Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Dinner Time

I love watching my son eat.

Last night, it was just him and me at the dinner table.  Jeff left earlier for a trip to LA, and the baby went down for the night shortly before.  T is sick, so I let him nap much longer than usual to let his body do its thing.  I roused him from his sleep around 7:30 pm with a sippy cup of warm milk in hand, thinking that he should have something even if he had no appetite.  But he popped himself up, and said, "Yes, I want dinner!"

I brought him downstairs, sat him on his booster seat, and wrapped the owl bib around his neck.  He asked for the personal pan pizza that he didn't eat for lunch.  While a slice was heating in the toaster oven, I cut up a link of hot dog (microwaved) and poured out some frozen peas (still frozen, just the way he likes them).  Not a gourmet dinner, I know, but when my son is sick, I let him eat whatever he wants.  My goal is just to put some food in his little tummy.

When I laid the food in front of him, he picked up the pizza with both hands and clamped his little fingers around the crust, the same way he holds his harmonica.  The grease immediately oozed onto his fingernails, and little pockets of tomato sauce squeezed out through the cheese.  He brought the slice up to his puckered lips and took a big bite. And then another, and then a third.  He chewed open mouthed, showing little bits of masticated crust, mozzarella, and tomato sauce wedged between his gaping teeth.  His dimples moved up and down with the rhythm of his bites.

As he chewed, he scrutinized his slice of pizza, turning it this way and that.  It became a plane, then a spaceship, then a hot air balloon.  Then without a second thought, he dropped the slice down on his plate and started fingering the frozen peas.  Pop, pop, they went into his mouth.  

Between bites, little drops of three-year old thoughts fell out :

"Mama, I'm a little big boy!"

"I'm three years old, not four years old, just three years old!"

"Mama, can I get another lego set if I poo-poo in potty?"

After the peas, he grabbed the hot dog.  All four pieces at once.  He assembled them, saying "They were like this!  Mama, were they like that?" as he re-constructed the link that had been divided.  Then he rammed all four pieces into his mouth.  There they dangled, until I told him to take them out.

T dropped all of the pieces onto his plate, and then picked up just one piece once again.  He gripped the quartered link with all of his fingers, and started chewing on it as if he were gnawing on a piece of beef jerky.  He worked at it until the piece was done.  Then his greasy hands grabbed the sippy cup of warm milk, and he sipped and sipped and sipped until he was satisfied.

As he ate, I just watched him. Less than two feet away from his face. Openly gazed at him as he chewed, played with his food, sipped his milk. It was nothing unusual for him. To have his mommy stare at him as he chewed with his mouth open while we discussed numerous topics of conversation, from his birthday party in October to various offerings of lego sets to sounds made by cougars to his preschool friends.

By the time he was finished, he had a milk and tomato sauce moustache coated with cheese and hot dog grease.  Petite English peas covered the floor and the bottom of his booster seat.  The black table shined with the smear of food stains.  Drops of milk trailed from his cup to his plate to his bib.  And a little boy with a full belly was ready to play.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Holiday Cooking

When I was growing up, I always associated holidays with cooking.  Even when my parents were working 13 hour days, six days a week, my mom always took the time to cook a few special dishes for the holidays.

When my sister and I were in college, we would always go to my parents' dry cleaners on the day before the holiday, sometimes for the whole day but more often, just for the afternoon.  We would walk about 45 minutes from my parents' house to the LIRR station in Port Washington, and ride to Little Neck.  From the Little Neck station, we would either walk or my dad would come pick us up to take us to Mayflower Cleaners, located where Northern Boulevard meets Great Neck Boulevard.  There, we would help my parents finish up their labor for the day: handling customers as they came in, sorting the clothes, removing the lint from each of the items, bagging the clothes in plastic, putting them on the conveyor belt, restocking all the supplies for the next work day, vacuuming, and wiping down the counters.

As soon as it was closing time, we would hurry out of the store with my parents' black leather bag containing the day's earnings and their canvas bag of empty tupperwear lunch containers and a few apples.  My dad would lock the store door, pull once, then twice, then a third time to ensure that he had locked it properly.  We would then load the bags in the car while my mom re-checked the door to ensure that my dad had checked it properly.  And then once again just in case.  After my dad had loaded the car, he would return to the door to make sure that it had been thoroughly locked, and my mom would say, "Oh, for goodness sakes, enough, enough.  You'll break it already!"

