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 the trooper left the patrol car and sauntered to the out-of-towner’s window. Grandma sat reluctantly vindicated. She heard them on the TV too, sometimes. She couldn’t trust anyone, anywhere, and she certainly couldn’t trust them.
“They listen in the TV,” she informed my mother at a wide enough distance from the screen to prevent eavesdropping. Grandma didn’t, never will, explain who “they” were or why “they” would care.
She held back the flood.
* * *
My supposed or supposedly great-grandmother Ruth lived in either Pittsburgh or Virginia when the newlyweds, her son and his foreign bride, came to her in 1962 from Korea, a baby boy in tow.
My own mom has collected these incidentals, hoarded them in her heart, memorized any accidental omission of her parents’ past—but she cannot say if the beginning in America was Pittsburgh or Virginia. We do the math: Mom was born in Virginia in 1964, “I don’t know why I was born in Virginia,” she admits; Grandpa grew up in Pittsburgh; Ruth was involved in their lives for three years. But math can’t determine why or where, and we start to wonder if it really matters.
Upon his return, Grandpa was immediately deployed to Germany and left his young wife and son near his mother, Ruth, and her second husband. ‘Left’ is unfair because the Korean girl was—is—nothing if not enduring. He ‘left’ her with a house, and a car, and her convictions. But he also ‘left’ her speaking Korean and little to no English. What good are convictions if you can’t speak, read, or write them?
And so the two women did not communicate. Ruth wouldn’t understand her Korean ways of child-rearing, the way the Korean girl strapped the baby boy to her back with a podaegi, a quilted blanket wrapped under her waist and back, tied so tight beneath foreign breasts. Ruth questioned the Korean girl, offered intermittent help or criticism. Ruth let her husband monitor the bank account, the account the Korean girl could not access without him. Ruth let her husband control the checkbook her son had left his bride. Then Ruth let her husband dictate the use of the car her son had left as well.
Perhaps that’s how the baby boy ended up blind in one eye, a Tonka truck-inflicted injury, with no one stepping up to drive the war bride and the baby to the hospital. Someone, perhaps Ruth, called Social Services on Ko Won Soon, the Korean girl whose name means “Best and Strongest Water.” ‘Ruth’ means a feeling of grief, distress, or pity. The mother-in-law, my great-grandmother Ruth, had none of those for the Korean girl, the stranger, and so the blame was shifted and scattered. No one was blamed. Not legally, anyway.
My mom uncovered the following, held onto it: Grandpa’s tour was three years. For three unaccounted years, his wife and her babies lived near, but without the care of, his mother and stepfather and, as a result, they suffered a lifetime of unknowns or unspokens.
My mother does not prescribe the following, but she harbors it quietly: Ko Won Soon must have needed her own mother. The word need is insufficient; it lacks exigency, it lacks desperation in circumstance, but she must have needed to talk about the mewling baby on her back and the missing husband and the intrusive, judging, hateful white faces.
My grandpa returned to claim his new family from his old, and found them both in tatters. Just before he came back, Ruth was admitted to a mental hospital, perhaps due to delayed pity—or just guilt. The psychiatrist dispensed free medical advice, suggested to my grandpa that he take his family and leave, and never come back.
“No good,” Ko Won Soon whispered to the second-grade version of my mother, in the later safety of Colorado, my mother just home from the sunshine of Mrs. Allen’s class. By then, Ruth was more than half a country away, but my grandmother would never shake her fully. “She is the bad woman,” she would say to my mother if asked about grandparents. “Never talk to her.”
Grandma often gave my mom warnings in place of affection.
* * *
My mother was sixteen when she got her period. When she told Grandma, Ko Won Soon rushed away down the hall and returned with a huge box of Kotex pads. She opened the box and flung them at my mother’s head, one by one, a flurry of thick cotton and misplaced rage. The story is funny the way my mom tells it, pink pads flying at but just missing or grazing her frizzing curls, feminine products as weapons in my grandma’s hands.
