My Father’s Stories: Number Two – Grandfather and Grandmother [my great grandparents]
[My father writes “grand pa” and “grand mo” to refer to his grandparents. I will leave the “mo” as is.]
Time (political): Last emperor, Gojeong of Lee Dynasty (500 years).
Part A: Grandfather
(This story was told mostly (99%) by my grand mo. My mother did not want to talk about my grand pa and my father didn’t talk about these things – he was very authoritative.)
His name was Lee, Kyung Soo.
Date of birth: not known
Date of death: not known.
However, according to grand mo, he died after my elder sister’s birth in 1927 and before my birth in 1930. So, it means he died between 1927 and 1930. When I consider my grand mo’s various stories, he died close to my birth which probably means 1929. How old was he when he died? My grand mo died at the age of around 70 when I was around 17. Considering these numbers and if he was a few years older than grand mo he probably died at age of mid 50s. And by the same calculation, he was born in around 1874.
He was an only son of third generation.
You can hardly imagine what this meant at that time in Korean society. If there was no son in the family, they thought their family was finished, ruined, collapsed, and when they died, they could not possibly face their ancestors when they met them in heaven.
Therefore, even government policy, (I don’t know about now) for those who are only son of more than third generation were exempt from military duty when they reach 18 years of age.
Therefore, we don’t have distant relatives.
He was a good man.
He was tall and big.
And he was very, very handsome and good looking.
How do we know? We did not see him and this was his wife’s (my grand mo’s) view but it may be so because of the following reasons.
(1) My father was handsome.
(2) My mother displayed my father’s photo on the wall of living area wherever we moved, like the North Koreans displayed Kim Il Sung’s photo. One day, when I was coming home together with a couple of friends from school (Junior High) my friends saw the picture of my father and every body said at the same time: “Wow! Who was he? Was he a movie star? Very handsome” etc. My grand mo heard that. After my friends left, my grand mo told me “your grandpa was much, much more handsome than your father and if you compare with your grandpa there is no comparison”.
Occupation: Merchant (modern term – Businessman).
He was very rich. (Probably inherited considering his lifestyle.)
Grand mo told me thousands of times that he owned thousands (?) of acres of fertile rice fields and dry farm land. Koreans usually separate wet farm land for rice (more valuable) and dry farm land for barley, wheat, vegetables, etc.
He had two commercial buildings in West-Gate market. This was a famous only market in Daegu city at that time and they said that you can not find anything without finding in this market. (Is this English?)
Thinking of West-Gate market, when I was preschool age, my mom was going to that market. My mom asked me if I wanted to come with her. I said “OK mom, I’d love to” because I thought it might be very interesting to look around in the market. When we got there, I was fascinated by so many interesting things. I stopped by the live fish selling corner. In a live fish tank (large wooden made half barrel sort of tank) they kept live Tilapia, Carp, Catfish, eels in water, and clams, crabs, etc. too. Fish were jumping and slapping the surface of the water with their tails and make water splash. I was somehow euphoric, and then mom pulled my arm and went to the food selling corner. Wow! It smelled good. In one corner, they sold green bean soup. In Korean food culture, they developed many kinds of soup as a meal. I was thinking back on how this was developed. Historically, the peasant class (the general population, other than the special royal class – the so called Yang-Ban) of Korea was so poor. Whenever spring came, their harvested food crops from the last autumn had run out. There was nothing much to eat. Girls and women had to go out to the mountain hills and dig newly grown edible herbs – like wild greens – in early spring. They put this plus a few crops in a lot of water and make various kinds of soup and eat them as a meal in order to fill their hungry stomachs. By the way, there was also some love story about these spring-wild-greens-digging-girls and cow boys on the hill of mountain. These cow boys were different from Texas cow boys who feed and lead hundreds of herds of cows. Korean cow boy means they feed only one cow or two of their (farmers) possession.
