Memories. Some lie dormant for decades then suddenly spring awake, fresh as yesterday. I like to think the writer in me brought Kissuni back to life but it was something else.
To me, a mere girl of seven, my grandparents’ maid was a big-boned, strapping woman, always barefoot, always moving. Her feet were cracked clay, her face a rock. With mandatory bows, she led a back-breaking life of cooking, cleaning, ironing and, like it or not, looking after me that summer. If I was thirsty, she brought me cool barley tea. If I needed to use the toilet, she carried me piggyback up a steep path that led to a church. If I couldn’t find her, she was scrubbing dirty clothes in the river, chasing lepers from the front gate or taking a meal in the closet where she slept.
No wonder Kissuni never smiled.
This was 1962 monsoon season in the mountainous fly-infested outskirts of post-war Seoul, halfway around the globe from our sweet brick rambler and blue morning glories in Springfield, Virginia. My world was a beautiful place. But here? Ugly. Forget drinkable water or indoor plumbing, even at my grandparents’ house. And they were the lucky ones – the other villagers lived in mud huts no match for the treacherous rains. Here one day, gone the next – I saw it with my own eyes.
“This is where you come from, Fran,” my dad, a World Bank economist who had fled war-torn South Korea eight years earlier with my mom, told me.
How could that be? My mom always brought me home clothes with Sears & Roebuck tags; here the whole country was in rags.
My family had arrived here in style via first-class cabins in sleek jets and a luxury cruise liner across the Pacific only to be met at the airport by beggar boys with bloodied, bandaged hands wanting American dollar! Their desperation scared me – the minute we landed, I wanted to board the next plane home. But I didn’t dare say a word to my parents, not one negative peep. I learned my lesson the time my dad and I drove past a rickety row of white shacks on the wrong side of Springfield and I innocently quipped out the window:
“Those are poor people houses, right, Dad?”
He frowned. Deeply. “Don’t call them poor people, Fran. That’s not nice.”
My dad, from whom I’d inherit a disdain for royalty, grew up in Korea under Japanese Imperialism. And these American shacks were castles compared to his childhood home.
With engagements in Seoul, my parents often left me to spend my days following Kissuni the maid around from room to room while chattering away in English – all pure gibberish to her Korean ear.
“Kissuni, let’s go for a walk.”
“Kissuni, it’s a very nice day.”
To my American ear, her name was lyrical – Kiss-Kiss-Kissuni – and I liked saying it, singing it, even if she ignored me like a fly she’d shoo back to America if she could. Why was Kissuni so moody? After all, she wasn’t yanked from a summer of drinking Kool-Aid and riding her bike with friends. One time for no good reason, she got irritated and closed, no, slammed the kitchen shutters on me so I couldn’t watch her preparing lunch. Boo. Without television, the view of her spooning out rice, soup and an array of side dishes was a main source of entertainment for me.
The day came when Kissuni cracked a smile, proving she was more than a stony stare.
“Beddy nice,” she said out of nowhere.
“You mean ‘very nice’?” I asked.
Her nod was like a deep bow. “Beddy nice.”
Kissuni’s beddy nice broke the ice. Soon we were inseparable, with our own language. Beddy good. Beddy funny. Memory: I’m on her back, we’re going up a mountain, up, up, up to the church, me happily latched and facing her sunbaked, sweat-soaked neck. Life, every step, was hard, for her. No string of pretty pearls in her future, only beads of perspiration.
“Biggyback,” she said.
Some words might stump Kissuni, like the meaning of fun. Given her nonstop toiling, it seemed unlikely that fun, in English or Korean, was part of her vocabulary. Meanwhile, I was missing it badly: the summer carnival and Fourth of July fireworks at Springfield Plaza, the rusty swing-set in our backyard where one of the poles lifted out of the ground every time I swung too high. I liked Kissuni a lot but I wanted to go home and if left alone, found myself sighing, lost in daydreams. But the moment steam from Korean soup drifted my way – radishes and scallions swimming in fragrant broth – I’d float back to reality: me and Kissuni.
After serving me a bowl at the table:
“Mas-issneum?” she asked.
I nodded, wishing she could sit and join me. “Very delicious.”