When mom and I both grow up, when we fight as two adults, she will rage at me, jab her finger from her chest to the air in front of my face. She will want me to change, and I will be stubborn, resolute. She will admonish instead of validate, and many times she will be right. She will give warnings in place of affection. Sometimes she’ll shout in gasping breaths into the phone, choking on her own words until the point where the tears overcome and she has to hang up. She will get me a Hallmark card and write things like, “I’m sorry I can’t give you what you need. I can’t give you what I never got.” I should tell her I understand.
* * *
We were still three states from Ohio, Kansas plus three states from our history and our future, three states from a legacy of trying women, from a woman tried named Ruth, and because we were young, all four of us, we were quick to recover from the Kansas downpour. The Holidome was not a football stadium but a Holiday Inn, and the first hotel my siblings and I ever stayed in. The warm indoor pool waited just below the expectant navel of the dome, and we were happy, Daisy and I in our matching modest two-pieces, Ronnie jumping off the deep end, Mom dry and safe in a lounge chair.
There was something wrong with the air outside of the Holidome the next morning, a wet and sticky lingering. I noticed this before realizing the mountains were missing.
“Where are they?” I begged. “What’s wrong with the air?” My brother and sister and I had never left Colorado before. We were eight, nine, and ten, and we only knew imminent mountains on the horizon, invulnerable piles of stone, reliable trees. We only knew arid skies and thirsting skin. We left those things, geography that anchored and tethered, because of a woman named Ruth.
* * *
I have never seen my grandmother cry. I have heard her keen and wail, but never seen any tears on her face. Her face is set, and her happy face is the same as her thinking face or her hungry or sad. My mother is someone who will not cry in the times that demand it and someone who cannot stop crying at the most inconvenient of times.
I don’t remember anyone crying when Grandma went to California; I can’t remember if she went there before or after our journey to Ohio. I can’t locate the when and the why, and it’s not as though I could ask.
She had hoarded money for months in the top drawer of her dresser, hiding the bills between panties and knee-highs. She bought a ticket to Korea, and stole away in the night. When she’d left Seoul in 1962, the streets were dirt and the people were starving, rebuilding after war. She’d never seen it renewed—she never will. Her passport had expired long before; America took her in and now kept her and wouldn’t let go. She was forced back on a sunny day to the Colorado square she and my grandpa had built together, had settled in.
When Grandma came back from California, Grandpa had her committed, checked into some mental hospital, mumbled guilty words about “a break,” although he’s not a mumbler. Someone suggested it was the “Only way to keep her from leaving him,” but that was a conversation I was not supposed to hear. “I’m not crazy,” Ko Won Soon insisted. I asked why she left, but no one answered.
I watched my mom start searching for what my Grandma had presumably left Colorado for. The long-distance number she got from the Red Cross was correct, and the Koreans who answered the call knew my mother’s name—“Sujin!” they cheered, “Susan!” she cheered back—but the language barrier kept everything dark. Eventually, my mom stopped calling, or perhaps they stopped answering.
I’ve asked them if Grandma ever called her mom, wrote her family letters from America over the years, and if she did, why did they stop? “Yes,” they say, and hold the rest back.
The most I ever got on her was from her. Once I asked Grandma how they met, and she mentioned the market stall. A slow grin widened to her high cheekbones, gave permission to her voice. “Yes, you grandpa, he gonna buy socks from me.”
“Was he handsome, Grandma?”
“Well—he lookuh very clean.”
That was enough, all that was offered. She stayed resolute, and someone changed the subject. We don’t talk about the past in our family, that’s one thing we don’t.
She stayed in the hospital for less than a month after California and met us out front with dry eyes and depression. She went home medicated and leaned for hours against the kitchen sink, bewitched by something in the distance outside the window, lingering long after the dishes were clean.
She’s hovered there since, light and empty.
