Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

Notes from Sunday, 12/17/15

*Spoilers for Please Look After Mom*

Interesting how one can have so many preconceptions about a book based entirely on the title and what other people say about it. Because so many of my friends said Please Look After Mom was sad, I just assumed it would be another sentimental fiction about how someone loses their mother during the Korean war. Over time such preconceptions built itself into a bit of cynicism, perhaps also in part due to the fact that it was so well known yet not “canonical” — I took it to be something more like The Fault In Our Stars which I really didn’t like (but admittedly it is a young adult book). I ultimately decided to read it only because it seemed short and would presumably enrich my experience in Korea — little did I know just how impactful it would be.

I have never felt a book feel so much like a mirror to me. Throughout the narratives of the daughter, son, and husband, I was constantly pulled into a stream of memories about my own parents and grandparents. Perhaps it’s because I’m in my twenties that I couldn’t help but feel this was essential reading. How well do we actually know our mothers? The entire eighteen or so years it takes for one to grow into independence are spent largely thinking about oneself — how much life goes overlooked as we become spoiled with the belief that having a home cooked meal is something we are entitled to, that “Mom does that because she’s always done it?” Elle puts it well when stating it is “A moving portrayal of the surprising nature, sudden sacrifices, and secret reveries of motherhood.” The idea that we are entitled to such care is quite a fascinating paradox in that while nobody deserves such selfless love, mothers sincerely believe in it — how else can they toil day in and day out and not ask for anything in return? As I push forward in my early stages of adulthood and contemplate the questions of finding motivation and inspiration, I can start to better understand how exactly your life changes when you have a child, and what it may look like to live for someone else. It may very well be the enigma of that kind of lifestyle and dedication to another human being that frustrates our relationship with our own mothers, who can often be seen as nagging or infringing too much on our independence. My own mother never fails to ask if I want a bowl of fruit when I’m home and, even if I say no, ends up leaving some at my desk. It can be frustrating because it doesn’t make much sense unless you put in the mysterious context of motherly love.

I feel there is so much for me to reflect on — the way the mother in the story is portrayed and my thoughts on Korean culture, the ways in which I am thankful to my own mother, the fact that parts of the novel take place in Jeongeup, where I lived for a year, etc. — but for now perhaps the most pressing is my thoughts on the epilogue, in which Chi-hon goes to Italy and finds herself at the the Pieta, a sculpture by Michelangelo in which the Holy Mother is seen cradling Jesus’ body after he is crucified (featured image). In many ways I identified with Chi-hon, despite her being a daughter, because she is the more nomadic, independent child who travels the world and seems a bit more distant from the family than the other siblings. While some may think that the final scene in Vatican City is a little bit too dramatic, I sympathize with the idea that travel can, despite appearing like an escape, bring us closer to thoughts we didn’t know we had to confront. Chi-hon finds herself at the feet of the sculpture, reflecting on what it means to be there and what it is exactly she has been looking for:

Perhaps you wanted to pray in this place, pray that you could see for one last time the woman who lived in a small country attached to the edge of the vast Asian continent, to find her, and this is why you came here. Then again, maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe you already understood that Mom didn’t exist in this world anymore. Maybe you came here because you wanted to plead: Please don’t forget Mom, please take pity on Mom. But now that you see the statue on the other side of the glass, sitting on a pedestal, embracing with her frail arms all of mankind’s sorrow since the Creation, you can’t say anything. You stare at the Holy Mother’s lips intently. You close your eyes, back away, and leave that place. A line of priests passes, probably on their way to celebrate mass. You walk out the entrance of the basilica and look down, dazed, at the piazza surrounded by long cloisters and enshrined in brilliant light. And only then do the words you couldn’t say in front of the statue leak out from between your lips.

“Please, please look after Mom.”

This scene conveys so powerfully the mysteries of motherly love, a force so powerful that it can be felt beyond the lines that one would think divides mere mortals from the divine. The Holy Mother, despite all that has happened, despite the fact that Jesus has gone forth and ended sin once and for all through the greatest sacrifice, still cannot help but look beyond all of the divine consequence and is bound to her role as a mother. If Jesus’ sacrifice is the epitome of fatherly love, of the divine’s passion for mortals, motherly love is the only matchable opposite, of a mortal’s tender love for the divine.

While the novel’s plot is, on a basic level, driven by the search for a physical mother, by the epilogue we see that what they are searching for is not just answers as to who their mother was but also, by consequence of their understand or limit thereof, who they are themselves. The novel is a kaleidoscope of mirrors, piecing together perspectives of the eldest son, independent daughter, regretful husband — all of which stirred in me a spectrum of memories that made me feel selfish, conceited, ungrateful, and yet thankful for being gifted such perspective.

On a final note, I found this quote to be quite interesting:

Do you know what happens to all things we did together in the past? When I asked my daughter this, although it was you I wanted to ask, my daughter said, “It’s so strange to hear you say something like this, Mom,” and asked, “Wouldn’t they have seeped into the present, not disappeared?” What difficult words! Do you understand what that means? She says that all the things that have happened are actually in the present, that old things are all mixed in with current things, and current things mingle with future things, and future things are combined with old things; it’s just that we can’t feel it.

Having spent much of my college career dedicated to the question of who we are when faced with the reality that we are an amalgam of different identities, I was intrigued by this idea in relation to motherhood. While the obvious relationship is in the fact that our mothers, too, were once children and young adults, the more profound idea lies in thinking about how all of these pieces can flow together — I particularly liked the verb “seeped.” It’s very easy to rationalize the fact that our parents had lives before we entered them, but it’s very difficult to embrace the truth that they are not independent of those selves today — they are very much the same and, in some ways, just as youthful as they were then. If we do not consider ourselves to change so much over time (at least in terms of some solid essence), why should we impose more rigid identities upon our parents?

There’s so much to think about here but I’ll stop for now. I’m extremely grateful for having been able to read this before the end of my stay in Korea.

 

 

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