I have two particular memories of my father.

When I was around 12 or 13, I was in the front yard fooling around with a soccer ball. It barely qualified as soccer; it was more like ambling around in the vicinity of a ball. My father called to me and asked to do some passing back and forth. I was in a particular stage of adolescence where everything about my father deeply irritated me for no particular reason. We passed the ball for a few minutes, I got bored, and then I made my excuses to leave. Perhaps it’s only the pathos of memory, but I recall him looking disappointed as I walked away.

The second is from high school; I was the goalkeeper for my team and it came down to penalties with one of our rival schools. I froze on the line and we lost. I was inconsolable on the ride home, crying quietly until my father asked me sharply why I was still crying over a game. The faucet turned off abruptly, and he got what he wanted: my silence.

My father was at the same time a complicated and predictable man. He was shaped by his traumas, which were severe and untreated. Like many men of his age from Korea, he didn’t understand or believe in mental health. He came from abject poverty, the kind that had a child rummaging in garbage cans for even a morsel to eat. He left home young, trying to find a way out, and to relieve the burden of his single working mother, who had other sons also relying on her. He found his way to the United States and in the summers worked every odd job he could find to scrape together money for his education. In the end, he earned his doctorate. In public, a true embodiment of the American dream.

In private, he was by turns cruel and kind. He was a soft touch with animals, and couldn’t say no to me when I wanted ice cream during the summer. He also had extreme rages and bursts of violence. He told me often I could be anything I wanted to be, and the next day would insist his dream for me would be to marry a nice Korean boy who would earn a lot to take care of me. I don’t think he recognized the dissonance in what he was suggesting, only that he had many different dreams for me, informed by his many different experiences as an immigrant. It was a life where at work he had the prestige of his educational title, but out in the rest of the world he had the casual racism of people who heard him speak with an accent and assumed he didn’t understand them. He grew up with the stress of living less than hand-to-mouth, but as an adult never passed up the chance to savor a two-for-one burger deal. He knew he had to show me how to stand on my own feet so what happened to him would never happen to me, but he also hovered over me constantly well into adulthood, swimming in anxiety and recrimination — towards me and towards himself — over every step that wasn’t towards extreme financial security and stability.

Our parents’ traumas come to us in different ways, but they are inevitable. I inherited my father’s extreme temper, but rejected his nosiness. It made for a very angry, very secretive adult. I have problems with food, because he always made me eat like we never knew where our next meal was coming from and got angry with me for getting full before my plate was empty. I understand the power and privilege of language, because my father knew all about the judgments people make around your ability to speak fluently and write without errors. I am teaching myself Korean as an adult, because as a child my father would not have me seen as anything less than a full-blooded American, untouched by foreignness. And that’s why I played soccer, because it was a way for me to be with the other kids in my school, and because it was an American thing to do. As much as I resent it, I am a collection of reactions to my father.

When he passed a few days ago, it was a strange and unsettling feeling, but at the same time a very distant one. He’d been sick for two years at that point, and thanks to COVID-19, I hadn’t been home since March of this year to see him. Phone calls and texts had to suffice. When he took a turn for the worse, my mother asked if I could come up with a contingency travel plan that minimized the risk of exposure to both of them. I ended up driving 1600 miles in two days — 14 straight hours of driving on day one, followed by 12 more the next day — to get home in a rental car, only to wear a mask in my own childhood home and stay relatively isolated upstairs in the guest bedroom. He was gone before I left Boston, having declined rapidly before passing in his sleep.

His past remains largely a mystery to me, probably by design. He never spoke about his childhood. As far as I was concerned, he came into the world fully formed around the age of 23. I got dribs and drabs from offhand comments, and from a murmured conversation with my mother, who had gotten another part of the story from him as he lay in bed, perhaps aware that his life was slowly but surely ebbing.

I have another memory of my father, which he treated as a funny story for me. As a child he played soccer in shoes stamped out of a single piece of rubber; they would fly off your feet if you kicked too hard. No laces. They were the one pair of shoes he was given for the year, and he had to make them last. His daughter’s cleats had laces, and three brand name stripes, and she got a new pair every time her feet got too big for them. I don’t think he could have predicted how me running around on a field in a baggy community soccer shirt, uncertain about where I was supposed to go because I hadn’t quite figured out left and right yet, would turn into a lifelong affair. I don’t think he knew how complicated his memory would feel. He was simply struggling along without any of the tools that could have helped him process the pain he endured and the pain he inflicted in turn.

He was gluttonous and ascetic, generous and selfish, angry and forgiving. I think he knew he had deep faults, but wouldn’t, or couldn’t accept them. I could pinpoint the reasons for his behaviors, but damned if he would work on any of them. I have tried to do better than that. I have tried not to be shaped by someone else’s traumas. I think maybe if I can at least do that, then I can live with my memories of him.

--

--

Steph

Steph

257 Followers

Podcast w/ @gabpdx, soundcloud.com/2DrunkFans, co-manager @StarsStripesFC contributor @TheAthleticSCCR woso @UnusualEfforts