Archives for posts with tag: Grandfather

My dad always described his father’s side of the family as a bunch of sociopaths and his mother’s side as just plain psychotic. I thought he was exaggerating until I heard this story, which has been proven by various witnesses to be true (that is, you can’t make this shit up).

My great-grandfather Cho—my paternal grandmother’s father—was a hulking man with a stringy beard, perennial dark circles under his eyes, and a stare that could be described as visionary or simply unhinged. He was the chieftain of a small southern village in Korea called Young-Yang. One day, in 1932, he received a visit from his new son-in-law—my paternal grandfather—who had come to pay his respects after the wedding.

My grandfather was only 20 years old, and was intimidated by this large man. However, he got a warm reception and was shown to a guest room in the large Cho family homestead. The next morning my grandfather woke up to a wild commotion. He cautiously slid the rice screen door aside and looked out across the courtyard to his father-in-law’s private quarters.

A small crowd from the village had gathered in front of the door to peer in, so my grandfather joined them to see what all the hubbub was about. Inside the elegantly furnished room, Great-Grandfather Cho was screaming and kicking his son, a handsome young man clad in a fashionable Western suit. To my grandfather’s horror, he grabbed his son by the hair and proceeded to drag him all around the room. “This guy is completely insane,” my grandfather whispered under his breath. But the fun had only just begun.

GGF dragging son

The abused young man was the college-educated eldest son of the proud Cho clan. He had incurred his father’s wrath by abandoning the plain-faced wife that had been arranged for him and instead eloping with a beauty from a remote village up north. On top of that, instead of delivering a large dowry to my newly married grandparents as asked, he had used all the money for his own expenses. When Great-Grandfather Cho found all of this out, he went berserk.

After mopping the floor a few times with his son, my great-grandfather dashed outside to gather a bundle of pine boughs. Returning to the room, he dropped the branches on the floor and set fire to them, exclaiming that his family’s honor had been destroyed, so the homestead had to be burned down as repentance. Flames leaped up, abrupt and glorious, and my grandfather watched from outside, wondering whether to flee or to help.

As the room filled with smoke, the villagers snapped into action, retrieving buckets of water and dumping them on the fire. They were all close relatives who had grown accustomed to the Cho family’s theatrics.

News quickly traveled to the Chos’ youngest son. Distraught and racked with shame, he made his way to the house and rushed into his father’s room, hauling a burning pot of charcoal that he promptly dumped on the floor. As flames rose once again, he begged my great-grandfather, “Father, will you die with me to repent for such familial disgrace?” Fortunately, the ad hoc rescue squad was on hand to extinguish the blaze again.

GGF son with brazier

After witnessing the melodrama of his new in-laws, my grandfather was appalled and became very worried about his own future with his new wife. (He had very good reason to be concerned.) He also fretted about his future progeny, since they would carry some of the crazy (another legitimate reason and one that my own father would lament, when raising me).

My grandfather gave an excuse to leave shortly after the event, and made the long journey back home, shuddering the entire way. For years afterward, whenever he was drunk in the evening and in a good mood, he would always begin, as if speaking to himself, “My wife’s father is a real madman …” My grandmother would immediately jump up and storm out of the room, even if it was the middle of dinner. My grandfather would just smile and brace himself for another battle.

Grandparents' wedding mkupAnd to think that it had all started out so nicely. Back row (from left): the deranged great-uncle who tried to set fire to the house; the handsome great-uncle who got dragged around by his hair; and my pyro great-grandfather. (My paternal grandparents, as bride and groom, in front row.)

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Glass shatterer

One day, shortly after the chamber pot incident—which had been my grandmother’s ultimate revenge on her husband’s philandering ways—my grandfather was drunkenly prowling around the house. He was hunting for his wife, who had taken to hiding from him in different areas in the spacious compound: in closets, the servants’ quarters, even the rooms occupied by her first-born son and his family. (After marrying, my parents lived in that house for seven years, following Korean tradition.)

Entering a room, my grandfather thought he saw his wife’s diminutive silhouette through a frosted-glass screen. Sure enough, he thought, she must be sitting quietly behind it, wearing her traditional hanbok with her hair tucked into a demure bun. This was his opportunity to avenge her; he could feel the blood throbbing through his veins and an imminent satisfaction so rich that it felt like a heavy slab of raw meat in his mouth.

Tiptoeing up to the screen, my grandfather took a deep breath and swung his wooden cane with all his might, smashing through the glass. Splinters and shards flew everywhere, a blinding, never-ending shower of crystals. Then, with a gasp, he realized that the woman behind it was not his wife. It was his daughter-in-law—that is, my mother—nursing her baby daughter. Glass covered my mother’s hair and a tiny fragment even made its way into her eye. Miraculously, my sister was unharmed, and my mother would recover from the trauma, although barely.

