I lived on 107th street with my parents until 1992. We were the only Koreans on our block. Where were the others?
I am reading Louise Bogan’s bio again, connecting with the turmoil of her young life. She recalls her mother as being unhappy and ready to take it out on her family. Her mother had relations with other men while exacting inappropriate feelings from her son. I understand being raised by a mother mired in an unrequited life, but I wish I could extricate myself from her long tail of dissatisfaction and chaos.
I forget that my mom used to perm my hair when I was little. She might have done it especially for this photo, taken at a real life studio across the street from our old apartment building on 107th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
The last time I tried to perm my hair, I might have been in college and realized just how straight my hair was because there was barely a ripple in it when I was done with all the rigamarole.
I have long ago come to terms with my long, straight, black hair, and I thank my ancestors for their generous gift every day.
Last month I was in the hospital a lot. Not for myself, but for my Old Ladies. Not because they had covid-19 at the time, but one for sepsis and the other who was refusing to swallow.
Old Ladies: Aunt & Mother ca 1970’s
The Old Lady refusing to swallow was my mother who after two weeks of getting fed through a nasal gastric tube had to have a feeding tube put in. The refusing to swallow apparently is a symptom of dementia. The other Old Lady, my aunt, is back in the nursing home and seems to be beating the odds (this is where I knock on wood). The nursing home where my aunt resides is reporting six deaths due to the virus, but from what I can tell from our Facetime chats, she has not succumbed to it.
I am not sure how long I can keep from succumbing to a dementia of my own. A dementia brought on by the stress of making life-changing decisions for other people on top of the guilt that has been gnawing away at me since I took over the Old Ladies’ care back in 2011.
But I don’t want to let them down.
There are people who I know are dead
and people I suppose are dead
and people who I fear are dead
and dead people long forgotten
and dead people who never leave
excerpted from “There Are People Who I Know Are Dead”
My mother grew up during the war. She was 13 when Chinese communists and Korean dis-loyalists colluded a hostile takeover of her homeland.
After war (AP archives)
After having to leave the north where she was born, she never saw her home again. She never really talked about it, but I don’t think she knew what happened to her parents. And many of her siblings perished and were lost from her.
I remember mama
I didn’t grow up in war directly, but I was privy to the damage that it caused my mother as the pain and anger weeped out of her.
As a Korean child of Korean immigrants, I have conflicted feelings towards the Chinese and Japanese (along with the despot Kims of the North). And I have trust issues with white Americans, too. These conniving powers hell bent on destroying a small nation that just wanted to be left alone.
But what a phoenix Korea turned out to be: from the ashes born a creature of resilience and determination. Yes, we are.
War, illness and famine will make you their favorite grandchild.
You’ll be like a blind person watching a silent movie.
You’ll chop onions and pieces of your heart
into the same hot skillet.
Your children will sleep in a suitcase tied with a rope.
Your husband will kiss your breasts every night
as if they were two gravestones.
––excperted from “What the Gypsies Told My Grandmother While She Was Still a Young Girl” by Charles Simic
As a youngster I didn’t think about how I was on the road to old ladyhood the minute I came out of my mother’s uterus.
Still on Classon
The “good night” that Dylan Thomas was writing about is some serious shit. I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because I am afraid of dying. I know I am dying.
Three Hats on the go
What the fuck.
Another summer gone, the hills burned to burdock and
thistle, I hold you a moment in the cup of my voice,
you flutter in the frail cave of the finch, you lean to speak
in my ear and the first rains blow you away.
My mother spent many nights making dinner for me and my dad. Dinner was one of the few aspects of my confounding childhood that made sense: a small proof of normalcy. By 2011, my mother had mostly stopped cooking. I took this as a sign that she’d given up trying.
Making dinner 2013
But dementia takes away your life. My mother had been so vigilant about buying fresh ingredients so she could feed us real food, so when I see her not being able to feed herself, I find it devastating.
Making dinner 2007
I find the act of cooking and sharing food a great joy. When I make food for you, it means that I care about you. What I may not be able to express with words, I can say with dumplings.
Chez Anna & Paul, 2007
Just like I learned from my mother.
Children who grow up without having a warm rapport with their parents will most probably turn into parents no better than theirs. I am sure the short cut to a warm, close family is having meals together. The joy of working in the kitchen and setting the table for their family is a lesson children can learn only from their parents.
My parents left Korea in the early seventies and I am sorry for that. I wish I could have grown up with my big extended family and lived an uncomplicated life as a regular Korean person.
And then there was two
As a displaced person, I worked to extend my dysfunctional nuclear family to include the friends I managed to keep. And it was a smart thing to do because life is a better time when you are connected to good people.
Neither ready to live grown up lives, but rushing to marry because that’s what was expected.
Til death do us part
In their wedding pic, I swear my mom is bending a bit so she won’t tower over my father. I wonder how much she cared about. I was reading in Louise Bogan’s bio about how her mother shot up four inches past her father after they got married, and how her mother never forgave him for that.
They try to tell us we’re too young
In elementary school, a friend’s family invited me to be in her first communion ceremony and it looks like my mom thought it was a good idea. Crazy though because I don’t think my friend was old enough to marry God. Is anyone, really?
It’s a holy mystery
But look at my super-cute dress.
Sorrow is my own yard
where the new grass
flames as it has flamed
often before but not
with the cold fire
that closes round me this year.
I lived with my husband.
The plumtree is white today
with masses of flowers.
–– excerpted from “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime” by William Carlos Williams
I still remember the feeling of being lifted up and bathed in a pure light. An awakening.
Planting Fields Arboretum, Oyster Bay, NY
I bet that’s what flowers feel when they are about to burst open to the world after being asleep for all that time.
Camellia on the verge
I identified with Bogan as a poet who struggled to keep the demons of her childhood in check. Actually it was just one demon: her unstable mother who fought with her father, disappeared for regular stretches, and placed her in unsavory situations. You can read about these Mother-horror tales in Elizabeth Frank’s Bogan bio, but what it comes down to is the most harrowing feeling of being abandoned as a young child that probably scarred her the most. That scars all of us the most.
You split into the heat,
Swift beyond calculation or capture
You dart into the shadow
Which consumes you.
–– excerpted from “The Dragonfly” by Louise Bogan,