First Memory

23 May

Smiling faces hover on cameras with laughter and attentive parents who ask questions about their children. New children from Korea. Children losing their mother’s tongue with such ease. Only three months and fluent! Smile. The camera demands it. The unmet grandparents, demand it. The memories of that other country impossible to hold against pain demand it. Other people will construct what is not remembered, but don’t worry. Smile for the camera.

My new parents owned a large three story house, the third story was the attic. It had a front porch and faced out into the street with a large lawn and a side walk in front. My Dad, who was watching us, told my mom he was going out shopping for groceries.

My brother and I were tossing the ball and having fun, but it went out in the street. I looked at the porch and could not see my mom. She was gone. No other adults around. Besides, habit told me that going out into the street was fine as long as I looked out for my sibling. The adults were too new. Adults were things that could disappear.

The only rule I remembered was that I was to look out for my brother no matter what–to me that was the most important thing in my world. I could not leave him at the side of the street with no one around. He stared at the ball. I held his hand tight while we ran after the ball. He fetched it from under the car. We ran back to the other side.

My mom saw us and immediately marched us into the hall. Her lips were so tight they turned white as her face. An atmosphere of rage enveloped me. My first words were to defend my brother. It was my decision, not his. I firmed my mouth as she yelled over my words. This felt wrong.

She shook me a few times by the shoulders. I could not understand what she was saying because it was so loud the I didn’t understand all her words. I cried again that it was my fault, but she only yelled more and more. The yells turned into shouting. She pointed to us, towering over and raging. The questions she asked that wanted no answers echoed up the back stairs as an amplifier.

“Why did you do that?”

My brother hugged my arm and hid behind me as she stood over us.

When I realized she was not listening, I looked at the wall. Numbness filled me. I just needed to wait for it to stop. The scroll of the faded red flower wallpaper caught my notice for the first time. In the months I had been there with her and my dad, I had never seen that wallpaper before. It was always in my periphery–as if it were a white and red blur. But in that moment it became clear. I wondered what kind of flowers they were.

“Look at me,” she demanded. “You are to never cross the street.”

Which also led to another string of yelling. The back stairs were painted brown. A dark red brown. Adults had yelled at other adults, but never at me before.

The door to the basement was white and had a cat door that was screwed shut on it. I wanted to cry, but that only blurred my vision. There were worse things in the world than being yelled at. I was still afraid that we would be sent away.

There was no escape for my brother. How could I get him to escape? I’d tried so hard before to protect him. I had a forgotten promise to keep and even if I didn’t remember it in words, I remembered enough of it to keep it in my mind. He was not to get into trouble. This was not safe.

She finished yelling, as if satisfied and then took us to the dining room. “You will stay in the corner for fifteen minutes each.”

My brother and I stared at each other laughing, because this was a crazy event we did not understand. Was this to be our new life in this country? She yelled at us for laughing and made us face away from each other.

My dad came home with the groceries. He saw us in the dining room and asked my mom, not us what happened. She told him her version–a car had come and we were almost hit. I was confused because that was not correct, and I wasn’t sure why she was lying. But it was an adult matter I should not interfere with, but I still listened. And we’d crossed the street on our own. That was true. And she was watching. She wasn’t. That it was sudden. It wasn’t. I had hesitated before crossing.

He bent down to us and I cried, I couldn’t put it into words what happened. I had no Korean to translate in. And I didn’t know English well. The jumble of words would not come out in order. I was thinking of my brother again and my own failure to explain and protect him, so I don’t know what I exactly said. I rubbed my eyes and he told us that even though it was five minutes we could go out and play.

My mom yelled at my dad for letting us off easy. My dad used a calm and even voice saying he thought it was too much. She screamed louder over his voice something intelligible as we left the house. My brother acted like nothing had happened. But I was five, and more aware.

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