I call him Eemoboo for mother’s younger sister’s husband and he calls me Chahmseh for little songbird. He is in every way the extraordinary hero of my life, taking my side when I argued with my parents, never said what I couldn’t do because I was a woman, Korean, or any of those things that seemed to matter to my parents who were fearful for me. I’ve never written about him before now, taking for granted that he will always be around, my ever constant sweet uncle. But now, more than ever, I know we have limited time.
He was born Hyung You Byon in 1937 to a man with one leg (a snake bite had taken the left leg below the knee) and a woman who was the daughter of a Protestant minister a town away. He had an older sister and two younger brothers. They lived on a farm, five miles south of Sariwon, in a time before Korea was divided. It was rich land, on which they grew two kinds of rice, the usual white, plain one and another, rounder variety. They grew cotton and tended silkworms to make their clothes. He remembers that they had cows and chickens and that their pig had ten piglets one year. That was life until 1946 when land reforms under Soviet rule confiscated his family farm and suddenly their lives were in peril.
His father went south to the 38th parallel and Hyung You was sent with a paid guide to join him a year later. In some confusion, the guide was arrested and Hyung You was left penniless and alone, a ten year old near the border. He says he lived for a month in a boarding house of sorts. Somehow the owner knew Hyung You’s family had money and would eventually pay for his room and board. He says his uncle came to fetch him and his mother, and the entire family moved to Seoul to await the end of the war that had just begun.
By 1950, Hyung You’s father thought it was safe to return to their farm during one of those early waves of the Korean War when the south with American allies seemed to be winning. But it was apparent after a few months that they were in danger. It was January by then, the coldest month. In the rush to leave, thirteen year old Hyung You was sent to help his uncle travel to Seoul, an uncle whose vision had declined to the point that he couldn’t manage alone. It was a ten day trip by foot. Hyung You’s father made arrangements for the rest of the family to travel together a day after them. Along the way, Hyung You saw dead bodies, but he trudged on. “What was that like for you?” I ask. “Shock. They were just dead,” and he adds, “What could I do?”
Four years later in Seoul, he would find out why the rest of this family never joined him as his father had promised. A man from his hometown told him he’d seen his father and his family detained by communist soldiers.
Eemoboo spent the years that followed in Seoul with his uncle’s family. He studied engineering and architecture. He made drawings and worked for an engineering company. He married my aunt, falling in love with a woman six years younger than him. She was still in college, studying German and going to parties at foreign embassies around Seoul. She was outgoing and full of determination, the second youngest in a large family. Her own father and mother were too old to provide for her, so her oldest brother and his family had taken her in. She taught herself how to play piano and violin. She loved American movies. After they were married, Hyung You and my aunt, my Eemo, lived in a pretty house with a circular drive.
One of my earliest memories is of the coolness of his white button down shirt against my cheek when I run into his arms. I’m three years old. Eemoboo holds me away from him to inspect my face. “Our Chahmseh,” he says, his face crinkling into smile after wider smile. And then he lifts me up, spins me around. He’s the tallest man I know, standing at 6 feet tall, and I can almost touch the ceiling when he holds me high. My aunt props the front door open for us. Together, in their slim beauty and American clothes, Eemoboo and my aunt are as glamorous as the actors in the movies my aunt takes me to see. We sit on the floor at a low table. Eemoboo takes off the lid of the steaming bowl of rice that was meant for him, turns it over and spoons some rice into it for me to eat. Eemoboo bends to kiss Eemo on the cheek. I’m at their house a lot because my father is in Vietnam, having volunteered, along with other Korean soldiers, to support American troops in the war, and my mother works late hours as a doctor at a clinic nearby.
We immigrated to the United States in 1970 and six months later, Eemoboo and Eemo joined us. I’d assumed they’d come to the United States so that Eemo could live near her sister, my mother. A sister in between them in years had died from small pox when they were young girls, deepening the bond between the surviving sisters. But Eemoboo’s motivation for coming to the US, aside from how much he loved my aunt, I hadn’t known until recently. When I ask him now, he replies, “No weekends.”
