Across the yard, my mother, hunched over at the waist, ties together the few objects of importance: a wedding picture framed in lacquered wood, an old tin pot pocked with craters - objects which twine alone must keep together.
Our neighbor bangs on our wooden gate once. She waits and then bangs three more times. The wooden latch shudders as it absorbs the blows.
"Mrs. Yun!" she says through the small cracks in the gate. My mother looks up from her work. "They will be coming any minute." In the past few days she and her family had sold all the belongings that they could not carry and spent their life savings on a final feast.
"We must hurry," she says as her voice trails away, her stomach full and her house empty. By the time my mother walks to the gate, our neighbor and her children have already joined the flow of refugees who are walking down to Pusan. The migrating stream becomes denser as it weaves through the side-streets and alleyways of Taegu. These streams merge like tributaries into a river of people pushed south, as if by some force of nature. As I continue tying the sack of rice shut, I think I can feel the rumblings of their footsteps in my fingers. I am ten years old, and my world is filled with vibrations.
My mother stands in front of the gate and looks at our belongings laid out in order of importance on the ground. Now she looks at me as I finish tying the sack of rice.
"It's time to go," she says.
I grab the two corners of the bag, bend my legs, and hoist it up onto my back. As I slowly raise my eyes, I see the gate with its chipping orange paint, the cracks between the warped boards, and the wooden latch which, alone, kept stray dogs and motley children out for years. I take a step forward, knowing that beyond that gate are the streets of Taegu, and beyond those streets, the long road to the sea. I take another step, thinking that if I take enough steps, if I continue just like this, I will reach the safety of Pusan.
And in this same house thirty years from now, there will be a boy who will look back on this scene and see the lines on my forehead, the blood-drained skin of my hands, the awkward arch of my back. The details of my face will be his. Because I am this boy. I am my father.
Back in the autumn of 1950, my father was a young boy surviving and growing up during the Korean War. He was the one who attempted to carry the sack of rice, almost the size of his small body, all the way down south. Like a novice tight-rope walker, he hobbled to the gate. There, with the sack of rice on his back, his thin legs trembled and gave way. My father slumped down in exhaustion as the sack hit the floor like a dead body. Witnessing this scene, my grandmother decided not to leave on their long trek, not to lose all of their belongings and their dignity. They were going to stay in their house, lock the gate, and wait for the North Korean soldiers who might, at any moment, walk up to the wooden gate with their Chinese-made rifles in their hands.
When I was a young boy growing up in our house in Taegu, South Korea, my grandmother repeatedly told me this story. She would point with her finger toward the exact spot where my father lifted up the sack and then toward the gate in front of which he fell. After my family and I immigrated to this country in 1982, my father continued the tradition. He would tell me his story at unremarkable moments: inside a theater while waiting for the projector to start, on long car rides on the Palisades Parkway, during dinners when there was nothing else to talk about.
My grandmother or my father would always begin the story with, "He/I was just about your age, just about your size." Such a similarity was impossible since I had heard this story from the time I was six until I reached early adolescence. Nevertheless, they always recalled that my father was my age, my size. I have often interpreted this impossible similarity as my grandmother and my father's attempt to make their story more real in my mind. I would put myself into their war-time scene and give myself the chance to think about what I would have done. Would I have carried that sack of rice on my back, determined to walk every step of the way down to Pusan? Would I have stayed in that small house with the wooden gate and wooden latch, waiting for the soldiers? My father's story was a challenge. By questioning what I would have done during the war, I was also questioning what I will do in the future as I face difficulties and hardships.
However, my father's story is not a clear guideline for how I should live my life; rather, it's a story, a text, open to different interpretations at different moments. Because my father had passed down his story to me, I am the one who interprets what it means for myself. Yet, my remembrance and interpretation of this story change as I, my family, and the world around us change. Even though I have heard the same story since my early childhood, the details and their significance are not unalterably impressed on my mind. They evolved and changed because my perceptions and my understandings evolve and change.
I am now looking back from one particular vantage point in my life. I am remembering my father's war-time scene as my father is coming upon, as Dylan Thomas wrote, the dying of his light. I have seen it coming: how my father often misses exits on highways he knows by heart, how he has a difficult time reading road signs, how he walks around the house with a gentle, sloping arch to his back. Last winter, my father drove our car into a snow bank. He mistook the accelerator for the brakes. My sister and I were in the back seat, and the two of us laughed and then laughed some more. We laughed at our father, at the snow caked into the car's front bumper, and at our neighbors who suddenly had a pile of snow pushed back onto their driveway. My sister and I laughed to stop ourselves from thinking. We pretended it was a random accident. We did not say to each other what we both knew.
Back in 1950, my father was the one who was carrying, of all things, the bag of rice. He bore the symbol of life and sustenance on his back. My father was transformed in that scene into a provider; as the bearer of the food, he was the one responsible for his mother's well-being during that particular moment of war. In my father's story, I see more than courage, more than dignity - I see my father, as a young boy, attempting to care for his mother. And this is the challenge I now find in his story. As my father grows older, I am inheriting that responsibility from him. I am the one who will now take care of my father in his old age.
Because I am remembering my father's story at this moment in my life, I have emphasized some aspects and de-emphasized others. As the editor of my memory, I have shaped and molded my father's history according to my current perspective. I emphasized the wooden latch that shuddered at every knock. I emphasized the sea beyond which my father and grandmother could walk no more. Perhaps at some other moment in my life, these details would have slipped from my mind without an acknowledgment of their significance; however, at this moment, these details are the important symbols of my current relationship with my father: the wooden gate with its fragile latch cannot keep out old age which is advancing toward my father; the sea is the boundary beyond which my father and I can no longer run. I realize through my father's story the impossibility of running from time.
I find myself in my father's story: no matter what I do, I cannot save my father from his old age. What stands out in my mind is not my father's inability to carry the sack of rice, but rather his powerlessness to alter the course of events. The soldiers were marching down, and my father, only a little boy, could do nothing to stop the inevitable from happening. Pulling off miracles is beyond the powers of a young child.
Now I am that child. The army is advancing closer and closer, and I am powerless to stop it, powerless to stop what will inevitably come. I can feel it coming. I count to myself, "One, two, three, four," until the earth finally starts to shake under me. It is closer. Pretty soon, the lag between the time I hear the blast and feel the shaking will be three seconds, then two, then one. I know my father and I cannot pack our belongings and walk south. No matter how far south we go, there will always be the sea, and we have not yet learned to walk on water. So we will stay in our house and wait, knowing that an old gate with its wooden latch cannot keep out what is bound to come.