My maternal grandfather was taken by the North Koreans during the Korean War when my mother was only five. Having lost her father at an early age, I don’t think my mother remembers a lot about him. My grandfather worked as the first interpreter to General Hodge, a commander in the US Army Military Government in Korea after the Japanese occupation, probably the reason he was taken so swiftly by the North Koreans.
My grandfather was a brilliant linguist, a second son of a prestigious family, and also a dreamer. If it hadn’t been for my grandmother, he would probably have been a failed lawyer who couldn’t support his family. Having grown up lacking nothing with a sharp mind, he was likely encouraged to pursue a scholarly path. He knew little of how to make money or support his family. He became a lawyer, but he didn’t know how to collect money. My grandmother still complains of him receiving a chicken or a bag of rice for his services.
Through my grandmother’s push, he passed the exam to be an interpreter. She thought he’d at least make money as that since interpreters to the government were usually salaried. My grandmother once told me how he’d looked at the dictionary so much that he could find any word using his big toe. I’m not sure if my mother knew any of these stories. She’d always had a rather rose-tinted memory of her father.
One memory she frequently mentions to me is the time he’d worked as the interpreter. Every morning before he went to work, he’d ask my mother to go get warm, plain white rice cakes from the nearby store for breakfast. Since he worked with the people from the US government, he had refrained from eating typical Korean meals which usually have Gimchi.
This memory seems to be my mom’s best memory of her father since it is so frequently mentioned to me. She felt valued. With each retelling of the story, his voice becomes softer, his demeanor caring. I know from my grandmother’s story that her husband was not affectionate to his children. He was distant, at best. Even though he’d written many romantic letters to my grandmother, he’d not been a great father. But I think my mother wants to remember differently since he’d left so few memories.
And I certainly say nothing to the contrary or pry further.