Though Please Look After Mom was an international bestseller by a South Korean novelist, I didn’t care for the lackluster title or the parts that were overstated. But the well-painted portrait of a mother who goes missing redeemed the read plenty. She is a prototype of wife and mother from every culture since the dawn of time. We see the heart of the invisible woman.
So-nyo, an elderly mother of four grown children, vanishes in the Seoul subways. Her husband hurries ahead in the crowd, characteristically impatient, and in a moment of disbelief the subway door shuts their hands apart, pulling the car away with him. The novel is a rotary of voices – of the children and husband who search for her in despair while thinking back in shame at the woman they realize they had never seen.
Hyong-chol, the eldest child, thinks back on the time his father brought into their village shack a woman to live with him, with the family. Naturally, So-nyo left the house. Trying to buy her way into the hearts of the kids, the Other Woman carefully packed their lunch, even to top it with the fried egg, then a luxury. Hyong-chol not only didn’t eat it, but made his siblings bury their lunchbox. The Other Woman went on to buy them new containers that kept their rice warm. The son refused to renounce the food strike.
Mom came to school to find him. It was about ten days after the woman had come to live with them.
“Mom!” Tears spilled from his eyes.
Mom led him to the hill behind the school. She pulled up the legs of his pants to reveal his smooth calves, grabbed a switch, and hit them.
“Why aren’t you eating? Did you think I would be happy if you didn’t eat?”
Mom’s thrashing was harsh. He had been upset that his siblings weren’t listening to him, and now he couldn’t understand why Mom was whipping him. His heart brimmed with resentment. He didn’t know why she was so angry.
“Are you going to take your lunch? Are you?”
…Instead of running away, he stood still, silent, and suffered her blows.
The redness bloomed into blood on his calves.
“Even now!” he yelled.
Finally, Mom tossed the switch away. “God, you brat! Hyong-chol!” she said, embracing him and bursting into sobs. Eventually, she stopped, and tried to persuade him. He had to eat, she said, no matter who cooked the meals.
Even in the second reading, my eyes smarted. I am not endorsing child abuse, of course. But my heart swelled with understanding of So-nyo’s pain and the desperate attempt of a mother to get her child to eat – though it meant that she let Another Woman feed him. In one of the most telling moments in human drama, embracing insult to injury, a mother physically tries to force her son to an act that reinforces his father’s galling unfaithfulness. She swallows her dignity for the well-being of her child.
So-nyo chooses to go under. I’m not praising her for laying down as a doormat beneath the man she had served with nothing but devotion. In fact, she returns home to chase him and the Woman out of her house. But part of the attraction the book holds for the reader is that So-nyo seems to be Everyone’s Mom. Please allow the sweeping generalization that bears exceptions. The protagonist was so recognizable: I saw a great deal of my own mother in her and could pull up a good many other moms and grandmothers who could have replaced her name. Hers is a life of sacrifice from the day she marries and her self-renunciation, a silent one. Not once does she complain – I think because it doesn’t occur to her to. Interestingly, I don’t recall her ever saying, “I love you” to any of her kids. Calloused hands freeze over while washing the offerings of the garden, the clothes, the dishes in the winter water. Unflagging fingers pickle food for the seasons ahead while dancing over pots and fire as they contrive the next meal. In fact, she has an awful lot in common with the women out of Little House on the Prairie. In reading aloud some of the stories to my son and husband last year, I tried to figure out what was so familiar about the Prairie series when my life has been so unworthily comfortable by comparison. It hit me one day that the untiring work of the parents, especially of the mothers, mirrored the call to unsung exertion that many Asian women answer when they have children. But this isn’t ethnocentrism. Many, across time and culture, can see So-nyo in our own mother, aunt, neighbor, or grandmother. She is not attractive, and goes about with a towel over her eyes for the sweat. She is no model but certainly beautiful. She has always been there for her family, receives her husband with ready food when he slinks back from an entire season of idle adultery. But she is missing from the family radar. When she actually disappears, the family unravels both individually and as a unit.
Two years ago, I asked a friend if he thought he appreciated his mother who had raised five boys. He didn’t begin to, he answered, until he had his own. And pointing to my boy, added that Tennyson will come nowhere near appreciating the cooking let alone the rest of it until he himself becomes a father. After having my own family, I have nursed shame for not having helped my mother enough in the long immigrant years she juggled work, cooking, and housekeeping, all the while somehow keeping present and active in my schooling. In my elementary years, Mom sewed for the garment factory. One time, flying off the lightning force of the Singer machine, the whole needle sank into her finger. I remember her rushing to the doctor, trying to cup the dripping blood with the other hand. The pain did not slow her down in the many things her hand had to touch: the needle’s remained to this day. We can never thank Mom enough. Because by the time you’re a parent who sees your mother’s hands in your own labor, your own family becomes priority. Grace runs down – not up. The love of a mother will outdo and outpace her child’s, and the debt you owe her is one you pay forward.