Sparrow

Let’s pretend we’ve just gorged ourselves on Korean food and are drowsily sitting in the basement, sprawled on the couch with distended bellies full of rice and garlicky banchan. Imagine that you’re listening to my dad telling you more Stories from Easter Island. Maybe it’s because there is always so much to eat nowadays, and there was so little back then that the stories are so often about food. Here’s the first one…

DadI always had a dog when I was growing up in Korea, but I don’t like having a dog here. I feel sorry for dogs in America. In Korea, no one kept dogs in the house or on a leash. The dogs would be fed in the morning and then they’d join the rest of the village dogs. They would roam free in the fields all day long…huge packs of them. There would be fifteen to twenty dogs running around together all day long, having so much fun. In the evening, they would go back to their own houses and eat whatever scraps they were given.

All the dogs were mutts, but one of our dogs happened to grow up to look almost exactly like a purebred German Shepherd. He was such a smart dog. He was really good at catching mice and birds. He’d settle himself down in a patch of sunlight and pretend to be asleep. When a sparrow would wander past, he’d suddenly attack and catch it! Just like that!

Roasted sparrow tastes really good. You only eat the breast. They’re so small that they’re just one mouthful. Nobody ate meat in those days. We only had it for special occasions…maybe a little in dduk gook once a year on New Year’s. My brothers and I always wished we could eat the birds our dog caught, but we never got a chance to. Our mother would always take them to give to other kids in our village who had colds, because roasted sparrow is supposed to be a cure for the common cold.

Next time: More Stories from Easter Island.

Stories from Easter Island

My father occupies any space he is in with a stoic, silent, and monumental presence. His impassive demeanor has prompted us to call him (behind his back, but with the greatest of affection!): The Easter Island Head.

When he was an active minister, my father would break his silence once a week on Sundays to preside over a Korean congregation in Northern Virginia. For one hour a week, between the hours of eleven and twelve, he would undergo a remarkable transformation. I couldn’t understand the sermons he would preach, but I could practically surf along the dramatic swells and crests that would come billowing into the pews from the pulpit. His animated face would glow and he would gesticulate to emphasize a point. Every once in a while, the congregants would burst into appreciative laughter and I would wonder what he could have possibly said that was so funny. During the hymns, he would forget to step away from the microphone, so his strong, fine voice could always be heard over everyone else’s. At the stroke of noon, the spell would be broken. He would fall silent and the impassive façade would settle back over his features like a mask, and would remain there until the next sermon he gave, or the next class he taught.

Only one other circumstance would cause the stony exterior to fall away to reveal the gentle river of memories and deep emotions that, in truth, have always floated fairly close to the surface. Within the close circle of his own immediate family, my father would often talk about his difficult childhood. Unlike my mother, who buries the unhappy memories of her past in some secret, inaccessible vault to which only she has the key, my father seems compelled to share his personal history through the stories he repeats over and over in an almost ritualistic way. Though I’ve heard them countless times, I never get tired of listening. When my father tells us about his childhood, and about the deaths of his father and siblings in his quiet, measured tones, it feels as if we are partaking in a sacred rite of remembrance to honor family members we would never know.

My father’s family lived in the country. They lived through the Japanese occupation, World War II, and the Korean War. Life was a struggle. Disease was rampant. When he was eleven years old, his entire family was struck down by typhoid fever for two weeks.  Only his mother did not get sick, because she had already survived her own bout of typhoid fever 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.

To save grain, the family would skip lunch and only eat twice a day. My father watched three sisters and two brothers, between infancy and second grade, succumb to malnutrition and disease. Of all the siblings he lost, the one he talks about most is a beloved younger brother, who died at the age of four.

Whenever he speaks of this brother, he prefaces everything by saying that he was a genius. He always mentions his enormous head.

“Other than his big head, how could you tell he was a genius, Dad?” I asked, when he spoke of him most recently.

“I would carry him on my back and teach him Bible verses. I would recite a long passage such as Psalm 23rd just once, and he’d be able to repeat it back verbatim.”

He continued, “We had gotten used to the sound of WWII B-29 bombers. But when the communists overtook our village, American sabre jets flew over for the first time. We had never heard them before, and the noise…it was like a terrifying thundering metallic sound raining down from heaven.”

My father’s little brother was already weak and ill, but he thinks it was the noise of the sabre jets that literally scared him to death. When they would pass over, he would tremble with fear. Every time he would start to recover from the shock, another jet would fly over and he would get sick again.

