Walkabout

We drove up to Arlington to spend Thanksgiving with my parents and my sister.

img_2038Every morning I accompanied the titular mayor of Arlington, aka my mother, on her daily walkabout to greet her subjects and to survey her lands. My father wordlessly walked behind my mother and me as we slowly made our way around the block. Every now and then my mother would use her cane to clear the sidewalk of errant twigs or to nudge newspapers a little closer to the houses to which they had been delivered. As we walked, she would tell me the life history of her peoples in astonishing detail.

“This man is a surveyor,” she said, brandishing her cane towards one of the little brick ranchers. She sighed and continued, “But he’s getting old. His yard used to be really nice when his girlfriend lived here. She’d always be outside weeding or planting flowers…But she left him because he refused to marry her.”

“And these people finally fixed their roof after a tree fell into it…It took them months to fix it and as soon as they did, they sold it and moved to Florida. It was on the market for less than a week and sold for over $700,000.”

“I see these people have weeded their garden. It was such a mess. It looks much better now.”

She stopped to gesture with her cane toward a shrub in front of another house.

“Do you know what that shrub is?” she asked me.

“The one with white flowers that’s right next to that house?”

She nodded.

“I think that’s a camellia.”

“A camellia? Well, it doesn’t have any scent,” she said with a distinct note of disapproval.

“You mean, you walked all the way up to the end of a stranger’s driveway to smell their shrub?” I asked.

“Why not?” she replied with regal nonchalance as she continued to process down the sidewalk.

We moved further along and she said, “There used to be a huge tree right here. They cut it down, which is good, because the branches were hanging right over their roof.” As she spoke, the man whose house we had stopped in front of happened to walk past his storm door. He glanced at my mother and politely waved. Taking this to be a request for an audience, she obligingly turned around and started making her way up his walkway, thereby forcing him to come out of his house to meet her.

“I see you cut down this tree. How much did it cost to do that?”

I turned back to exchange a rueful smile with my father as I was sure he would be writhing in embarrassment, but he had vanished. All I could see were the jet trails he left as he scurried back to his own house without so much as a goodbye.

 

 

Weekend Snapshots 37

This was the weekend I became my mother.

Friday

I made the classic rookie mistake. I didn’t check for toilet paper before choosing a bathroom stall and doing my business. Where there should have been two industrial-sized rolls of toilet paper – there was jack squat. I sat there for a few long moments contemplating the unsavory options before me. I was saved when I suddenly remembered the extra, unused napkins I had stashed in my capacious bag when I took the kids out for lunch last weekend. They had snickered when they saw me doing it, just as I used to snicker whenever my mom would put extra napkins, ketchup packets, etc. into her bag.

“Just like Grandma,” they said shaking their heads.

Later that day I was driving my daughter home from a playdate when I spotted some adorable daisies – weeds, really – growing along the side of the road. Daisies always remind me of my mother. They are one of her favorite flowers.  She carried them in her wedding bouquet and they had a special place in her flower garden.

I stopped the car and yanked a bunch out to plant in my own garden:

My daughter was shrieking with laughter when I got back into the minivan clutching my daisies with clods of dirt falling from their roots: “You’re becoming just like Grandma!”

The first time my mother visited us when we moved to Charlottesville, we took her for a tour of the campus, (“Grounds”).  We stopped to admire a hedge of wild roses that had been planted by the building where my husband’s office was located. My mother methodically picked rose hips off the bushes.

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I looked uneasily about to see if anyone was witnessing the plundering of the rosebushes.

“Here!” she said, handing them to me, “Try planting these in your garden. If any come up, give me some!”

Later we walked along the Downtown Mall. At each of the large black planters placed at intervals along the pedestrian walkway she would stop to admire the lush flowers. Whenever she spotted flowers that had gone to seed, she would casually pull them off.

I shrank with embarrassment, but she handed them to me saying, “These will look beautiful in your garden!”

It’s been raining for weeks now. Every morning as I drive to work I think about all the things I’m going to do in my garden the minute I get home. Some days I don’t even bother changing out of my work clothes. I just throw on a pair of garden gloves and rush outside to the garden. I’ve found myself outside in the rain almost every day, sometimes in the pitch black, sometimes dodging lightning bolts…I remember watching my mother do this when I was a child.

“MOM! You’re getting soaked! Come in!” I’d say.

