Yet mothers are also often taken for granted, as if they were a nice animated machine that dispensed food, hugs, and money, not necessarily in that order. For many of us, as we’ve grown older, our mothers fade into the background, unless they call us up an evening or two (sometimes, in the process, annoying us) to see how we were doing and if we would be coming over to visit sometime soon. Mama can become little more than an old person that gets in our way and we try to “make something” of our lives. It’s not as though they are hated, usually it is far from that, but they are no longer important to us because they don’t provide for us and many of us just don’t have the time or desire to provide for them as they age.
This is a rather uncomfortable social truth that spans across six inhabited continents and divers cultures. It lies at the heart of Korean writer Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, which recounts through the points-of-view of a particular mother’s husband and children their memories of her that were reactivated after she turned up missing after she missed connecting with her husband on a commuter train a month prior. Shin builds through these reminiscences a complex mosaic portrayal of the mother, Park So-nyo, and of the complicated relationships her children and husband (who proved to be faithless to her during their marriage) had with her and with each other. Below is a memory that the eldest daughter, Chi-hon, had:
A few years ago, your mom said, “We don’t have to celebrate my birthday separately.” Father’s birthday is one month before Mom’s. You and your siblings always went to your parents’ house in Chongup for birthdays and other celebrations. All together, there were twenty-two people in the immediate family. Mom liked it when all her children and grandchildren gathered and bustled about the house. A few days before everyone came down, she would make fresh kimchi, go to the market to buy beef, and stock up on extra toothpaste and toothbrushes. She pressed sesame oil and roasted and ground sesame and perilla seeds, so she could present her children with a jar of each as they left. As she waited for the family to arrive, your mom would be visibly animated, her words and her gestures revealing her pride when she talked to neighbors or acquaintances. In the shed, Mom kept glass bottles of every size filled with plum or wild-strawberry juice, which she made seasonally. Mom’s jars were filled to the brim with tiny fermented croaker-like fish or anchovy paste or fermented clams that she was planning to send to the family in the city. When she heard that onions were good for one’s health, she made onion juice, and before winter came, she made pumpkin juice infused with licorice. Your mom’s house was like a factory; she prepared sauces and fermented bean paste and hulled rice, producing things for the family year-round. At some point, the children’s trips to Chongup became less frequent, and Mom and Father started to come to Seoul more often. And then you began to celebrate each of their birthdays by going out for dinner. That was easier. Then Mom even suggested, “Let’s celebrate my birthday on your father’s.” She said it would be a burden to celebrate their birthdays separately, since both happen during the hot summer, when there are also two ancestral rites only two days apart. At first the family refused to do that, even when Mom insisted on it, and if she balked at coming to the city, a few of you went home to celebrate with her. Then you all started to give Mom her birthday gift on Father’s birthday. Eventually, quietly, Mom’s actual birthday was bypassed. Mom, who liked to buy socks for everyone in the family, had in her dresser a growing collection of socks that her children didn’t take.This passage, which is only but one of several similar flashbacks, goes straight for the jugular. In reading it, I could remember how my mother and maternal grandmother were in regards to sewing clothing for several in the family, the simple dismissal of attention, and the stoic facing of age while the family grew up and moved into different homes (and in my case, to a different state for two years). I could easily see myself in a position similar to Chi-hon’s, possibly sitting at a desk or table twenty years from now and wondering about my mother and just how quickly and completely she had faded into the background, despite her being so vocal about my need to learn responsibility when I was younger. That is the devastating beauty of Please Look After Mom. Shin utilizes a mixture of first-, second-, and third-person points-of-views to place us right in the shoes of the missing mother’s family. How easily it could be our own mother who has wandered away, suffering from medical ailments, yet not wanting to interrupt our self-absorbed lives. If we find ourselves thinking and reacting along with the husband and three children, then Shin’s novel has us utterly in its grasp. We cannot turn aside, but have to confront the memories that burble up from reading a story just like this.
It is easy to forget how much and how little we understand our own family members until stories such as Please Look After Mom come along to jar us into remembering what we had forgotten or at least had tried to forget. For that and for how adroitly Shin mixes the four narrative threads together to reveal portraits of each family member and mom, Please Look After Mom may be the best character novel of this year’s Man Asian Prize finalists. It is difficult to imagine a story that could be more effective that portraying multiple, and sometimes conflicting, images of a family matriarch. It simply is a moving novel that may lead to a few tears welling up as you read it.
Originally posted in March 2012 on Gogol's Overcoat.