There wasn’t enough to eat, and no one could risk going outside to forage for food for fear of falling bombs. “He would have survived if we had paid more attention,” my dad concludes. After a long pause, he says, “I really wished I could have caught bullfrogs to feed him.”

In the past my mother would try to comfort him when he finally arrived at this sad conclusion. She would say, “You were just a child. There was nothing you could do. It was too dangerous to go outside.” Nowadays, we all remain silent.

This last time, there was a coda to the story. My father told me that he was flying into LA for a conference when they announced over the intercom that the U.S. had just invaded Iraq.

“I was shocked when people started cheering. These people had never lived through a war. I immediately thought of the women and children, who would be terrified. When we landed and were arriving at the airport, everyone looked excited and happy…”

He shook his head in dismay and grew silent.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I thought to myself that if they had ever lived through bombings, they would never be cheering for such a thing.”

Though he only lived four short years on this earth, my father’s little brother lives on through the words of his loving brother, and the burnished memories he has passed on to his own children.

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Related post: Little brown haired girl

 

I love you

Reposted…

Earlier this week, I wrote about how delighted I was to finally get junk mail from my grad school. It was the proof I needed to convince myself that it wasn’t all a dream…that I had in fact gotten the degree I had struggled to earn for far too many years. What finally got me to actually finish the degree long after my heart was no longer in it was a phone call from my mother during which she dropped the most devastating weapon in her arsenal: an emotional nuclear bomb that rained all over my angst-ridden psyche. “Just finish it for your father’s sake. It would mean so much to him. Please. Do this one last thing for him, before he dies,” she said to me over the phone in a quavering voice. It was a bravura performance, which could have won her an Oscar. It spurred me to drag my heaving flanks across the finish line, staggering and gasping all the way. Although my dad was in perfect health at the time, my mother wasn’t exaggerating about one thing. It did mean a lot to him. I wrote this essay five years ago about my father’s reaction when I finally received my Ph.D., but it always felt too personal to share. It still feels too personal, but I’m banking on the fact that my dad will never read this. Besides, after writing about being seen naked by my in-laws, what is there left to hide?

______________________________________________________________________________________

The words “I love you” have never, not once, either on purpose or by accident, ever fallen from my father’s lips. It’s not that he doesn’t feel genuine love. I think he worships my mother. His children know that he loves them deeply in his own way. It’s outward, obvious expressions of love that make him uncomfortable.

When we were little, we used to always give my mom and dad a goodnight kiss. One day, when I was about five, I kissed my mom, and then went to kiss my dad. As I drew near, he said, “You don’t have to do that,” and fended me off with a stiff arm. I froze in mortified hurt and wordlessly slunk off to bed. We never touched each other again until the day I went to college. My parents were about to drive back home after helping me unload my things and dropping me off at my dormitory. My mother gathered me into her arms as if I were five rather than seventeen. She kissed me and then hugged me for a long time as if she never intended to let me go, all the while tenderly whispering into my ear all of her hopes and dreams for me. When she finally did let me go, she wiped the tears from her eyes and urged me to give my father a hug. Deeply embarrassed, I tentatively approached him and awkwardly held out my arms to him. He patted me stiffly on the back and turned to leave with an “O.K., well, see ya.”

My mom is a woman who almost always gets what she wants when she wants it. One day she summoned all her considerable powers of persuasion to get my father to say the three words she’d never heard from him.

“Just say it,” she cajoled, “I won’t even look at you. Please, just once.”

My dad remained uncomfortably mute.

Never one to give up a battle and completely unaccustomed to failure, my mother tried a hundred different ways to get him to say those words.

Exhausted and demoralized, she tried a final tactic. “I’ll say it first and then you say it back to me…I love you.”

There was a long silence, and then finally he mustered a sheepish, “Me too.” She gave up. It was the best he could do.

Shortly after I defended my dissertation and was finally awarded my Ph.D., I got a letter from my dad addressed to Dr. Adrienne X. It was written on pages and pages of his favorite yellow lined pads. It must have taken him ages to write that letter. In his barely decipherable handwriting I read very formal words of congratulations and advice about my future. In those words I know he was really saying: “I love you. I love you. I love you.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

 I love you too, Dad.