“It’s the best time to plant,” she’d reply, waving me away with her gloved hand.

Saturday

All the kids’ soccer games were rained out, so we spent the day running errands. We had left a bunch of paint cans for the people who are buying our house, thinking they might like to have them for future touch ups. After the home inspection they asked us to remove them, so I dropped by our old house with my daughter and her friend to gather them up. My heart sank when I heard a crash.

“Uh-oh!” I heard my daughter say, “Mommy?”

I ran upstairs to discover that she had dropped one of the paint cans on the kitchen floor. The paint was oozing all over the tile. After a major freak out, I remembered there was a roll of paper towels in the garage. My elation turned to despair when I realized there were only two sheets left on the roll.

“Now what am I going to do?!” I groaned out loud.

My daughter piped up, “Don’t worry, Mom! You have a million napkins in your bag!” And so I did!

Sunday

My son’s piano recital.

 

He was the final performer, so I had a couple hours of high anxiety until it was his turn at last. I’ve listened to him play his two pieces over and over for months. He had never gotten to the point where he was able to play through the pieces flawlessly every single time. I’m glad to report that he played them beautifully.

We went to Crozet Pizza, a Charlottesville landmark, to celebrate:

When we got home at last, my sweet daughter put her arm around me and said, “You should go have a nap now, Mommy, so you can be rested up for your fun night with your friends in Staunton.” (More on that later).

“Now who’s being just like Grandma?” I thought as I gave her a big hug.

 

 

 

Motherlode

IMG_1898Have you seen the news about the woman who just won her second lottery in three months? The two wins add up to $1,250,000. The odds of something like this happening are staggeringly slim. Incredibly lucky? Yes. But the main reason her story has made the news is that the money is going to help her pay for ongoing breast cancer treatment.

I once went to an art fair with my roommate when I had just started graduate school. As we entered, we were asked to fill out an entry for door prizes. I carelessly filled out my form, knowing without a shadow of a doubt that I would never win. I’ve never once in my life won such a thing.

I was astonished to hear my roommate say, “I’ll probably win this.” At that time I’d only known her a few weeks. I thought she might be delusional. “My family always wins these kinds of things,” she said. She went on to list all the things they had won over the years: money, a car, a television, a refrigerator. Sure enough – hours later the phone rang at our apartment. She had won the grand prize.

I’ve always thought that people have different kinds of luck. My prize-winning roommate is one example. The un/lucky lottery-winning cancer patient is another case in point. As for me, I know I’ll never win a door prize, sweepstakes, or lottery. My luck has always been with my family; and the beating heart and soul of my family is my mother. Her love, strength, and character inspire me. It’s an improbable jackpot I hit every single day.

Posts about my mother:

Lessons from My Mama, Pt. 1

Lessons from My Mama, Pt. 2

My Mama, the Drama Queen

The Sound of Music

Golden

How my Mom Got a Patient Sprung from St. Elizabeth’s

63 Bowls of Seaweed Soup

Lost and Found

This is my mother…

Migration

 

 

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

Mother

Mother

She is a drama queen:

My mother...on the left!

My mother…on the left!

She has always been known for being brash…

Mother

the leader of her pack:

Mother

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.

wedding

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.

 

Why not?

A few weeks ago, I made it my mission to get my parents down to Charlottesville for a visit. I had to be crafty. They’re not ones to travel just for the heck of it. I had to either come up with a reason why I desperately needed their help, or to lure them here on the pretext that their grandchildren wanted them to attend some major performance.

As it turned out, all last week my children were involved in putting together the musical “Jonah and the Whale” that was to be performed at church during the worship service on Sunday. BINGO!

My oldest son helped paint the whale. We shall not dwell on the fact that in the process, he left a permanent grey splotchy outline of the whale’s tail on the wall of the Sunday School classroom against which it had been propped. My second son helped create some of the other props and was one of the three “whalers,” who had to maneuver the great cardboard beast into the sanctuary and back out again. He was hidden behind it the whole time.

More promising was the fact that my daughter was performing in the play, would be visible, and had a speaking part.

