It’s been 10 years since my mother passed away. It’s been 10 years since I’ve heard my mother’s voice. I have a recording of it. I just can’t bring myself to listen to it. I remember the last conversation I had with my mother. And I was in the room when my father had his last conversation with my mother. It was tragically one-sided.
My mother was very much like yours. She fed me, scolded me, watched over me, taught me what she could, hugged me when I needed held, patched up my boo-boos, cared for me when I got sick, and all the things a mom should do. I used to bake cookies with my mom. We danced to Helen Reddy and Elvis Presley records. She even helped me learn how to catch pop flies.
My mother was also very different. She was born and raised in rural South Korea and met my father when he was in the Army. Her name was Kim Yung Hi. Kim was the surname and Yung Hi was her “first name.” Many people throughout her American life had trouble with it so they just called her “Kim.”
My mother was stunningly beautiful.
When she came to the United States, Yung Hi didn’t speak a word of English, and she certainly couldn’t read any. She learned to speak it by watching television and to read it from the TV Guide. Mom learned anything she put her mind to.
Despite the language barrier and the cultural divide, my father never treated my mother with kid gloves. She had her own credit cards. The only thing she never learned to do was drive. She couldn’t ride a bike either but she was there to pick up her broken nine-year-old son when he crashed his.
For whatever reason, my parents were unable to have children the conventional way. I heard the stories about their efforts. I cringe at the thought of repeating them. They adopted a bouncing baby boy in 1969 when he was all of three days old, your humble narrator.
My mother used to sing to me in Korean. San-toki. It’s about a rabbit. I embedded a version below. Two notes in and I started crying. That song touches my soul. By the time I was old enough to know language my mother had forgotten most of her native tongue. It’s funny. I can’t tell many Asian languages apart, but I know Korean when I hear it.
It wasn’t all roses growing up.
I remember going to the mall with Mom once. I was so embarrassed because she couldn’t figure out where to put a signature on a credit card slip. Later I learned it was because she didn’t have confidence in her ability to sign her name. She spent hours and hours at the kitchen table and a ream of paper practicing her signature. I kick myself today for ever being embarrassed or ashamed. Kids can be so…ugh.
She didn’t always have the best grasp of the English language even after she learned much of it. There were times her idiosyncrasies embarrassed me. But I was always quick to defend her honor. Kids can be cruel and the ones I grew up around were no exception. I got in many fights as a kid because my contemporaries took exception to my adoption or my mother’s heritage…or both.
Dad and I logged her “mommyisms.” I’d come in from the rain and instead of soaking wet, Mom said I was “all soap and wet.” I’d visit and she’d ask if I brought my “top-lap computer.” That one actually made sense. She was blocking our view of the TV once and Dad told her she made a better door than a window. She replied, “What window?” She would butcher all kinds of sayings and colloquialisms. We’d laugh and laugh, until Mom punched one of us in the arm.
The three of us went everywhere and did everything together when I was a kid. We spent countless hours in the car driving all over the northeast. The one thing you didn’t do was let mom take the pictures. That’s why my father is in so few of the family photos, he was taking them. If Mom had the camera, you were lucky to be in the picture at all.
My mother embraced all things American. She was as patriotic as anyone born under the Stars and Stripes. Picnics were a regular occurrence. And oh did she love the holidays. Her fried rice highlighted her Easter dinners. Christmas was big in my house.
Mom was a phenomenal cook, but she didn’t start out that way.
My dad used to tell a story about how she made sage dressing without the sage, and made sweet potatoes with hot dogs. Little did they know, she was ahead of her time the way folks eat sweet potatoes these days. She eventually learned to cook just about anything. Her spaghetti was great, meatloaf not so much (that was my issue). I have a soft spot for hash and eggs. Baking? Oh, could she bake. Cookies, brownies, cakes, pies, you name it.