In Korea, he worked over a hundred hours a week with hardly a day off. He rarely saw his wife and infant child. Ahead of him was only more of the same. I’d always thought he had come to this country like my own parents, for material comforts and better opportunities for their children. My parents spoke of the luxuries in life, the nice car, the variety of shopping marts to explain why we were here. As a doctor with a private practice, my father was on call twenty-hour hours a day, seven days a week, because being available to his patients at all times was essential. My father claimed to work all the long hours for these material comforts. But Eemoboo had a different motivation for coming to the United States. Without weekends, even for a well-salaried company man, Korea offered no time for what Eemoboo valued most.
Like so many other immigrants, the material comforts of Eemoboo’s life actually decreased when he came to America. The money Eemoboo and Eemo had brought with them were rapidly depleted by the tuition for his architect licensing classes and the high cost of living in Boston. Although he had obtained a visa because he was an architect and engineer, the path to becoming a licensed architect wasn’t as clear to him as the path to becoming a licensed Internist had been for my father. In hindsight, there were programs that would have made the process easier, but Eemoboo didn’t know about them then. So, he gave up and went to work in Providence for a construction company.
We had moved to Ohio by then and, after that, to southwestern New York State. But every summer, my brothers and I visited Eemoboo and Eemo in Rhode Island during vacations from school. Those summers were a constant and they were the best days of my childhood. Despite the lack of abundant material comforts, since Eemoboo was laid off each summer by the construction company and then re-hired months later, I don’t remember being hungry or being denied something I needed. We ate simply. Whether it was the squid we caught and dipped in kochoojang or whether we had fried rice with bits of bologna, or cold, skinny noodles with sesame oil and soy sauce, food seemed plentiful. Although there were five children (three in our family and two in Eemoboo’s by then), there was always seemed to be more than enough to keep us full.
One of those summers, when I was eleven years old, Eemoboo and Eemo bought the best house they could afford with the scrimping and saving they’d managed. It was at the end of a street in Cranston. Garbage was piled high in hills in the yard. There were rats in the basement. But it was a solid house with two large stories. And most important of all, it sat on an acre of land, which led down to a small lake at the bottom of a wooded hill. Eemoboo and Eemo took brooms to the basement and killed the rats.
Then, Eemoboo began clearing trees. I can see him taking an axe to a trunk and then hoisting it on his shoulder. Despite his years working in an architecture/engineering firm in Korea, he’d never picked up an axe or hammer until now. He used those trees to build wide long steps, a sloping path to the water’s edge. And, when that was completed, he set to work to build a whole separate building a few feet apart from the house. He borrowed money and rented equipment: trucks, backhoes, cement mixer. Using clamps to hold up one end of a beam while he drilled and secured the other, he figured out ways to construct a two-story, eight-unit apartment building by himself. He made a balcony overlooking the pond for each one-bedroom unit. On the asphalt parking lot he poured in the heat of the summer sun, he painted a number to correspond to each apartment unit. I planned to live in one of those apartments when I grew up. I sat in a chair on the balcony, swinging my legs, looking at the sun setting over the placid waters of the pond, talking to Eemoboo as he sanded the railing.
It seems remarkable now to think that even as he labored hour after hour, he always had time for me, my brothers, and his own children. When we talked to him as he painted or hammered nails into floorboards, he was interested, joked, suggested ways to skip stones into the lake. And somehow the day was long enough for him to take us to the beach, using barbeque pits to cook our dinner as fishermen planted poles in the wet sand, throwing long lines into the surf. If people were visiting on some occasion, he’d come out from the house where endless conversation flowed, to where we were playing in the yard, hurl us into the station wagon, and take us to the park. On the hottest nights, because we didn’t have air conditioning, he would drive us to the movies and promptly fall asleep. As soon as the lights came up at the end, he would wake to drive us home.
