Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Dear blobbists, in keeping with a new trend, I have created this found plot poem for you, strung from lines in the novel. Enjoy!
How far back does one's memory of someone go?
Mom, who had been left behind at Seoul Station, disappeared as if she were a figment of a dream.
She didn't have time to lie in bed sick, she had too much to do.
Everything your wife touched became fertile and bloomed, grew and bore fruit.
Either a mother and daughter know each other very well, or they are strangers.
You all blamed each other for Mom's going missing, and you all felt wounded.
Only after she disappeared did she come to you tangibly, as if you could reach out and touch her.
Only after Mom went missing did you realize that her stories were piled inside you, in endless stacks.
You won't be able to find the answer to why this happened to me.
Remaining a member of this family even in death would be too much and too hard. I lived with this family for over fifty years; please let me go now.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
Good evening, dear readers! I hope that you are cozy and snug when you read this, though most of you will likely not come across this post at the late hour when I am penning it.
This book was lovely. With this second round of books, I have been taking my time ('Don't blob in a rush!' as Grandma would say ;0) and after I finish a book, especially a really good one, I marinate in it and on it for a while. It's been several weeks since I finished, and it keeps resonating in my mind. Perhaps that's the sign that it is a great novel. Not only did it touch me when I read it, but it comes back to me in the moments when I am simply living my life, like an old friend stopping by for tea on a rainy day.
Do you have a moment, readers? I'd very much like to tell you about this book, and why I enjoyed it so much. Grab some tea and a soybean cake, or cocoa and a muffin if that's more your speed, and settle in.
July 24th - Mom's birthdate
I chose to read this book for a number of reasons. (1) I had very few East Asian authors on my first list (wait - strike that. I just double-checked. None, in fact.) (2) I wanted to read more books by women, and (3) I felt this particular book struck a chord since I have not one, not two, but three good friends who were adopted from South Korea, all by white families. Understandably, they all have complex and personal identities and relationships with their families, biological and adopted, and each are badass ladies who make me feel lucky to be their friend. In any case, the idea of a mother gone missing, and a daughter telling that story, felt like a kind of strange inverse to what I imagine their mothers must have felt, in handing their daughters over to someone else, willingly, unwillingly, or somewhere in between.
What I found was a striking amount of similarities to my own relationship and kinship with my mother (surprise surPrise!). As I've said before, that's what I love about this project. That I can pick up a book looking for or expecting one thing, and get that idea turned on its head, rainbow-colored, and topsy-turvy spit back at me.
Case in point, one of the first things we learn about "Mom", who is 69 when she goes missing (I won't share my mom's age here (she's still turning 55 every year, after all) but it's in a general vicinity of that number) and that her birth date is July 24th. Which is my mother's birthdate. I mean, seriously. What are the odds? I know that lots of people must have mothers who were born on July 24th, but it felt strangely symbolic to me.
Can we be the mothers we had?
I don't have children yet, and don't know exactly what my family will look like in the future, but I often wonder if I can make the same sacrifices my mother made, or show the same tenderness in so many ways that she did. I'm sure every mother looks back and sees her flaws, or what she could have done better, but honestly all I see when I look at my mother is pure love. From learning the violin with us to teaching our 4-H classes, to substitute teaching so she could keep the same school day hours as us, she was and is a mother through and through. Here's the narrator (well, one of several, but kind of the main one, one of Mom's daughters, a writer) reflecting on this herself:
- Since she went missing, I often think: Was I a good daughter? Could I do the kind of things for my kids she did for me?
In this story, Mom raised her kids to go out into the big world and do great things, and laid the groundwork for them to surpass her in terms of finance, literacy, education, you name it. Mom is from the countryside, and all of her children relocate to the city. Here are a few lines that illustrate this growing distance between Mom and her children:
- It was difficult to talk to her about your life, which had nothing to do with hers. If you've noticed the point of view changing, you're not crazy. The narrator alternates with each chapter, moving through the family. When the daughter writes, it's in second person ("your life", "you couldn't say you knew Mom.")
- Mom would try as hard as she could to lengthen the call when you phoned. This line made me so sad. I've never felt obligated to call my mother, and it breaks my heart to think of Mom in the book, grasping desperately at connections with her children she loves so much.
- This isn't the only thing that you got me to do for the first time. Everything you do is a new world for me. Mom experiences all kinds of new things, especially with her eldest son, Hyong-chol, when he moves to the city.
