt his side. He was completely incapacitated for months. He got so sick, we thought he would die. We lived in the country, and there were no doctors in the vicinity.

It was monsoon season, which is when snakes come out of hiding. There were men who would catch venomous snakes to sell for medicinal purposes. These snake catchers would keep them in boxes that they would carry around on their shoulders. One of those snake catchers heard that my brother was sick, so he visited our home. He told my mother that he could heal my brother with two snakes.

He had an earthen jar with a small opening at the top. These jars were used for boiling herbs or for storing food.

He put one of the snakes in the jar with some water and then he wrapped the jar with a straw rope from the bottom to the top. He plastered mud over the rope so the jar wouldn’t heat up too quickly, and then he lit a fire under it. He slowly, slowly heated up the jar, using just a few sticks of wood at a time. The fire burned for two days. The only time he ever left the fire was to use the bathroom. For two days he ate every meal sitting on his haunches, tending the fire.

At first the water felt warm and good to the snake. But as the water heated up, the snake started to feel uncomfortable and got angry. It started to strike at the walls of the jar, releasing all of its venom into the water.

On the second day, it started to smell like boiled chicken. After two days, the snake had mostly disintegrated. The head and bones were all that remained. The man dumped everything into a hemp cloth to filter out the liquid. He squeezed the cloth so that only the bones and some meat remained. The liquid made up a bowlful of soup.

There was a layer of fatty grease on top of the liquid. I remember that he used hanji, Korean handmade paper, to soak up the grease. He did that two or three times to get all the fat out. He said that if my brother drank any of the fat, he would get diarrhea and become even more sick.

Before he would give him the soup, he very carefully checked his mouth for any sores or open wounds to make sure he would not get poisoned. When he was absolutely sure there were no wounds, he let my brother drink the soup. My brother said it tasted good.

After a one day break, he did the same thing again with the second snake and served another bowlful of soup to my brother. After two doses of snake soup, he fully recovered. Two or three years later, the snake catcher returned and told our mother that it was time for my brother to have one more bowl of snake soup so that he could maintain his good health throughout his life. He was exceptionally healthy, even into adulthood, and it was thought that it was because of the snake soup.

Pomegranate

Stories from Easter Island, continued

My dad’s fantasies have always been of the horticultural variety. How I wish I could win the lottery and make his lifelong dream of owning a walnut orchard or a cactus farm come true! Having crammed exotic plants into every corner of his own tiny suburban yard, he has begun speculating about the possibilities my yard has to offer. In a recent conversation we had, he mused about the feasibility of moving my house toward the back of the property so that my front yard could be transformed into a fruit orchard.

He’s been fascinated by fruit for as long as I can remember. You know that exotic fruit ghetto in the grocery store? That neglected little corner with strange, lumpy things no one ever buys and wouldn’t even know how to eat if they did? That’s always been my dad’s favorite part of the grocery store. He was always bringing home unusual fruits to try. You’d often find a napkin with seeds culled from these fruits, drying on our kitchen windowsill to be planted whenever he deemed the conditions to be favorable.

Over the winter holidays this year, we ate a lot of pomegranate. The only time my kids and husband and I ever eat this fruit is when we’re with my parents. It’s one of those fruits that I’ve always liked, but not enough to actually buy. For one thing, they’re a royal pain to cut open, though you can avoid some of the squirting and staining issues if you open the fruit in a large bowl of water. Over the Christmas break, my mother did all the hard work for us. Every night after dinner, she would pass around a bowl of the gorgeous, translucent seeds and a teaspoon with which to scoop them out.

One evening, as my dad helped himself to a few of the seeds, he told us this story…

“We had a pomegranate bush when I was growing up. It’s not a plant that’s native to Korea, so it was quite unusual to see one. We were the only ones who had one for miles around. But, I never once got to taste a pomegranate until I was an adult.”

“Every year, there would be only a few fruits, and as soon as they were ripe, our mother would take them to give to women in our village who wanted to have a baby, but were having trouble. They’re supposed to help with fertility. They would be so happy to get the fruit!”

“Gosh, Dad!” I said, feeling sad about his childhood of deprivation, “You didn’t get to eat the sparrows and you didn’t get to eat the pomegranates!”

“Our mother was soft-hearted like that. When my dad was still alive, we didn’t have much, but we were doing OK, so she was always trying to help other people…”

I’ve always wanted to plant a pomegranate…not so much for the fruit, as for the brilliant, flamboyant blossoms that precede it. This spring I’m going to get a couple plants at one of my favorite local nurseries: one for the notional orchard in my front yard, and one that I’m sure my dad will be able to squeeze into his own yard somewhere.