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My Mother’s Story

  • onDecember 22, 2015
  • Vol.30 Winter 2015
  • byOh Junghee

The Light That Kept Watch over Me

The doors in our home were never closed. They’d always be left open no matter what the season, when we were all crammed into a tiny house, or even when we moved into a more spacious home where we had separate rooms to ourselves. The sole reason for this was that Mother found closed doors stifling. I never understood why she was the one to feel stifled when it was my door that was closed. Until I graduated from high school and left home, that all-so-common cordless phone never showed up in our house. Mother didn’t want her kids (who were just entering puberty) to share whispered conversations over the phone behind firmly shut doors. We had no choice but to use the phone kept smack in the middle of the wide-open living room (so a public phone, really) while Mother pretended to be busy in the kitchen even as she strained her ears to eavesdrop on our conversations. She wouldn’t bat an eye in the face of my brother and my opposition and complaints, even when we raised the issue of privacy and personal rights and protested that it was an act of violence and barbarous tyranny on her part. But the moment I left home for college she got a cordless phone installed, as though she’d been waiting for the chance all along. I can’t help but laugh at Mother’s naivetée and innocence, for despite surely having done her research on childcare she was pretty confident she’d worked out an effective surveillance system simply by having her kids keep their doors open and eavesdropping on their phone conversations.

      What was the correlation between the openness and transparency Mother demanded from us in real life and the conservative and reclusive nature of her writing? Other people must’ve also been perplexed by the contrast between Oh Junghee the writer and Oh Junghee the person. Perhaps, Mother had a small room inside of her that she never let anyone into. But then doesn’t everyone have a secret room inside them that no one else knows of?

     When I was young, the four of us would sleep in the same room. The fact that our tiny home had only two rooms was one reason for this, but I think our parents also liked having us all sleep together. When we’d spread out brightly colored quilts and lie down side by side in that snug little room, our parents would be pleased and they’d say it felt like we were in a garden. Mother, who didn’t have the luxury of a separate study, would read books or write in the living room crammed with bookshelves, or in the kitchen. I was scared of the dark and could fall asleep only if the door was left ajar. I’d often wake up in the middle of the night to find Mother sitting in the brightly lit living room, reading or writing on her little desk almost until daybreak, and would feel relieved and go back to sleep. Sometimes, I’d see her slumped over the desk, fast asleep. At home, Mother was no different from other housewives, so while we knew she was a writer we were never really conscious of that part of her life. My family members, relatives, and neighbors had a slight inkling that there was something Mother had to devote all her energy to and that she needed time and space of her own, but, then again, we were oblivious all the same. I, for one, realized Mother was a writer only when she’d point out my slip-ups and tell me off, dreaming up colorful scenarios in the process: “You did that, so this will happen, which will lead to that, and it’ll all end up like this.” That feverish imagination of hers would lead her to foresee portents of me growing into a con artist in every little fib I told or a thief when I absentmindedly brought home a friend’s pen. Whenever this happened, Father would take my side, quipping, “There you go again spinning a yarn,” to which Mother would respond by shooting us a wry smile and apologizing for her “wild imagination.”

Only after reaching middle school did I realize that not all mothers spent their nights doing something in their living rooms with the lights on, or slept slumped over their desk like a student doing an all-nighter before an exam. Occasionally, teachers and friends would ask me, “Isn’t your mom the writer Oh Junghee?” and every time I’d feel a halo pop up over my head. But, invariably, the words that followed this question would be “You must have a flair for writing. Do you plan to take up literature too?” to which I’d have loved to answer “Of course!” but alas, I couldn’t. Even something simple like writing a letter or a six-page essay was enough to make me tear my hair out and twist my face into a grimace. Only when we grew up did my brother and I realize we had no right to take up all the attention of someone who should’ve been devoting herself solely to writing and to have her at our beck and call each hour of every day. I’m sure Father must’ve felt the same way, too. Mother once remarked to us, “I’m not made of steel,” and as though proving her right, her body is growing old and she’s having problems with her health. The music seems destined to turn sad. I’m simply grateful she’s my mother and regret not having done more.

