Thursday, 6 November 2014

When Mom took her first step

I think I should iron more often. Last week the pile of iron-in-waiting clothes and linen resembled the leaning tower of Pisa, both in height and in inclination.
So I finally had to deal with the task of casually and randomly pressing the iron on the fabrics below it, trying to wrinkle out lines that were weeks old by then.

That’s how by ironing, in between a skirt and a shirt I found “Please look after Mom” by Shin Kyung-sook.

Oh, here it is, I thought I lost it somewhere! What is it doing it here of all places? 
And then I remembered: the plan was to iron and then read, so I put the book on top of the pile of clothes, but then the plan changed, and I decided not to iron anymore: I ended up adding stuff to the pile, thus hiding the paperback from view.
It tells you something else about the way I iron: I do it monthly.

I bought the book online: I liked the cover and found the title compelling. Maybe that’s not enough to start reading a book and loosing it for a whole month didn’t help either: anyway, I was quite puzzled about it for it seemed to lack any sense to me in some points.

It tells the story of a hard-working over-70 mom who goes missing in a central Seoul train station: on a visit to her grown-up eldest son, her husband steps on the train, she doesn’t and she’s nowhere to be found.
The husband and their 4 children start searching for her without any luck and in the meanwhile they go over the story of this almost-saint woman they always assumed was going to be there for them, a monolithic rock of love, patience and selfless sacrifice, only to realize what she truly meant now that she’s gone. (Jony Mitchell never lies)

Each part of the book is told by a different character: the eldest daughter now a writer, the first born son that has become a business man, the undeserving husband and Mom.

By recalling the past while searching for her, Mom’s family also journeys through guilt, as they come to realize how indifferent they all have been towards her, how impatient they became once they grew and she aged and how granted her presence in their lives was (or so they thought.
They also realize that there are parts of her life they were never aware of and/or they’ve never been interested into. 

It’s not until this last section that Mom acquires a name, as if she is just “Mom”, a word, a label under which a whole human being, a whole life is hidden.

Most of the book is narrated using the 2nd person, “you”, shifting than to the third person, which adds to the feeling of oddity and alienation .
Did I like it?
At the end, yes, I did, even though there were parts of it I didn’t find that engaging or interesting.
I was left with around 50 pages to go few days ago, when I FaceTimed my parents. My mother asked me something and I snapped. It’s one of those question that she knows irritates the hell out of me, yet she seems unable to refrain herself.
She should know by now that any food-related question is off-limits with me, actually I believe she’s fully aware of it: yet she keeps hammering me there. So I snapped. And as soon as I said my goodbye and ended the conversation, guilt and remorse kicked it. And the words of the book came back to me; that’s how I knew that, no matter whether I liked it or not, the novel had hit some chords (way too) close home. Part of my brain keeps thinking about families in general and my own family in the specific.

How well we think we know the people that raised us and those we grew up together! But is it really so?

“To you, Mom was always Mom. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old.”

Mom is Mom, just as Granny has always been Granny to me.
But Granny was also Mom. For my mom at least.
There are whole parts of their lives I completely ignored, details of their personalities I never glimpsed and vice versa. I can watch the photo of my mum and dad as little kid, but I don't see them as babies, I still see them as my parents. I see them, knowing already what they would become to me in the future, so cutting out all the other parts of them that didn't directly impact me as their daughter.
It might look elementary and obvious, not such a deep meaning to attach to a novel, but sometimes simple truths are harder to address and live with.
Anybody will always be more of what the other people think of them, there’s no way somebody will be able to know completely another person. It hasn’t got nothing to do with how much we love that person, it’s just something we humans can’t achieve.

Because we all fail victims to the limitations time forces on ourselves (and the seeing your parents getting older, your nephew and nieces growing up while you’re aging as well makes you painfully aware of that) and to the constraints we impose on ourselves: cause our fears will prevent us from speaking the truth and asking question, leaving so many feelings unexposed, so many part of ourselves in the dark.

And in the end the only thing that remains is that request, simple yet scaring, “please look after mom”.

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