After two weeks of tricky and heated negotiations that made the recent Iran nuclear deal look like a cakewalk, I finally managed to convince my parents to come. Not for the weeklong visit that I had optimistically proposed. That would be too long for my dad to be away from his beloved garden. Not even for the three days that would have allowed them to travel back with my husband and daughter, who happened to be going to Maryland on Monday and could have easily dropped them off in Arlington en route. No. The best I could wrangle out of the deal was for me to drive up on Friday after work and bring them down on Saturday. They wanted to leave on Sunday after the service so that my dad could fulfill a longstanding appointment he had on Monday. This would mean a five hour drive for me on Sunday, and ten hours of total driving time over the weekend, but I took the deal and felt lucky to have managed it on those terms.

“So, do you have a big part, T?” I hopefully, anxiously asked my daughter in the week leading up to the performance.

“I have one line,” she replied.

My heart sank a little.

“What’s the line?”

“Why. not.” she said, emphasizing each word with cruel banality.

“OK, listen, kid. Not to put too much pressure on you or anything, but Grandma and Grandpa are traveling 5 hours just to hear you say those two words. You better milk them for all their worth! Could you maybe fall to your knees as you say ‘Why not?!?!‘ Maybe you could shake your fists at the sky and squeeze out a few tears while you do it?”

She stared at me and remained maddeningly silent.

When I arrived at my parents’ house on Friday night, I felt compelled to confess to them that they were traveling all the way to Charlottesville to listen to my daughter say, “Why not?” They seemed to take this news in stride with their sphinx-like smiles, but I still felt uneasy.

We drove down on Saturday and met up with my husband and kids at Peter Chang’s China Grill for lunch. Peter Chang is the elusive, famous chef for whose cuisine dedicated foodies cross state lines to eat. He’s been written about in publications such as The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and Bon Appétit. Bubble pancakes were the answer. Bubble pancakes would make the trip to Charlottesville worth it!

You can’t get bubble pancakes in Arlington!

“Is this the same Peter Chang, who just opened up a new restaurant right near our house?” my mother asked.

Why, yes. Yes, it is.

The big day finally arrived. Everyone who participated in the play in some way had made a tie dye shirt to wear as their costume. My mother crowed with delight and clapped her hands as each of her grandchildren filed past her to be admired..

I went up to change into my own shirt.

“I don’t think I can wear my shirt. It’s so ugly, it’s embarrassing,” I said sheepishly.

“Yes, it is.” my mother replied.

I went up to change.

We went to church and settled ourselves in the pew.

The musical was beautifully executed. The singers performed the catchy numbers with enthusiasm and true musicality. The acting was heartfelt and genuine.

My daughter at long last delivered her line: “Why not?

I turned to look at my mom and we both started shaking with laughter. She had to clap her hand over her mouth so as not to yelp out loud. Tears streamed from our eyes and we shook the pew with our silent laughter for a good five minutes.

If you were to ask me if those ten hours of driving were worth it for those five minutes of laughter, I’d answer: Absolutely…Why not?

Sorcery

I’ve been working on my wheat belly since the day I started on solids. My mother’s culinary witchcraft has led to a lifetime of chronic overeating. I simply couldn’t stop eating her magical food. No one was immune. My friends would literally beg to be invited over for dinner. After each meal, when we finally let the spoons drop from our limp fingers, we would clutch our distended bellies and whimper with pleasure and pain.

I remember one day I found my mother standing over her bubbling cauldron stirring something that looked delicious. The tantalizing aroma made my knees go weak and my mouth water.

“Can I try a little?” I pleaded.

“NO!” she replied indignantly, “It’s for the dog!”

When she wasn’t transforming random scraps into three star Michelin guide-worthy dog food, she was conjuring up wondrous meals for us. Each bite would make you want to weep with joy and fall on your knees and beg for mercy because surely you must be committing a mortal sin by eating something so impossibly, wickedly delicious.

One day there was a piece of rubber hose lying around on the kitchen counter. My husband wandered into the kitchen just as my mother was throwing it away.

“I’m so disappointed,” he said as he watched her put it into the trash can, “I thought you were going to whip up a delicious casserole with that.”

It had been a long time since we’d been to Arlington, and this weekend my mom pulled out all the stops for us.

On Sunday morning the smell of bacon, pancakes, and eggs lured the kids out of bed.

“I wish breakfast could be like this every day,” my son said dreamily as he tucked into the feast set before him.

“Dream on, kid,” I said as I crammed mouthfuls of magic into my mouth.

