Him

I took the hand of the man I mistook for my dad. I walked half a block beside him. My top of the head was about at his waistline, and my small hand disappeared in his large hand. A wrong feeling crawled over me and looked up, and he wasn’t my dad. A stranger who had similar clothes. Instantly, I was terrified and frantically looked around. My dad was just a little behind, grinning at me who hopped a few steps ahead and took the hand of a wrong man. I was embarrassed for my brief horror that I had thought I had lost my father. How could he lose me? I knew it couldn’t happen. Even though I was six years old at that time, I knew it. But as I grew, I did start to lose him. My indifference toward my father grew from that of a little girl as I became a woman.

If I think back over my childhood, I always remember my dad associated with some sort of sounds, even though he didn’t talk much. To amuse his little daughter, he used to pick up a thick leaf of a garden plant, roll it up, put it between his lips, and make sounds like a simple song. He played harmonica in the leisurely evenings, sitting on a big rock or a step. I saw his head and shoulders swaying with the rhythm he was playing through the garden door from our living room. He played many many songs I didn’t know and still don’t know. But I can hear those melodies if I recall those times as warm moist hands stroked my cheeks. I found that the tune of the harmonica made the soul tender, which I often resisted at that time, and thought the instrument suited only for a soldier in the lone nights at an army base.

As a child, I had lots of free time. I used to look through the album jackets of his LP music collection. They always looked funny and outdated to me. The women singers’ faces were flat and white, and their clothes looked cheesy. But I lay down on my belly and looked through them one by one, again and again, like peeking at something for grown-ups. Sometimes, my dad asked me to put an LP disc on the turntable. Whenever I put the needle on the silky black vinyl track, it made a loud noise like zipping a rusty zipper of a giant. But rarely, when I managed to land the needle barely making any noise, I was very proud of myself.

He also played the piano. My brother and I dragged to take the piano lesson for years, but the person who truly enjoyed playing was my dad. He never told us how he learned to play. But he played well any music. It was unusual that a man played the piano who grew up with Korean War and had such a serious job. He must have been the first man who worked to support the family in his bloodline for a few thousand years. Before the Japanese colonization, the aristocrat class didn’t have to work. All they did was studying, reading, writing, discussing with contemporaries for the intellectual stimulation, hunting, enjoying music and art, and hustling around among several wives depending on their status and wealth. What they only worked was keeping their position through the politics. But when the history shifted fast in the early 1900s, the old value became not valid, and the poor living condition hauled the incompetent men to the competitive work market to feed themselves and their family. In this transitional period, my grandfather’s parents were still wealthy and revered. So my grandfather was sent to Tokyo to study new things and culture. But what he did was took a second wife, a Japanese woman, and enjoyed living as his ancestors. My grandmother, maybe in her early 20s, took the ship to Japan and dragged her husband to Korea. That was how my dad and I could exist in this world.

The Korean War made everyone miserable, and my grandfather wasn’t a man who could feed the family. It was my father, the second son, who took care of his family from his early age. I heard he was a genius at school. He memorized everything even he didn’t make any note and had to work after school since ten or so. He climbed the social ladder quickly exercising his brain and diligence after the war in the rapidly developing country, enough to provide the affluent life to his family. He paid all college tuitions for his siblings and his wife’s siblings. He bought houses for himself and his elder brother. He supported his parents until they passed away. But he didn’t say a word about these. I heard from my mother. He never complained about his labor, and he never boasted about his contribution. He just sat on the piano seat and played a while as if nothing mattered at those moments. He never said how sad he was when his youngest brother died during the army service, but he went his brother’s cemetery every year on the national Patriot holiday. I used to go with him when I was a kid, and I knew my company made him happy.

I didn’t realize at that time, but there must be some common interests between him and me. I remember the first time I opened the Nietzsche in his bookshelf and my lifetime affection for Nietzsche began. It was a worn green hardcover book with the embedded golden title. The paper was brownish yellow and the lines aligned vertically from right to left like the old Asian scripts. I could smell the book’s age when I turned the page. Still, I can see clearly that a teenage girl stood in front of that bookshelf forgetting time and space, and took out “Human, All Too Human” among the Hemingways and the Fitzgeralds. I also read the copies of “To Whom Bell Tolls” and “The Sun Also Rises” from that bookshelf and my eyes were busy up and down following the vertically flowing stories.

Now I can see that my dad is a man of many talents and charms whom I nailed as a boring man when I was young because he worked every day from the morning to the evening following the same routine. I didn’t know at that time that his devotion was there, but his passion wasn’t. He has been a brilliant Korean Chess player matching to the professionals, a tireless mountaineer to the top alone or with others, a man getting poetry love letters written on large dried leaves which made my mother vigilant to catch the sender, a voracious lifetime reader who handed me the clipped newspaper articles whatever related to my work, an animal lover who had to keep his love quiet for his non-animal lover wife, and a man with a very few words having enormous sounds flowing out of his presence. Maybe I can follow the end of the string of our common interest and find the way to cross the gap between us, which caused by my indifferent and arrogant mind. I guess I am ready to hear the distant sound my dad had played when he had been younger than me now. Since sounds can reach to the distance regardless of the shape of the earth we are standing, maybe this time, sounds can time travel from the past to the present to a humble daughter who is finally ready to listen.

<March 1st, 2017, reworked the piece written in February 23rd, 2017>

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