In 1936 I was born in Seoul, Korea, as the last member in a family of ten children. In those days, because of the lack of proper nutrition, people aged early, and delivering a baby at the age of forty was considered an unlikely event. So when Mother delivered beautiful twin daughters at the age of thirty-seven, she thought that her baby-delivering mission was finally over, and she was relieved and grateful. Then when she was forty-two years old, to her great dismay she felt something moving inside her. Her abdomen was getting rounder and rounder week after week. Early in September, 1936, an infant boy rushed out of her womb with a mighty roar. She named him Hi-Dong, my name.
My father was a Christian minister and an educator whose life was totally dedicated to serving God and his flock. With his “born-again” experience and new-found zeal for Christ in the early 1900’s, he traveled all over the “Land of the Morning Calm”, the land of the Buddhists and Confucians, preaching the gospel, and building churches with American missionaries. He lived the life of St. Paul of old. He believed that his life’s mission was to lead as many Koreans as he could to the love of Christ. He wanted them to experience the deep inner peace and joy that he found when he surrendered his life at the feet of Jesus, who had died on the cross for people like him. His time belonged to God. He was rarely home. He was either at the seminary where he taught the young aspiring students, or visiting parishioners of his church numbering hundreds of members scattered around the city of Seoul.
But with all of his time and effort spent for the church and seminary, his pay was miniscule. In that period there were no checks or credit cards. So whatever pay he received from the church and seminary, he brought to Mother; it was she who had to figure out how to stretch his meager pay as far as possible. To supplement the small income, Mother sewed for people with her old mechanical sewing machine. Also, Mother ran a boarding house for students who came from the rural areas to study in Seoul. She was constantly busy, entertaining church members, visitors from the countryside, relatives, and friends of her children. She had a very little time to rest even at night.
Rarely a day passed without visitors knocking at our door. They came in the morning. They came in the afternoon, just before mealtime, and at night. Mother welcomed them all. The people from the countryside often came with live chickens, fish, potatoes, fruit, or whatever they could bring, and stayed with us for days. Mother, whose love for people was in-born, treated all who came with such empathy that our house was like Grand Central Station. First-comers, usually men, came to see Father for advice or to discuss church-related matters. But, when they found out what Mother was like, they sent their wives and children to see her with their personal problems.
Mother was like the warm, comforting spring sunshine. She had a way of helping people open themselves and share their innermost thoughts. Many came with a look of despair, and after being with Mother, they left with a smile on their faces. She made them feel good about themselves. Sometime they poured out their problems with a voice of anguish and tears dripping down their cheeks. She listened with empathy and patience. By asking the right questions she helped them solve their own problems.
Thus with a wonderful Mother and Father, a lot of friends to play with, and an unending stream of visitors who were sometimes a pain but who also brought gifts, excitement and love, my childhood was a very happy one.
Then came World War II and the Korean War. The garden of happiness which was my home was mercilessly trampled by the scourge of Japanese militarism and the onslaught of the North Korean army. During World War II under the Japanese regime, Father was imprisoned, and our home was taken away. With the hope of having Father released from the prison, my fifteen year old brother volunteered to join the Japanese military. After the war, he came home and died from an injury incurred while in Japan. Another brother became a communist in the democratic South Korea, creating much tension and heartache in the family. In the early phase of the Korean war, the communists made rapid advances and entered Seoul, the capital city of South Korea. During their control of Seoul, they took away Father, never to return. During the remaining years of the Korean war, we lived in the south, as refugees, surviving hunger and cold, and Mother had to absorb the major brunt of the tragedy, keeping the family safe and secure.
When I reflect on my mother’s life, my heart becomes numb with pain. She hurt no one. She could not even step on a snail. She cared for everyone that came into her life: the rich and poor, the young and old, maid-servants and the elite. She could not turn away a beggar without giving him something when we did not have enough for ourselves. Life was hard on her. Out of her ten children she lost five through sickness, injury, and wars. Then during the Korean War North Korean communists took her husband away because he was a Christian minister. Without her husband’s support she struggled to feed, clothe, and educate us.
I wondered how she could survive through all this suffering. Many women under the same circumstances would have broken down, unable to function. Yet in all the misery, she came through strong. I remember many times that she collapsed with emotional exhaustion, but quickly collected her faculties, rose, and “walked” to lead us forward.
The only explanation that I can give for her strength is her total faith in God. She trusted Him totally. God was not Someone high in the sky. He was beside her. He was with her twenty-four hours a day: at home and away from home, in her sleep and during her waking hours, in her joy and in her sorrow. She carried on a continuous dialogue with Him day and night. I used to wake up at night and find her praying. I came home from school and found her praying in a corner of the living room. Sometimes I found her praying with a handkerchief soaking wet with tears. Through prayer she found strength to go on through the dark valleys of deaths and separation.
On February 3, 1953, Mother put me – a 16 year old boy – on a boat heading for America. The night before I left, she held my hand and prayed for me with tears in her eyes. Then she gave me a ring – a gold ring – and said, “Wear this as a reminder that I will be with you wherever you may be, whatever you may do.” She told me to trust God always. She told me to rush to Him with any problem, no matter how great or how small. She said that He would give me strength to rise above any worldly problems. I knew that was how she had journeyed through the dark tunnel of despair. I was determined to follow her footsteps in America.
To honor her I wrote a story, Shattered by the Wars (but Sustained by Love). http://amzn.to/1mZkdEh