Small Father

My Father’s Stories: Number Four – Small Father (Sam Chon).

This is the story of my father’s uncle – his father’s younger brother (small father – Sam (3)-Chon), his wife (my father’s aunt) and his children (my father’s “real” cousins).

I think I better explain a little bit about “chon” numbers in blood relations.

Between father and son = il (1) chon; between brothers = iee (2) chon; So, between father’s brother and me = sam (3) chon; between father’s brother’ son and me = sa (4) chon (in US we call it cousin); and 5 chon (nephew); 8 chon (distant cousin) etc. This is very scientific and logical. However, with 1 chon and 2 chon, customarily we never call our father “1 chon”, or our brother “2 chon”. You calculate and call “chon number” directly to the person only after 2 chon:  “3 chon”, “4 chon”, “5 chon”, “8 chon” etc. However, usually, more than “8 chon” is considered insignificant.

My father also goes on to expound on the scientific and simple nature (no “controversial” words like ‘knife’) of the Korean alphabet (Han-Gul), but I will skip that aside for this story.

This very little known uncle’s story is based mainly on my grand mother (80%), my mother (10%), and me (10%).

Name: Lee, Sang Ho

Date of birth: around 1903

At present: no one knows where he may be or whether he is dead or alive.

Physical appearance: On the tall side, but not as tall as my father and of medium build.

External (facial) appearance: average (resembled  Won-San Go-Mo).

Character: easy going, not serious, not steady.

Occupation: perhaps just pretending to help his father (my grand pa).

Wife: Beautiful woman.

Two children: (1) Girl: Lee, Song Ok, similar to my age, (2) Boy: Lee, Man Woo, couple of years younger than me.

My grand mo said that he (uncle) was a lazy and useless bum who didn’t want to do any thing and just fooled around.

He and his wife had frequent arguments and fights. Then, his beautiful wife, together with their children (my cousins), would come over to our house and complain to my mother, crying. She called my mom “Sung-nim” which is a hybrid word of brother and sister. Usually, between girls or women, they call their older counterparts “Unni”. However to more respectable women, they would say “Hyung-nim” (brother) or hybrid word “Sung-nim”( means close to brother). My mom used to call her “Song-Ok’s Mother”. This is usual Korean custom. When a girl was growing up, people called her by her first name. Then, once they got married and had children, they are no longer called by first name but instead they address her as first child’s mother. Like Yoo-mi’s mother for your mom, etc.

Whenever she came to our house after an argument with her husband, my father called (summoned) his brother to come over to our house (I don’t know where they lived but probably not far away from our place); the three of them went into a separate room and he tried to mediate between his younger brother and sister-in-law. In the usual Korean custom, regardless of who is right or who is wrong, my father has to blame whomever is closer to him – his younger brother, saying “you were wrong brother, how could you argue about these trivial things all the time” and “you should make your home a more peaceful place” etc. “do you understand?” In those days, the younger brother had to listen to his older brother. So, he had to say to my father “yes big brother.”

However, my aunt came to my mother crying and complaining again and again. Then, my mother said “my dear Song-Ok’s mom, I know what you feel. This is not only your problem – all Korean women suffer with these problems. So whatever your husband says, don’t take too seriously, be more patient, think about your beautiful children, and try to be nicer to him. This is the only way to keep your family peacefully together, etc.” This was what my mom told me after I grew up when my mom recalled poor Song-Ok’s mother. She said she spoke to her in that kind of way numerous times.

Whenever she came together with her children (my real cousins – Koreans usually differentiate between father’s side and mother’s side cousins. In those days, they thought that father’s side cousins were almost like real brothers and sisters. It is still somehow like that) we played together with our cousins. There was one place, a wide open area we called children’s play ground in the entrance of this poor people’s village. There were two ways to get to this play ground. One was a regular path and the other was a short cut (not a real path). I explored this short cut for myself accidentally. Whenever my cousins came to our house, I would lead them, holding their hands, and passing through very narrow spaces between the side walls of straw-roofed houses and fences of somebody’s back yard, like a labyrinth. It was real fun. Strange thing is that I don’t know how I (with dumb memory) could remember that because I am guessing my age was 3 or 4. Whenever I think about my cousins I still remember that.

Song-Ok’s mom’s visit to my mom were pretty regular. However, one afternoon, when I got home, Aunt was weeping and crying much longer than usual. The reason unfortunately was that her children Song-Ok and Man-Woo died one after another by infectious disease, probably measles. I felt sad but at that time I didn’t know what exactly death menat. Later in my life when I was growing up, my mom sometimes talked about it once in a while.

This wasn’t bad enough for this beautiful woman. Not long after their children died her husband disappeared. My father inquired in every possible place and finally got information from his elder sister (Won-San Go-Mo) that he had come to Won-San and was apparently living with a different woman. Can you imagine this irresponsible uncle (as my grand mo quoted: “lazy and useless bum”), apparently running away with his mistress to Won-San secretly without saying anything to his wife or his big brother (my father)?

Any way, my uncle lived in Won-San with a different woman. After World War II, when Korea was divided in two, Won-San became a North Korean territory. Soon after that, my cousin brother and his family in Won-San escaped south to Seoul. When my cousin brother was coming down to Seoul, it is unclear whether or not he tried to convince my uncle (his uncle too) to escape together. However, to my common sense, they probably did. (Here, “they” means Won-San Go-Mo’s family. My uncle means mother’s side uncle to my cousin brother and younger brother to my Won-San Go-Mo.)

