Digging through my old things, I came upon fifty of my mother’s letters to me.
The letters are eight years old. And old enough to argue for themselves.
During the time we’d lived apart, my mother had written me each week from Korea while I waited for her in the States. She also wrote in kiddie Korean since my Korean was poor.
What devastates me is finding the empty envelopes. My younger self, who wore cut-offs and boys jeans, would crouch under a desk to read the letters in private, but reading slower than the speed at which the pain of loneliness would lessen. I must have thrown a hundred other letters away.
What reminds me to be kinder to others is discovering the watermarks on the ink. The times my younger self must have wept, and wiping my eyes, touched the paper again.
More poignantly, the letters have evidence of her mothering. Can you put mothering into words? Could you physically look at what mothering looks like? My mother achieves both by verbalizing each act she would’ve carried out in person — out of necessity from a long distance relationship between parent and child. She writes with a desperation to create a bond so strong and genuine you cannot question it.
But my mother projects her desires. While she describes her daily life – “At 8AM, I cleaned the house. I had to cook but cooking is not the same” – these moments contrast her high-energy demands of “Live, always, independently!” Inside the confinement of her routine life, she yearns for her own independence. What she wants for her daughter is what she desires for herself. The letters appear, at times, escapist, desperate, mundane, humble, but always vulnerable.
My instinct is to translate her letters. I’ve translated a handful, but I’m unsure about whether to proceed. What would I call the translations side-by-side with her letters? Long Distance Mother, How I Learned Korean, or Maybe It Didn’t Happen the Way I Remember, or Did She Hurt As Much As She Said? I wonder if the translations would capture anyone else to its pages. I wonder if I’m reading too much into the letters because they hold a personal space in my heart.
Maybe I’m looking to feel as powerful a bond to her as I did then.
Now that my mother has moved to Seattle, she’s close to me. But I feel farther removed from her than before. We eat together every two weeks, but in tired silence. Life has become tiring now that everything else is more urgent than what we are to each other.
I’m used to being told I am loved in exchange for an embrace, a meal, or a smile. My ability to accept love lies in words, and when there is no distance, there are no words to exchange.
Now, I confess that I’d once asked myself: If a mother truly loved her child, could she stay away for eight years? I’ve asked this question inside my work and relationships. But the answer exists in the letters, and it’s an argument that my mother’s letters take up against my younger self. As I read them now, they argue against the woman I’ve chosen to become.
As with all my projects, I stake my commitment, honesty, and labor. Without the three, and all three, there is no writing to be done. But here, like an archaeologist, I have discovered a fossil of a memory that I had believed was long gone, and I can only proceed with utmost caution and awe.
Photography by @anrizzy