My dad wasted a fortune trying to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. I started with lessons at 5 or 6 and quit when I was around 17. I have little to show for them.
It wasn’t a total bust though. I got to spend an hour a week with Mrs. Park.
Oh, how I loved her.
Joo Eun “June” Park was a goddess. The daughter of a successful father and the wife of a successful businessman, she lived in a spacious contemporary home with an open design, high ceilings, and streamlined modern furnishings. I had never before experienced a cool leather sectional or a plush white carpet. I had never been in a house anything like this. Her studio was off the kitchen. We slid open the glass door and entered a world of delicious aromas.
Mrs. Park herself was the picture of mod glamour—even when she was dressed for housework. You just knew she was meant to be a jet setter. Sometimes we arrived right after she had returned from the tennis court, and she sported a tiny tennis dress with gigantic sunglasses. She was quite the athlete, swimming countless laps for fitness.
She had a beautiful moon face, perfect skin, and lovely tapering fingers. I loved her clean-smelling kimchi breath, and her musical, girlish laugh. I loved the way she punctuated her speech and gestures with a deep “unh” which I could understand without knowing how.
I loved being loved by Mrs. Park.
Mirrored in Mrs. Park’s eyes, my sister Gwen and I felt special and adorable. Those sunny eyes showed affection, and it was clear that we were more than just a paycheck.
Mrs. Park was no pushover. She could be irritable. My lower lip trembled when she rapped my knuckles with her pencil: “Position! Position!” And the way she corrected her sons hinted at steel and impatience. But when we had the sniffles, Mrs. Park brought us into the kitchen and gave us chewable Vitamin C tablets. If they were gone, she opened the freezer, plunged a big spoon into a frozen cylinder of orange juice, pulled out a glob, and fed it to us like a popsicle. She taught us about kimbap and shared her fascinating food with us.
We had to give her up for 4 years when we went to Germany. We ended up with Frau Ristevski, God help her. Gwen and I were rotten. I mean rotten. She didn’t deserve it. It wasn’t her fault she wasn’t Mrs. Park.
Mrs. Ristevski lived in a teensy apartment under the roof of a tall Altbau (a surviving pre-WW II house, which had been divided into apartments) with her husband and son.
Gwen and I dreaded our lessons
Gwen and I were responsible for getting ourselves to our lessons
Our parents did little to monitor our progress beyond writing a monthly check
We would hop on our bikes at 4:55 for the 25 minute bike race across the city for our 5:00 lesson; arrive sweaty, breathless, and unprepared; and piss her the hell off. Every week.
You would think I’d have had the sense to rebel and just quit piano lessons upon our return to the U.S. You would think. But Mrs. Park had seen something in me which was good and promising, and it was hard to resist the lure.
Once we returned, I stuck with piano even when I fell so in love with running and my team that the only way I could continue lessons was to run several miles to her house on one of my long-distance days.
Mrs. Park was a good sport. She protected her piano bench with a thick towel to sop up my sweat and stink without ever telling me off. I am sad and ashamed when I think of how long we continued this painful farce—me still hoping to please her by living up to my early potential and both of us knowing it was never going to happen.
My last recital was the last straw. I had not prepared and I was unable to remember the piece despite many (many!) sloppy stops and starts. I quietly got up from the bench, returned to my seat, and called it a day. I refused to meet any eyes, I and left to walk home the second the last player finished. Not long after that, Mrs. Park moved to Korea, and I lost track of her.
My friendship with Mrs. Park was briefly rekindled many years later when my daughters were small. My sister had chanced to run into her. It turned out Mrs. Park had moved back to the area and was very excited to find us. She quickly made plans to get together with us, and we did meet a few times. Sadly, the reunion didn’t stick.
Mrs. Park’s sons were grown and out of the house. She was lonely and looking for a daughter. I felt both her hunger and the weight of her expectations, and I knew I couldn’t be the person she sought. I was unable to reciprocate her lavish gestures financially or emotionally, and I became uncomfortable. We lost touch.
Both of my counseling offices are near Korean markets, and I go often to touch, smell, and buy ingredients for my next culinary adventure. Once, as I scrutinized a bag of Korean pancake mix with a furrowed brow, trying to recall what was in Mrs. Park’s pancakes, a white-haired granny no taller than my shoulder grabbed me and dragged me through the store. Using gestures alone, she explained how to make the pancakes. I still follow her orders: Pancake mix, green onions, long hot peppers, Korean squash, chives, kimchi. Meat or seafood, optional.
I ran into Mrs. Park in the market a few months ago. I was torn. I wanted to run and hug her. I wanted to hide. In the end, I crept around the store behind her, beaming love at her back, terrified she would turn around.
Thinking about her is giving me a stomach ache. I want to cry.
This is post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post, click here. For the next post, click here.