After my cousin brother’s family escaped to Seoul from Communist North Korea, nobody ever heard anything about my uncle.

My aunt’s visits to my mom were still pretty regular. However, there was gradually less crying. My mom told me one day that after all these unfortunate incidents, apparently she asked my mom if she could adopt one of mom’s sons. (This kind of practice was not uncommon in Korea. Brothers who did not have a child, adopted one of his brother’s sons, usually the second or third or later one; as young as possible.) My mom asked “who do you have in mind.” Song-Ok’s mom said “Sung-Woo” without hesitating. My mom told me that at that time, the status of her mind was: “how come this greedy woman asks for Sung-Woo?” She knows very well that  Sung-Woo is my mom’s first son. And suddenly something like a hateful feeling came up in mom’s mind. All these days, mom tried to comfort Song-Ok’s mom saying very sympathetically “OK, OK, I know how you feel, etc., etc.” “Now, look at her, she is asking for my first son, who will be a pillar to support the Lee family. How can she say that without even hesitation.” However, my mom had a kind, patient, polite and understanding personality. So, mom told aunt “look Song-Ok’s mom, Sung-Woo is our first son, as you know well.” Then aunt said “but Sung-Nim, you have another son and daughters, so many of them, I only ask for one.” Then mom said “if you are really serious about it, you can adopt Jang-Woo (my younger brother) if his father says OK”. Aunt did not say anything like “yes” or “no” because she knew that this was a very sensitive matter.

Her visits were still pretty regular. And as days and months passed, she looked like she was getting richer. Her clothes, jewelry, accessories and her style looked some how luxurious. When she visited mom, although she was only a couple of years younger than mom, she still looked beautiful and I realized that her voice was beautiful too. Like the old Korean saying, she had a rolling-marble voice, which was some how laud. Even from a distance, we could hear her beautiful, unique, laughing voice. My mom said that one day, when she was newly married, she (aunt) came to our house to help mom cook (of cause it was in an outdoor kitchen). She was raising a fire under the big oven, putting in a brunch of wood. The fire was burning; aunt’s face was reddish looking with the reflection of the fire. Then my mom said that even to her eyes (a woman’s eye) she looked very beautiful.

Aunt did not give up her plan to adopt Sung-Woo. One day she came to mom and told mom that she was getting richer, in contrast to us, and one of the other reasons to adapt mom’s son was so that she could leave all her wealth to her adopted son. Apparently she thought that by saying this, she would be able to convince my mom. My mom said that aunt was probably living together with a man but mom never asked about those things in details (about the man who was living with her or how she was getting richer, etc.) because my mom was very considerate. Mom didn’t want to make her uncomfortable by asking those questions. After that, her visits to mom gradually lessened and her adaption idea also gradually faded.

However, the shadow of evil fortune refused to leave this poor woman who lost her beloved daughter and son and whose husband ran away with his mistress.

One day, when I came back home from Uganda for an inter-term vacation, my mom told me that Song-Ok’s mother had died. I was surprised to hear that news and asked “when?” Mom said “last year, when you were in Uganda” which was in 1967. I asked mom again “how did she die?” Mom said “she was murdered” and mom told me the following story.

One day, last year, a police detective came to our house and asked mom if she knew this woman. She saw the name and photo produced by the detective and said “Oh! Yes, she is my sister-in-law, Dong-Sou, my husband’s younger brother’s wife. What about her.” Then, detective said “she was murdered.” The detective said that she was registered as a widow only. Apparently she removed her previous husband’s name from her status. Rather, put it this way – she removed her name out of the Lee’s family registry. Perhaps that was allowed legally after a certain period had passed without hearing of one’s husband. The police said that after the murder report, they searched her house and found a lot of jewelry, valuables and solid gold bars, etc. The police said that the intruder’s motivation could have been for those valuables. Then the detective asked my mom a lot of questions, like when was the last time mom saw this women, any suspicious person mom could suggest who could have killed her, any other information mom could provide, etc. My theory was that an intruder came into the house to steal something valuable and my aunt resisted vigorously (this could be the psychology for a woman who lived alone to protect her valuables) then killed her and ran away without getting much. And another thing was that the detective said to mom that during the murder inquiry, one of the neighbor witnesses told the police that they saw a suspicious man in army uniform  near that house around that time. So, the police asked mom that if anybody in our family was in military service. Mom said that my second son is in active army service. Later, my mom learned that the detective came to Jang-Woo’s place. At that time, he was a supply regiment commander with a rank of major colonel. A few days later, I met my brother Jang-Woo too. He asked me if I heard that news about our aunt’s death. I said “yes I heard that news from mom. Isn’t that a sad story?”  Then, my brother Jang-Woo said “yes indeed” however it was unpleasant to him that the detective came to him and inquired about alibis and if he had anything to do with aunt’s murder. I said to my brother “wasn’t that detective a real crazy one?” “Forget about that detective.”

My mom mumbled as if she was talking to herself that old saying “미인 박복” “美人 薄福” “misfortune follows beautiful women”. Mom said again to her self “she was one of them.”

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