Let Me Tell You About My Mom

My mother, Yung Hi Knaak. 1942-2006.
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.

mom2Despite 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.

IM05AD~mom1Dad 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.

mom4Mom 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.

mom5One 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.

The day my mother became an American citizen.
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.

Wherefore Art Thou American Dream?

I lived in a townhouse just like this, if not this very one, from age 2-4.

The American Dream.

It means a lot of things to a lot of different people. Attainable for some, regretted by many, unimaginable for others. For immigrants entering the United States it’s the promise of steady work and a better life. For many of us born here, it’s having a family and home ownership.

As my body decays in my car during my 45-mile daily commute and as I ruminate on some recent events in my hometown of Rochester, N.Y., I wondered how the seed of this American dream gets planted. I can’t speak for anyone else, although I’d like to hear from you in the comments.

Why was I compelled to buy a house?

For me it’s a deeply personal reason and experience. My parents had lived in numerous places – Korea, Columbus, Ga., Erie, Penn. I am the son of a disc jockey who decided that the volatile world of radio was too much once I came along in 1969. My father moved us back to his hometown of Rochester (he grew up in Scottsville) and ended up working tool and die for Bernz-o-Matic. The company made propane powered camping gear a la Coleman and tools a la Craftsman. When I was a small boy, the company decided to relocate. My father was told to relocate at his own expense or lose his job. He chose the latter.

I’m not sure when it happened. It couldn’t have been while he was unemployed but I remember going to look at manufactured homes. We rented a townhouse at Arborwood Crescent and moved to a duplex when I was four. I distinctly recall the agent or whatever he was telling my father he did not make enough money to qualify to purchase one of these homes and that he was welcome to come back when he did.

Have you ever heard silence? I have. I felt it. I never want to hear it again. We drove home in quiet. I asked my father what it all meant. He said nothing. That was the day I realized silence could be an actual, physical thing. I know because it manifested itself that day. And it scared the living piss out of me.

I lived in this duplex house, upstairs and downstairs from age 4-14.

The duplex on Michigan Street was serviceable. All the houses in the neighborhood were built in the 1920s and had never been renovated. We had oil heat. That was an adventure. My father used to siphon oil from the neighbor’s tank when we couldn’t afford a delivery.

I never knew we were poor. I am thankful for this. I always had a birthday and I always had a Christmas. There were no extras, there were no trips to Disneyland.

When I was nine, my father landed the job with the City of Rochester from which he would eventually retire. The push to buy a house resumed in earnest. By 1984, I was 14, we bought a house a block away for $44,000. It was the first and only house my father ever bought. He refinanced a few times and drove the monthly payments down. He died in 2007, seven years shy of paying off a 30-year mortgage. I used some of my inheritance to pay off the balance.

After my folks passed away, I put their household goods in storage. I had nowhere to put anything. The 950-square foot condo we were renting was way too small as it was with a two-year-old and his ever-expanding need for space. I was bleeding money paying gas and electric bills in the interim until I could sell my parents’ house.

So, I bought a house 45 miles from my job. I took advantage of the real estate market crash. I paid a third of what a similar house near my job cost at the time. The commute is killing me. My chronic back problems tell me so. I was driven to buy this house. There was no not buying a house. But why?

The one and only house my father ever bought.

After recent issues with my parents’ house in New York that I am not at liberty to disclose here, I have had occasion to examine this seminal urge to purchase a house. As much as home ownership and raising a family and all that are drilled into our heads from an early age, I tried to find the moment the seed was planted in my head or my heart – or both.


It was the day my father was told he couldn’t afford one. The day I felt silence.

He was driven to provide for his family, to put a permanent roof over our heads.

I know people who walked away from mortgages during the crash because of predatory lending and adjustable rate loans. I almost get that. I have heard stories of people who sold their homes just because they had negative equity situations. I don’t get that. I know someone who has bought several homes in succession in the last six years or so because of career and life choices.

HOUSE, n.A hollow edifice erected for the habitation of man, rat, mouse, beetle, cockroach, fly, mosquito, flea, bacillus and microbe. House of Correction, a place of reward for political and personal service, and for the detention of offenders and appropriations. House of God, a building with a steeple and a mortgage on it. House-dog, a pestilent beast kept on domestic premises to insult persons passing by and appal the hardy visitor. House-maid, a youngerly person of the opposing sex employed to be variously disagreeable and ingeniously unclean in the station in which it has pleased God to place her. – Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

I have always wanted to own a house, especially after barracks and ship living in the Navy, renting apartments and townhouses. You can never do what you want. You can’t listen to loud music, experience a movie with surround sound, or paint the walls purple. There’s always someone pounding on the wall telling you to “turn it down!” You own a house and you can pretty much do what you want with it unless you suffer an evil overlord homeowner’s association.

George Carlin described owning a house as having a place to put your stuff. You bought a bigger house when you accumulated more stuff. In my case, I needed a place to put my parents’ stuff and ours. Much of their stuff has been liquidated or sprinkled throughout the house. I’m only keeping what has sentimental or historical value to me.

The issues with my parents’ house have brought me to a sad conclusion. I knew Rochester was not going to be where I’d spend my adult life. As a kid, I just knew it. I have hundreds of second and third cousins who call Western New York home, some I care for dearly. My lifelong pal lives there. But it’s not home. It’s just the place where I grew up. And I really have no reason to go back.