Once in the Mercury Sable, my dad would adjust the old sofa cushion on his back, which he had put in place after the seat electrical adjustor broke.  My mom would ask him whether he had put the black leather bag in the back seat, and my sister and I would pipe up that the bag was right there next to our feet.  She would then remind us to give it to Dad before we went into the grocery store.

From there, we would drive to the Korean grocery on Northern Boulevard in Flushing.  Even if we arrived close to 8pm, the parking lot would be packed with people thronging everywhere.   My dad waited in the locked car with the black leather bag under his seat, while my sister, my mother, and I went to shop.  I usually pushed the cart while my mom and sister went ahead, picking out items we needed.  We went through every aisle methodically, with my mom clutching her grocery list compiled on dry cleaner slips held together by a safety pin.  We usually left the store with bags of groceries and a small package of prepared foods, like fried calamari, kim bap, soon dae, or mandoo.  We often arrived home one package lighter.

The next morning, my mom would wake up around 5am to start preparing.  By the time my sister and I woke up, around 6:30 or so, she would be ready to direct.  Chop these, wash those, pan fry these.  We would cook, as we gabbed about this or that.  Whatever we wanted to discuss.  School.  Our friends.  Books we had read.  Movies we had watched.  Things we had seen in school.  Our relatives in Korea.  With my mom standing at the sink, washing some vegetable or another.  My sister standing in front of the stove with a spatula in hand, pan frying some dish.  Me sitting at the table chopping.  Talking made easier because it was centered around an activity.

Hours would pass like this.  We would eat breakfast, fruits, and samples as we cooked, and take out little plates for our dad sitting in the living room behind his newspaper.  We would often finish by the middle of the day, and we would then take a break to watch some melodrama on TV chosen by our mom.

After, we would sit down to eat what we had cooked.  More than enough for a few meals.  A bounty we had come to expect on occasions like these.  A day to feed ourselves after working, working, and working some more.  A day to remind ourselves that we may not be able to eat like this in Korea, even if we had more money.  A day to remember the justification for why my parents worked as they did.  A day to engage in one of the few family activities that we had.

These days, I no longer cook with my sister and my mom.  My sister has estranged me and we no longer talk.  The last meal we shared together was in 2006 at a restaurant that has since gone out of business on Valencia near 24th in San Francisco.  We had sat across the table from each other, failing to understand each other.  My mother visits from New York once in a while, and we sometimes cook together, but not very often.  Nowadays, her cooking is hurried, impatient, and sometimes begrudging.

For the holidays, I make plans to cook.  I pour over my cookbooks, make my lists, shop in advance.  But my children are too young to cook with me and too small to eat much more than a few spoonfuls.  My husband sees little point in cooking and asks if we really need to bother.  My in-laws, who live nearby and are invited for every major holiday, eat like birds and have no inclination to humor the cook.  "No, I don't eat that" is not an uncommon response when I hold a dish out to them.  When I try to send them home with something I made for them, my father-in-law says, "I don't need your mercy food."

But yesterday, I cooked.  I decided to cook for me.  Just because.  Just because I once found pleasure in it.  Just because I want to be the kind of mom who knows how to feed her family.  Just because I have hopes of being able to nourish myself, even if others do not join.  Just because I don't want to give in to the past and give up on the future.

So I turned on some music as I patted the turkey dry.  I rubbed it with herb butter that I had prepared the night before.  I filled its cavities with onions, carrots, and celery.  I soaked a cheesecloth with chicken stock and covered the bird, and repeated the process every half hour for the next five hours.  I then prepared the stuffing, first cooking the bacon, and then mixing it with chestnuts, onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms, bread crumbs, chicken stock, and milk.  After, I cooked the candied sweet potatoes and heated the cranberry-ginger chutney that I had prepared the night before.

I didin't talk much as I cooked, although I sang along to the Beatles.  Just a few feet away, my husband played with the kids, and the house felt nice and toasty from the oven.  The turkey balloon bopped in the middle of the room.  The flower cornucopia adorned the table.  And I remembered to be thankful, even as I remembered all that was gone.    

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Search for Back Up Parents

Nothing has brought me closer to death than giving birth.

