"We were up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning!" my mother-in-law cried, relating her escapades with my father-in-law in bailing out the basement with, it turns out, buckets and dustpans. "Aboji didn't even go out to play. I didn't even go out to play!"
And this is really saying something because, aside from the fact that "going out to play" is not an expression we in America would ever use for anyone over 6-years-old without meaning something steamy, my mother-in-law never stays down. She seizes life with both hands and throttles it.
Life has not been easy for her. She was born in the mountains in a very small rural area that her brother now operates as a fruit farm. During the general poverty that followed the Korean war, which she in fact lived through, she was unable to continue school after the 8th grade. Later, when circumstances were such that she could finally return to school, she found that her eyes were not so good and trying to learn with all of her responsibilities was impossible.
But she never gives up.
I don't really know about the time in between then and the time I met my husband, but I can certainly tell you that since I met my mother-in-law in 1999, she has never stopped moving. Even in her sleep, she will occasionally bark an order...lest you think she is out of commission! Never!
After my husband and I met, I am told my mother-in-law told him not to marry me. What can I say? My husband is as persistent as she is.
When we returned after being married, intent on explaining everything, my mother-in-law seemed truly pained to her two sons, and so the truth wasn't completely sprung on her at the moment. I was out of vacation after two weeks, so I had to return home. For the remaining 6 weeks that my husband was there, my mother-in-law dutifully tried to set him up with another Korean girl. Like I said, she never gives up!
And this turns out to be a truly terrific thing, because in 2006, she was diagnosed with stomach cancer, had two-thirds of her stomach and much of her esophagus removed, went on chemotherapy, and received a whole host of other instructions.
Let me tell you, the woman never gives up.
The reports we heard about her weren't good, so we packed up and went to Korea as soon as my second son was born. The woman had paid such attention to the doctors and taken life by the horns so strongly, you couldn't tell she had ever been sick. My father-in-law, who had been diagnosed with cancer in 2004, yes, you could tell. My mother-in-law? No way!
The doctors recommended exercise, so three times a week, she heads over to a pool in a neighboring town (well, technically they are now the same town, but historically, they have always been two). I went with her a few times. She takes two buses to get there. She makes herself completely at home in the locker room with the other halmonis and enjoys the conversation as much as the sauna, which she indulges in both before and after her swim.
I had always avoided Korean public baths, but there was no avoiding the locker room if I wanted to get in the pool. Let me tell you, those ladies scrub themselves raw! No wonder kids never want to go with their moms to the baths! Just when I thought she wasn't going to have any skin left, she pulled on her suit, and out we went to the pool.
Now, I have always taken it for granted that most Americans know how to swim. We are usually taught from a very young age, and most high schools require swimming. But such is not the case here, and I immediaately understood why my mother-in-law thought swimming was so difficult. She was trying to pull herself throuugh the water with splayed fingers! Needless to say, she wasn't going very far. But she never gave up. She just kept going until the clock signaled that her time was up. Then she climbed out and headed back into the locker room to scrub off what remained of her skin.
Five years later, she still heads over three times a week. She can work me, my sister-in-law, and half this little town under the table.
She's always selling vegetables to someone, giving away something, or headed to meet someone else. She is the local farm-union liaison, and as such, not only holds a monthly party for most of the women in town (which my father-in-law is none too thrilled about. let me tell you), but she also sells huge old bags of rice, which she manages to lug up and down the basement steps on her nearly 70-year-old legs, and occasional other things, like the bags of myeolchi (anchovies) that sent great cascades of fishy fragrance up from the driveway in the July heat.
Her eyes have seen her country transformed before her eyes. Symbol and language systems have changed more than once. Different calendars are used, and fewer and fewer in this country are doing kimjeong (the traditional kimchi making for the year), much less making their own doenjang and soy sauce.
But she never gives up, never lets go.
I sometimes don't realize what an awesome example I have in her, and I hope as I near seventy, I have half the persistence and energy she does.