My Parents’ Journey

Grandfather's Journey

The first time I read Grandfather’s Journey out loud to my children, I kept having to stop to recompose myself. My children were entirely used to this kind of nonsense. It would happen every. single. time I read them Eileen Spinelli’s Sophie’s Masterpiece, at many points throughout the years it took us to read through the entire Harry Potter series, every Christmas when I would read them Max Lucado’s The Crippled Lamb…When I would pause to gulp back a sob that threatened to escape, they would glance up at my face and then look back at the page I was in the middle of trying to read, politely ignoring the tears dropping on their little heads, waiting patiently for me to resume.

I felt a keen pang of recognition as I read Allen Say’s story, the Caldecott Medal winner in 1994. In spare language and restrained watercolors, Say recounts the story of his grandfather, who immigrated from Japan to America and then back again to Japan. It reminded me of my own parents’ story:  their love for two different countries, and their irreconcilable longing for both. Say’s book ends with these words:

“The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other.”

My mother told me once long ago that the minute she stepped off the plane in San Francisco for the first time in 1963, she felt at home in a way she never had in Korea. America suited her. As a woman, she relished her newfound freedom. She felt like she could finally be herself: an irrepressible charmer, who would easily chat up strangers everywhere she went…a woman who, instead of demurely tittering behind a hand covering her mouth, would toss her head back and give a full-throated chortle that would carry for miles…a Drama Queen, who could always command an audience. She discovered her true self in this country, and she was proud to become a naturalized American.

It never occurred to us that our parents would ever leave their adopted country, which they both embraced with a frank and almost corny patriotism. After many years, however, when they had lived longer in America than they had in Korea, they were reluctantly drawn back to the country of their birth by an overwhelming sense of duty and filial piety to help run a university that my grandfather had founded. When they would come back to visit their children at Christmas they would tell us that they couldn’t wait to get back to their own house in Virginia, the clean air, and us, of course. Every year they would declare that they would stay in Korea for just one more year. We believed them for the first few years, but these conversations were repeated every Christmas for more than a decade.

My mother finally returned to America when she was diagnosed with primary amyloidosis and was given 18 months to live. My sister found a clinical trial at Memorial Sloan Kettering, and convinced her to come for treatment. After multiple rounds of punishing chemotherapy it became clear that the treatment would kill her faster than her disease. My mother was kicked out of the clinical trial. To our utter dismay, as soon as she could manage to drag herself to the airport, she returned to Korea.

That summer my family and I went to Korea for a month. We were terrified that we would lose our mother at any minute and we wanted to make the most of the time we had left. We acted upon the premise that this summer might be our last one together…We took a long and grueling trip to the countryside to visit our maternal family’s burial grounds, assuming that it would be the last time my mother would ever be able to visit her parents’ and brother’s graves:

My dad showed my brother and me where our own names were engraved on our grandparents’ markers:

My mother recognized someone from my grandfather’s church, who was there tending the graves that day. She took the opportunity to point out to him the spot she had picked, not far from her parents’ graves, where she wanted to be buried.

My mother was spending most of her days in bed, but one day she insisted on taking us to the center of bustling Seoul to buy my daughter a traditional Korean dress. I remember nervously holding my breath as she made her way across busy city streets at a painfully slow crawl, not bothering to look left or right. My daughter has never been one to tolerate itchy clothing, and she was never shy about letting her displeasure be known if we tried to force her into anything that looked remotely uncomfortable. I was so worried that she would complain about having to try on the dress and ruin an experience that meant so much to my mother and had cost her so much energy. I could have wept for joy when she beamed with delight at the sight of herself in the extremely itchy Korean dress my mother bought for her.

