We are riding down the LIE at a steady 50 mph on a 65 mph limit freeway lined with drivers going 85. My father sits with the steering wheel at his chest, white knuckles, back propped up by a cushion from our polyester couch from the 80's that was added after the electronic seat adjuster broke, eyes staring out above the dashboard. Other drivers dart out from behind, stare us down as they rush past, and plant themselves firmly in front and reclaim the lane with an angry screech.
I'm staring at the back of the passenger seat that cradles my mother's five feet two inch frame. Her head barely reaches the tip of the head rest. Puffs of her short hair bounce in the air, and her head bobs up and down as she talks with animation. The car is filled with the cadence of her words. As she talks, her fingers gesticulate in the air, as if conducting an orchestra, and she breaks out into pearls of laughter as she tells and listens to her own story.
She's telling a story about some Korean couple in San Jose who suddenly lost their convenience store and started collecting ginkos from a tree planted outside of some hotel.
- But what do you mean? Why would they do that? I ask.
- They had no money. How could they keep paying rent and buy food for the kids? They collected the ginkos and sold them to the grocery stores, just for a while until they could figure out what to do next. Anyway, they went out early every morning to collect the ginkos. The husband would climb the tree and shake down the branches, and his wife ran around collecting the fallen fruit. One day, they looked up and noticed a whole row of cars lined up on the road and they realized that they were blocking traffic. The whole time, no one honked. Isn't that amazing? People are so different in California. So patient. And the police came and asked them to stop picking the ginkos because they were causing traffic problems, and they were just grateful that they weren't arrested by the American policeman.
A second later, she turns around, pops her apple cheeks above the seat, and cajoles, Translate for him, won't you? You don't want him to get bored, do you? Did I mention that this couple lives in San Jose, where Jeff used to live?
So I turn to Jeff, sitting to my left, who looks back with a what's going on? I start with, so she wants me to translate for you..., and I wonder how to translate this story. Collecting ginkos for a living? How does that make sense? Could I compare it to the diminutive South East Asian ladies with rice field straw hats that we see in San Francisco, the ones who carry trash bags hanging from the ends of their poles, as if they stepped out of the pages of the National Geographics into our streets of Noe Valley, to rummage through our collection of empty wine bottles, tomato sauce jars, and Schwepps cans?
I skip the editorializing and dutifully translate. Jeff, with all of his sweetness, responds with a smile.
As soon as I finish, she launches into yet another story about another Korean. This time, it is the story of a poor, old man whose grown children neglected their filial duties and stopped visiting. A wily guy, he constructed a huge shed in his back yard and secured it with the biggest lock he could find. When one of his sons finally visited, he told him to open the shed only after he had died and to divide the contents equally among his siblings. From then on, the children started visiting regularly, and the father lived a happy man until his dying day. When the father passed away, the children broke away the lock with a heavy plier only to find the shed piled with mounds of rubbish.
These are just two of the stories she collected over the months while we lived our lives on the other end of this country. She wants us to meet them, these other Koreans who live in America, who also brought their Korean ways to this foreign land. They keep her company and fill her mind with amusement, diminishing the suffocating loneliness that has like cobweb become another part of her everyday.
So I listen, with my head bent, nodding along, with an occasional uh hum and laughter when appropriate, with my reserve of English words for Jeff, to let her know that we converge here as we ride through time, as time slows down just for us.