Past Is Prologue

Disowning My (Korean) Mother’s Unhappiness

Shinyung Oh
Human Parts


For most of my life, I have carried my mother’s unhappiness, sloshing in an aged brown vat atop a rolled towel on my head, the way old ladies do in the countryside in Korea. It was always threatening to topple or overflow, contaminating me, no matter how carefully I maneuvered to find the right balance. It cramped my neck, bogged me down, and caused aches and pains in unexpected places.

When I was younger, my mother used to creep down the stairs to my room after my dad had gone to sleep. She would enter without knocking and start talking until I put my book down and scooted over on my bed to make room for her. Under the beam of my gooseneck lamp, she would wedge herself in with her knees tucked under my comforter and enumerate the various ways my father had failed her. She would follow with a litany of complaints of the wrongs she suffered at the hands of his relatives, the visceral anger growing with each recollection. She would pine for a different life, one where she could sip coffee in a café like everyone else, where she could travel, where she would matter.

In my head, I have reels of painful moments of her adulthood, like the time she called weeping that my father refused to take her to the doctor after accidentally slamming the car door on her hand, as I, a 19-year-old girl halfway across the continent in a cinder-blocked dorm room, stood clutching the phone. Or the nights she woke up wailing from the pain of crushing migraines, and I raged at my father and brother to take her to the ER, even as they stood mute and unresponsive. Or the days my mother suffered from shingles while taking care of my brother’s young children, and all my father did was remind her that they were running low on kimchi.

Over the years, I became the holder of her complaints and longings, even as I begged her to free me from the role. I did not want to see my dad through her eyes and despise him as a result. “I am the child of both of you,” I said. But she replied she had no one else to tell, and all our family stories must stay within the family. Besides, who else would listen to her sorrows?

So, when she secretly withdrew $50 and $20 bills from our family dry cleaning business on days she felt particularly bad, I helped her deposit the…