My grandfather never apologized, because men of his status and generation didn’t waste their words that way with women. But if my mother, ever the dutiful daughter-in-law, brought him a vegetable dish for dinner, he didn’t complain about the lack of meat the way he usually did. Instead of bellowing, “What the hell is this? Am I a COW?” and flinging the bowl out the window, as he was inclined to do, my grandfather just tilted his head in thanks and picked up his chopsticks to eat. As in all Asian families, silence speaks volumes—even entire, unabridged libraries.

Chamber pot
Like many Korean men at the time, my grandfather Lee had a mistress whom he’d visit in the afternoons. Ignoring his wife’s protests, he’d clench a cigar defiantly in his teeth and march out the door, wearing an Italian fedora on his enormous bald head. My grandmother would continue to scream after him, making all kinds of threats, but he was used to this.

People who had seen his mistress said that the young woman was so beautiful that a room became brighter when she entered it. She was decades younger than my grandfather, but was attracted to his imposing height, debonair style, and the money he lavished on her. My grandmother, a talented but thwarted artist, was beside herself at her husband’s infidelity.

One day, my grandmother came up with the ultimate revenge. She crawled into the darak, a tiny attic above the front door of the house, and hunched like a coiled snake in that cramped, musty space, waiting for her husband to return from his mistress’s house. Her nose stung and her throat constricted, but she stayed put and kept her eyes fastened on the narrow window. After several hours, my grandmother spied her unfaithful husband returning, his gait a little looser, his hat tilted at a more rakish angle.

As he strolled to the front door, my grandmother opened the window, lifted a chamber pot from their bedroom—brimming with foul contents—and dumped it onto his head. My grandfather’s blood-curdling scream and murderous curses caused the neighbors to come running. My grandmother then did the sensible thing, which was to scurry away and tuck herself into a hidden spot in their servants’ quarters. She smiled to herself as he thundered about the house and managed to avoid him for days.

Eventually, my grandfather’s affair came to an end when he ran out of money to give his mistress. The young woman told him to leave and, when he didn’t, hurled a heavy ash tray at his head. Then she barred him from entering her house again, even though he had bought it for her. My grandmother accepted her husband back with a triumphant smirk and let him know she’d just sold his big, expensive car so he’d never be able to visit that stinking whore ever again.

Arguing couple

Even on their wedding day, you could tell my dad’s parents were not a good match. My six-foot-tall grandfather Lee Dam (whose name sounds like an emphatic curse in English) towered over my grandmother Cho Ah-Young, who stood at barely five feet in her slippers. Together, they looked lopsided and ill at ease—an obvious arranged marriage.

My grandparents were matched in one thing, however: their fearsome tempers. My grandfather Lee would bawl at his wife in the herky-jerky accent of Korea’s Deep South. She would bellow back in kind, in the same dialect, using even dirtier words. You might say they could finish each other’s sentences.

My grandparents were also eccentrics. As a young man, my grandfather had run away and joined a touring carnival until his father dragged him back to Korea. My grandmother was a fiercely independent poet and visual artist. Unlike most women of her generation, she pursued her art with a steely ambition, and my grandfather couldn’t tolerate it. He figured that if his wife could put all her attention into brush painting, he could just go find a concubine. With his wealth and debonair mien, he lured one in—a young woman whose beauty, many have said, illuminated the room when she walked in. She birthed three anemic children who were forever barred from my grandmother’s house.

Sadly, my grandparents’ similarities only made them less compatible and more violent. They fought extravagantly, throwing everything in sight, including food, antiques, furniture—even the entire dinner table—at each other. (Traditional Korean tables are small and portable, but they still make a huge mess.) My grandfather would beat my grandmother until she’d scream and hide in a closet or a corner of the yard, where she’d hatch her next plan to get him back. Then she would lie in wait for her husband and dump the contents of a chamber pot on his head or avenge him some other way.

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They hate each other.

The children of my grandparents were no better. My aunts would pull each other’s hair and fight with scissors in the courtyard. My father and his younger brothers unleashed their aggressions at school, using whatever object they could find as weapons. My uncle wrenched off the top of a school desk and caused major damage to a classmate’s head. My dad set fire to a salvaged plank to appear twice as dangerous to his adversaries.

My dad still shudders when he recalls the constant commotion in the house. As a young boy growing up in the 1940s, he often fled to the train tracks, where he would watch the enormous locomotives slowly roll by in the rain. To this day, he still watches VHS tapes of nonstop locomotive footage (there must be a niche market), perhaps gaining some long-lost solace from them.

My mother, who was forced to live with her in-laws for years, sighs and recalls, “It was a battleground.” She was a terrified 23-year-old bride when she entered the house of the factious Lees. By the time she had her second child, my mother had dwindled to 84 pounds from the constant insurgency around her. Her wedding ring would barely fit the finger of an adolescent girl.

My grandfather passed away in the late ’70s, and his widow lived on to be nominated as a National Treasure of Korea for her prolific art and poetry. Diminutive in her silk hanbok, my grandmother would narrow her eyes with self-pride as she held up another published book or arts award. She’d say, “He never respected this, that bastard. Who has the last laugh now?”

Grandparents' wedding
My grandparents’ wedding in Seoul, 1931
(I think they had my grandmother stand on something to make her seem taller)