Before I had my son, I thought about death, but only occasionally, the way I assume most others do.  It was there in the abstract, off in the distance, never threatening, never looming.  Like a distant cousin, it reminded me of its existence every once in a while, when I happened to pass an accident on the freeway or read a novel with tragic ending, which in turn reminded me to live more purposefully, meaningfully.  But apart from its occasional pep talk, it had little to do with me.

Back then, I didn't fear death.  If anything, I felt cavalier.  So what, I remember saying.  What do I have to lose?  My life was my own, and I was beholden to no one.  If something were to happen to me, a few others may be sad or even devastated, but I didn't own their grief.  I was the only one who could potentially suffer, but not really because wouldn't I be dead after all?  Just make it quick and don't let me suffer too much, was my canned retort.

This cavalier attitude started to change when I became pregnant.  I'm not sure if it was the hormones or just the change in circumstances, but suddenly, the threat of death seemed to be everywhere.  And it seemed so real, so possible.  I could slip down the stairs.  Jeff's car could be side-wiped by any of the crazy aggressive drivers out here.  My toddler son could fall off of a jungle gym.  My baby could chock on a piece of carrot.  My brain seemed to have entered a heightened state, and my eyes were suddenly opened to the many colorful ways in which one could die.  Throughout the day, a million different scenarios of death danced in my head.

I became hyper-aware of all that I had to lose.  And I couldn't stop thinking that our babies were wholly dependent on me and Jeff.  Wholly.  What if something happened to us?  How could they survive?  Who would take care of them?  If I could, I would have hid in a cave like Gollum, protecting my precious from all the harm that could befall us.  But we don't own a cave.  All we have is a rental house in La Jolla.  And locking oneself in a house with a toddler and a baby is not a good strategy, especially less than half a mile from the beach.  Besides, staying at home is no guarantee of safety.  I kept imagining myself accidentally skewering myself on one of Jeff's many tools in the garage while at home with the kids alone.  Would my son know how to undo the safety latch on the pantry to at least open a can of spam and a box of Fruitables until he was found?    

So Jeff and I came up with our next best strategy.  We decided to finalize our trust papers and set up back-up guardians in case something happened to us.  We didn't understand the complexity of this task -- or the difficulty of identifying a suitable person -- until we started talking through it.

I think I had just assumed that my children would be raised by someone in our extended family if something were to happen.  I secretly preferred someone on my side of the family because I feared that my children would otherwise lose any understanding of my personal history as an immigrant and a Korean-American.  Besides, Jeff's parents are quite old and would his unmarried brother really want to become a parent overnight when he has never changed a single diaper (that is, if you don't count his dog's)?

The only problem with selecting someone from my family is that there is no one in my family whom I would entrust to raise my children.  The best candidates would be my parents, except that they are old.  And now that I was squarely facing the question, I wondered how my children would fare with my parents who, even after four decades in the US, still have trouble communicating with non-Koreans and lack exposure to wide swaths of American life.  Did I really want my children to be bogged down by the same cross cultural issues that I had growing up?

As for my siblings, my relationship with them is essentially nonexistent.  My sister and I used to be close, but about five years ago, over some issues that I still do not understand, she cut me off, and we haven't talked since.  My brother is married with kids, but we never really understood each other growing up and have made little effort to stay in touch as adults, except for the occasional gift exchange or gathering at my parents'.  Apart from my nuclear family, we have no other relatives in the US, except for one of my dad's cousins, whom I've met only a few times.

Taking stock of one's family in this fashion is an eye opening exercise.  It's unsettling to assess your family through a utilitarian lens, but after I did, I felt a disappointment creep in.  Perhaps it has something to do with my history of having grown up as an immigrant, where our nuclear family was alone in this country for so long, where we were repeatedly told that we had no one but each other in times of trouble.  Or a result of living in a country unfamiliar to my parents, where the role of the parents and dependents were inverted at times, and the assimilated children sometimes took the leading role in navigating this foreign land.  But the thought that I couldn't turn to anyone in my family on a matter as important as this made me feel angry.  My family felt defective -- as if we've failed in one of the basic functions that a family should be and do for each other.  Yet again, we couldn't be the kind of family I wanted us to be.

Obviously, it takes two to have a bad (or a non-existent) relationship, and it is unfair for me to put the blame squarely on them.  After the anger subsided, I felt sad, as I often have in the past, about the failed relationships in our family.  It pains me that my sister has never met my children.  And my brother and his family have met my three year old son once and never met my 11 months old daughter.  For some reason, we failed to weather life's stresses together, perhaps because there were too many or because we lacked the skills to manage them.  But whatever the cause, we were now drifting in separate directions, without the means to reach out and tie our rafts together.

