Driver’s Ed

We made a very quick, long overdue trip to Arlington to see my parents this weekend. The last time we saw them was at Christmas when we were all together at my sister’s house in New Jersey. The kids have been missing their grandparents. As for the grandparents? When I talked to my dad over the phone a few weeks ago, he said in a forlorn little voice, “So…you’re not going to visit us anymore?”

We had a lot of catching up to do. My oldest son is about to turn 15 in a couple of weeks and so at the top of the list of discussion topics was the astonishing fact that the state of Virginia would be prepared to give this baby a learner’s permit a mere six months after his 15th birthday.

I’ve written before about the conversation I had with my son a couple years ago when he was about to turn 13 and was already then excitedly musing about the fact that he could legally get his learner’s permit in less than three years.

Obviously, I couldn’t shirk my moral responsibility and duty as his mother to disabuse him of the notion that this was a given. “Killjoy,” “Wet Dishrag,” and “Party Pooper” happen to be my middle names. This is why I get paid the big bucks after all.

“It’s not just about how old you are,” I replied. “We would have to see that you were really ready for the responsibility of driving. We’d want to make sure that you were mature enough to handle that responsibility.”

I watched the light die in his eyes. He was silent for a moment as he pondered my words and performed some mental calculations before coming to an unwelcome conclusion, “If T (his sister who was then 7) is driving me around when she‘s fifteen and a half, I’m going to be really, really mad!”

The fact that his brother may soon be driving has apparently been weighing as heavily on my 12 year old son’s mind as it has on mine.

“N. will be learning to drive soon,” he said to me one day as I was ferrying him back home from some activity. “That’s a pretty scary thought…Can we make sure he doesn’t drive with me in the car until he’s at least 18?”

I reported this conversation to my dad and we chuckled about it. Our conversation reminded me of the day my mother finally got her driver’s license at the age of 50 after years of trying. She never actually failed the test, she just lost her nerve every time she was about to take it. It wasn’t her fault. Every time she would screw up the courage to start learning how to drive, she would get into a serious car accident. I don’t even think she was driving the car any of the times that it happened. It was just extraordinarily bad luck and timing.

When she finally came back from the DMV clutching her brand new driver’s license, she was giddy with triumph.

“You got it! That’s amazing, Mom! Tell me all about it!”

“Well, the man told me to drive around the block and so I did. But THEN, he told me to do a U-turn! I said, ‘WHAAAAAAAAAT?! I don’t know how to do a U-turn!!'”

“Uh-oh…So then what happened?”

“He reached over and turned the wheel for me,” she replied as if this should be perfectly obvious.

Here’s where the story got confusing. Who pulls a stunt like that and then actually passes the test and gets her license? My mom. That’s who.

“And that’s when I knew she had magical powers!” I said to my dad, “I mean I’d always suspected it, of course, and I knew she could get people to do whatever she wanted them to, but that was definitive proof that she really is some kind of a witch.”

To this day, I have a recurring nightmare in which I find myself in a car with my mother at the wheel. But to her credit, the day she got her license was the last day my mother ever drove a car. It was enough that she had slain the dragon. The best witches know their limits.

Giving Thanks for Crazy, Part III

I was in my first year at college and things weren’t going so well. I felt like an alien in a land where everyone already seemed to know each other from their days at Groton, Exeter or Andover. This blandly good-looking tribe wore the same uniform with only subtle variations.They would languidly call out to each other by their last names as they regrouped every Wednesday and every weekend to drink themselves blind at the frats.

I was a long way from home: a ten hour drive from Arlington to Hanover, New Hampshire, to be exact. We couldn’t afford a ticket to get me back home for the short Thanksgiving break, especially with the longer Winter break just around the corner. The campus was completely deserted. I was all alone in my big empty dorm, and all alone for my first Thanksgiving away from home.

I thought about that first Thanksgiving as I drove up to Arlington to be with my parents this Tuesday evening. The memory of it made me shake my head as I inched my way up 29 North, which was clogged with all the other weary travelers trying to outrun the 5-8 inch snowfall that was predicted for the next morning. On that Thanksgiving evening many years ago, my parents showed up at my dorm room after hours and hours of driving with my younger brother in tow. If you’ve ever driven along the Northeast corridor around Thanksgiving, you’ll know that a ten hour drive can easily become a twenty hour drive. I was appalled and aghast that they had done this for me, and also – so, so glad. We ordered pizza for our Thanksgiving dinner and ate it off paper plates in my room. It was a feast fit for a king and queen.

As you might expect, no amount of coaxing or pleading could convince them to stay the night. We ate our dinner and they headed off into the snowy night to drive all the way back to Arlington. I know my parents are crazy like I know the earth is round, but I also know that I have been incredibly lucky in my life to have experienced their love. I’m thankful for it every single day. May each and every one of us know that crazy, unreasonable, outrageous love, and may we put it right back out there into the universe.

Happy Thanksgiving to you!

