Thursday, August 6, 2009

Cleaning Out the Closet

We've been busy cleaning out our 1300 sq. feet hobbit house to prepare for the arrival of the little guy. We have clutter all over the place. I used to live here alone until Jeff moved in almost three years ago. We merged two households into one and banished most excess belongings to a storage unit in the South Bay near where Jeff used to live. We now live surrounded by a hodge-podge of mismatched items and piles of random things that have no place to call home.

We've been slowly trying to bulldoze through the debris for the last few months. I hear the little guy is going to be pretty darn little, but boy, talk about all his stuff. Just dealing with the necessities -- mainly the crib -- has been a challenge. Two weeks ago, we moved our wardrobe down to the garage to make room for the crib in our bedroom, where we expect him to stay at least three months. I have since been sorting through our clothes in our closets and drawers to make room for his tiny outfits, diapers, and toys, buying extra bins to place under the bed and figuring out what needs to stay, what can go.

Yesterday, I cleaned out my sock drawer. I went through the socks one by one, sticking my hand through each tube and checking for holes, usually right where my big toe hits the shoe. I've worn holey socks for years, but I decided they had to go. After I finished with the sock drawer, I went through my rows of underwear, checking for tatters, holes, and loose elastic. I plunged the worn out items into the trash and watched it fill up.

I used to do this for my mother when I lived at home. She kept her underwear stuffed in a cramped drawer. Most of them were made in Korea. She never adapted to American underwear, claiming that they weren't comfortable enough. So her underwear were mostly ones that had traveled with her from Korea when we moved here when Jimmy Carter was president or ones sent by her sisters on random occasions over the decades.

I would first dump her drawer onto her bed and go through each underwear, checking for tatters, holes, and loose elastic. The ones that seems to be holding up were neatly folded and put back in the drawer in perfect rows, with the folds all facing the same direction. The ones that showed too many signs of wear were left out on the bed so that I could show them to my mother before discarding them.

I would do the same with her sock drawer. First matching all of the divorced pairs, and then checking for holes in each tube. The worn out pairs of socks would also be left on the bed for my mother's inspection.

When she returned home from work, she would inevitably react as she had on prior occasions.

"Shinyung! You cleaned out my drawers. How organized they look."

And she would smile, thank me for sorting them out, and then shove all the worn out underwear and socks back into her drawers.

"I'll fix them later," she would say. "It's a waste to throw them away."

And in the following weeks, I would see her wearing the tattered underwear, ones with big holes over her left cheek, or the elastic torn from the fabric. Despite my offers to buy her new ones the next time I went out, she would always decline, saying that they were just underwear, who would see them?

I saw them.

But that's how it was in our house. We had clean underwear while she wore hers for decades. It was our mother who ate the leftovers when the rest of us ate the dinner she cooked for us. The rest of us pushed to get our way, while she prioritized her needs last.

These days, my mother often calls me to give me her list of often repeated advice. Eat well, exercise, don't fight with your husband, keep the house clean, etc., etc., etc. Sometimes, she would also say, "Make sure you're happy. Live well. You're living well, aren't you? I'm happy when you live well. That way I don't worry about you."

In response, I would say, "Mom, it goes both ways, you know. If you don't live well, then I worry about you too."

And I know that her life isn't all that it's cracked up to be. She lives in the suburbs where she does not know how to drive, where she is dependent on my father to drive her where she wants to go. She lives in a neighborhood surrounded by English speakers where she does not speak the language. Her afternoons are often filled by Korean melodramas, where life is presented by Korean actors who pine and mull over their lives in a country half a globe away. The word lonely does not pass her lips often, but I suspect it hovers around her regularly.

I look forward to October when she and my dad will come stay with us for a while, even if it means the five of us living together in our cramped quarters -- or rather six, counting our yellow lab Sherlock. I have dreams of taking them out, showing them around, cooking my favorite dishes for them, even though I know in my rational mind that she will most certainly be taking care of me with the arrival of the baby. After all, that is why they are coming out.

I often think about way to make it up to her. About trying to help her with her happiness. To help her live the life that I think she should live.

And I think about not placing that kind of a burden on my own children. Because worrying about my mother's happiness fills me with sadness at times. And guilt.

So it gives me with a sense of satisfaction to see my holey socks and underwear in the trash, even as I clean out the closets to make room for the little guy. It's a small step, but one in the right direction.


  1. Your love for your mother is so touching. =)

  2. You must be an incredibly kind person.

    And may be, just may be, some of it is a sense of guilt, duty, and other such things that we, as children of Eastern immigrants, or perhaps immigrants ourselves from the East, feel.

    I can relate to so much of what you have said. That need to somehow "make things right" for one's parents. To protect them from harm. From sadness. From the loneliness and disconnect that an immigrant feels - perhaps 20, 30, or even 40 years after immigration.

    My partner who has not had the same experiences as me growing up, thinks that I make too much of all this. This immigrant thing. Ultimately, though, I know that she can never relate, not even if she really wanted to.

    For people like us have been forced to leave behind a connection, a history, a mosaic of existence, that links us to things well beyond who we are today.

  3. I love when you write about your relationship with your mother.

    On a more pragmatic note, I need to get started on decluttering too! Egads!

  4. Shinyung, I laughed and cried reading your story. Thank you for writing about the kind of stuff that many of us can't articulate very well, but can so deeply relate to.

    Have you ever thought about showing your mom these pages? Can they be translated into Korean? I would love to have my mom read it too. I think she would see something valuable, and feel less alone.

  5. That is so sweet and touching! I really enjoyed reading it.

  6. Thoughtful post Shinyung. My Mom died when I was 36 (she was only 58) and I wanted to mention the sadness I feel regarding her hiding her depression about her life not being what it was cracked up to be. I feel that if she had shared her feelings openly, we in her family would have known and thus done things to make her life better, like organizing her sock and panty drawer. I think in her not wanting to "burden" us she inadvertantly made our relationship less meaningful. I know though that she did it for what she thought was our benefit. I hope I'm right to let my grown sons know some of my unhappiness, and I theirs, because I think we are all better off for it. I think the guilt/pain you spoke of has made you a better daughter and person.
    P.S. I think I grew up in Jeff's neck of the woods (Santa Clara County).

  7. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. Sometimes I feel like I write about the same thing over and over again, but I think it helps me process what we went through in our family -- and it's a relief to know that you guys can relate. I agree with you, Anonymous at 2:52, that I too think we are in a small minority of people who understand. I think unless you've been through this kind of transition, it is difficult to see and understand all of the subtle fallouts.

    Anna, I haven't shown it to my mom. I think she may be mortified that I'm revealing so much about our personal lives. Maybe one of these days, I'll tell her about these posts. We'll see.

    Robyn, I really appreciate your perspective. I can see where you're coming from -- and it gives me a lot to think about as I think about the kind of parent I want to be. Thank you so much for sharing your personal experience.

  8. Shinyung, I agree with the others. I love it when you write about your mom. Your love for your family and your perspective as a child of immigrant parents makes for interesting and moving stories.

    I'm glad to know your baby prep is coming along well. October will be here before you know it!

  9. I have the same relationship with my mother. Wish you all the best.