This story is beautifully written. It is the poignant tale of a mother who goes missing and the family that discovers how great the loss of this parent really is, only after she is gone. It captures the universal dynamic of family life everywhere, in all its shapes and forms, with its hopes and dreams, successes and failures, joys and conflicts, plans and disappointments, guilt and shame, sadness and remorse; all aspects of life are expressed clearly and often tenderly, with an innocent and simple philosophical message typical of the culture being described. Originally written in Korean, it was recently published in English.
Sometimes, in life, we run out of the time necessary to make amends to those we love and our helplessness is overwhelming. Sometimes, there is simply no time to right the wrongs. When Park So-nyo goes missing in Seoul, those who knew her examine their memories and through their eyes, we learn who she was and get a composite of a kind and gentle, loving woman, unappreciated by most of those who knew her; a simple peasant woman who kept the family together through all the travails that befell them. She was their support, their disciplinarian, their inspiration, their guardian angel.
None of them truly knew this self-sacrificing parent, who thought little of herself but always gave to others and appreciated even the smallest things in life. She volunteered her time in an orphanage, helped nurse the sick, raised and cared for animals and tended gardens. She repaired the house, took care of all manner of necessary day to day chores and kept thing running smoothly, although she was uneducated and illiterate. Until she was gone, they all thought themselves superior to her, for one reason or another, used her in some way or another or abused her in one way or another. It was only when she was gone that her true value was realized and her efforts appreciated. She asked for so little in her life yet gave so much, and, in the end, was missed so much.
Park So-nyo had been having blinding headaches but no one paid attention to her or recognized her pain. Everyone walked around her, ignored her discomfort and simply expected her to go on. When she began to lose the memory of the things that were everyday occurrences and her headaches become more incapacitating, her family explained it away and ignored her symptoms. As her illness progressed she herself began to remember more and more of her past and her childhood. When her spirit visits her family and she relives her own memories, she reveals her secrets to the reader as her relatives do when they explore their own memories and express their shame and sorrow for their past behavior. They are even angry with her for not returning so they could make amends, as if she had a choice in the matter.
Her life’s story was locked inside her head, in her memories and the cumulative memories of those who knew her. She was remembered by those who saw her for her amber eyes, her eyes that were like cows, large and doleful and kind. Everything she touched grew, she cared so for everything and was always positive and grateful for the smallest favors and most often, she overlooked the oversights and insults to her with stoicism.
When they searched for their mom, she was remembered wearing blue sandals which cut into her foot, yet her husband said she had been wearing beige sandals which indicated to me how she was viewed by others, as almost invisible and colorless until she was gone, and then her vivid nature was sorely missed and remembered.
The story explores the distance that opens up between parents and children when they leave home to go out on their own, especially when they are far more educated and worldly than their parents and go from the country to the city life without skipping a beat, developing a superior attitude about their bumpkin parents, often illiterate and deprived. It explores relationships between parent and child, husband and wife, and the extended family and sheds light on how they all interact.
How does one feel when the woman who has always simply just been there, no longer is? What feelings are aroused when you discover the woman you thought you knew, was someone else entirely, that the selfless person actually suffered pain, had childhood joys and girlhood dreams?
I sometimes felt that the translator used language/vocabulary that was inappropriate for some of the characters. They were uneducated country people and I wondered if they would have used the particular expressions, although the words may have accurately described what they were saying, feeling and thinking. Also, in the audio version, the unfamiliar names and pronunciations were hard to picture and, therefore, identify. The foreign terms were hard to place. It would have been better to read than listen to this book, because of the language barrier.
In conclusion, I wondered, since we are all running as fast as we can and sometimes lose sight of what we are passing up, are we not all guilty of a lack of appreciation for those that do the most for us, of thinking that we, the younger generation knows more than our elders who seem backward and part of the past while we are part of the future. Has our own self importance made us unaware of the kindness bestowed upon us by those that love us unconditionally? Although it is perhaps a bit overdone, making a martyr of the mother, this book is, nevertheless, a testimonial to motherhood.