I will always cherish the memory of my mother’s smile as she watched my daughter twirl this way and that, admiring herself in the mirror. Later that day when my mother had collapsed in bed, my sister and I dressed my daughter up in the hanbok again. We taught her how to bow in the traditional Korean way so that we could videotape it to show my mother later:

I noticed a change in my mother that summer. She was sick and weak, and yet she somehow seemed more powerful in Korea. One day we were on the campus of  the university when we noticed a young man skulking against a wall smoking a cigarette. She imperiously demanded that he leave the premises and that he take his offending cigarettes with him. He did so, repeatedly bowing apologetically as he hurried to obey my mother’s orders. Speeding cars hurtling along the streets of Seoul would come to a screeching halt as she would step into the street, staring straight ahead. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, she would hold up her wrinkled hand, commanding the drivers to stop for the several centuries it would take her to shuffle across the street. She knew all the best restaurants and their proprietors. She knew the best stalls at the marketplace and would chat amiably with the women who sat on their haunches serving up whatever mysterious roots or vegetables they were selling that day. One afternoon she called to tell me that she had picked out a bracelet for my daughter and that she wanted me to come with her to the jewelry shop across the street from her apartment. I watched awe-struck as she bargained with a woman, who helplessly caved in the face of her calm insistence that the price she would pay for the bracelet would be a ludicrously tiny fraction of the price listed on the tag. She was comfortable. She was home.

We didn’t know it at the time, but the chemotherapy that almost killed my mother, saved her life in the end. She is still in remission. About six years ago, my parents finally returned to their house in Virginia. The first months were terrible. My parents happened to arrive in the middle of a particularly harsh winter. The long flight had exhausted my mother, and it was taking much longer than usual for her to recover from jet lag. She knew she would never be able to make the arduous journey across the ocean again, and she was profoundly sad to have left behind her life in Korea forever.

“But mom,” I said to her, “Remember you once told me you felt more like yourself here in America?”

“That was before…I’ve been away from here for too long,” she replied sadly, “It’s not the same.”

That spring my mother desperately waited for the cherry blossoms to bloom on the tree in her yard. Cherry trees were blooming all around DC and in my parents’ neighborhood, but the tight buds on the tree in their own yard stubbornly refused to open. My sister and I anxiously conferred with each other about the status of those blooms every day. My mother’s very survival seemed to depend on that tree finally coming back to life again. As I wrote in my Cherry Blossoms post a few years ago, if my sister and I could have opened each blossom by hand, I swear we would have. Of course the tree eventually did break into bloom. It was the most riotously joyful display I’d ever seen on any tree anywhere. With their appearance, my mother’s spirits began to recover.

The cherry trees are blooming again now…I’ve always loved cherry blossoms, but they mean so much more to me now. Even after the bitterest of winters, they faithfully return every year, blessing us with their impossible, miraculous, ravishing blossoms.

My dad is turning 80 this year. For his birthday, my sister told him she would take him anywhere in the world he wanted to go. He’s a history buff, and has never been to Europe. We assumed he would want to go to a place like Rome or London. He wants to go back to Korea. In a few weeks I will go with my sister and parents back to a place they never thought they would see again. I think we will go back to visit the graves of our grandparents. We will leave Seoul to go to the country to visit my father’s surviving brothers. I imagine it will be for the last time, but who knows?

Life can be so precarious, so unpredictable, and sometimes…so wonderful.


Our birthday boy is now 6’1 and needs to shave. It’s much more difficult to nag and scold a boy when he towers over you. In any case, there’s far less cause for nagging or scolding these days…To my great joy, nowadays more often than not our conversations are easy and filled with laughter.

Other things have changed too…Every once in a while, my son used to sing with a beautiful, pure countertenor voice that would make me drop whatever I was doing to listen. I had to be surreptitious about it; he would immediately clam up if he thought anyone was paying attention to his singing. When his voice fell, the sweet tone that once held me spellbound became harsh and ragged. He still hasn’t been able to find his singing voice, but he’s still making beautiful music…These days he can often be found at the piano or at his laptop with headphones on, creating beats.