Giving Thanks for Crazy, Part II

For the first year of our marriage, my husband and I lived in my parents’ house in Arlington, Virginia. They were living in Korea at the time, and during that year, they made a couple of trips back home. On one of their return visits, we went to the airport to pick them up. Their flight was arriving late at night and we imagined they would be exhausted after their brutally long trans-Pacific flight. We figured we would bring them back home and that they would spend the next 24 hours in a deep, coma-like sleep.

They came through the gates with a man we did not recognize. This in and of itself was not particularly surprising. My parents were always springing this sort of thing on us. Throughout my childhood, strangers drifted in and out of our lives all the time. Some people collect tchotchkes, my parents collect people. Our family was large, and we lived in a cramped house. As the smallest daughter, I would always be the one who would have to share my twin bed with the visitors when they happened to be women. It wasn’t particularly comfortable to sleep in bed with a stranger, especially since I could speak no Korean, and they usually spoke no English, but it was all part of the landscape of my childhood.

It was around 11 pm once we got everyone’s luggage and were finally on the road. As we drove back to the house, I brought up the question of sleeping arrangements with my mother.

“Oh, we’re not staying!” she said, as if this should have been the most obvious thing in the world,  “We’re driving to Tennessee as soon as we get back to the house. We have some business there.”

I looked at her with blank incomprehension. “Hunh?” was all I could stupidly muster.

I knew they were crazy, but this? This was beyond the pale. Surely, she was so tired, so delirious, that she was simply talking nonsense.

As soon as we arrived, they hopped out of the car and transferred the luggage to the back of their own car. At their behest, we’d driven it around the block periodically while they were away to keep it running. It was then that I realized they really and truly did mean to drive for ten hours after just stepping off a nineteen hour flight. I pleaded with them to see reason.

“But that’s crazy! You can’t be serious! It’s dangerous to drive when you’re so tired! Why can’t you sleep for just one night and then go? I’m sure your friend doesn’t want to sit in a car for another ten hours after flying for an entire day either.”

“He can sleep in the car!” my mom said.

“Well, what about poor DAD?! How’s HE going to manage all of that driving all by himself?! I’m sure he’s exhausted!”

“Oh, don’t worry about me, Adrienne. I’ll be fine!” my dad said with exasperating nonchalance.

“Well…when are you coming back?!” I asked, completely frustrated by these two utterly irresponsible, unreasonable parents of mine.

“In a couple of days,” they said. “We’ll see you some time on Friday!”

I watched them drive away, wishing I could spank them.

The next night, around 2 am, I woke up to violent pounding on our front door and the doorbell being rung over and over again. Terrified and trembling, I shook my husband awake.

“Someone’s at the door!” I whispered, “You have to go see what’s happening!”

I cowered in bed, my heart thumping, ready to dial 911. My husband shambled out of bed, still half-asleep and clad only in a pair of boxers. He swung open the door to discover my parents grinning like a couple of Cheshire cats on the doorstep, waiting to be let into the house. (Have I mentioned that they don’t believe in carrying keys)?

“We decided to come back early!” they announced cheerfully, politely pretending that they didn’t notice the fact that my husband was standing before them, nearly naked. This, by the way, is just one of the many reasons that man and I are bonded for life…We’ve both experienced the trauma of having been seen by each other’s parents naked! To be honest, I think it was actually more painful for me than it was for him that my parents saw him naked. But I digress

Come back tomorrow for the conclusion of Giving Thanks for Crazy!

50th Anniversary

wedding partyI turned eighteen shortly after starting my first year in college. I was shocked when I found a birthday card from my father in my mailbox. My parents have never been ones to mark occasions that most people celebrate. Had I woken up in an alternate universe? Could I be hallucinating? I was reassured that all was as it should be when I pulled out the card. It contained no message and was signed “Rev. David H. Kim.” My dad’s secretary was keeping track of birthdays and sending out cards from a pre-signed stack to everyone in his congregation.

I can’t remember a single time my dad ever bought my mom chocolate for Valentine’s Day or flowers for their wedding anniversary. 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. He worships my mother. His children and grandchildren know that he loves them deeply. It’s outward, obvious expressions of love that make him distinctly uncomfortable.

Almost five years ago, my mother was diagnosed with primary amyloidosis. The prognosis was dire. The doctors told her she had eighteen months to live. My sister managed to get her into a clinical trial at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. My parents were living in Korea at the time, but returned to the States so that my mother could get treated. My father left her in my sister’s care and returned to Korea to finish out his work obligations, intending to return as soon as the semester was over.

The aggressive, experimental chemotherapy regimen knocked my mother’s disease into remission, but not before it nearly killed her. One day, she was exhausted and suffering and ready to give up the fight. She called my father to say goodbye. She didn’t think she would ever see him again.

My dad told her that she had to hold on. He told her that he wanted to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary together. I know the chemotherapy drugs did their part, but I also know without a doubt that what pulled my mom back from the brink were my father’s words. My sister reported that the phone call was a turning point. When my mother hung up the phone, she had resolved to live. She began to force herself to eat and to force herself to get up out of bed and walk around. My dad’s love saved her.

