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settling my tab
Our family had a running tab at the local corner store called Peace Supermarket. The store lady would lick the end of her pencil and turn to the same page on a palm-sized notebook. The page said “News Reporter’s House” and once a month, my father would pay our bill on the day he received his salary. While other households purchased tofu and bean sprouts for making side dishes, our family was different. Our entire grocery list read “Soju 2, Soju 4” with occasional ellipses that substituted words, indicating that we had made the same purchase again. Calculating our bill was never difficult as long as we were able to determine whether we had bought #2 bottles or #4 bottles.
My father, a news reporter, drank without missing a single day. When I started my first job, my mother told me to bring home a box of soju, a purchase my father usually made, using my first paycheck. I was later told that my younger siblings made it a family tradition by doing the same when they received their first paychecks. I still remember the way my father smiled when he received that box of soju. It was a look of immense approval. I couldn’t tell whether his approval came from the fact that his daughter had made her first earnings as a teacher or whether it was at the box of soju itself. Even after he rose through the ranks at the newspaper he worked for, my father always drank the soju with a toad logo.
He would walk from the Shinchon roundabout, pass the pine tree-lined road by Yonsei University, and trudge over a hill to reach our house in Yeon-Hee Dong. On cold winter days, he would wrap his scarf over his head and stop in front of Yonsei University at Havana Bakery for steamed buns and dumplings wrapped in wood shavings . When my father, tipsy and humming a tune, neared our house, the neighborhood dogs would start barking furiously and my siblings and I would run out in our long johns yelling, “It’s Dad! It’s Dad!” At the time, I was more excited about the bread my father brought home rather than his arrival.
On the days he didn’t go to his regularly frequented bars in Moo-Kyo Dong or Chung-Jin Dong, he would bring his poet friends to our house. I am reminded of how his penniless poet friends would catch the chickens we raised and imbibe soju all night. Seeing how many of my father’s poems were about drinking, I am almost certain that he preferred drinking over eating.
When my retired father made his annual visits to America, he would mow the lawn, do paint touchups around the house, and pick up my son after school, granting me a much-needed respite during his two month stay. It was not until long after that I regretted buying my father only the soju he regularly drank in Korea. Even though we were in America, the land of a mind-numbing array of liquors and spirits, I naturally assumed soju was his drink of choice. It escaped my mind that I had a cabinet full of Ballantine’s and Royal Salute whiskies I received as gifts over the years.
Another regret of mine is not showing my father more affection, especially as the only daughter in the family. The last time I saw my father was when we parted ways at Incheon Airport. I had flown over after receiving the news of his ailing health. As he waved goodbye and turned away, I caught a glimpse of my father’s crinkled face. At first I mistook him to be smiling but upon closer look, I realized there were tears streaming down the folds of his wrinkles on his face. At the time, I had no regard for how he must have felt and only thought to myself, “I guess that’s what happens when you get old and wrinkled. You can’t tell whether they’re smiling or crying…” My father must have known we were never going to see each other again. When I recall that moment, my heart feels heavy to this day.
From time to time, I would mistakenly spot my father - tall in stature with curly, silver hair- on the street. It still surprises me that so many men in America are similar in appearance to my father. Even though I already knew, there were many times when I would follow after them only to end up sobbing in disappointment when I realized they were not and would never be the person they resembled. The many regrets I have after my father's death will now always be realized too late.
Once a major contributor to the alcohol industry, my father, through my mother’s fervent prayers, became a Christian late in his life. Ever simple at heart, he repented of his days of avid drinking and was baptized. My father passed away in June, the month of his birthday as well as Father’s Day. My father-in-law also passed away in June, making it a memorial month for our family. It is an apt month for remembrance and memories. When I meet him in heaven, I hope to settle the tab with my father for all the love that I didn't have a chance to repay.
번역: Phoebe Yu
국제펜 세계한글작가대회 기념문집 2017
대표작 한글본, 영역본