My mom wrote a book
In case anyone was wondering what a retired widow does with her time. Plus, whoever wrote Lane's wedding scene on Gilmore Girls really nailed the Korean-ness of it.
“Jenny, don’t call me between 7 and 10am. This is my writing time.”
This is what I was greeted with one morning about 14 months ago when I called my mother on the phone. I didn’t think anything of it as I assumed she was journaling or taking up some sort of hobby in her recent official retirement from her company. I mean, everyone can use a good, cathartic journaling session, am I right? But about a month later, she slipped into our phone conversation an announcement that she was writing a book. Oh you know, just a casual mention sandwiched between other mundane bits of back and forth dialogue between us.
“A book? About what?” I ask, not really absorbing this bit of news quite yet. Lots of people say they are writing books.
“I’m writing about my spiritual journey—my life.”
I find myself mentally chewing on this information and filing it away while babbling some words of encouragement because I still am not really processing what I had just heard.
Many months later, with barely any mentions of the book since, I receive a text with three small images of what looks like design proofs for a book cover.
“Which do you like best? It’s for my book,” my mom asks.
I stare at the three thumbnails, finally realizing that when my mom said she was writing a “book”, she meant that she was WRITING A BOOK—the kind that was going to be published and distributed and potentially read by tens? hundreds?? thousands??? of people. I open the images on my phone one by one, trying my best to read the title and other copy in Korean.
“You should use the last one,” I text her back, not convinced my opinion is going to have any weight on her selection.
This book, the title/subtitle which roughly translates to “Miracles Flowing; Essays on Faith”, has been sitting on my desk for 2 months now, a first batch release copy that my mom has signed and given to me. I couldn’t tell you what the book is about though, because even though I can phonetically read every word, I am not yet fluent in Korean. I know this sounds absurd. I am reminded every day I see the book on my desk, that I have in my possession what is essentially a memoir written by my mother that I can’t fully read. It sits there almost mocking me, its pages full of secrets, family history, and who knows what other nuggets of information about my mother that is unbeknownst to me. Or…maybe it’s not really about our family at all. Maybe it’s entirely dedicated to her spiritual practice and her belief in God. Or her charity work…or…something else?
I don’t know!
In some ways, I’m afraid to know what’s inside. This book that she could only write once my dad was gone. This book that, I assume, was her way of processing the tragic events of her life story as a triumph of her faith and what she used it for. This book that is a celebration of her survival and release from an imprisoned life with my dad. We have so many family secrets—unspoken truths that we are ashamed to talk about. How much did she reveal? Are there interpretations of events in the retelling of our family history that I’m going to disagree with? If so, how am I going to feel? Are there things in this book that is going to make me angry? Am I totally projecting what I think this book is about??
If you read my last post, then you have read that religion has played a huge role in my mother’s life and that it was the most contentious thing in my parents’ tumultuous marriage. I’m not a particularly religious person; I have complicated feelings about it. I often find myself checked out whenever she starts talking to me about God or how she can “pray away her pain,” which isn’t often. I’m thankful that she’s not preachy about it, as she’s decided long ago that religion wasn’t “my thing” and that it’s the big difference between her and me. I’m grateful that her Christianity hasn’t been a polarizing force between us like it has for some families, especially in recent years, and that politicallywe are more or less on the same page. I still marvel at the fact that she didn’t insist the kids get baptized and that she loves them unconditionally even though I am raising heathens. All this to say, I can’t deny the role that religion has played in keeping my mother’s spirit and sanity alive. Her faith became an ironclad shield that not only helped her cling to life, but thrive in ways that sometimes seemed unhumanly possible. It saved her. For that I am grateful.
“Did you read it yet?” she asks me a week after she gives me the book. My mother and I are fairly different people, but the one thing we have in common is our unwavering impatience that when we want things done, we need them to happen now.
“Uh..no. My Korean isn’t good enough, so I can’t really understand what I’m reading.”
I detect a subtle change in my mom’s facial expression, one that could be read as a slight show of disappointment.
“I’m learning Korean again, mom. I will, I promise,” I assure her.
A few weeks ago, my mom had her book launch party. She had never done anything like this before, so she had many questions to ask me.
“What do I serve?”
“Am I supposed to read something from the book?”
“It’s going to cost $1000 to cater food. That’s too much! Can I just serve cookies? Can Mark make the cookies?”
The day before the event she calls me.
“Jenny, make sure the kids dress nice and you wear makeup.”
“Mom!!! Why do you have to remind me to wear makeup? That is so annoying.”
“Because you never do. You can put something on your face, to look nice.”
I hang up the phone and immediately yell out to the kids, “Halmi
When we arrive at the Korean Community Center in Queens the next day, we enter a banquet room with a stage and a dozen large round tables, each with a centerpiece comprised of water bottles anchoring bunches of helium balloons. Alongside the back wall are several long tables filled with food: sandwiches cut in half, trays of California rolls, dried fruits and nuts, cheese, meats, crackers, and cups of cut-up fruit. We carry the tray of cookies, brownies, and bars that Mark baked and are immediately directed by an army of Korean women on how and where to arrange them. Mark eventually surrenders the cookies and lets them take over the plating.
