- onSeptember 4, 2019
- Vol.45 Autumn 2019
- byPark Wansuh
- Candlelit Table
Tr. Sung Ryu 2013392pp.
That’s how we bought two apartments in a complex handpicked by our daughter-in-law for its proximity to good schools. We chose a small apartment for ourselves as it’d be just the two of us old folk living there, and a larger one over 130 square meters for our son’s family of four. Once that was settled, everything else was smooth sailing. We could’ve easily put some distance between the two apartments as the complex was so big—our daughter-in-law clearly wanted us to—but we were old folk with some spine, and the knowledge that we had the upper hand gave us the nerve to pick units in face-to-face buildings where one’s front balcony would be visible from the other’s back balcony. My wife was happy with the arrangement and said (I don’t know where she heard the phrase) the ideal distance between parents and children who live apart was t be close enough for soup to stay warm. I browbeat her to never say such nonsense out loud; it was exactly the kind of thing that’d make our daughter-in-law feel pressured to bring over a hot dish every now and then. Instead, I used the phrase “close enough to check each other’s lights.”
“I didn’t plan on buying a place so nearby in case it’d trouble you. But you never know what’ll happen to old people, and if one of us dotards were to die, you two are bound to feel the burden. Even if you can’t pay us daily visits, I imagine you’d at least want to know that ‘Oh, those folks are still alive today’ by checking our lights. You owe us that much as our children, wouldn’t you say? And when we see the light switch on in your window, we’ll take it as a sign that our babies have come home safely today and sleep in peace. Living close enough to check each other’s lights—why, I can’t think of a better way for idle old people to communicate with their busy children.”
My daughter-in-law wasn’t going to take my subtle sarcasm lying down. She was such a little miss perfect you couldn’t dig a fingernail into her defenses.
“You shouldn’t be saying that already when men will soon have an average life expectancy of ninety-five.”
Her tone was quite pedantic. My old classmates from high school couldn’t possibly know the full truth of my situation and practically drooled when I told them I lived near my son’s family, close enough to check each other’s lights. They said any children willing to live so close to their parents were filial. I realized that my friends weren’t saying I had a good son just to comfort me, but out of real envy—people’s opinion must count for something because I wound up feeling content, as if I had planned an exemplary life after retirement for myself. I even felt boastful. And once I got to spend more time with her, I saw that my daughter-in- law wasn’t just a cunning child. She absolutely hated troubling or worrying even her own parents, which was why she came off as a little cold, but she was impeccable when it came to matters of principle. Once or twice a month without fail, she invited me and my wife over for dinner and made sure our grandkids joined us. She had raised them, a boy and a girl, into clean, healthy, and polite children. Everyone was jealous when I mentioned these things at reunions, things that were supposed to be perfectly ordinary. To sit your kids down at the same table with their grandparents, despite their busy private tuition schedules, and regularly at that, was apparently a rare show of filial affection.
It all sounded like hogwash the more I listened. While I’d lived out in the boondocks to be sure, I hadn’t been a slash-and-burn farmer nor had I taught Confucian texts in some valley of Mount Jiri; I had been the head of an institution that taught children just enough of the basic morals to go out into the extant world and not have too much trouble functioning as a decent human. How had the world changed so wickedly that someone like me couldn’t begin to make heads or tails of it?
At least my child wasn’t the trailblazer for change in that wicked world. I’d realized that only because I often got to meet my city friends. But the envy and admiration of others didn’t fool me for long. Taste—the most honest of the five human senses—was the first to speak its mind.