I had been raised with traditional Korean values.  Growing up, there seemed to be an invisible ring around our family, separating those in the family from others.  Friends, no matter how close, were not family and would never be.  Blood was holy, and we were never to elevate outsiders above family.  But in this process of choosing a guardian for my children, I seem to have no choice but to look to outsiders.  That has been a giant mental hurdle for me, and a part of me feels reluctant to accept it, even though it is obvious that I have no choice.

It's sad to think that my original family could be erased from my children's lives.  The relationships are so tenuous now;  how much more attenuated would they be if I were no longer in the picture?  Would my East Coast parents visit more than sporadically, and how would they deal with the logistics once my children were living with another family?  Would my children even realize that they have an uncle and an aunt on my side of the family and that they have cousins?  Who would tell them that their history wasn't always of this country, that they could stake claim to another land, another people?  These questions give me a headache, and the answers seem obvious -- and painful.

The irony in all this is that we have incredible friends.  Friends who would eagerly step in and help out.  Friends who would treat our children as their own.  Friends who pamper our children the way my own brother and sister have not.

So when Jeff and I sat down to select a guardian for our son, we started by ruling out my family.  It is a hypothetical situation, and yet, it feels so final, so determinative.  But you can't plan your children's future on some far-fetched hope of reconciliation.  And that seems to be enough of a bridge for me to make my mental leap.

After we closed the door to my family, we opened the door to our friends.  There, on the perch, we scanned the crowd and started to sort.  First, we ruled out all of our single friends because we were worried that they may no longer be able to commit once a new spouse entered the picture.  Then we ruled out our friends who chose not to have children because we didn't want to impose a different lifestyle on them than they had chosen for themselves.  Also, now that we were parents, we understood how radically one's life changes with children, how so much is centered around them.  And we wondered if our friends without children could understand how much they were agreeing to give up even if they graciously agreed out of the goodness of their hearts.

After that initial sorting, we did a little more fine tuning.  So and so may not work out because they don't want more than one kid.  So and so may not be good because he has a medical condition and we shouldn't add more stresses on their lives.  So and so may not want to because aren't they already overwhelmed with four kids of their own?

Then, Jeff and I talked about our remaining friends individually and made a mental list of several friends who fit the bill.  As we discussed then one by one, we found ourselves saying things like, "Oh, yeah, so and so would be great.  They are such good parents." or "Oh, I bet they would do it.  Such good people.  And I know they would take good care of them." After we had gone through our friends in such manner, we had several candidates.  Among them, we selected one couple simply because we like them so much -- and because they are incredible parents to their two children.

When we next met with them, we popped the question.  When we asked, I found myself scrutinizing their facial expressions to see if they were really saying "yes," or just saying "yes" because they felt they couldn't say "no."  But the minute we asked, they said, "Of course!"  And followed with, "I can't believe you even asked us.  It would be such an honor!"  Their response warmed my heart, and I couldn't believe that they were so enthusiastic in their response.  We asked them to think about it for a couple of days, and they said, "We don't have to think about it.  The answer is still yes."

Later, I followed up with an email to them and let them know that if anything should happen, they would of course get all of our assets to pay for the expense of raising our children.  And they responded that they would do it even without the assets.

A couple of years later, when I became pregnant with my second child, we asked them the question again to see if they would agree to be guardians for our second child as well.  And again, their response was an enthusiastic "yes!".

We recently spent a week visiting them in the Bay Area.  They moved their son into his sister's room for the week so that our son could use his bed.  They fed us breakfast every morning, and incorporated our son into their own children's routine, including sharing a cup of homemade smoothie every morning and taking a bath together in their big tub at the end of the day.  When the week was over, my son whined that he didn't want to go home.  He wanted to play longer at M and K's house.

As we drove away, Jeff and I talked about what good parents they are.  Ridiculously well organized and diligent, they are one of the few couples we know who make us feel like total slackers.  How fortunate we are to be friends with such generous souls.

They aren't blood kin.  They aren't even Korean.  But they are willing to stretch themselves to make room for our children in their home and their hearts.  Knowing that makes a little bit of that fear inside me subside.  And makes me want to return the favor to some other parent reluctant to burrow in a cave.