There must have been around 200 people there. It was standing room only at one point. I suppress thoughts that this is a super spreader event and take it all in. Instead, I look around at the 200 people who have read or will soon read this book that I haven’t yet read.
The service is long with several speakers who go up on stage, all speaking in Korean. My mom later tells me that she suggested people speak for 5 minutes each, but most of them take 15 or more. About an hour and 10 minutes in, after my mom takes the stage, somebody in the back makes a motion to wrap it up. It occurs to me then that we have a time limit on this space. We finally get to the reception portion of the evening and the orderly food lines move quickly. On my aunt’s plate is a slice of cake. Oddly, she is the only one that I see with a slice of cake on her plate and I make a mental note to find the cake later. After some photo-taking and various small talk with people who I’m supposed to remember, but sadly don’t, we get summoned to the front of the room for one more photo with just our family. As we sit there posing for the photo, a sudden energy shift ripples across the room. People start rushing up from their seats to the food tables with the same army of women shoveling leftovers on plates and pushing them onto people as they make their way to the exits.
What is happening?
“Jenny, grab the orchids!” my mom loudly instructs above the commotion as a crew suddenly appears, clearing tables and folding chairs. There are half a dozen very large orchid plants and many large bouquets of flowers.
“Wait, which ones?”
“Doesn’t matter! Take whichever ones you want. Just take!”
As we’re grabbing the plants, the back wall of this 20+ foot ceiling room dramatically begins to open, parting down the center like Moses parting the sea. The walls retract further and further apart to reveal a whole other half of this banquet hall. On the other side, tables upon tables of children dressed in taekwondo uniforms and their families quietly stare back at us, the back of their wall lined with gleaming, golden trophies, gift bags, and bouquets of celebratory balloons. Our event had run a bit over and they were patiently waiting for theirs to begin.
This is amazing!! I exclaim to myself as I gather our belongings.
Amidst the chaos of cleanup and the frenzy of people rushing out, I notice a very large empty rectangular cardboard box where the cake must have been. Where did that enormous cake go?
A woman, who introduces herself as the mother of a good friend of mine from my neighborhood (what a coincidence), comes up to me, uncovers the napkin on her plate and shows me a sizable pile of cookies.
“I love Mark’s cookies. I take all home. Don’t tell anybody.”
Later that evening, my friend texts me a photo of the cookies that her mother sends her, artfully arranged again on a plate.
In the car, I think about what had just transpired, still high off the exhilaration of the room reveal as we quietly drive home. The only sound in the car is of my youngest child chewing on a sandwich, as she is the only one of us to think of piling food on a plate in that mad scramble to exit the venue.
As we drive on the L.I. Expressway, I think about how all those people came to support my mom in an event to celebrate what feels like the culmination of her life story and philanthropic work. I doubt I could even fill a few of those tables and I feel a fleeting pang of jealousy. What does it feel like to be admired and loved by so many? I couldn’t be more proud to be there, especially after all those years during my childhood when my mom received industry and community awards alone without the family present, the evidence clear from all the plaques and framed certificates that would periodically appear on our shelves. But clearly, she was never alone. You may see accolades of women leaders in your Linkedin feeds—those 40 Over 40 or 30 Under 30 lists, but you rarely read about the leaders in local communities who work quietly in the background of American society to build the networks and support that help make the backbone of this country run.
As for me and the book, it will probably take years before I fully understand the words she has written. I recognize that it will be painfully slow as my journey in relearning what was barely my native language is a long process. Instead, I’ll savor her book unfolding in layers, filling in the gaps of my own knowledge of our history together, and apart.
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I am a Jennifer, and my mom and other members of my family still call my Jenny.
My mom was a Republican until the 2004 election. She changed parties and voted for Obama. My mom was devastated when Hillary lost the election and both my parents were harsh critics of Trump. She now wonders how she was ever a Republican given the values that the party now has come to represent.
“Halmi” is what my kids call their grandmother. It is a shortened version of Halmoni, which we just truncated when the kids were learning how to talk so they can pronounce it more easily.
When my father was in his mid 80s, he said he was making audio tapes about his life that he wanted only his wife, my sister, and me to listen to after he died. I urged him to let us listen to them while he was alive so he could answer any questions we might have, and he did so. The recordings are a wonderful gift to us, but my request was an equally precious gift because he was able to see our nonjudgmental reaction to some of his prior secrets, and our love for him was undiminished.
I can only imagine the enormity of your commitment to relearn Korean, but I urge you to do everything you can to read or otherwise somehow understand the content of your mother's book as quickly as you can. Your appreciation of it is likely to be among the greatest gifts you could give your mother, and I don't want you to miss the opportunity of giving her that gift.
Thank you for the story and for your lovely way of telling it. Did you ever find out what that cake was??
I love that moms can still be mysterious