Old Photo

May 31st, 2012 § Leave a Comment

There’s this old photo. It’s maybe 5×8. The resolution says the original was even smaller. The black and white has that greenish/brown tint of genuinely old photos. It’s a “head shot” of a Korean man with a very Korean face: Broad with small eyes and full lips. The eyes and the full lips wear a trace smirk, giving the man a kind look. His hair is wavy and pulled back like Clark Gable. And he is wearing a coat and tie. I was told that he was the only man in his village to wear a coat and tie. The man in the photo was my Grandfather. I never saw him. I don’t know his name.

Growing up, I’d see that photo a couple times a year. It along with another grainy photo of a small woman got pulled out of the closet and pasted on the wall for a traditional memorial called Jae Sah. ¬†Depending on who you ask, Jae Sah is characterized as everything from a memorial feast to ancestor worship. For me it was a strange evening of seeing men, my Dad and Uncles in humble posture – a posture they seldom took. Followed by a feast of too much of a good thing. The feeling leaving the table was always, “Ah, I didn’t quite get at that right.” During those nights, I’d overhear bits and pieces of the story.

My Grandfather as a young man led a student resistance movement against the occupying Japanese rule. He was arrested, jailed and tortured. My Dad remembered a permanently disfigured elbow. His courageous patriotism garnered him local legend status, which he parlayed into advancing a political agenda. Despite being a wealthy landowner … okay, okay, I know, this is where every Korean ancestry goes back to some wealthy landowner or royalty. Right. And family history has that acute vulnerability to embellishment. Acknowledged. Like I said, I didn’t know the man. This is what I heard from admittedly sources who tend to bleed truth into legend into wishful thinking. Okay, where was I? Yes, despite being a wealthy landowner, he was a political idealist who believed in the virtue of Socialism. Or he was a big, bad communist. Again, depending on who you ask. At the outbreak of the Korean war, the Communist North advanced South. In retreat, the South rounded up known Communist leaders. He was marched up a hill with others, lined up, and shot.

My Dad was fourteen years old. Being the oldest surviving man of his house, he went up that hill accompanied by a trusted servant to identify and retrieve the body. Two years later, he lost his Mother to disease. He lived through the War and practically raised his two younger brothers.

Fathers aren’t perfect. My Father sure wasn’t. By the time I came around though, he’d seen a few things. Life has a way of crushing a man. It’s surprising really – after all he’d been through that he treated me as well as he did. My Father, I don’t think, knew the man in that old photo much better than I do.


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