I’m Depending on You to Tell Me the Truth
It’s a ship, not a boat, and everything is Technicolor because it’s 1962 and though my grandpa and my newborn uncle should be with her, she’s by herself, risking the depths, and she’s wearing a fuchsia scarf, Korea at her back.
I know they must have come by plane. The Army would not have sent them on a boat, my grandpa and his war bride and their new American boy. But I cannot ask them for clarification, and I can only infer the year. He would get angry and tell me to stop prying. She would stare up at the ceiling from her place on the couch in the den and say, “Yah. That’s a long time ago.” We don’t discuss the dreadful past in this family. That’s a long time ago.
So she is on a boat. Her family must see her off: “Bon Voyage,” they yell, though they are haggard and war-torn and not remotely French. They clutch white handkerchiefs in their hands at their sides and surrender their daughter to America—or perhaps they negotiated a trade? They can’t be asked for confirmation. They never will be.
Perhaps she makes eye contact with her mother then. Perhaps their fated eyes lock. (They did. They must have.) They do not speak a word; they say too much.
My grandma’s mouth is set and so is her final destination. She suspects she will never see her mother again, or Korea, and she is right.
* * *
We didn’t know our grandparents had parents of their own. It turned out—in 1995, when I was ten—there was still one left, waiting in Ohio. “Ruth. Your great-grandmother is Ruth,” our mother explained from the driver’s seat. She couldn’t tell us more than that because she had never been allowed to meet Ruth. So we stole away to Ohio, a covert haul our Korean grandmother would never—will never—find out about.
I perched in the front with our mom because she is our first, and she needed a second. Daisy and Ronnie found a barrel full of monkeys in the back of the rented sedan, something the previous passengers may have left behind as a warning or plea. They hooked the monkeys over the safety handle above the window, the “Holy Shit!” handle my dad would have called it if he were driving. If he had been driving, I would have been stuck in the back between my siblings. He wasn’t there though; he was somewhere with some other woman, and the divorce had been final for over a year.
It was just the four of us in the rental car we would never own in real life. Our mother was rail-thin but not frail, and young but not naïve, and she needed something more, a touchstone, a definition, so we drove east, towards the sunrise.
* * *
I’ve deduced Grandpa and Grandma were stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado in 1972, around the time my mom entered second grade. She went to Mesa Elementary, and was taught by Mrs. Allen. I would also be taught by Mrs. Allen. We often ate lunch together because in class I kept enacting my parents, who were always splintering or gluing themselves back together, as families do. Mrs. Allen and I shared Symphony bars at a tiny table in her goldenrod classroom, a chocolate token of gratitude sent in with a scrawled napkin note from my always trying mother.
Colorado was a neutral place my grandma and grandpa could settle in, a safe little shoreless square wherein they bought a brand new trailer and parked it on a tinier square lot. They created new traditions and dressed their three kids with clothes from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. They could convince themselves they didn’t need their own mothers, that family was amorphous, that common ground and understanding were decided upon if not inherent.
Their own version of family was a melting pot on a stove in a trailer with a solid trash-compactor, a cheerful mustard-colored dial-phone. Their girls slept in bunk beds, and their son had his own room, and the den could be wall-papered with a promising mountain landscape. The cuckoo clock could tick forever next to false blue sky.
* * *
Mom drove us nine hours from Fountain, Colorado straight through to Lawrence, Kansas. Instead of making it to Missouri, Mom pulled over at a tiny convenience store, steeled herself against the steering wheel, and sprinted out into the rain. The day started sunny in Colorado—it always does in Colorado—but it was getting late. The sun burned off the last of the blue, and the rain tried to carry us off the road into the cornfields. The Counting Crows CD lost its charm somewhere back at the state border, and the barrel full of monkeys rattled around at my siblings feet. We were quiet. We are never quiet.
We watched the rain cascade down the windshield and waited for our constant mother to appear. She did, choking the neck of a two-liter of Mountain Dew with one hand, shielding her wet eyes with the other. Mom teetered on the first of several road-trip near-breakdowns, and her anxiety lingered between us above the arm rest and gear shift, a fuzzy static electricity, until she broke: “We’re staying at the Holidome.”
We didn’t stay in ‘H’ for hotels; we stayed in ‘M’ for motels. I knew this because I latched onto our dos and don’ts so I could anchor or tether. I clung to them, those “Holy Shit!” handles, because my mom is flexible and changing, and I am more like my Korean grandma, who is resolute, like a dam.
Once, on another road trip through Kansas, in a different decade and a different car, my mom listened to her own parents bicker over the speed limit and the law. Grandpa chose ninety in a seventy-five while Grandma insisted they would know: “Through the radio, they will know.”
Minutes later, they waited on the side of the interstate as th