- She always brings rice cakes for your birthday. So I said, Don't, nobody eats those rice cakes anyway, and we just take them home and put them in the freezer. I told her not to act like a country bumpkin, she should just go to Seoul without bringing anything. She asked me if I really stuck all the rice cakes in the freezer, so I said, yes, I even have some that are three years old. And she cried. This passage really gets me. There was something about it that just felt so familiar, like I was standing in the kitchen after Thanksgiving and my mom was offering me leftovers, only I imagined myself saying "stop giving me things" and watching my mother cry gently into the kitchen sink. When mother goes missing, everyone thinks about the ways they took her for granted, the ways she loved them and they wronged her, and hearing the daughter relive this moment was gut-wrenching for me. I wanted to slap her and say, "Don't you dare leave those rice cakes in the freezer! Eat the rice cakes your mother made for you!" But I also knew what it would feel like to re-examine every mean thing I've ever said.
"What was I doing when Mom was left behind on that unfamiliar subway-station platform, having failed to get on the train with Father?"
- It's the first time you've desperately searched for your wife. Did she look for you like this every time you left home?
Ancestral rites and Full Moon Harvest
I really enjoyed this book because it felt simultaneously very far away and very intimate for me. Some of the concepts or locations were places I'd never been to or heard of, but the relationships were so very much the same, and the feelings so universal. I loved the discussion of how they prepared for ancestral rites and Full Moon Harvest, and they made me think of traditions in my own family.
- It was a typical winter scene, you and your mom squatting by the well that was covered in thin ice, skinning the skate.
- When the persimmon tree didn't bear fruit; when one of your brothers, who was playing a stick-toss game, got poked in the eye by a flying stick; when Father was hospitalized; when cousins fought - Father's sister grumbled that it was because Mom hadn't bothered to skin the skate for the ancestral rites. I love this. Mom decides at some point that she's tired of skinning the skate (it's a kind of fish - see right), and of course then all the bad luck is attributed to her not skinning the skate. #can'twin #youskintheskatethen
- Pasting on new door paper was the true start of fall and the beginning of Full Moon Harvest.
There's a beautiful aysmmetry to the idea that the main narrator is a writer (and a rather famous one) but we slowly discover that Mom couldn't read.
- She had never once set foot in the world of letters.
- You had never even thought of reading your wife your daughter's books. Her husband could read, but it doesn't occur to him that Mom might want to experience that. He doesn't find out until well after she's been missing that she was having a volunteer at an orphanage read her daughter's books to her.
This book is about a lot of things, but it really centers on this idea that the family didn't realize how central Mom was, or how much they needed her and relied on her, until she just vanished into thin air. Here are four lines from her husband, in particular:
- You left this house whenever you wanted to, and came back at your whim, and you never once thought that your wife would be the one to leave.
- If your wife would just come back, you would make not only seaweed soup but also pancakes for her. On realizing he never cooked for her a day in his life.
- You realize how selfish you were to wish that your wife survived you.
- Once in a while, when your wife said her stomach hurt, you were the kind of person who would reply, 'My back hurts.'
Once again, just as I started thinking, oh, this book takes place in South Korea, it will be most likely be quite different than my lived experience, wham! I read this line:
When every student was instructed to bring in the tail of a mouse to show that everyone had captured a mouse at home on mouse-catching days, other children's moms caught a mouse and cut off the tail and wrapped it up in paper to take to school. But Mom shrank away from even hearing about it. A woman of sturdy build, she couldn't bring herself to catch a mouse. If she went to the shed to get some rice and encountered a mouse, she would scream and run outside. Aunt would glare disapprovingly and cluck at Mom when she rushed out of the shed, red-faced.And guess what I had just seen? A mouse of my very own. In my house. And did I capture it for mouse-catching day? No. Like Mom, I shrank away and screamed. And then I trotted my cat out and plopped her in the kitchen to deal with it. (And she yawned, and walked away.)
Mom is an industrious worker of the earth, which is why I loved getting to see her enjoy it for beauty's sake:
The first spring after Hyong-chol bought his house, Mom visited and suggested they go buy roses. Roses? When the word came out of his mom's mouth he had to ask, 'You do mean roses?' as if he'd misheard her.Your mom's house was like a factory.
'Red roses. Why? Isn't there a place that sells them?'
He had never seen Mom plant something to look at, not to harvest and eat, like beans or potatoes or seedlings of cabbage or radishes or peppers.
This brought me back to my mom so vividly I could smell the pies in the oven, or the strawberries being mashed into jam, or taste the pure tomatoes from the vine, before or after they were canned. I loved that while the food Mom makes is pretty wildly different from what my mom makes, each woman is master of her culinary domain.