Eemoboo lives now in Virginia. I can feel how frail he is, how thin the familiar frame, when I put my arms around him. He’s retired, planning to spend days fishing on a lake somewhere while Eemo auditioned with her line dancing team for America’s Got Talent (which she really did last year), took lessons on piano, violin, alto sax, guitar, and Korean drums. But then came the stroke and, along with that, the discovery that there was a fusing of bones in Eemoboo’s in his neck. The doctors say the surgery succeeded in relieving the pressure in his spinal cord, but the recovery is in fits and starts.
As my children and the rest of the family swirl around us, I urge him to sit back down on the couch in the living room. Eemo comes in with a tray of yellow melon, and she says softly to me, when conversations grow louder in my uncle’s direction, “He’s much better.”
After a few minutes, Eemoboo squeezes my arm and offers to show me the orchard. We walk outside, and I try not to stare at his unsteady gait. He looks as though his legs are weighed down, as if he’s walking on an ocean floor in a diving suit. He points to a small tree with Bosc pears ripening on it and then to a branch off that same tree that has an Asian pear dangling from it. “All from one tree,” he says. And I nod in amazement.
He shows me the garden, the weeds that have grown in since the surgery. “Going to rain,” he says, looking up. “I should fix the roof.”
“Now?” I say, surprised, panic rising.
“I know the area,” he answers. He heads over to his workshop, a small shed he’s fitted out with lights and a radio that comes on when you flick a switch on the wall. He loves the radio. He also loves the Yellow Pages and maps which he’s filed carefully in his study. These he pulls out less often now; instead, he flicks his fingers over his iPad screen for Google Maps. He told me he asked for directions once when he’d first arrived in the United States and someone had given him the wrong ones. He hasn’t asked for directions from anyone since.
I consider going inside to get help, but he’s got part of a ladder under his arm already, the rest, he’s dragging. I have to admit his method is working. He props the ladder up against the side of the house, raises one foot on the bottom rung and then lifts the other. “Maybe we should go inside now,” I say. “All fine,” he answers without looking down. In one hand he carries a can of tarry gunk with a wooden spatula sticking out of it. When did he get that? I say something about how we’ve had a lot of rain in New York too this year, trying to stall him. I could say, “Do you think it’s a good idea in your condition?” But I won’t embarrass him. “Eemoboo,” I say and trail off.
“A huh,” he replies and slides another leg up. It is hardly bent, but he manages to get it to follow the other. “I’m coming too,” I say as he disappears over the edge of the roofline. I start up the ladder after him. My sandals slip on the round metal rungs. The ladder creaks.
When I make it to the top, he is sitting on gray slanted shingles beside a chimney and applying thick black paste to the base of it. “Everything okay?” I say. “Sure,” he replies.
“I’ll be right there,” I say, but he waves me off. And, in waving, he wavers, about to fall. I stop breathing until he rights himself. I stay where I am at the second to top rung, at the roofline. Eemoboo works steadily, perched there, his arm working around and around the chimney. I dread the time when he’ll have to stand again, return to the ladder, turn around and climb back down.
I’m still waiting for Eemoboo on the ladder when my children run out of the house, into the yard. They gallop through the branches of the weeping willow tree. Their voices fill the air, challenging each other to jump ever higher. My husband steps out of the house a few minutes later. I married a man who happens to be an architect. Happened that way without my looking for one. Because my husband’s grandparents are from Bangladesh and Trinidad, and Barbados, there were some conflicts in my extended family. Worries from my parents. But Eemoboo was immediately at ease with my husband as I knew he would be.
“Jimin?” my husband’s voice comes from below.
“We’re here,” I shout to him. The wind has picked up.
“Dinner,” he says, looking up, holding the base of the ladder steady.
“Okay,” I reply and then call across the expanse, “Eemoboo, time to eat.”
Eemoboo takes one more swipe at the chimney, picks up the handle of his bucket, rises to his feet.
“He’s coming.” I say to myself as much as to my husband. I can only watch him, hope and hope. I find myself wincing every time his foot goes up and then lands again solidly on the roof. The bucket swings in his hand from the effort. But it’s working, he’s on his way. Eemoboo is balancing himself on that roof, buoyed by his own grace, and I am grateful.