That actually leads me to a future blog topic. I’ll delve into it a bit more another day, but why is it when we leave our hometown for parts unknown nobody comes to visit? With rare exceptions, immediate family and the aforementioned lifelong pal, you have to go home to see people – people don’t come to you. Oh, they talk a big game. But they can’t be bothered when it comes down to it. But, I digress.

I don’t plan on dying in this house, I don’t even plan on playing out the 30-year mortgage, but I was driven to buy it and now I know why.

I Wish I Had Known

Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, we didn’t have the Internet. We had the encyclopedia. Hell, my neighborhood didn’t get cable TV until 1981. We had four over-the-air TV channels if you count PBS. What you learned about exercise came from your gym teacher, a little league baseball coach or a Pop Warner football coach. Calisthenics. That’s what we did. Good, old-fashioned calisthenics. Jumping jacks, sit-ups, push-ups, leg lifts, up-downs, squat thrusts, etc.

There was no strength training.

Never mind the cheap second-hand weight bench I acquired and the vinyl weight set I bought at a local sporting goods store in junior high. But, any weight lifting I did at that point was to impress a girl and that didn’t go over so well.

vintage bodybuilding ad advert charle atlas 1I seem to recall some sort of Charles Atlas weight training program you could send away for from an ad in the back of comic books. Some of us were more worried about sea monkeys and x-ray goggles.

If there was strength training back then it was reserved for high school football players and wrestlers. We didn’t do it for cross-country, baseball or even basketball when I played in high school. We ran and we did calisthenics. I remember jumping up and down on the balls of my feet like a human pogo stick at basketball practice. The only thing this prepared me for was the mosh pit.

I was 97 pounds dripping wet as a freshman in high school in 1983. I was just over 120 when I graduated in 1987. The Navy told me to gain weight before I went to boot camp. I needed to be 127 pounds minimum.

We didn’t do any strength training in Navy boot camp either. Oh sure, we did a lot of push-ups and sit-ups, but no weight lifting. Our physical fitness tests measured how many push-ups and sit-ups you could do in two minutes and how fast you could run a mile and a half. I was encouraged to lift weights so I could pull my weight (pun intended) fixing airplanes and such. I played intramural sports during my 10-year Navy career but never did I seriously take care of my body or look to build it in any way.

As I careen toward 47 years of age, I wish I had guidance back then. Maybe it existed and I didn’t seek it out. I have never had a chest. Maybe had I known that progressive effort with bench press and its variations would build pectoral muscles. I did have a pretty rocking stomach one summer in high school but I was riding my 10-speed all over creation that year.

I now have more information at my fingertips than I know what to do with. Between web sites, Facebook posts and my subscription to Men’s Fitness magazine, the knowledge is overwhelming. I’m sure magazines like Men’s Fitness existed back then but I never thought they were for the likes of me.

Maybe it’s because the information is so easily accessible now that I feel like I was missing out. I was never taught how to exercise. I was never instructed on weight training. I didn’t know how to increase muscle mass. What little I did in my backyard and basement in high school gave me a lot of definition in my arms and little else. I didn’t like bench pressing, I didn’t know the importance of leg day or how to work my abs beyond sit-ups. Exercise science has come a long way. I’m just glad it’s not too late for me to learn.

I am a big believer in serendipity. What you need seems to come into your life just when you need it. After completing the Shortcut to Shred program recently, I was at a crossroads. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It’s all been weight loss and keeping the weight off. Yeah, I had this weird obsession with Daniel Craig and his James Bond physique. I didn’t know how to get it. I’ve been aimless. For some reason I couldn’t commit to the nutrition part of this.

Men’s Fitness published actor Matt Bomer’s chest workout a few months back. As a big fan of American Horror Story, I thought I’d give it a shot. I have been doing this is my go-to chest workout for a few weeks now and the results are definitely visible. Another issue of that magazine gave me a sure-fire arms work out. I modified Craig’s legs workout and added Bulgarian split squats. I’ve developed quite the little six-days-a-week program that I supplement with distance running. My running is actually on hold at the moment thanks to tendinitis in my left knee, but I digress.

These workouts seem to have come into my life right when I needed them. I also had been doing a lot of reading about creatine monohydrate. Everything I read said if you are serious about building muscle and shredding fat, take creatine. It just plain works. I have been on a creatine regimen for about a week and a half and the gains are obvious. A word of warning, your weight will spike if you give creatine a try so be prepared.

I’m still what you would call skinny fat. I have to find a way to shed this fat, especially my belly fat, but my workouts are challenging and working. I have tried to up the protein. Getting what I need on a daily basis continues to be elusive. But I am better. I have cut back the alcohol consumption (tonight being an exception). No real workout tonight as my body has told me to take the night off.

Exercise has become a real passion of mine. I enjoy lifting weights and running to an extent I never thought was possible. My self-discipline continues to astonish me. I rarely miss a planned workout. This has become my lifestyle. Reading people’s social media posts about diets and cleanses cracks me up. Either you eat right and exercise or you don’t. There is no excuse for hard work and watching what you eat.

I realize that I still have a long way to go to reach my goals but I remain committed (maybe I need to be committed).

I honestly do wish I had access to this information when I was a kid or the wherewithal to seek it out. I wish I had more time to devote to this. I’ve been jealous of these seeming overnight transformations. However, in light of a recent article about how messed up The Biggest Loser contestants are after dedicating countless hours to dropping their weight and altering their metabolisms, maybe I am doing enough. I just always need to have a plan and razor sharp focus.

“Slow and low, that is the tempo.” #RIPMCA