Mister, Your Shoelace is Untied
Picture me, if you feel like it, composing essays not from a desk but a tall breakfast bar, legs swinging from a chocolate leather barstool I hop on, love to hop on, especially if my coffee’s perfecto and the sun’s rippling through the blinds like hopes and dreams. My day’s gotten off to a lovely start. Ahh… The hour, if I’m a lucky girl, is my playground. Except – did I say composing? And essays? Delete, delete… please delete! Unlike my dad, a voracious reader of philosophy, economics, religion, even the after-life, a scholar to the end, and unlike my Professor sweetheart who buries himself in dusty archives in Poland and Germany in the Holocaustal name of Memento Mori (‘remember the dead’), I don’t have an academic bone in my bod, at least not anymore. Like the song goes, school’s out – forever! The thought of sitting in a desk by day and writing papers by night… shudder. My nephew goes to a high school where they don’t believe in sleep; sometimes I wake up at two a.m. knowing he’s at his desk and it kills me. At the same time, I’m glad I’m not him. Well, I’ve spent my entire adult life writing my heart out and now I’m just gonna scribble away and if the gods are with me, maybe I’ll hear a sweet note of gospel while the world trumpets by. If not, oh well. Hey, being a whisper in the woods has its moments. You can hide out with your thoughts. You can find your spot.
That said, let’s go back to the journey from my leather perch and travel with wanderlust, a pretty cool word, I think. I’m also thinking …. maybe my dad felt guilty leaving his war-ravaged Korea behind, maybe that’s why his face looked tentative that farewell day. Whatever his mood boarding the Northwest Orient plane, once he touched ground his impressions were good ones, that much I know. 1950’s America put the spring back in his step; a sense of well-being.
Those are black oxfords on white pavement.
After making temporary housing arrangements in Brighton, Massachusetts for his small family – him, his wife and baby daughter Grace – he flew back to San Francisco, the city I’d be named after a year later. ‘Frances’, a name for homely women and grandmothers, isn’t the name I would’ve chosen for myself and frankly I still haven’t made peace with it but it beats ‘Frisco’. Anyway, here in San Francisco he met his just-arrived wife and daughter so he could begin the journey of escorting them to the east coast. From San Francisco they took a train to Ogden, Utah and spent some time with an American Army chaplain friend they knew from the American’s Korea-stationed days. Next on the itinerary, a plane ride to Chicago where they had a whirlwind visit with Paul Douglass, former president of American University who was, among other things, an advisor to Syngman Rhee, President of Korea. By ‘whirlwind’, think party scene from ‘Sabrina’ – crazy extravagant to war-weary Koreans. More culture shock was on display on Lake Shore Drive where couples smooched in public like it was nobody’s business.
Man-il ku deh chee? Translation: Could it be?
Iyeonghwa boda nasda! Translation: This is better than the movies!
After the thrill ride of Chicago, they flew to their ultimate destination, Boston Logan International Airport. My guess is that by now my dad, with nonstop marvel, was sensing he’d found his place in the world. His spot. I couldn’t call it a spot like mine because that would imply stationary and if ever a fellow was ‘Par Avion’, it was him. Within five years my dad would be happily sleepwalking through airports and greeting staff by name in hotels on every continent on the globe. Always stopping to smell the roses.
For example, while in Chicago, a little girl had crossed his path and innocently quipped, “Hey, Mister, your shoelace is untied”. The young wire-rimmed Korean stopped in his tracks, stunned. Was she talking to me? He looked down. Yessiree, his shoelace was untied! God Almighty, here was American liberty, freedom of speech right before his eyes! In Korea, a child would never dream of speaking up like that. This was a good country. Things were getting off on the right foot.
The neighbors on a street called Foster Terrace in suburban Brighton were a tightknit group. Couples with liberal views populated these modest rowhouses; wives having babies with their grad student and professor husbands. Overnight the Korean couple was indoctrinated into the 1954 American way of life. My mom was making iced coffee while my dad was washing a dark blue Ford, their first major purchase; the two were lighting up Camel cigarettes and going to Saturday night barbeques. I can see them, I can hear them blending in – my mom barely spoke a word of English, but laughter sounds the same in every language. Strange to think the ashes of the Korean War were still smoking but what could they do, they were here.
Bet you money it was a beautiful summer evening, a chill in the air. Rounds of jokes. Ada’s got her elbows on her knees, Philip’s leaning back on a lawn chair. My parents’ first American friends, the fun-loving wife and her professor husband took the younger couple under their wing. How wonderful. How American. They were Jews, mysterious people my mother grew up hearing if not fearing, a notion made nonsense with that first knock on the door.
The wives, pregnant at the same time, bonded at Foster Terrace while their husbands went to work. Philip to Boston University where he taught experimental psychology; my dad to Harvard where he studied for his Masters in Public Administration. Struggled, too. His Korean ear was trained to interpret conversational English and war threats against President Rhee, not Harvard profs lecturing from a podium to students who grew up in Connecticut and Ohio classrooms. That first semester my poor dad was in his own little foreign hell. Whenever he saw a particular blinking sign in Cambridge – Sherman Bank… Sherman Bank… Sherman Bank – a hostile message shot back at him:
You’re going to fail… You’re going to fail… You’re going to fail!
Did I come all the way to America just to fail?
A wife, helpless in America, a baby to feed, an education in peril. For people who dream big, there are always lonely moments. Where do you turn? Who is there to talk to? Then, one day, he heard salvation:
It was Philip, offering to help him with his first term paper. Proofread, check for syntax, clarity. I was never quite sure whether my father, a man of many questions, believed in God but that day there was light.