She had her food quirks. She’d steam some rice and roll it in fresh cabbage leaves with some gochujang (you think kimchee is spicy?) and have several of these for lunch. I never thought this was weird. It’s just what she did. We did learn the joys of kimchee. And I have a love affair with bulgoki to this day.
My driveway was the neighborhood basketball court and we used to beg mom to make Kool-Aid for up to 12 kids. She’d do it grudgingly but she did it. She’d make superhero capes out of remnants found around the house, or would spend what little money she had squirreled away on a couple of yards of fabric to make me one.
While I was growing up she started a little home day care business. Her reputation with children became legendary. I don’t know if her desire to babysit came from the fact that I wasn’t little anymore. She was just good with kids. She saved her money and spent lavishly on Christmas gifts for dad and me. When we didn’t have much, I remember her throwing what may have been the only $4 she had at me so I could go roller-skating one Friday night.
One of the most amazing things my mother ever did for my father was to give him $600 cash to buy a stereo system one Christmas. She had no idea what to get but she saved her money and told Dad to get what he wanted. Pieces of that stereo system are in use in my house today.
I left home at 18. While I was in the Navy, I wasn’t the best long-distance son. I ran up bills, I didn’t visit as often as I should have (according to my father), and I certainly didn’t call enough. My father took exception to that and I just didn’t get it until he told flat out me some years later that all she needed was to hear my voice.
I moved back in their house in 1997. I was in the middle of a divorce and I was out of work. I was up late one night playing Madden on my PlayStation and she came into my room (Mom was a notorious insomniac), and said I couldn’t play “that game” for the rest of my life. I told her, “no, because next year they’ll come out with a new one.” One night I was up at 3:00 a.m. surfing the Internet. She told me, “Get a job.” I replied, “now?” Both times she just shook her head and left me to my own devices.
While I was growing up we encouraged my mother to become an American citizen. She was afraid she’d fail the test. Like I mentioned, Mom learned anything she set her mind to. In 2002, my Mom, in fact, became an American citizen. I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of anyone I’ve known in my life.
After Dad retired I didn’t think my folks visited me in California enough. Mom admitted it was because Dad didn’t want to board the diabetic dog. She often joked that Dad loved the dog more than her.
In late February 2006, Dad called at 1:00 a.m. my time. Mom had called at some ungodly hour once because she missed me but I knew this couldn’t be good. My mother had suffered a massive stroke, one she would not recover from. As a family, we decided to pull the plug after she was declared brain dead. I had never thought of my father as a husband or my mother as a wife. Watching my father say goodbye to his wife, his best friend, the mother of his son, tore my heart out. It would’ve been good for her to know she was more important than the dog. She knew.
They did everything together. Sure, they had their separate interests. Dad had his music, painting, model trains, and die-cast metal model cars, and Mom had her TV shows (she did love her soap operas), enjoyed taking care of the house, gardening, decorating, etc. But, Mom never had to have a job. She did the home day care because she wanted to. They had plenty in common – many of these things shaped my interests. She loved watching sports on TV with us. We played board games. We enjoyed movies – at the theater and at home. We used to joke that when Mom put her glasses on to watch a movie that they were her “sleeping glasses.” Dad and I would do goofy things like announce play-by-play while we tried to toss grapes in the air and catch them in our mouths. Mom would laugh and laugh.
I spoke to her for the last time a few days before her stroke. It wasn’t the best of conversations but Mom and Dad were planning a visit to California. We were going to do all the things we didn’t get to do during their previous trip. I ended up making a trip home to bury my mother.
I was a pallbearer at my mother’s funeral. That experience was the hardest thing I have ever had to do because not only did I have to say goodbye to Mom, I had to be strong for Dad. I don’t know if I’ve ever grieved fully.
I think about all those times Mom yelled at me or asked me if she wanted me to tell my father, those late night visits to tell me to get a job, those early Sunday morning phone calls when she’d forget about the three-hour time difference…and then I remember the laugh you could hear halfway down the street, how genuine that laugh was…and how I’d give anything to hear it all again.