Frances Park

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Or­chids

My fa­ther al­ways seemed to know the mo­ment I was walk­ing up the drive­way. It was a gift he got late in life, along with a green thumb – some kind of melan­cholic magic. In­side, above the chat­ter of his other chil­dren, Sam Ahn’s an­tenna was up, pick­ing up the sound of my boots crunch­ing on ice.

Mon­key?

He was here now, stooped, on the other side of the door. Once a glo­be­trot­ter, now un­chain­ing, un­lock­ing, trem­bling.

Mon­key is here!

On more than one oc­ca­sion, he told me he wished he was in a coma and that this, his life to­day, was just a hal­lu­ci­na­tion: Mommy was still alive, tend­ing to the real gar­dens where or­chids did in­deed bloom, un­der a real sky while he lay in a deep sleep.

We could all be in co­mas. But my hunch is that my fa­ther grew old alone.

The white hair al­ways shocked me, at first. His Hawai­ian shirt in the dead of win­ter, no.

‘Mar­garet,’ he cried, face pinched. Mar-ga-ret. No chintz­ing on the English lan­guage. No Mon­key, ei­ther – re­frained but not for­got­ten. I would al­ways be Mon­key, not Mar­garet, to him; the name was al­ways on the tip of his tongue. M-M-M… When he thinks Mon­key, the past comes alive.

‘Happy birth­day, Dad!’ I cried out.

Only Mar-ga-ret gets a kiss, a quick flut­ter on the lips, gone like but­ter­flies. Korean men were not kis­sers, but I was his youngest and his favourite. He never said so, but I knew so. I was al­ways his hero­ine; Mon­key in tor­toise-shell bar­rettes, win­ning a first place rib­bon on the bal­ance beam, a sec­ond prize tro­phy at the Science Fair, straight A’s in French. I was Madame Curie, Rosa Parks, Pearl Buck, all the hero­ines of our time. These days, on the rare oc­ca­sions I was here, when I would turn my face a cer­tain way in a cer­tain light, or look up from eat­ing, he would set down his fork or news­pa­per, his face silken with mem­ory: ‘You look just like Mommy.’

Our months apart were lost years.

In the foyer my fa­ther took my coat, a ratty fake fur. ‘My birth­day is to­mor­row, Mar­garet, not to­day.’

We al­ways cel­e­brated his birth­day one day early. His real birth­day he spent at the ceme­tery, alone. Asked, he might de­scribe his pri­vate cer­e­mony with Mommy as ‘a fine win­ter rit­ual’.

‘I know, Dad.’

When­ever I vis­ited, I found my­self re­luc­tantly record­ing the ways my fa­ther was get­ting old. It all hurt. Once I left, he re­verted to for­ever forty, the Dad with shiny black hair combed back to show off his in­tel­li­gent melon-sized fore­head and the prince-like twin­kle in his eye. He was much smaller and much nicer than all the other dads around – my girl­friends Jane and Carol Lee had sto­ries and I heard the yelling. Amer­i­can fa­thers of his gen­er­a­tion, as far as I could tell, were near-mur­der­ous beasts. Then there was Mr. Ahn. He treated his chil­dren – Vi­vian, Peter, Holly and Mon­key – like heir­looms, once lost. And if his pre­cious heir­looms ad­dressed their par­ents as ‘you guys’, or an­swered a ques­tion with a ‘dunno’, his face would turn a sud­den and scary shade of scar­let, fol­lowed by a firm yet gen­tle rep­ri­mand, ‘Now kids…’

I of­ten won­dered whether my friends’ fa­thers still had wives pour­ing their

cof­fee in the morn­ing while my dad fixed his own, as he had for twenty-six years now. Light trick­ling in; quiet, so quiet.

‘How’s my ge­nius daugh­ter?’ My fa­ther be­lieved the fan­tasy, and like a gift I would let him keep it. ‘Great, ex­cept I’ve missed you so much.’

He smiled like a flower would if it could then held my hand with crush­ing emo­tion. I felt the huge hole in his heart as we fol­lowed the sound of my sib­lings to the kitchen and made small-talk. Win­ter was a low point for him. He couldn’t get out and do yard work which Mommy would have liked. He lost his tan which pro­jected a glow of hap­pi­ness and health, es­pe­cially against laven­der or­chids – the ones on his shirt.

Real or­chids he couldn’t grow like Mommy did.

The neigh­bours ad­mired him from the side­walk like a bronze lawn fix­ture you couldn’t see up close for fear of tres­pass­ing. There’s Mr. Ahn, out gar­den­ing again. He had a wife who died a mil­lion years ago. Hello, Mr. Ahn!

Blink­ing out of a dream: Hello!

His loyal friends from col­lege, dead, too. Strokes come early to those who smoke and drink, have sec­ond wives, spend years plot­ting against post-Rhee regimes and eat salted dried min­nows like pop­corn. My fa­ther chose an­other life, in an­other cap­i­tal. Here, Seum-Young Ahn be­came Sam Ahn, and his Korean soul went sub­ur­ban. Now he was who he was.

Tan, golden; glow, false.

Some­thing worked its way through his brain to his lips, an an­cient earth­worm crawl­ing to present-day. To a crack­ling fire­place: ‘Why did you

drive, Mar­garet? I said Peter could pick you up at the air­port. The roads are too slip­pery.’

‘Dad.’

‘Girls are not good driv­ers.’

I couldn’t and wouldn’t ar­gue with him. Girls – and we were his girls for­ever – weren’t sup­posed to op­er­ate dan­ger­ous ma­chin­ery. Not cars, not lawn mow­ers. Wash­ing ma­chines, okay. Dish­wash­ers, too. Egg beat­ers and blenders and garbage dis­pos­als, not good ideas. Too easy to lose a fin­ger or a hand or worse.

Darkly: ‘I told Mommy not to drive, re­mem­ber?’

Back on earth, my fa­ther steered me to­ward the kitchen like a rick­shaw over rocks. Old Seoul in sum­mer smacked me in the face, the fra­grant al­leys where flies feasted on melon rinds and pun­gent, pick­led trash – I could al­most hear them buzzing.

‘Mar­garet is here!’ he an­nounced then wan­dered off to fill his wa­ter­ing can – plant-life in the bay win­dow was call­ing him. Two kitchen faucets but into the pow­der room he went, for the si­lence, the soli­tude. Sam Ahn was never a loud man but he was even qui­eter now. You could al­most say there was a beauty to it, even as he came out to water the or­chids that would never bloom.

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