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Happy, Pt. 1

For many years my dad was the minister of a Korean congregation that was part of a much larger American church in Northern Virginia. Listening to my dad, (a.k.a. The Easter Island Head), give a sermon was always something of a revelation. Six days out of seven, he was a soft-spoken man of very few words. Behind the pulpit, however, he would transform into someone we barely recognized. His voice would thunder, swoop, and dive. He would gesticulate, he would lean forward, he would hiss. Even his silences were mesmerizing. My siblings and I could only understand a few words of Korean here and there, but such was his oratorical prowess that even we would be swept up in the dramatic ebb and flow of his sermon along with his enthralled congregation of native speakers.

One Christmas Eve he was asked to preach to the American congregation. The large sanctuary was overflowing with families dressed in their festive Sunday best. Their eyes shone in the candlelight and their cheeks were rosy as they squeezed into pews draped with ropes of fragrant fir boughs. There was a palpable sense of joyful anticipation as the congregation settled in to hear the familiar and well-loved Nativity story. As for me and my siblings, we were glad that we would at last have the opportunity to understand every word of our father’s sermon!

My dad has always been an iconoclast. Never was this more obvious than on that Christmas Eve, when he eschewed the Bible passages one might reasonably expect to hear on such an occasion for something far more unconventional…No glad tidings of great joy, no babe lying in a manger, no lion lying down with a lamb for my father. Instead, he chose the passage from the book of Revelations that talks about the breaking of the seven seals and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. You know, the one with flaming swords, earthquakes, cataclysms, blood and slaughter? In short: all the ingredients for a heartwarming and uplifting Christmas Eve service! One memorable line in particular will forever be etched into the very marrow of our bones. We invoke it at suitable moments to this day. At the climax of my father’s sermon, we heard in the thunderous intonation we knew so well from his Korean services: “Where in the Bible does it say you have to be happy?!

I love you.

One more about my dad, first posted a month ago…

Earlier this week, I wrote about how delighted I was to finally get junk mail from my grad school. It was the proof I needed to convince myself that it wasn’t all a dream…that I had in fact gotten the degree I had struggled to earn for far too many years. What finally got me to actually finish the degree long after my heart was no longer in it was a phone call from my mother during which she dropped the most devastating weapon in her arsenal: an emotional nuclear bomb that rained all over my angst-ridden psyche. “Just finish it for your father’s sake. It would mean so much to him. Please. Do this one last thing for him, before he dies,” she said to me over the phone in a quavering voice. It was a bravura performance, which could have won her an Oscar. It spurred me to drag my heaving flanks across the finish line, staggering and gasping all the way. Although my dad was in perfect health at the time, my mother wasn’t exaggerating about one thing. It did mean a lot to him. I wrote this essay five years ago about my father’s reaction when I finally received my Ph.D.

The words “I love you” have never, not once, either on purpose or by accident, ever fallen from my father’s lips. It’s not that he doesn’t feel genuine love. I think he worships my mother. His children know that he loves them deeply in his own way. It’s outward, obvious expressions of love that make him uncomfortable.

When we were little, we used to always give my mom and dad a goodnight kiss. One day, when I was about five, I kissed my mom, and then went to kiss my dad. As I drew near, he said, “You don’t have to do that,” and fended me off with a stiff arm. I froze in mortified hurt and wordlessly slunk off to bed. We never touched each other again until the day I went to college. My parents were about to drive back home after helping me unload my things and dropping me off at my dormitory. My mother gathered me into her arms as if I were five rather than seventeen. She kissed me and then hugged me for a long time as if she never intended to let me go, all the while tenderly whispering into my ear all of her hopes and dreams for me. When she finally did let me go, she wiped the tears from her eyes and urged me to give my father a hug. Deeply embarrassed, I tentatively approached him and awkwardly held out my arms to him. He patted me stiffly on the back and turned to leave with an “O.K., well, see ya.”

My mom is a woman who almost always gets what she wants when she wants it. One day she summoned all her considerable powers of persuasion to get my father to say the three words she’d never heard from him.

“Just say it,” she cajoled, “I won’t even look at you. Please, just once.”

My dad remained uncomfortably mute.

Never one to give up a battle and completely unaccustomed to failure, my mother tried a hundred different ways to get him to say those words.

Exhausted and demoralized, she tried a final tactic. “I’ll say it first and then you say it back to me…I love you.”

There was a long silence, and then finally he mustered a sheepish, “Me too.” She gave up. It was the best he could do.

