A Family’s History

I was told this. My grandfather was born when the shadow of colonial occupation still cast upon the peninsula. He came from somewhat respectable stock, one that afforded him the means to pursue education. Education gave him the ambition to leave his home for Seoul, where he would find an opportunity in the logistics business. That ambition sparked the courage in him to travel to Shanghai where the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea was operating in exile and coordinating the resistance against Imperial Japan. My father was born a few years later in Shanghai.

After the Japanese surrender, my grandfather brought his family to Seoul. There were dreams of restarting his business and returning home a prosperous man, but those dreams never saw fruition.

After North Korea’s first invasion of Seoul, my grandfather, along with other businessmen and those with ties to the Southern government, were rounded up and executed. His body was thrown into a mass grave. His body was never recovered.

My grandmother could not grieve because her duties as a mother would not allow it. She knew the dangers my young father now faced under Northern occupation: forced labor, or perhaps even worse, forced conscription. So he was sent far away. He walked 200 miles from Seoul to a remote mountain village at the southern tip of the country. He would wait out the war there. However, his older brother could not join him on his journey as he was of age to engage in military combat.

The joint American and South Korean forces eventually pushed the People’s Army across the 38th parallel and further towards the Yalu River. At some point during the course of the war, my uncle’s unit found itself only a few kilometers from grandfather’s home village. He was tempted to visit; he longed to fulfill the duties of the eldest son returning to our family’s gohyang.

However, he would decide against it. He could not risk contacting distant kin and dear family friends in the village. Any association with the enemy would make loved ones in the North targets for a fate much worse than separation.

I received a text message from my mother.

“Your uncle is in the hospital. Send me those pictures you took in Hamju for him,” she wrote.

It was a peculiar request. In situations like this, the petulant child in me would have immediately responded to my mother with a ‘why?’ But I knew why she had sent me that message, and she knew why I uncharacteristically obliged.

I like to believe that uncle wanted to bring images of home to grandfather.

My uncle passed away a few weeks later.

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