My father immigrated to America in the 1970s hoping to find better vocational opportunities. Back then, Korea was still in the process of recovering from the effects of war and the prospect of job mobility was limited. Dad was always a bit of a freethinker and I am pretty sure that even in his earlier years he had a desire to venture out of his homeland. After marrying my mother, they moved to Maryland and had three children. Eventually, through a culmination of decisions, my parents moved the family to Sunnyside, a city in New York. It was a perfect place for new immigrants since many of the residents had also just arrived from all different parts of the world including Turkey, Greece, and the Philippines.
Life was busy in the new city. My parents worked every day including weekends and they hardly ever took a vacation. Although they were tired, they enjoyed being industrious. Their dreams of a better life in America were the impetus that drove them to work beyond what was necessary. They earned enough money to rent two apartments on the same floor. My parents resided in the “dark” apartment – one in which the windows faced a tall building making it difficult for the light to enter. This apartment was untouched for most of the year – broken items were never fixed, dirty surfaces were not cleaned, and mice ran around freely. My siblings and I stayed in what we considered the “light” apartment sometimes with “hal-muh-nee” (the Korean term for “grandma”). This apartment was smaller in size but kept clean and orderly. Here we felt safe and loved.
“Hal-muh-nee” was the mother I never had. She was the owner of my heart. My happiness depended on her presence. Her cooking creations always emanated her warmth, and she tried to integrate some “American” favorites like Kraft cheese into our rice dishes, which was always a treat. I loved to play tag so I had a difficult time sleeping at night from all of the pain in my legs, and “hal-muh-nee” would wake up at all hours of the night to massage them until I fell asleep. My lasting memory of her would be the sounds of her prayers that would wake me up in the mornings. Even though my grandmother was not my “mother”, in the depths of my heart, she was my mother. So later on when she departed from me to take care of my other cousins, I experienced a death – one that I had to accept without ever grieving because she was after all, not my “real” mother, just a substitute. Unknown to us, in the “light” apartment lived mom’s worst enemy, my grandmother. A woman who captured the hearts of her children and from whom she could not escape. Her critical words would pierce mom’s heart and leave a scar for a very long time. If mom were a fighter she could have defended herself with either “niceties” or a retort but instead she retreated from my grandmother, from us, and then from the rest of the world.
Mom was beautiful. Almost like a porcelain doll. She was pale and delicate in appearance. Her dark, curly hair framed her lovely but emotionless face. Mom’s reticence made her mysterious. Although, she spoke very little, it wasn’t her words that attracted our attention. It was her cold silence. We would pursue our mom’s affections to no avail – a stranger she remained through most of our childhood and young adulthood.
Mom had a distinct walk. It was brisk as if she was in a hurry. After work, her steps could be heard from the window of the “light” apartment. She was in a rush – to have dinner, wash up, and go to sleep. Her day never ended as rapidly as she would have liked it to. Neither would her life. Life was a series of routines. Drudgery. She didn’t fight it. She simply disappeared. Her duties were the debris of her former self. She would remain an “opaque” figure who fulfilled her obligations to us-these small people in her life who needed their basic biological needs met – making dinner, doing laundry, and buying groceries – after which she would go back into her “shell”.
Mom escaped into herself and internalized all of her pain. In addition to the strained relationship with my grandmother, there was the fragmented relationship with her parents and siblings due to their emotional “stuntedness” and lack of regard for one another. I initially attributed these behaviors to being “Korean”, which entailed being reserved and restrained. However, I later came to realize that it had nothing to do with culture. Rather, there was a point where they all ceased to evolve and mature in their capacity for healthy human relationships. Mom followed suit and stopped functioning as a “person”. She ensured her own survival by becoming anonymous to everyone. She would lie in her bed for hours to avoid her reality, only to have her thoughts echo back her own sense of misery.
Most things did not interest mom. But she did have an affinity for flowers. It was rather peculiar. She had no desire to take care of her own children, her seeds that needed nurturing to grow. However, she wanted to take care of these delicate flowers that might require months of attention before becoming something worth admiring and wither shortly thereafter. Mom didn’t realize that one day her children would also blossom into something more resplendent if only she waited. However, all she saw was the growing desire to be left alone in hopes of never being exposed to the elements of the real world. A place that could make her hurt, cry, and bleed. What she realized years later was that it was also a world that had the potential to evoke love, that love could be even more radiant as a result of reconciled relationships, and that people were redeemable.
About three decades have gone by and I still do not know much about mom partly due to the geographical distance that has separated us. But in reality, that was a symbol of how far we were from each other on many other levels. I’ve come to accept (to some extent) that because we have been traveling on separate roads that somehow it has made me a fuller person than if our paths had converged. Sometimes, I am even grateful for having had an unorthodox mom who gave me the freedom to explore unconventional routes which have led to many unexpected adventures. I am amazed by the changes that have occurred in the last couple of years. Although mom has aged, her heart is not the same tired one we experienced in our youth. She laughs, talks, and engages. Even if we will never forge a typical mother-daughter bond, that is still a step forward…
“Jane Kim” is a pseudonym of the author who wished to remain anonymous.