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:
In almost all of my baby pictures, my hair is soaking wet, because in its natural state it looked like this:
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:
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.
My 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:
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:
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.
Lately my thoughts have been with Claire, my daughter’s first preschool teacher and our dear neighbor, before she and her husband moved to California. We were so sad to hear that her husband passed away a couple weeks ago. We have been exchanging messages and reminiscing ever since.
Claire was a golden, luminous presence in our lives. A few mornings a week we would walk down to the cul de sac and up a steep hill to her “Little Sisters Preschool.” The four little girls who made up the neighborhood school were all little sisters and the youngest children in their families.
You had to cross a pretty little creek and a mossy lawn to get to the front door of Claire’s enchanted house. On one side of the house was a pond that her husband had lovingly dug by hand. It was full of lilies and goldfish and croaking frogs. On the other side were beautiful gardens. Fairy houses and other treasures were hidden along winding paths through tall trees.
The girls wandered the woods looking for fairies, they learned to sing songs of thanksgiving for the food they ate, and most importantly – they were loved.
Until then preschool had been highly problematic for us. “I guess we’re not good preschool parents,” I would say with a shrug to explain why we had switched schools so many times.
Towards the end of our oldest child’s first year of preschool, he began desperately crying the minute we pulled into the parking lot. It was a struggle to get him out of the car and into the school. Eventually, we discovered to our horror that his teacher had been harsh and unkind to him. We pulled him out immediately.
The next year we tried a co-op that had a reputation for cultivating a warm and nurturing environment. Because it was a co-op, all the parents helped out in the classroom a couple times a month. At the end of those two days every month, I would crawl home at noon with my head throbbing and collapse in a senseless heap. I still have PTSD from my multiple tours of duty at the woodworking station where two and three year olds would brandish real saws and joyfully pound nails into blocks of wood for hours on end.
On the days I didn’t co-op, I would dread the moment when I picked up my son and would be told in a gentle voice that “N had chosen not to make a paper-bag vest today.” The first time this happened, I said lightly, “Oh, that’s ok!” I quickly realized that this was the incorrect response when his teacher replied, “We think it’s important for him to participate in all of the activities.”
I may have failed out of two preschools, but at least I knew when to take my cue to leave. We enrolled my second son in a traditional drop-off preschool. It was a stressful time in our lives. Our daughter had just been born and was in and out of the hospital for months. After her first surgery in New York, my husband left us at the hospital to drive through the night with our young sons back to Virginia because he had to teach a class early the next morning. Running late for the class, he parked in an unauthorized spot to drop our son off at preschool. As he stepped out of the car, a policeman asked him to move his car and was unsympathetic to his plea to allow him to park for the two minutes it would take to bring our son into the building. My husband chose not to repark the car and told the officer to give him a ticket if he must. I was mortified to read the next preschool newsletter in which certain unnamed parents were firmly reminded to set a good example for young children by not arguing with policemen in their presence.
My husband was not the only one to be disgraced. I lived in fear of “getting the finger” from my son’s preschool teacher when I came to pick him up. As soon as she caught sight of me, she would beckon me over to her with the curve of a bony, exigent forefinger.
“Your son was very disappointed that he didn’t have three things that began with a ‘c’ for show and tell today.”
Oh, Lord! There were letters of the day, numbers of the day, and colors of the day! It was a daily nightmare! I would set a terrible example for my young charges as I frantically ransacked drawers, cursing the fact that we had no yellow clothes for “yellow day,”or six things that began with an “f,” or was it five things for “e” day?!
We had to fail out of three preschools before Claire and The Little Sisters Preschool came into our lives. I have always loved the Christian concept of Grace – the idea that you are granted love and mercy, not because of what you do, or who you are, but even despite your failures and shortcomings. Having Claire and Lionel in our lives was that kind of blessing. How lucky my daughter was to have that time with her…to build houses for fairies, to read The Story of Little Babaji, to picnic at Beaver Creek,…to be loved. Thank you, Claire. I think of you and Lionel with such love, admiration, and gratitude. We miss you both so much.
The last time we moved was a decade ago. Our daughter was born shortly after we moved, so we combined our new address announcement with our new baby announcement:
And now here we are, ten years later:
These bonus outtakes made me laugh out loud, very possibly because I am just a little bit evil. I believe I captured the precise moment when the kids no longer had to “pretend to be annoyed!”
The kids are having the perfect, lazy summer. Every morning I leave for work, slightly envious of the day they’ll have, but so delighted for them to be experiencing the joy of unscheduled time. Most days they are at home with each other. They are reading, making music, dreaming, scheming, having sleepovers in each other’s rooms, hanging out with friends…
In the spirit of laziness, here’s a post I wrote a couple Julys ago:
Last Friday morning I was in a big fat rush. It was going to be a busier day than usual at work. I woke up stressed out about all the documents I needed to crank out, the emails I had to answer, and the presentation I was going to give that still needed fine-tuning. The kids would be spending the day at our neighbor’s house, and I wanted to get them there early so I could get to work.
To my frustration, instead of letting me drive them there, the children begged to be allowed to walk. I didn’t have the heart to say no, but I warned them that they would need to hurry. I drove the short distance myself, passing them as they walked. I parked the car at our neighbor’s house and waited for them. While I stood there waiting, acorns turned into mighty oaks, mountains eroded into plains, and species evolved.
I was reminded of my son’s first tee-ball experience. During one of his games I was standing behind the fence right behind his two coaches. Whenever it was time for the two teams to switch sides, they would tuck their chaw into one cheek with their tongues so they could yell out, “HUSTLE, BOYS! COME ON! HUSTLE! HUSTLE! HUSTLE!” as they stood there with their arms crossed over their beer bellies. All the little four year olds would run across the field as fast as their little legs could carry them. My son would lope along at a gentle pace a few yards behind the pack. At one point, one of the coaches turned to the other with a look of disgust and spat, “That boy don’t know the meaning of hustle.”
As I waited by the car in front of our neighbor’s house I could see my children slowly ambling along the road and thought, “Come on kids, hustle, hustle, hustle!” As if in perverse response to my mental plea, I saw them slow down instead, and then drop to the ground to inspect something.
“Come here, Mom! You have to take a picture of this!” my son called to me.
For a second I thought about scolding them and reminding them that I was in a hurry. For some reason, (OK, probably because my son so adroitly played to my photo obsession), I grabbed my camera and walked back to where they were.
The caterpillar was a cosmic gift. For a moment, the mere fact of its existence arrested time, that most precious commodity of all, and we were wonderstruck. Oh, to always have the open heart and reverent eyes of a child…to slow down enough to see the abundant miracles around us and to know instinctively that appreciation of these wonders must always take precedence over lesser concerns.