Last year I picked up Please Look After Mom, an international bestseller penned by a South Korean novelist. The lackluster title didn’t entice, and I found some parts overstated. But the well-painted portrait of a mother who goes missing redeemed the read plenty. I found that she stands for the substance of virtually every family in every culture since the dawn of time. I wanted to look with you into 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, impatient as he’s always been with her when walking, and in a moment of disbelief the subway door shuts their hands apart and the car pulls away with the man. 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 never had really looked at.
Hyong-chol, the eldest child, remembers a time when his father brought into their village shack a woman to live with him – and 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 that was a luxury back then. 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 wouldn’t 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 last week, my eyes smarted. Am not endorsing child abuse. 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 the Other Woman feed him. It is one of the most telling moments in human drama where, embracing insult to injury, a mother physically tries to force her son to an act that will reinforce his father’s galling unfaithfulness. She swallows her dignity for the well-being of her child.
This is just one snapshot of her invisibility, where So-nyo chooses to go under. I’m not praising her for being 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 readers in Korea and the greater world 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 much 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 the 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 while washing the offerings of the garden, the clothes, and dishes in the winter water. Unflagging hands pickle food for the seasons ahead while dancing over pots and fire to 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. One day it hit me 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 ethnocentric I’m not. A lot of us would see So-nyo in our own mother, aunt, neighbor, or grandmother. She is not attractive, and goes around with a towel over her eyes for all the sweat. She is not a literal model but certainly a beautiful one. 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 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 the mothering until he also becomes a dad. After having my own family, I have nursed shame for not helping 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. When I was in Elementary, Mom sewed for the garment factory. One time, flying off the lightning force of the Singer machine, the entire needle sunk into her finger. I remember her rushing to the doctor, trying to cup the dripping blood with the other hand. Even then she did not complain, nor has she in the days following: the needle is still in her finger. 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.