All day long, my mother would disappear into the kitchen at intervals and come out bearing some new triumph. The kids ate as if in an ecstatic trance…

One time she emerged from the kitchen with a crumpled paper bag that looked vaguely familiar.

“Look what I have!” she said, “It’s a Royal Cookie!”

“MOM?! Is that the cookie I bought at the rest area on our way home from Christmas in New Jersey?!”

It was. She divided it up and we ate every last crumb. And yes: somehow even that three month old cookie stored in nothing but a paper bag tucked away in my mother’s cupboard was magically delicious.

It’s called sorcery.

Telephone Hang-ups

I could talk to someone face to face for hours, but talking on the phone with that same person would fill me with crippling anxiety.  I rarely answer the phone. When I do, I have to take a deep breath before picking up and pretend I’m someone else to get through the experience. This might have to do with the fact that I’ve been burned so many times over the phone.

Just last week I got tricked into answering the phone, because the number on the caller ID was so similar to my sister’s cell phone number. As soon as I answered, I realized I’d made a mistake. When I heard the person on the other end ask for Dr. Colin X, I knew it was our graduate school making yet another one of their endless fundraising appeals. In my politest voice I said, “I’m sorry, he’s not here right now. May I take…” Before I could complete the sentence, I heard a click and then the hang up tone on the other end!

This is not the first, or even the second time I’ve been hung up on by someone who called ME in the first place. On one occasion, a complete stranger called me up when I was a grad student in New York City. I picked up the phone and he introduced himself and launched into his life story. Entirely unprompted, he described the color of his eyes and hair and gave me his body measurements. He told me he was trying to break into modeling. He had just moved to New York from California and he was feeling lonely and wanted to meet people. I was fascinated by this bizarre modus operandi.

“So…you’re trying to meet people by calling random numbers in the phone book?” I asked.

“Uh-huh!” he replied with no hesitation or embarrassment at all.

I thought I was being kind and doing him a favor by suggesting that he try one of those chat lines  that were always being advertised in the Village Voice. He got really huffy, told me I was rude, and hung up on me.

On another occasion, a salesman called and performed the usual preemptive maneuver of speaking in whole paragraphs, thereby preventing me from saying “I’m sorry, I’m not interested” or “Please, stop, I’d rather drive a fork through my temple than buy aluminum siding from you.” I guess what normal people do is to just hang up. I, on the other hand, listened to the whole song and dance as an act of charity. When he finally came up for air and said “So let’s go ahead and schedule your free estimate,” I was able to say at last, “Oh, thank you so much for taking the time to let me know about your fascinating product, but I really don’t need any aluminum siding right now.” At this juncture, I was thinking that if not the Nobel Peace Prize, well then some kind of humanitarian award was definitely coming my way. After all, I had just endured the longest, most tedious ten minutes of my life and had very sweetly refrained from slamming the phone in the poor schlub’s ear. Imagine my surprise, when he became enraged and screamed, “Well then why did you let me go on talking for so long?” And yes, he slammed the phone in my ear.

From now on, I’m going to channel my mother, who always deals with unwelcome solicitations with real panache. Although English is her second language, my mother speaks the language beautifully. When she picks up the phone and suddenly switches into broken English, we know there’s a telemarketer on the other end. “Sorry. Sorry. No speak English,” she says with an exaggerated accent. She even waves her hand back and forth as if they could somehow see this gesture. She always manages to hang up the phone on her terms and with a giant smirk on her face. What I really appreciate is how she’s able to turn these situations into a sort of performance art. Once, some very persistent Jehovah’s Witnesses came knocking on our door. No sooner had they plied my mother with free issues of the Watchtower, than she ran to get her own Bible. “Let me tell you what I believe!” she began, waving the book joyfully, wildly in their faces as she started spouting an impromptu sermon. In no time at all, they were propelling themselves away as fast as their legs could carry them, stealing fearful glances over their shoulders as they ran.

Lessons from My Mama

Two posts for the price of one! These posts got the most views in one day…

“Don’t buy junks!” or: Spend money on people, not things.

Frugality is an Olympic sport for my mother. For example, she wouldn’t dream of buying waxed paper. Why would she, when she can use the perfectly good, free waxed bags that come in cereal boxes? She has an elaborate tiered system of usage for paper towels, which makes one roll last an entire year. They can be used multiple times (by the same person) as napkins. When they’re too dirty to serve this purpose, they graduate to the next stage, at which point they go into an old oatmeal container to be on hand for soaking up excess pan grease. When there’s so little toothpaste left that it becomes difficult to squeeze out, she cuts open the tube with a pair of scissors so that every last bit can be scraped out.