Now, coming back to green bean soup, we (my mom and I) sat on the wooden made simple bench (no back support) in front of the green bean soup cooking oven. My mom asked the old soup selling lady to give her a bowl of green bean soup. Mom got that steamy yummy looking green bean soup and passed it to me to eat. I was looking up to see mom’s face and asked “how about you.” Mom said she was not hungry and also her stomach was hurting a little and she told me to eat it before it got cold. I ate it. It was so good – really good. It was too bad that mom had a stomach problem. At that time I was barely 5 or 6 years old. Yet, I still remember that scene clearly. While I was growing up, when I looked back at my childhood days, we were so poor then that my mom could not even afford to buy another bowl of soup which was one of the cheapest food in that market. When I think back about my mom, I still feel the love that my mother gave me.
Life style of grand father: Womanizing and Gambling
Grand mo told me so many times that he was so popular with women and that he had so many mistresses everywhere – in every town. He bought houses for them and paid expenses for them. Amazingly, when my grand mo talked about this, she showed no sign of jealousy or hatred, rather she was kind of proud that her husband was so popular among women and had so many mistresses. In those days, one could legally have only one wife (this was very strict) but mistresses were widely accepted for those who could afford to have them.
He was a frequent big gambler and later he was addicted to it. Grand mo said when he went for gambling, he loaded a huge amount of threaded coins on the back of the horse and took his aid to pull the horse. (Regarding horses, Korean native horses are small and gentle and may be slightly bigger than donkeys in size.) About currency in those days, they used large metal (brass? nickel? I am not sure) coins with square or round holes in the center of the coin. When they carried or stored them, they threaded those coins with string – 10, 20, 50, 100, etc. together in a bundle.
When he gambled, he lost more than he gained and gradually suffered more and more losses. Grand mo said he sold all those fertile farm lands one by one, got depressed, started using morphine, got addicted, expanding debt, sold businesses, sold the house (which may have been our original address) and finally moved in to a straw-thatched small house in the northern outskirts of a poor neighborhood where there was no sewer system.
He was bed ridden, became uselessly ruined man, all his women and friends left him. Grand mo said when his morphine effect wore off, he started shouting loudly,” I am dying, I am dying, do some thing for me”. Grand mo answered back and said my dear husband you sold everything – we have nothing to sell any more. Grand pa shouted more loudly, more hysterically and continuously, “I am dying, I am dying, please do something for me” while crawling all over the bed room, and slapping the bed room floor with his palms. Grand mo was such an amazingly faithful wife that she was so sympathetic to her husband. She opened any chest or any drawer, even my mother’s, looking for something valuable, such as jewelry or clothes or even hair pins and took it to pawn places. My mother rarely talked about this but one day, when she came home, she saw her mother-in-law, who is my grand mo, opening my mother’s chest, and looking for any valuables. My mother could not say anything because she knew she could not stop it even if she argued for it.
After grand pa got morphine, he looked peaceful. While she was watching him, grand mo was tearful because once he was a big, tall and good looking proud man. Look at him now – emaciated, shrunken and miserable looking.
The final day approached slowly and gradually. One rainy day evening, under the influence of morphine, he stopped breathing, stopped shouting and fell asleep for good and forever. Exhausted family. No tears, no crying. The whole house was quiet; the whole universe was quiet. What a way for a good man to end his life. This is how an irresponsible head of house hold could ruin the family he once loved. The rest of the family has to survive, but how?
The good part is that the worst is over and tomorrow morning, the sun might rise brighter than ever on the horizon and on the roofs of the straw-thatched, poor neighborhood.
Although many years passed, my mother did not want to talk about grand pa. (Generally, it is considered unethical for a married woman to talk about her husband’s family negatively, especially about her mother-in-law and father-in-law). But not only that, she really did not want to remember it. Even when I asked her about it, she tried to avoid it. Usually, she never avoided my questions. Whenever I asked any questions, she usually answered honestly and sometimes in detail. I can only imagine how much hardship she endured after grand pa ruined our family.
Later, I heard a piece of her memory. She said she could tolerate it for herself, but what she could not tolerate was the fact that because of grand pa, her (my mom’s) children faced so much hardship.