Shortly after I defended my dissertation and was finally awarded my Ph.D., I got a letter from my dad addressed to Dr. Adrienne X. It was written on pages and pages of his favorite yellow lined pads. It must have taken him ages to write that letter. In his barely decipherable handwriting I read very formal words of congratulations and advice about my future. In those words I know he was really saying: “I love you. I love you. I love you.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

 I love you too, Dad.

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Dad’s Books

I’ve written about my dad too…

IMG_8133

My dad has been losing his vision to diabetic retinopathy. He can no longer drive. He misjudges distances and he sometimes stumbles. Worst of all: his ability to read has been seriously compromised. He has consulted with specialists on two different continents. He’s had laser treatments and injections. He has bought pair after pair of new glasses in the hopes of improving his vision enough to be able to read again with ease. He has tried reading on the Kindle and the iPad without success. Lately, he has decided he will no longer seek available treatments.* Still, every morning he spends a couple hours hunched over his beloved books with a powerful magnifying glass, laboriously trying to make out the letters, which remain stubbornly, traitorously blurry.

My dad has suffered terrible losses in his life. His father died when he was just a child. He lost siblings to the privations imposed by war and invasions. He has always lived modestly, never indulging himself in anything other than the books that are his treasure. He would think nothing of giving away cars, furniture, clothing, before each of our many moves, but his ever growing collection of books always went with us across continents and oceans. Despite my mother’s vociferous objections, he would not be parted with these. When we finally settled down in Virginia, he built his own bookshelves and filled them with his cherished volumes of Heidegger, Machiavelli, and Kant. He lovingly fashioned suede covers to rebind his most cherished books that were literally read to pieces.

My husband, a scholar who appreciates the same kind of literature, was perusing my father’s bookshelf one day when he suddenly burst out laughing. Interspersed between two volumes of philosophy, he had spotted this:

Goats and GoatkeepingOn the bottom shelf was a space devoted to the inevitable porn stash every dad has hidden away somewhere. In my dad’s case, his porn consisted of many, many, well-thumbed issues of Dog World magazine. What can I say? His interests are wide-ranging.

When my parents moved back to Virginia after many years of living in Korea, they took stock of their belongings. Before they had left for Korea, they had a shed built in their backyard just to house my dad’s books. They never expected to be away for as long as they were. By the time they returned, the books had been languishing in the shed for over a dozen years. Some did not fare well. Mice had nibbled the pages of some. Others had suffered from water damage. I’m sure it broke my dad’s heart to discard these books. What he did with the ones that survived broke our hearts. To our shock and horror, he boxed up the vast majority of the books that he had collected over a lifetime and shipped them to the university in Korea where he had been working all those years, as a donation to the library.

My siblings and I had grown up with these books as the only constant part of our landscape. Many of them predated our own existence. To us, it was as if my dad was sending bits of himself away. It seemed like a surrender to old age and to his loss of vision, it seemed like a farewell to his life of scholarship. We said nothing to my father, but amongst ourselves, we mourned for all of these losses.

Now I realize that we needn’t have worried. Lately, every time I go to Arlington to visit my parents, my dad presses a piece of paper into my hands upon which he has scrawled in his illegible handwriting a list of the books he wants me to hunt down for him. The latest book list included Summa Contra Gentiles by Saint Thomas Aquinas and Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy. Little by little he is replacing the books he regrets having shipped to Korea, the books that had to be discarded, and the books that are falling apart from overuse.

“And please try to find them in hardback so they’ll last longer,” my 78 year old father says in his quiet, gentle voice.

“Sure, Dad,” I say. There’s nothing I’d rather do.

*At the University of Virginia, researchers are investigating the use of stem cells to treat and perhaps even reverse the effects of diabetic retinopathy. They are getting close to the clinical trial phase of their study.

More about my dad here:

Take me back to San Francisco

O wonderful 

My Brother is Special, Pt. 2

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how my genius brother managed to game his way into the local preschool for children with learning delays. Yesterday I wrote about the few shows we were allowed to watch on television before my mother decided to destroy the set in as dramatic a fashion as possible. These posts got me thinking about another incident that involved my brother, school, and our family’s warped relationship with popular culture via the television…

Bow-tieMy brother Teddy discovered Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids in Kindergarten. He became completely enamored with the show, and with the character named Mushmouth in particular. Mushmouth is the slack-jawed character, who speaks with the slow, rhythmic cadence of a simpleton. He adds “buh” to every word so that he sounds something like this: “Heybuh, Fabuh Albuh.”

