When I tell my kids that I’m going to be the kind of grandmother who literally rolls around on the floor with her grandchildren, it’s because I learned it from my mom. Kyungha Park Kwon, aka Katie, on the eve of her 80th birthday, still works out and runs after my dad — literally and figuratively. She left Korea at the age of 28 to settle in a country where she knew nothing of the language or culture, bravely and without complaint. I owe my life and the good things in it to her.
During the Korean War, she and her family fled Seoul. She was 16 when she went into the world to find work to help feed the hungry mouths at home. She landed as a secretary at the Naval Academy library, where she caught the eye of my father. He was her boss, but he took a special interest in making sure that she would continue her education, though it was disrupted by the civil war.
When the war ended, with his help and encouragement, she attended the prestigious Ewha Women’s University in Seoul. Shortly after graduating, she married him.
It remains somewhat of a sore spot with me that the Korean elders — notorious for their lack of tact — would cluck over me when I was young. I can still remember the sting of their comments, “Oh, your mother was so beautiful and how all the young men used to flock around her, and how persistent your smart father was to win her. Isn’t it too bad that you look like your father and not your mother?” Even so, I never resented my beautiful mother. She was the soft parent, our cushion against our more stern, disciplinarian father and the harsh world.
It is only with the wisdom of my years and life experience that I can appreciate how difficult life must have been for her in those early years. She couldn’t speak English; she didn’t have any family near her; and any kind of Korean community simply did not exist in central Michigan in the early ’60s, where we settled for our first years in America. There were no Korean grocery stores. Every few months, her mother — my grandmother — would send us huge brown packages laden with the smells and tastes of the old country. Sometimes there would be a small toy or treasure for my brother and me. But mostly those packages were fragrant with red pepper powder to pickle kimchee at home. We breathed in the scent of seaweed in flat sheets and the salted dried squid that my mother would roast over the open flame on the stove.
I can’t begin to imagine how lonely my mother must have been, with my father at work all day and only two small children for company. How she must have pined for the sweet familiarity of home and eagerly breathed in the love packed in those brown boxes that traveled over the Pacific Ocean. I think of my mom like one of the pioneer women of the old, Wild West — steadfast and strong, making a new life in a strange land with courage.
I remember so wanting to be like the other kids. I invited three of my best friends from first grade over for lunch one day, and told my mother to make American food. I remember walking into the house, peeking into the kitchen, and seeing the table set for four. The Campbell’s chicken noodle soup was steaming from the bowls, and four plates were laden with sandwiches, an American food she had learned how to make. But I told her that Ann’s mother had invited us and she was going to make pizza, so never mind about lunch.
One of our earliest collective set of memories — my brother and I — involve the Saturday morning driving lessons my father would give my mother in our 1964 Plymouth. I still hear the whine of the engine, the switching of the gears and my father’s impatient voice. How I hated those mornings, trapped in the back seat by loud voices, wishing we were home watching cartoons. It would be years before my mother would drive, and even then, reluctantly.
I also used to be so impatient with my mother for what I perceived to be her passivity in letting my dad be the boss of everything. “Why don’t you stand up for yourself,” I would grumble, with my mid-’70s feminist sensitivities. “Why do you have to serve him his food on a tray so he can watch the news? Why do you have to iron his shirts every morning? Let him do it himself!” She would respond in her sweet way, “I don’t have to do it, I want to do it. He’s your dad.”
Now I get it, because I find my mother in myself all the time. They say it will happen and you want to deny its truth, but it is indeed the way of mothers and daughters and time. Like my mom, I do everything in my power to make the lives of my loved ones happy and comfortable. I serve them food on a tray (sometimes) and I would iron a fresh shirt for Bill if he wanted (he would rather send them to the dry cleaner, thank goodness). The best thing I have learned about being a mom is from my own mom, who is this family’s original Suburban Mom. She’s the best and way more kind and patient — and beautiful — yes, I have heard it so — than I will ever be. So happy birthday, my dear mother, my Ummah.