Some things never change…We sent our son off this morning on a trip with friends. Packing this morning involved lengthy and heated negotiations. As we stood shivering in the unseasonably cool weather, waiting in the designated spot where his friend’s dad would be picking him up,  I realized I never retrieved from the dryer the one pair of long pants he was planning to wear – a pair of jeans I had stayed up late to wash and dry for his trip. While we stood waiting for his ride, we made idle talk. He described to me at great length the bout of “sleep paralysis” he had experienced for the first time this morning, complete with a hallucinated “dark figure”. He was freaked out initially, but then exhilarated for having experienced a phenomenon he had only ever read about. My side of the conversation was far more prosaic and pretty much boiled down to the same request phrased in different ways. “Cool story. Hey! Remember to text the woman who gave birth to you to let her know you’re still alive. You owe that much to her. Oh, wow! You felt like the dark figure was sucking you in, but you couldn’t move?! Must have been so scary. So anyway, I’m sure you can find time to send me a one sentence text or even just a photo once or twice a day, right?” (It’s 9:30 pm and I haven’t heard a peep from the boy)…

I re-read this post from April 25, 2013 and had to smile.

The past two weeks have shaken us all to the core and have left us feeling raw, exposed, and vulnerable. There was the vicious bomb attack at the Boston Marathon, the devastating fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, and the catastrophic earthquake in China. Closer to home there have been great sorrows that have not made it into the news cycle, but have made the people around me painfully aware of how precious life is and how cruelly capricious the tides of fate.

This morning I realized how much these events have crept into my psyche. I had been up to 2:30 am (the only time I could find to write) and had woken up at 6 am to help my son get packed for his three day school trip.The night before, when he had announced that he was too tired to pack and would wake up early to do so, I knew with absolute certainty that this was a terrible idea. I knew this morning would not be pretty, but I didn’t have the energy to argue the point or to start the packing myself.

So this morning at 6, I sat on my bedroom floor with an open suitcase and my laptop opened to the emailed packing list my son’s teacher had sent.

“Bring me three pairs of long pants and three long-sleeve shirts!” I called out to him.

He slowly shuffled into my bedroom with one pair of pants and one t-shirt.

“THREE pairs of pants and THREE LONG-sleeve shirts!'” I bellowed with exasperation, “CHOP CHOP!”

Seasons changed, my skin began to sag, and more grey hairs sprouted as I waited for him to reappear. Finally he showed up bearing…another t-shirt and a sweater.

When I protested, he claimed that he couldn’t find what was asked for in his drawers.

I rifled through his drawers myself and discovered one or two of the things he needed, but confirmed the fact that the rest of the items simply weren’t there. They were buried deep in the mountain of unwashed laundry that I hadn’t been able to get to all week.

You can probably imagine the snarling and generally churlish behavior that ensued, but we finally did get him packed. Already running late, I began getting myself ready for work. As I was getting out of the shower, I could hear that my husband was about to leave the house to drop him off at school for the field trip.

There was one crucial thing I had forgotten, and I didn’t want to miss my chance. If I’d learned anything in these past two weeks, I’d learned that sometimes you never do get a second chance.

I raced out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around me and my hair streaming with water. At the top of the stairs, I barked out his name.

He turned around, and from the bottom of the stairs he looked up at me with a doleful stare and sighed, “Yes?”

The word was imbued with that unique teenage inflection that makes it abundantly clear that behind that monosyllable is irritation, a lifetime of suffering, and the sure expectation of more unreasonable parental behavior…

I tried to modulate my own tone, but failed.

“I LOVE YOU!” I snapped.

A momentary flicker of surprise registered in his eyes and after the briefest pause, he muttered “Love you” and ambled out the door.

Panoramic Sugar Eggs

For the past couple of years, I’ve been taking my kids to the Lorna Sundberg International Center at the University of Virginia to decorate panoramic sugar eggs. When we’ve gone, all the hard work has already been done for us. All we have to do is show up and decorate our already-made eggs. If you’re feeling ambitious, making the eggs from start to finish would be a fun project for Easter or to do over the spring break.