Feel free to skip this part but my mind’s reeling to our family’s home several years in the future, not our next home but the one after that. I’m seven, I’m eight, I’m nine, I’m ten, shaggy bowl cut, skinny arms, the same skinny arms typing these words. Even then I wasn’t a fan of real life, not when it took me out of the house. Regardless of where I was – even when the family was out for our Sunday drive and I, head out the window, belted out songs from ‘South Pacific’ like ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Guy Right Out of My Hair’ – I was always counting the hours, living for the moment I could burrow my way back home, down to the library in the basement. Hurry, hurry, to a dim, windowless room lined with dark leather-bound books and their curious metallic insignias. I didn’t read them, I just like to feel them and smell them when no one was looking. Nor did I read the pocket-sized glossy science books about gems, stones, fish, planets, etc. But the pictures were moon-luminous. Curiously, I felt closer to my dad down here without him than in the car with him, here, where late at night long after I went to bed I knew it was just him and his thoughts. Can’t forget the Columbia University Encyclopedia which housed the knowledge of the universe, everything from The Gettysburg Address to how to count to ten in Samoan. Five Brittanicas in one, the encyclopedia was olive green with bronze lettering, so massive it claimed its own podium. And when you opened it, wrinkles of genius claimed your face. I liked that.
Whenever he was overseas, you could find me snooping in my dad’s library, sooner or later coming upon those Harvard reports which he kept in the bottom drawer of his desk. Pull them out, study the typed papers – blue ink on watermarked onionskin – always taking note of the grade on the cover sheet, all A’s and A minuses, one B plus. Even then they seemed old as scrolls.
But back to one bygone night.
“Everyone say ‘cheese’!”
I couldn’t tell you if I was yet born the night this picture was taken but I do know we would leave Brighton in 1958 when I was three. Memories are spare. Kids passing a poor kitty through pipes that ran between the rowhouses… A stooped old lady, so powdery white she seemed dead already, wandering in her garden and offering us treats – candies? cookies? – whenever she saw us. She scared me. I was never sure if she was real or a ghost. I still don’t… From an upstairs window, watching my dad drive in celebratory circles in the parking lot. Something good happened cause he wasn’t one to just drive around in circles for no reason. I’m looking down, I see him… A bully named Gary who I apparently chased over a hill with a broom to the cheers of Foster Terrace moms. Big balls for a small girl, huh? Not that I remember my finest hour.
Nor do I remember Ada and Philip. I did however grow up hearing their names, and the idea of them always warmed me like candles. The kindness of strangers exists. A friend in your corner is restorative. Sherman Bank’s sign now blinked:
You’re going to succeed…. You’re going to succeed… You’re going to succeed!
Forty-five years later I, along with my mom and younger sister, would meet Ada at the Kennedy Center, a planned reunion at a book festival. I could best describe the afternoon as everything wonderful but most of all, full-circle. By then, she and my mom were grandmothers, both their husbands a quarter century in their graves. Yet I knew who she was immediately when she approached me with a tug on the arm: an old friend.
I love all the faces in this photograph, faces blessed with something you only feel on a night when the moon’s high and the sky’s sacred and there’s that chill in the air. Yeah, those hopes and dreams again. Beyond that, I’d be gleaning fiction but I do have a few facts under my sleeve.
In the days and years to come, my father would become infatuated more than ever with things Americana and his loyalty knew no bounds. Take Reader’s Digest, particularly their ‘Laughter, the Best Medicine’ column. Even when money was tight, he subscribed to Reader’s Digest because a good chuckle was worth it. He even contributed personal anecdotes, always shrugging like it was just for fun, but I can tell you it would’ve made his day just to see one tidbit in print. Someday. Well, he never got that happy little note writers live for but he kept subscribing and kept submitting to the end. I would’ve thrown the rag in the trash but people who live through poverty and war don’t see things the same way we do.
Sunoco was his gas station of choice, with good reason. As a grad student without an income, Sunoco approved him for a credit card – the first establishment to say Yes after many Nos from others. For the rest of his life, given four gas stations at an intersection, he’d steer into Sunoco, and if there was no Sunoco, any gas station but Exxon, or Esso (its archaic name). You can figure out why.
And despite his love of Korean food and fine dining during his travels, he engaged in a love affair with American fast food. Watching him dig into a Hardee’s burger was to observe a juicy and meaningful relationship take place. I wasn’t aware of a favorite but given four fast food joints at an intersection, he’d choose McDonald’s last. Nothing against McDonald’s per se, he liked a Big Mac as much as the next guy. But when you’re Oriental (another archaic name) in a white world, you always veer toward the underdog.
So now, look at that face, so fresh-faced and handsome, ready to embrace the laughter. This was the face of my father before the hypertension and high blood sugar, before that first demon got to him. Yet some enchanted evening in Foster Terrace, in the time it took to smile, he was healthy and happy.
I’d love to leave you with the impression that I dashed this off in one fell swoop from my chocolate leather barstool. That a sunshower just fell and left a rainbow’s glow coming through the blinds. Perfect. But Life isn’t and I didn’t. I actually much wrote much of this piece during many stolen moments during a three-week time frame; and except for the opening page, and this final page, rarely was I sitting here. The reality? Like you, I do things. Went on a long road trip with my family so our eighty-three year old mom could lay her eyes on Chicago once more; walked along Lake Shore Drive for the first time, its magnificence diminished by regretting that the person who really wanted to see it stayed back at the hotel cause her legs can’t take it anymore; kissed my sweetheart in the café where we had our first date; and then did something that surprised even myself: I got engaged. Because Life does go on. Still, it’s comforting – to me, anyway – that on this particular morning as I wrap up this vignette, a perfect word in an imperfect world, I’m back here, at my breakfast bar, on my barstool, as sun ripples through the blinds, remembering my dad. Memento mori.