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Korean Sky

November 20, 2012

I’ve been writing a lot about skies, partly prompted by Don’s forthcoming memoir, Iowa Sky (January 2013), as well as the love of sky Don and I shared. Now I must write about Korean Sky, the title of my own memoir that will follow Don’s a year later. More than just a book title, Korean Sky is the sky I loved and carried around all my life, especially the autumn sky.

I want to open my memoir:

Sky! As long as I can remember, I’ve always loved it. As I think of Don, who loved the sky more than I did and who now belongs to it, the memory of Boston 1962 rushes back to me–how it made me long for autumn sky in Korea. It was in September that I arrived in Boston to be a brand new graduate student at Boston University. For me, autumn was always the season of glorious beauty, softly embraced by sadness that defied description. Autumn was the season of high sky that stretched my eyes and mind to the faraway land of destiny and love, a season of homesickness even when I was home. I delighted in it and cried in it. In a faraway land, as September turned into October and leaves started falling, my heart raced to the sky across the Pacific, my soul crying for home. That 1962 fall in Boston made my heart ache with the deepest loneliness I have ever known.

If autumn was always a season of sorrow, it was also a season of rich memories. There is one particular childhood memory that will stay with me as long as I live. Each fall we traveled to Grandma’s mountain village of Kumdani on the day of the full moon. Called Chu Suk, the date usually fell near the end of September or early October. This year, Chu Suk fell on September 30.

I can still feel the festive mood and smell the cooking aromas that filled the house as our helpers prepared food fit for a king that we would tote along on our journey. The helpers were strictly instructed to use only new grain and freshly-picked fruits and vegetables. Then baskets were packed high with fruit, rice cakes, sweets, marinated meat dishes of tender beef, pork and chicken, fish and vegetables, cut in small sizes, rolled in flour, dipped in egg batter and fried, in addition to other delicacies that I wouldn’t even know how to describe.

We children were beside ourselves with excitement, waiting impatiently in the truck, loaded up with food. Then, at last, the driver would start up the engine, proceed through town and out onto the country road, where our chatter and laughter rang louder. The bumpier the ride, the happier we were. It was fun to feel the motion of the vehicle but what we really loved was when our bodies were thrown to the truck’s ceiling and then down again onto our seats, as if we were playing seesaw.

The truck took us as far as a narrow country road with a small wooden bridge in front. There it stopped, and across the bridge waited an ox-drawn cart. This was the point where we were met by our cemetery keeper. Not just the bridge, but the rest of the way to Kumdani, was too narrow and too rugged for the truck.

As soon as we arrived at the foothill of the family mountain where the round mounds of our ancestors’ graves could be spotted, we were let out of the cart. We climbed the mountain on foot, wild with excitement. The turning leaves, a fantastic festival of color, were glorious; the birds were chirping, and the songs that emanated from the surrounding brooks sounded like the sweet promise of a glorious time ahead. But nothing matched that high, autumn sky!

Right away, we ran to the chestnut trees. Finding a chestnut on the ground good enough to eat was like finding a four-leaf clover for American kids. I’d wipe the chestnut on my skirt and sink my teeth into it, making that first dent to initiate the systematic endeavor of peeling away the skin, as if I were stripping off shiny armor, bit by bit. Soon my brothers came along with long sticks, spearing one burr at a time. “Watch out. The needles are sharp. You do not want to be hit by them.” When the prickly burr with its toothed, oblong leaves dropped to the ground, I felt wild inside. Removing each chestnut from its protected home, one by one, was more exciting than any venture I could think of.

Now I sit in front of my computer in a small room, walls lined with books–but after so many years, and so far away, I can still see that sky in Kumdani on Chu Suk. I imagine Don’s soul freely floating in the sky around our family mountain where he and I wanted to take the remains of my grandmother, now resting at the outskirt of Seoul.

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