Capturing My Father’s Stories

I’ve been thinking of my father quite a bit these days. His 80th birthday (in American years, as he likes to remind us) is approaching in a few months, and I can’t shake this niggling feeling of unease that keeps growing every year as I postpone spending time with him to capture some of the stories of his life.  The impact of the few stories I’ve heard him tell are still vivid, but I no longer remember the details.  And I’m afraid, neither will he.

My father wanted to write an autobiography, even as recently as 20 years ago.  I believe that he wanted to document the war (Korean) years and his wrongful imprisonment by the Americans in a POW camp.  (Where was that?) But as dates and other details faded from his memory, he didn’t.  My father is precise, exact, factual.  He was a surgeon.  His mother had a photographic memory.  Forgetting one date would have killed the entire autobiography.  I know how he feels – I’ve inherited the tendency towards precision.  Ironic, since my own long-term memory is so bad. (Did I get that from my mother?)

My father’s story has all the ingredients for a terrific historical novel.  But it is my history.

  • Growing up poor as the eldest son of six children
  • A bully of a father (a minister, no less) who died young
  • Going to university in the big city, carrying a sack of rice (on a bus) as the only offering for the cousin who housed him
  • Tutoring other students to put himself through medical school
  • Sole supporter of the family, drafted during the Korean War while still a medical student
  • Misidentified as a North Korean soldier and taken as a prisoner-of-war by his own allies
  • Leaving a war-ravaged country for the “Pearl of Africa”
  • Playing God as a surgeon in Uganda
  • Immigrating to the U.S.A. to educate his children
  • Guilt and remorse for the family left behind in South Korea

My mother claims to have no family left in South Korea and I am not in touch with my father’s remaining family – two brothers and two sisters and their children and grandchildren.  My father’s oldest sister passed away before his mother did some years ago.  (Again, the dates escape me.)  So, my father is my only access to this story.

Rather than wait until I see him in a few months, I emailed him to see if he would begin the process via email.  This is his (somewhat edited) response:

I do not know what inspired you but I was surprised to hear that you are suddenly interested to know about our family stories. From a father’s stand point, it is definitely a welcome and proud news. However, for me, in this stage of my life, writing a letter or stories in English is a big headache because my memory is rapidly deteriorating on top of my poor Basic English ability as you already know. These days, when I write something in English, I have to struggle to find a proper word to use. Same with speaking and even reading ability has become very slow that I have to repeat reading same sentence twice or three times to get meaning of it.

So, if I could avoid your request, it will be a big relief for me. However, if you seriously want to know these things, how can I refuse your beautiful request?

May be, like you said, I write one story in a few days or a few weeks if you don’t have limited time frame.

I even couldn’t say when I could start.

PS: About book writing: When I was in 60’s, I was thinking that when I retire and have nothing much to do, maybe I write a book about my elder sister’s checkered life, my story I faced during Korean war or Ugandan life etc. But after I retired, I changed my mind. Reason # 1: Who will be interested to read my story? Reason # 2: I had a doubt about what for? For my self satisfaction? Or for whom? I remember Buddhists teaching said everything is useless, don’t be persistently attached to worldly affair. These things are all useless.

As I get older I agree with these things more than when I was young.

My father sent this response to my two brothers as well.  My youngest brother wrote back to say that he would also love to hear these stories.  Let’s see what, if anything comes our way.


2 Responses to “Capturing My Father’s Stories”

  1. 1 pavimehta April 17, 2010 at 5:08 am

    Yoomily! What a beautiful entry …your father’s response is so moving and wise. Thanks for sharing this and making the rest of us hit the pause button to think about the hidden sacrifices and oft-forgotten stories of the people who brought us into this world…

    big hugs,

  1. 1 The Original Address « Essere Trackback on April 20, 2010 at 5:42 am

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