Panoramic Sugar Eggs

  • Whisk 2 egg whites until frothy. You can add food coloring to the egg whites to make a colored egg.
  • Place 5 lbs. of white sugar in a large bowl. (Superfine sugar will give the eggs more sparkle).
  • Create a well in the sugar and pour in whisked egg whites.
  • Mix with hands 5 minutes until well blended.
  • Pack sugar mixture firmly into a mold. You can buy special egg molds, or just use a plastic Easter egg like this one with a flattened base:
  • Scrape tops of packed eggs with a knife to flatten, then remove from mold and place on a baking sheet flat side down.
  • Bake in preheated oven at 200 degrees for 20 minutes.
  • Hollow out the center of the egg halves with a spoon until the shells are about 1/2″ thick. (You can reuse scooped out sugar to make more eggs, just place in bowl and cover with damp paper towel).
  • Cut off the front of the narrower end of the egg and continue to hollow out the viewing window as necessary.
  • Let air dry for 2-3 hours, or put eggs on their backs into a 200 degree oven for another 45 minutes to finish hardening.
  • Gently rub two halves together to smooth edges.
  • Create a scene inside the egg by arranging small figures, candy, and “grass” inside egg. Secure everything with royal icing. (Beat two egg whites until stiff, but not dry. Add 4 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar and beat for another minute. Add more egg white or sugar as needed. Tint with food coloring).
  • Pipe royal icing along an edge and press two halves of egg together. Run finger along edges to remove excess icing.
  • Use pastry bags filled with tinted icing to pipe borders and other decorations on the egg. A decorative border will hide the seams where the egg halves come together. You can pipe your own flowers onto the egg, or buy frosting flowers and attach them with icing.
  • A vertical egg can be made by cutting through the flat egg half, using the flattened area as a cutting guide to create the window. Try creating a base by packing sugar into the rounded wider edge of a plastic egg that opens vertically. Fasten the egg to the rounded side of the base with royal icing.

Eggs can be displayed for Easter, then wrapped in plastic and kept in a dark, dry place. Sugar eggs will last indefinitely.

Here are some eggs the kids and I made a couple years ago:

Lost and Found

IMG_0573First posted 2/12/13.

For weeks now I’ve been asking my son to find the brand new winter coat I bought him. He wore it to school one day and it hasn’t been seen since. I’m sure it’s buried deep in the Lost and Found bin at his school. The snowfall and the frigid temperatures last Friday prompted me to ratchet up my usual low-level nagging into a full-throttle turning of the screws. I let him borrow one of my coats that morning and I must have told him at least four or five or thirty-eight times to MAKE SURE TO BRING HOME BOTH COATS. BOTH. COATS!!! I conscripted my husband to reiterate this directive as well, (the old double-barreled shotgun approach).

Of course, (as I half knew would happen), he came home without either coat. I admit it. I blew like Krakatoa. I got the kids in the car and we headed to my parents’ house for a quick overnight stay to celebrate the Lunar New Year. For the first fifteen minutes of the journey I barked and lectured and threatened and droned on and on and on and on…I couldn’t stop myself. I was like a runaway train whose brakes had failed.

Hell-bent on riding the poor boy like a witch on a flaming broomstick for the rest of the trip, I had him pull out his science notebook and start taking notes for his genetics project due this week. The assignment was to create a family tree that included inherited traits from both sides of his family.

“What have I inherited from you, Mom?” he asked.

“Well, think about it…What do you think you’ve inherited from me?”

“Ummm…thick, dark hair?”

“Uh-huh. Go on. What else?”

“Shovel teeth…” (Side note: Did you know that Asians and Native Americans have concave top incisors, also referred to as ‘shovel teeth’)?

“I’m sure you can think of other examples. There are some really obvious similarities,” I said impatiently.

“Well, I’m not very physically flexible…”

“Yeah, that sounds like me too. But there are even more obvious similarities.”

“Oh, uh…brown Asian eyes?”


“…And I think we have the same type of personality.”

Ahhh, there it was…He’s right. We do have similar personalities. I flattered myself by entertaining thoughts about some positive traits we might share – generosity, creativity, a compassionate nature…

He continued his thought: “For both of us, it’s absolutely inconceivable that we could possibly be wrong about anything.”

Oof. Oh yeah. He said that. Verbatim.

When we arrived in Arlington my kids went straight to bed. I stayed up for a little while to chat with my mother. She asked me how the kids were doing and I immediately launched into a litany of complaints about my son’s forgetfulness, about how he slaves over homework assignments but then forgets to turn them in or loses them between home and school, about the two coats that did not make it back home…My mother just shrugged her shoulders.

