Photos courtesy of the author.
As a kid, I hated going to Macy’s on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, New York with Umma (Korean for Mother). She would haggle in broken English no matter how many times I told her this wasn’t Namdaemun market. “Stop Umma!” I enjoined, her, “The price on the tag is the final price!” She would, nevertheless, nag the pimply salesperson, “No. Twenty. Too much! No, no. Ten. Ten. I buy.” I would hide behind mannequins, but those stick thin ivory skinned ladies never provided any coverage.
I am 45 and we don’t go to Macy’s anymore because it’s been replaced by a Chinese shopping center. If we were to go now, she would probably haggle and win. I wish I stood by her when I was seven.
Growing up, on Sunday afternoons our house was standing room only. My dad was a pastor of a Korean immigrant church, so our home was the fellowship hall after our rental hours of the colonial church was done. I loved playing all day with my friends from Sunday school. We ran through the house in winter and took over the block in summer. Scents of japchae, kimchee, bulgogi, doenjang jjigae wafted through the house. Men chatted in the living room and women in the kitchen chopped and chatted. When the last kid left with their parents, I went to bed. I heard the muffled sound of my dad and umma talking with a lingering church member, sometimes just themselves. It was the white noise that soothed me to sleep.
One Sunday, after I returned from college, half of the congregation didn’t show up. Umma cried all week. I heard her plead over the phone, “But we have been through so much!” Was she talking to the single umma she helped with the grocery? Or the family she drove around to find an apartment? A Samonim, pastor’s wife, was more intimate with congregants then the pastor. Did she hold them as friends? It must be strange to lose so many friends in one day. I didn’t see many of them until my grandma’s funeral. And there was the elder and the elder’s wife, who orchestrated the walkout, holding Umma’s hands.
Umma embraced her role as Samonim, serving with a luminous smile. I never bought it. I judged it the face an Umma puts to protect her child from worries, even when her child became an adult and knows that life forces roles on you. Come Sunday morning, she was smiling.
I asked her often, “Are you happy?” And I never believed her when she beamed, “Yes!”
“Tell me the truth.”
“I’m happy. This is my calling, what I like to do!” Her smile is beautiful; so sincere and inscrutable.
She was (and still is) the most beautiful Samonim in all of New York.
My dad said to me several times, when he believed I was at the marriageable age, “Beauty matters! Wherever I go, I am so proud to walk with her,” and Umma blushes. It was hard to tell whether he was boasting of his trophy wife or praising his beloved.
Umma has a symmetrical soft curved face with almond-shaped eyes. In a picture where she is holding me as one year old, her face is thinner. I can see why my dad pushed his parents to set a wedding day the day he first met her.
Her beauty wasn’t ostentatious. She never flaunted her beauty — the subtlest of makeup, barely noticeable – except in one place: her hair. She used half of a canhalf-a-can of hairspray every day until her hair stood up pompadour, like Marilyn Monroe, and able to withstand hurricanes. She never stepped out of her house without the proper primping of her hair.
When Daniel, the second of two sons, became more environmentally conscious after a year in college, he warned her that her immoderate use of hairspray is destroying the ozone layer. She smiled, made a visor out of her left hand and sprayed until there was a thick halo around her. Daniel and I ran out of the room coughing.
At her 70th birthday, she told the family and friends gathered at Samwongak that whenever her husband hurried her because they were late, she threatened, “I can live without you but I can’t live without my hairspray!” Dad, balding and now skinnier than me, smiled and nodded saying, “Yes, she says that to me a lot.”
I love this story! It forces a revision of the story I created about her. She is a stronger person than I judged her. The irony hits me as I am writing this, that even as I wish she was more of her own person, whenever she claims that she was, I did not buy it. I believed she was not capable of carving out a place for herself with the numerous spheres of power pressing upon her: America pushing against her Koreaness, the Korean immigrant church squeezing out her individuality, the concoction of sexism (from the church, the Korean culture, and American society) suffocating her womanhood. Yet even as those stars came crashing into her, there she was, a tiny fierce planet, a Korean American woman, who was more than each of those identifiers, and who wore her hair the way she wanted, husband, traditions and the ozone layer be damned.
She wears a wig now. When I Kakaotalk her, she answers without showing her face. She says, “Hold on,” and gets her wig on before appearing on the screen.
I joke with her, “Do you regret all that hair spray?”