Yesterday when I mentioned that it would be their 50th wedding anniversary on Sunday, both my mother and father seemed to have forgotten all about it. My mother said, “Oh, really? No, I think it’s already passed.” I had to pull out a calendar to show her that Sunday really would be their 50th wedding anniversary. My siblings and I have long been planning a huge party that will take place this summer, but today I want to mark their golden anniversary with these words. I have never once seen my parents kiss or hug each other. I have never once heard them exchange the words “I love you.” But they have always shown me what a true partnership looks like and what true love is. My parents don’t read this blog and they’ll probably never see these words, but just as they have never had to actually say “I love you,” I think they know the words in my heart.

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Their Country

A couple years ago my parents returned to their country, and by “their country” I mean America. My parents were both born and raised in Korea.  Their first experience with Americans was the arrival of soldiers in World War II and during the Korean War. They both remember with deep and abiding gratitude the great sacrifices of American GIs who came to fight for them. They also remember their simple kindnesses. My dad still talks about how a GI handed him a chocolate bar. It was the first time he tasted chocolate. He promptly threw up, but still remembers the gesture with fondness. The idea that he might pursue an American education was first suggested to him by a soldier, who offered to sponsor him to come to the United States to study. For someone who wanted nothing more than to read and learn and who had struggled so hard to get an education, this was a tantalizing and almost impossibly beautiful dream. For both my parents, coming to America was as much about going towards a brighter future as it was about leaving a painful chapter of their lives behind.

My dad first came to America as a student in the early 60s and he brought my mother over shortly afterwards. They chose America as their country when they became naturalized citizens and have been proud to call themselves Americans ever since. They love America, unabashedly and wholeheartedly. This has manifested itself in many ways over the years…My dad only bought American cars, even back in the days when American cars were terrible. My dad’s a scholar, not a fighter, but out of a sense of patriotism to his adopted country, he tried to enlist in the army to fight in Vietnam. To his sorrow, the recruiters told him he was too old. Once he tried unsuccessfully to return his tax refund to express his gratitude to the country that had done so much for him. My parents always extolled the virtues of American democracy, the American educational system, American culture and society. They’ve always been quick to praise their country, loathe to criticize it any way.

At times I’ve felt like this was more their country than my own, even though I was born and raised here. Thanks to my patriotic parents, I’ve attended schools and have hung out with people who have tended to regard patriotism with suspicion – as something corny and anachronistic. I think it was only when I began to travel abroad that I realized how very much I do appreciate this country and how much there is to love about it.

After spending the majority of their lives in America, my parents felt compelled by a sense of filial piety to return to Korea. Every year they would promise to return to the States after “just one more year,” but they always ended up extending their stay in Korea. What was only meant to be a year in Korea ended up being a dozen years.

Finally, a couple years ago they came back home to America for good. They had been living in a high-rise apartment complex in the middle of Seoul and were delighted to have a patch of suburban lawn that they could transform into a garden. By then my mother, who had been the visionary behind their last beautiful American garden, was too sick to do the work required to translate her vision into reality. But my dad, who was always a farm boy at heart, could hardly wait to roll up his sleeves and till the soil. He had barely recovered from jet lag when he sent a check for over $500 to a mail order nursery for dozens of plants. That’s a lot of money for retirees on a fixed income. It’s a lot of money, period. He eagerly, then anxiously waited and waited and waited for his plants to arrive. Finally, he asked me to contact the company.

I called, emailed, called, hectored, emailed, pestered, called, over and over and over again to try to get the nursery to either send the plants or refund the money to my father. Finally, I contacted the Better Business Bureau and filed a complaint with the Office of the Attorney General for the State of Tennessee. That was two years ago, and I didn’t hear a word until this week when I got a call from the Consumer Affairs Office of Tennessee’s Better Business Bureau.

To be honest, I had thought it was a lost cause. Whenever I would mention it to my parents, they would tell me the money was long gone and to forget about it. It rankled, but I eventually did manage to forget about it until this week’s phone call. It turns out that the nursery is still in business, but is being closely monitored by the state. Every month a portion of the money they make is appropriated by the state of Tennessee to pay back all past claims against the company. They’d been wading through over 300 claims filed from as far back as 2003. They’d gotten to around half of all the claims, and had finally reached the one I had filed on my dad’s behalf.

I felt positively gleeful and giddy with excitement as I called my parents to tell them the news that the state of Tennessee would be issuing them a refund check. I guess I was expecting to get some credit for having gotten their money back. I was looking forward to basking in the glow of their appreciation for my labors. But when I told my mother the news, she said in a triumphant, I told you so kind of voice, “THAT’S America!”

Not “THAT’S America!” where a shady business can steal people’s money for years and years and still be allowed to operate. Not “THAT’S America,” where it takes two years to get your hard-earned money returned to you. But: “THAT’S America,” where nothing is impossible and where there are people hard at work making sure wrongs are eventually righted, and where there is a process to ensure that they are. That’s my parents’ America, and I’m glad to be living in it too.

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