Teddy began talking like Mushmouth. Constantly. Concerned, his conscientious Kindergarten teacher alerted the specialist at the school, who began to pull him out of his regular classroom for intensive speech therapy.

When my dad got wind of this, we knew it was going to be ugly. As punishments were always meted out communally in our household, my sisters and I were all made to sit alongside our brother on the couch as my dad ranted on and on and on. It seemed like the hailstorm of words pelting down from that normally monosyllabic, phlegmatic man would never stop. In a thousand and one different ways, for what seemed like a thousand and one hours, he told Teddy that if he continued to talk like Mushmouth, people would think he was a Dummy, a Straggler, and a Weakling!

At long last, his lecture came to a terrifying crescendo with a thundering: “DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?!

Teddy answered:  “Yehbuh.”

Our jaws dropped involuntarily and my sisters and I froze in a tableau of mute horror. We held our breaths as we waited for the axe to fall. But so habitual had become this idiosyncratic way of speaking, my Dad didn’t even notice.

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Dad’s Books

My dad has been losing his vision to diabetic retinopathy. He can no longer drive. He misjudges distances and he sometimes stumbles. Worst of all: his ability to read has been seriously compromised. He has consulted with specialists on two different continents. He’s had laser treatments and injections. He has bought pair after pair of new glasses in the hopes of improving his vision enough to be able to read again with ease. He has tried reading on the Kindle and the iPad without success. Lately, he has decided he will no longer seek available treatments.* Still, every morning he spends a couple hours hunched over his beloved books with a powerful magnifying glass, laboriously trying to make out the letters, which stubbornly, traitorously remain blurry.

My dad has suffered terrible losses in his life. His father died when he was just a child. He lost siblings to the privations imposed by war and invasions. He has always lived modestly, never indulging himself in anything other than the books that are his treasure. He would think nothing of giving away cars, furniture, clothing, before each of our many moves, but his ever growing collection of books always went with us across continents and oceans. Despite my mother’s vociferous objections, he would not be parted with these. When we finally settled down in Virginia, he built his own bookshelves and filled them with his cherished volumes of Heidegger, Machiavelli, and Kant. He lovingly fashioned suede covers to rebind his most cherished books that were literally read to pieces.

My husband, a scholar who appreciates the same kind of literature, was perusing my father’s bookshelf one day when he suddenly burst out laughing. He had spotted my dad’s copy of Goats and Goatkeeping interspersed between two volumes of philosophy. On the bottom shelf was a space devoted to the inevitable porn stash every dad has hidden away somewhere. In my dad’s case, his porn consisted of many, many, well-thumbed issues of Dog World magazine. What can I say? His interests are wide-ranging.

When my parents moved back to Virginia after many years of living in Korea, they took stock of their belongings. Before they had left for Korea, they had a shed built in their backyard just to house my dad’s books. They never expected to be away for as long as they were. By the time they returned, the books had been languishing in the shed for over a dozen years. Some did not fare well. Mice had nibbled the pages of some. Others had suffered from water damage. I’m sure it broke my dad’s heart to discard these books. What he did with the ones that survived broke our hearts. To our shock and horror, he boxed up the vast majority of the books that he had collected over a lifetime and shipped them to the university in Korea where he had been working all those years, as a donation to the library.

My siblings and I had grown up with these books as the only constant part of our landscape. Many of them predated our own existence. To us, it was as if my dad was sending bits of himself away. It seemed like a surrender to old age and to his loss of vision, it seemed like a farewell to his life of scholarship. We said nothing to my father, but amongst ourselves, we mourned for all of these losses.

Now I realize that we needn’t have worried. Lately, every time I go to Arlington to visit my parents, my dad presses a piece of paper into my hands upon which he has scrawled in his illegible handwriting a list of the books he wants me to hunt down for him. Little by little he is replacing the books he regrets having shipped to Korea, the books that had to be discarded, and the books that are falling apart from overuse.

“And please try to find them in hardback so they’ll last longer,” my 78 year old father says in his quiet, gentle voice.

“Sure, Dad,” I say. As I hunt online for Summa Contra Gentiles by Saint Thomas Aquinas or Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy, I am filled with peace and joy.

*Just this month I was excited to read about a study that’s been going on at the University of Virginia. Researchers are investigating the promising use of stem cells to treat and perhaps even reverse the effects of diabetic retinopathy and are getting close to the clinical trial phase of their study.

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