We’ve been chastised by a cousin for letting our mother dress in shabby clothes. She made the vest she’s wearing in the photo out of an old duvet cover and leftover material about a million years ago. It’s been washed so many times, it’s disintegrating. We’ve all begged her to throw it away, and you can bet we’ve plied her with new ones to replace it. She finally conceded that it was time to give it the heave-ho, but the last time I visited her, I blinked my eyes in disbelief when I saw her still wearing it.

“Wait a minute? Are those patches on your vest?” I asked incredulously.

She proudly showed off the new patches she’d sewn onto the most raggedy bits and said, “Now I can wear it until I die!”

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Every time she receives yet another new vest, or indeed any present we or anyone else ever buys for her, her eyes gleam as she imagines how happy it will make the next recipient she’s already planning to give it to.

When she was still living in Korea, my mother would visit me once a year in Virginia. The minute she recovered from jet lag, we’d make a pilgrimage to Sam’s Club,  where she’d spend a small fortune on medicines that would literally fill an entire suitcase.

“You can’t possibly go through all that before you come back for another visit!” I once exclaimed.

She looked at me like I was crazy and explained that she was taking them all back to give away to people, who couldn’t afford them. On that same occasion, I learned that she also regularly gave scholarships to students.

“Hey, Moneybags,” we’ll say affectionately, when we see her giving away money yet again, “Been shaking that money tree in your back yard again?” But the fact is: we all know that money has been extracted out of  toothpaste tubes, alchemized out of used and reused paper towels, and saved by never spending a penny on herself…

People above rules.

When I was a child I would occasionally ride the bus in D.C. with my mother. She would always try to sit as close to the driver as possible. As I nervously eyed the big sign that clearly told passengers not to talk to the driver while the bus was moving, my mother would launch her irresistible charm offensive. In no time at all, stone-faced, surly drivers would fall under her sway. They would be laughing and sharing personal anecdotes like a couple of long lost BFFs. By the end of every ride, I swear the drivers would be ready to give up a kidney for her.

Her disregard, and indeed disdain for rules that hinder human interaction was never so clear as when she came to visit me when my first baby was born. He was going through a phase when he would torture me by never ever sleeping more than an hour at a time. I was thoroughly exhausted and was trying to rectify the situation by “Ferberizing” him. The “Ferber Method” is a technique developed by Dr. Richard Ferber to train an infant to learn how to self-soothe and put himself back to sleep. Basically, it involves a training period during which you let your baby cry for longer and longer periods of time. Ultimately, the method is supposed to result in a baby, who doesn’t cry and who sleeps soundly through the night. When my mother came to visit me and realized that I wasn’t leaping to rush to my baby’s side when he cried, she was outraged. She snorted when I tried to explain the rationale. Whenever my baby so much as peeped, she would pick him up and hand him to me and demand that I whip it out to nurse him. As I did her bidding, she would stand there watching me like a hawk with her arms crossed, shaking her head and muttering under her breath in a seamless blend of Korean and the Universal Language of Disgust the whole time, “Ay-goh!…’Ferber’ joah ha neh!…Tchuh!”

My mother has always been guided only by her own rule: to love and care for people with extravagant generosity. She is as warm and effervescent to gas station attendants as she is to her own children and grandchildren. At the same time, the truth of the matter is that she is a formidable, if benevolent force of nature, who always gets her way. The miracle of it all is that she manages to completely subjugate people with a weirdly hypnotic and bewitching despotism, which inspires only devotion and gratitude for her attentions.

In case you’d like to read more about my mother, here’s a roundup of all the posts I’ve written about her:

My Mama, the Drama Queen

Working It Out

Take Me Back to San Francisco

The Sound of Music

The First Day of School

Golden

Golden, Pt. 3

Golden, Pt. 4

The Golden Finale

How My Mom Got a Patient Sprung From St. Elizabeth’s

63 Bowls of Seaweed Soup

This is My Mother

50th Anniversary

Lost and Found

Their Country

How My Mommy Saved Me

O wonderful

The Palace, the Countess, Seaweed, etc.

 

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