     When we were growing up, Mother would copy verses from a poem or lines from a book onto a whiteboard she hung up near the dining table and would ask us to read them, at least in passing. She even gathered a few kids and opened a traditional seodang school where an elderly scholar of Chinese classics, who kept his hair tied in a topknot and wore a traditional gat hat, would come to teach us from books like Dongmong Seonseup (Primer for Children) or Sohak (Elementary Learning). I’ve forgotten most of what we learned back then, but I distinctly remember all of us reciting loudly, “The sky above/ the earth below/ and in between the most precious thing—man.” Now that I think about it, Mother must’ve wanted to instill in us an appreciation for literature and a reverence for life. I think of Mother’s wishes and hopes for me, and rue my ineptitude in writing and my ignorance of the humanities. But the seeds of Mother’s efforts must’ve surely been sown in me. They’ll guide me in the future when I have my own family and help me find a balance between work and family, and the world inside and out.

 Mother o’ Mine

I was a restless child who’d scoot off and disappear at the slightest opportunity. Inquisitive by nature, I’d cause a lot of trouble and often injure myself. One day during the rainy season, I disappeared from home and Mother, exhausted from wandering all over looking for me, burst into tears when she came across the gurgling mouth of an open manhole in the middle of the road, wailing that she’d have to go all the way to the river to find my body. In high school, Mother would prepare lunchboxes every evening and bring them to school where my brother and I’d be doing self-study. She couldn’t drive so she’d ride a bus to the school. Worried the food would go cold, she’d walk so briskly she’d wear out the soles of her sturdy Landrover shoes. Seeing her in those worn-out shoes, dressed sloppily, with no makeup on, as though she’d rushed straight out of the kitchen, I’d feel more embarrassed than happy, so much so that I found her visits annoying. But as though she’d read my mind, her tired face would break into a wide grin and she’d say the line she repeated for the three years I was in high school: “Eat up before it goes cold, and eat a lot, ok?”

A few years ago, Mother and I caught up over tea in Daehangno, and while talking about something that was not working out for me I let slip that I “felt like dying.” Mother, who’d heard me out till the end without saying anything, burst into tears at the stairs to the subway station on our way back. She wailed about having to hear her child, whom she’d brought up with such care, say she wanted to die. On seeing her tears, I broke out crying too. We stood there for a long while, oblivious to the glances of passersby, howling and blowing our noses into tissues we handed out to each other. We avoided looking at each other’s puffed up faces as we went our separate ways, but I felt good inside for having played the baby for once in a really long while. Mother must’ve felt the same way, too.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein was my favorite book in childhood and I read it many times. The tree keeps giving selflessly to the boy as he grows up, until finally it offers itself up completely, and the boy, now an old man, cuts it down and uses its stump as a quiet place to sit and rest. Growing up, I’d always been in the position of receiving, so when I left home and came face to face with new people and new situations I was shocked to learn there were many parents who brazenly made unreasonable demands of their children, and I felt ashamed of my ignorance of the ways of the world. I’d believed only I experienced complex emotions of love and hate for people close to me. Mother was my Giving Tree, always selfless, always patient, and always there for me. I guess I’ll be able to call myself an adult when my heart can accept that, like me, Mother too can be weak occasionally, and can get caught up in her emotions, fall sick, and have feelings of loneliness, sadness, and betrayal.

Sometimes, I wonder. She gave selflessly as a wife, as a mother, but what has she left for herself? Has she saved something for herself, as a writer, as a woman, as a human being? 

 

by Park Jeonggi

* The original Korean version of this essay first appeared in An In-Depth Reading of Oh Junghee, edited by Wu Chan-je, Moonji Publishing, 2007.