- She would grind red peppers in the mortar to make kimchi, sift through beanstalks to find beans and shuck them, make red-pepper paste, salt cabbage for winter kimchi, or dry fermented soybean cakes.
- You had never thought of Mom as separate from the kitchen. Mom was the kitchen and the kitchen was Mom.
- She paid only for things that could not be grown from seeds.
Chindo - a breed of hunting dog that originated on Jindo Island in South Korea. Brought to the United States with South Korean expatriates, it is celebrated in its native land for its fierce loyalty and brave nature.
majigi - a unit of measure in Korea. One majigi is the amount of land that can be sowed with one mal (bushel) of seed, or approximately 1/2 acre, depending on crop and land quality.
makgoli - a milky, off-white, lightly sparkling rice wine that tastes slightly sweet, tangy, bitter, and astringent.
soju - a clear, colorless distilled beverage of Korean origin. It is usually consumed neat, and its alcohol content varies from about 16.8% to 53% alcohol by volume.
Referents and Reverberations (lines that made me think of other books)
The Diary of a Young Girl
At one point, Mom says: "'How can you live without trusting people? There are more people who are good than people who are bad!" And she smiled her typical optimistic smile." and that made me think of dear Anne, and the people in the world being, after all, mostly good.
This line had a very Proustian air to it:
"Do you think that things happening now are linked to things from the past and things in the future, it's just that we can't feel them? I don't know, could that be true?"To the Lighthouse
"Even a good house falls apart quickly when nobody stops by. A house is alive only when there are people living in it, brushing against it, staying in it."Reminded me of these lines describing the summer home being 'recalled to life':
"The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sandhill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it. The long night seemed to have set in; the trifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed. The saucepan had rusted and the mat decayed."
So with the house empty and the doors locked and the mattresses rolled round, those stray airs, advance guards of great armies, blustered in, brushed bare boards, nibbled and fanned, met nothing in bedroom or drawing-room that wholly resisted them but only hangings that flapped, wood that creaked, the bare legs of tables, saucepans and china already furred, tarnished, cracked. What people had shed and left—a pair of shoes, a shooting cap, some faded skirts and coats in wardrobes—those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated; how once hands were busy with hooks and buttons; how once the looking-glass had held a face; had held a world hollowed out in which a figure turned, a hand flashed, the door opened, in came children rushing and tumbling; and went out again. Now, day after day, light turned, like a flower reflected in water, its sharp image on the wall opposite. Only the shadows of the trees, flourishing in the wind, made obeisance on the wall, and for a moment darkened the pool in which light reflected itself; or birds, flying, made a soft spot flutter slowly across the bedroom floor.
They might be coming for the summer; had left everything to the last; expected to find things as they had left them. Slowly and painfully, with broom and pail, mopping, scouring, Mrs. McNab, Mrs. Bast, stayed the corruption and the rot; rescued from the pool of Time that was fast closing over them now a basin, now a cupboard; fetched up from oblivion all the Waverley novels and a tea-set one morning; in the afternoon restored to sun and air a brass fender and a set of steel fire-irons. George, Mrs. Bast's son, caught the rats and cut the grass. Attended with the creaking of hinges and the screeching of bolts, the slamming and banging of damp-swollen woodwork some rusty laborious birth seemed to be taking place, as the women, stooping, rising, groaning, singing, slapped and slammed, upstairs now, now down in the cellars. Oh, they said, the work!"
"There were summer nights when, one by one, they fell asleep stretched over one another, waiting for the buns to cook. While they were sleeping, I would finish steaming the rest of the buns, put them in a basket, cover it, leave it on the platform, and go to sleep; the dawn dew slightly hardened the outside of the steamed buns. As soon as they woke up, the children would pull the basket toward them and eat some more. That's why my children still like cold steamed buns, the outsides slightly hardened. There were summer nights like that. Summer nights with stars pouring down from the sky."reminded me of this scene with the Master and Margarita:
"During the Maytime storms, when streams of water gushed noisily past the blurred windows, threatening to flood their last refuge, the lovers would light the stove and bake potatoes. The potatoes steamed, and their charred skins blackened their fingers. There was laughter in the basement, and in the garden the trees would shed broken twigs and white clusters of flowers after the rain."I hope I've conveyed even an iota of the tenderness that this novel evokes in its readers. Please do grab a copy if you haven't already read it, and I won't spoil the ending by telling you all of its secrets. I'll leave you with a few thoughts from Mom:
- Mom expressed gratitude for the small moments of happiness that everyone experienced.
- Don't be sad for me. I was happy so many days of my life because I had you.
Keep each other safe. Look after Mom. Keep each other safe. Good night.