The next day, after a traditional Korean New Year’s lunch of Dduk Gook (see New Year’s Soup), we headed back home. I called my mom to let her know we’d arrived home safely.

“Mom, I think I left medicine on your kitchen counter by mistake, but don’t worry, I have extra bottles at home.”

I expected her to be anxious about this and to ask if she should express mail it to me. I was surprised when she merely said, “O.K.,” as if it were no big deal. But then she added in an emphatic and pointed voice, “AND you forgot your sweater. So don’t blame your son for forgetting the coats. He gets it from YOU!”

Sorry, kid. Sometimes genetics can really come back to bite you in the ass.

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It’s Called Love

First posted on December 28, 2013.

When we were younger and would gather together with all of our extended family for the holidays, there were a few uncles we would avoid like the plague. One of them, in particular, would freak us out by placing his hands around our faces and lifting us up off the ground. Later, when my sisters complained of this mistreatment, he said, “Hey, I did you a big favor! Look how tall you are now. I didn’t do it to her (he glanced meaningfully in my general direction) and look…”

My sister reminded us of another practice that our own dad would engage in when we were little. He would gently stroke our forehead until we fell into a stupor and then would give it a sudden, smart smack.

We chortled as we fondly reminisced about these and other sadistic Korean practices.

“What was that last one called?” my brother asked as he wiped away tears of laughter.

“Love,” my sister responded without hesitation.

After Christmas breakfast, my siblings and I remained at the table chatting. My brother disappeared and returned again with a piece of paper. He began industriously drawing up a list.

And then it happened. My brother became that uncle:

Remember, kids…it’s called love!

Sitting in the Basement

My parents, siblings and I tended to ignore the fact that our house was a mere ten minute drive from our nation’s capital and all it had to offer. When we would find ourselves together again over the holidays, we would spend every day sitting around chewing the fat, both literally and figuratively. Our all-day gabfests would be punctuated only by meals during which the conversation would move seamlessly from the couch to the table. It never occurred to us that this could be considered a squandered opportunity until our family circle began to expand. When my sister got married and her athletic, go-getter husband from New York started coming home for the holidays with her, he would pace like a caged animal while we indulged in our favorite pastime of talking and eating, eating and talking. In his frustration, my brother-in-law mournfully dubbed this particular brand of torture: “Sitting in the Basement.”

Should we go see the thriller that just came out, or hear my sister re-tell the plot? Please believe me when I tell you, my sister’s rendition was far, far more gripping than watching it on the big screen could ever be. Score one for Sitting in the Basement. Go to the Sackler Gallery, or hear my dad’s stories about life in the Korean countryside that presented us with a much more vivid picture than any painting could? Definitely the latter! By all means, and without a doubt – Sitting in the Basement! A) Go to a performance at the Kennedy Center, or B) Clutch our bellies howling with laughter through tears, desperately trying not to pee ourselves as we listened to one of my little brother’s comedy routines? B) Always, always B! Sitting in the Basement for the win! Go out to eat at a restaurant, or eat my mom’s Korean food laced with vegetables yanked out of the backyard only moments before? Hello?! Do I even have to say it? Every holiday my poor, long-suffering brother-in-law would helplessly watch his dreams of exploring Great Falls Park, hitting the museums, or just emerging into the light of day slip through his fingers and swirl away into the vortex otherwise known as: Sitting in the Basement.

These days when we get together, my brother-in-law and husband escape from the house more often, but we still get to do a lot of Sitting in the Basement. This winter break, over never-ending platters of food, my dad regaled us with more stories about his childhood and the foods they ate, or rather didn’t get to eat. In my next post, we can pretend that we’re Sitting in the Basement while I share them with you.

14 and 4

It’s hard getting back into the routine after a wonderful break and time with our family. I’m glad to have the pictures to remind me of the fun we had. This is one of my favorite photos from Christmas. It’s of my son and nephew, the oldest and youngest boys in our extended family. And a special bonus – my dad in the backyard, caught with a rare grin on his face!