The first time we were invited to our son’s home, my wife marveled at and tasted each and every one of the neat, decorative, and mysterious fusion dishes on the table, even asking for recipes, but her interest slowly wilted until finally she had to wash everything down with kimchi juice when we came home. And she sighed that her grandchildren couldn’t be helped as they grew up knowing flavors only of that sort, but what of her poor baby? Then one day, when her Stinky Soybean Stew turned out especially good, she took it to our son’s place. She informed me proudly that he was all smiles and was delighted to get it, that she would do this again from time to time. She took joy in remembering one by one the dishes our son used to like and delivered them with increasing frequency. When she remembered that our son had liked scorched rice, she wailed, “Oh my poor baby, he can’t even have scorched rice at home,” going as far as buying a new stone pot just to make him some and dropping it off. My wife seemed to rediscover the fun in life with each dish she cooked and delivered to our son, but I watched her with a mixture of pity and apprehension and at times dropped her a hint: “My dear, too much is worse than too little, you know.” If I hadn’t, she probably would’ve done it every darn day. Sometimes she came back, unsuccessful. She supposed the whole family must’ve gone out to eat as the house was empty. Unable to feed her son the special dish she’d made with painstaking care and flair, she looked bereft, her shoulders slumping. I got annoyed seeing her so and shouted angrily, “You can’t just turn up at their door. Why do you think we live across from each other? If their window isn’t lit, that means no one’s home yet, remember?”
“Oh yes, you’re right. Why didn’t I think of that?”
To make sure she didn’t make another trip for nothing, I wound up acting as a lookout for any sign of light in my son’s window while she cooked up special dishes for him. Not because anyone told me to, but because I was as anxious as my wife. I hadn’t known this before when I’d glanced absently at the window, but once I looked in earnest I noticed that the light remained switched off on more and more days, which, curiously enough, tended to fall on the same days my wife cooked her dishes. As we received regular calls from either our son or daughter-in-law, we seized the opportunity to casually mention that they seemed to be coming home late these days. They replied that the kids came back at odd hours because of lessons, and as for themselves, they often arranged to eat out on evenings they were too tired to cook at home. The curtness of their tone felt like their way of saying, “We don’t want to be monitored,” so I fought back the urge to suggest they come eat at our place on such evenings.
Keeping tabs on someone wasn’t healthy, even if you were their parent. It dawned on me at some point that the unlit window of my son’s apartment looked different from the unlit windows of other apartments. It wasn’t pitch-dark, but an uncertain brightness, like the lingering glow of a campfire, seemed to flicker in its depths. I was reminded of a table lit by beautiful candles that added ambience to the fusion dishes laid out on it. Whether my grandkids were at that table too didn’t really matter. My mind could just be playing tricks on me. I wasn’t too young to go senile after all.
But going senile early was nothing to boast about. I had to escape my delusions at once. Just as my wife had to promptly escape hers: the misguided obsession that she could hold onto her son’s heart through his taste buds. One evening when I sensed, rather than saw, a faint light like the lingering glow of a campfire, I slipped out alone pretending to go for a walk and, even though my wife wasn’t cooking anything special for our son that night, I went up to his apartment and rang the doorbell. I rang for a second time, then a third. No one answered the door, but I knew intuitively that there were murmurs inside, that the round peephole in the front door was turning into a pitiless eye. It wouldn’t do to tell my wife about an unverified hunch.
Deciding it was time for me to quietly take my leave, I got in the elevator and pressed the button for the ground floor when a woman holding a baby popped out of unit 907, the one right across my son’s, and stepped into the same car. The woman gave me a friendly smile and I, feeling compelled to say something in return, asked, “Nobody from unit 908 must be in yet, eh?” to indicate that I wasn’t some old coot riding the elevator up and down with nothing better to do, but had stopped by unit 908 for a legitimate reason.
“You mean the mister from the unit opposite? Oh he’s in. He just came over to ask for a stalk of scallions actually.”
My wife ought to know. But not in the shocking manner that I had to find out.
“Let’s have some ambience in here like young people do.” If I said that, turned off every light in our apartment, and adorned the table with a beautiful pair of candles shaped like a boy and a girl facing each other with a smile, would my wife get it then?
For her, getting it would be easier than accepting it. My reflection in the shop window looked too tired and heavy for someone holding only two candles.
(Excerpt from pp. 182-188)
Translated by Sung Ryu
Park Wansuh (1931~2011) was one of Korea’s most revered writers. She debuted at the age of forty and wrote over a hundred novels and short stories in a career that spanned almost forty years. She received several prestigious awards, including the Republic of Korea’s Geumgwan Order of Cultural Merit. Recently published translations of her books include Who Ate up All the Shinga? (Columbia University Press, 2009), Lonesome You (Dalkey Archive, 2013), and Was that Mountain Really There? (Kitaab, 2018).