For someone who had to dine in a closet, she looked satisfied. “Guk bap beddy delicious.”
Did she say – “Cook pop?”
Kissuni laughed. At last!
Every Sunday she would leave early in the morning and return at nightfall by bus.
“Where does she go, Mom?”
Unlike my dad’s English, my mom’s was never perfect. “To family.”
“But why doesn’t she live with them?”
“They are poor farmer. No rice to feed her.”
A child my age couldn’t make sense of war, much less understand that Kissuni was a faceless casualty. But I did know that her portrait saddened me. Maybe it wasn’t part of my glossary yet but I’d learn to despise the word hierarchy the way I despised the closet where Kissuni ate and slept but didn’t dream.
By summer’s end, I was speaking schoolgirl Korean and Kissuni was speaking schoolgirl English. Joined at the hip, we chatted from sunrise to sunset like we’d be chatting forever. But monsoon season was nearly over and our time in Korea was up.
“We’re leaving tomorrow, Kissuni.”
Hushed: “Go home?”
I danced, I sang: “Yes, yes, YES!”
On the morning of our departure, Kissuni was permitted to accompany my grandparents to the airport. Queen-stoic, too proud to bend down to squirt-level, she held steadfast as I looked up at her. Sure, she was my buddy but honestly I couldn’t wait to land on American soil and do all the things I’d been missing like dive into a two-scoop sherbet from High’s Dairy, one orange, one raspberry. My favorites!
Try as she might, her emotional guard collapsed and Kissuni wailed like an old woman in ruined rice fields.
By the time our airplane disappeared into the clouds, I forgot, no, not really forgot but rarely, if ever, thought about Kissuni again. I was too busy living my life. Growing up. One day I was a young girl and the next day, it seemed, a young woman dreaming-writing-falling in love, over and over. So many chapters. Granted, at any point if someone were to say, Tell me about that long-ago maid in Korea, I could probably do it, squint through ancient fog and drum up the image of a strong brown woman. Beyond that – hazy.
Decades after the summer of ’62, a more mature me was listening to my widowed mom reminisce about the good old days. Out of the blue, she mentioned Kissuni.
“She always want to learn.”
I blinked, detached but trying not to be. “Yes…”
“You teach her English.”
In fact, how many English words did Kissuni memorize that summer? Dozens? A hundred?
Beddy nice. Beddy good.
“But she have no education,” my mom regretted. “Too poor to go to school.”
“Well,” I nodded definitively, “she was a smart, good woman.”
“Woman? She not woman yet.”
“Well, how old was she?”
So Kissuni, whose only pay was meals and a roof over her head, who carried me biggyback to the church toilet, was a mere child herself. Fifteen. No wonder she lost her temper a time or two. No wonder she cried like a baby.
Our Kissuni conversation was transporting. Resurrecting. Maybe her face had faded from my mind’s eye but her spirit flooded back to me and I found myself thinking about her, telling friends about her, even naming characters in my books after her. It felt like the tiniest little whisper of an honor, if that makes any sense.
Kiss-Kiss-Kissuni. Last name unknown.
Now, every so often I’ll ask my mom what she recalls about Kissuni’s fate, as if some lodged nugget might jiggle out of her brain, something old and gold and forgotten. But it’s always the same story:
“She very sad after we left grandparents’ house and quit.”
Unlike mine, Kissuni’s world was not a beautiful place. Indeed, it was ugly and unfair, and I will always wonder: She survived the Korean War but did she survive her lot in life? I don’t know. Did she marry a farmer and, if so, was he a good man and did he make a good living? I hope so. Is she even still alive? Only God, if there is a God, knows.
By Frances Park
Frances Park began writing at age ten, and has kept the dream going. She’s an award-winning author of ten books including the novel When My Sister Was Cleopatra Moon (Hyperion/Chatto & Windus) and the memoir Chocolate Chocolate: Two Sisters, Tons of Treats and the Little Shop That Could (St. Martin’s Press). For her work, she’s been interviewed on ‘Good Morning America’, National Public Radio and Voice of America. Frances lives in the Washington, DC area and co-owns Chocolate Chocolate, a magical shop once featured on the BBC.