* * *
Missouri was all truck stops, fireworks stands, preaching billboards, and porn warehouses. The only safe place for us in Missouri was a Stuckey’s. Mom said she used to stop there with Grandma and Grandpa and her own brother and sister on road trips through the middle of America, though a part of me doubted my family existed outside of Colorado. Stuckey’s was exciting, though they were only convenience stores with Dairy Queens tucked inside and cheap state memorabilia haunting the aisles. They were A-framed and in disrepair and comforting in their sameness at any location. We were given a set amount to spend on items for our friends—we didn’t fail to notice the strain on our mother’s face each time she used the credit card—and I chose four porcelain clowns that would be terrifying to behold in a few years: their tufts of hair fell out in neon colors, their harlequin attire, satin in sheen but roughly hewn, would fade and thin. At ten, I mistook them for beautiful.
We could not see the difference between Illinois and Indiana. They were the same but for a huge Converse high-top on the side of the interstate somewhere near Indianapolis. Our dad wore Converse, clean and white, but the immense side-of-the-road shoe was classic black and well over ten feet tall. It was an advertisement for a basketball museum, or perhaps it was the basketball museum, and Mom finally agreed to stop there either on the way to Ohio or on the way back from Ohio, which made a difference because we were different people coming and going. The museum was not well-lit and smelled like a library book that hadn’t been checked out in some time. We hurried through, ready to move on from the displays and old photographs that didn’t quite live up to the promise of that shoe. But now that I try to remember the museum, perhaps we didn’t really stop there at all.
* * *
There is this picture of my grandma and me, but I don’t recognize us. She is wearing a striped, summery blouse, her lipstick is strawberry stain, her hair is permed and perfect. The mustard-yellow dial phone hangs on the wall behind her, and she sits next to that trash compactor that no longer comes with every house and mobile home. It is 1984, and she is beaming. I am the first grandbaby in her arms—mid-flail, a wild-eyed, translucent baby—and I am the promise of new, though I look like her husband, or perhaps her husband’s mother, the white woman who rejected her for not being white.
“Yes, I watch you, you cry cry cry for mommy,” she used to tell me. “When you walk, she leave you, you run to door, you cry, cry, cry. You throw your arms at the door, you cry till you throw up.”
There is another picture of her, her lips always red, her cheekbones biting through her cheeks, and I put it in my wallet when I am an adult and I decide to be flexible and move to Korea. I need to look for her, and I need to look for my mother and for me, though we are all standing in a room together in Colorado. My mother salutes while my grandma scoffs. “Yah, why you gonna go to Korea? Why you wanna go there?”
Because I am needing something more, a touchstone—a definition.
“To teach. To explore and learn,” I say, and leave it at that.
* * *
Ohio had a grocery store called “Kroger’s.” We wanted to know where the Safeway and Albertson’s were, King Sooper’s or even Cub Foods. Mom explained that different parts of the world had different stores, and Daisy and Ronnie and I understood this but didn’t accept it. Every state, from Kansas on, had been missing mountains and that lighter Colorado air. It seemed unnecessary that the states also had incorrect grocery stores.
We discussed this for several miles, and Mom, whose frame varied between wilting and rigid, wrestled a renewed energy or foreboding.
“I am the black sheep,” she said to the car, to the humid air. We were accidental ears. “I am the trouble-maker, and no one understands why I need to meet her. They won’t understand why I don’t just leave it alone.”
When we found her, Ruth was ancient, in her 80s or 90s. I didn’t feel as though I could call her ‘Great-Grandma’ whether it was out of some unidentified loyalty, or because she was a stranger. We also had a great step-aunt, who was only in her forties, who was very eager to be family, to atone for sins no one was—or ever will be—willing to excavate or take responsibility for.
Mom waited on the old floral and plastic-coated couch and held Ruth’s veiny hands in hers, and I couldn’t tell who was fortune-telling. Ruth didn’t have her teeth in, and that was the only thing recognizable about her, the way her lips caved and quivered. My grandpa’s did that too when he left the dentures out.
She fed us macaroni and cheese from a box and covered it with ketchup, and our mom looked over her shrunken body as she plated the mess for each of her great-grandchildren. Our mom’s look was a warning or a plea, and so we ate and spoke only polite things, and Ruth’s empty mouth creased into a deep-cut smile.
We slipped away from the tab