Families are built of characters and stories. We can trace our entrance into the world through a series of encounters, rich and unique, set in motion by specific events that make their historical mark. This quarter we asked our writers to look back into their family histories and consider the encounters that brought them into this world. These histories take different forms; some a clear and precise, while others are opaque and complex. But each story is careful and affectionate, loving and honest. And, above all else, each story documents the moments when encounters turned to love, and love turned to growth. There is a great thrill to be had in considering where we come from, and these writers have chosen to share this thrill with the world.
Choose one of the couples below to learn more about their history:
It was Nov. 9. I don’t know what the weather was like, or if the cold air nipped at her nose as she walked into a pizza place in Arlington, Virginia. Given the typical weather in early November in the D.C. area, chances are it was nothing worth noting. I do however know that a blonde man too inclined to talk about politics, music and history was sitting at the bar. He hadn’t been planning on going out, it was supposed to be a normal night in the messy apartment he lived in with his high school best friend. Yes, he lived in an apartment in his hometown, with his high school best friend. He’d gotten a call earlier that night from a friend who’d dropped a quarter into a payphone coin slot just to tell him to get off of his lazy ass. Reluctantly he did. And so there he sat there, as a woman entered to go talk to her friend who was manning the bar. That woman, Rebecca, is my mother and that blonde man, Peter, is my father. A pivotal moment is approaching, although it’s been somewhat lost in the history books, the before and the after are far more clear. Of that night I know these facts: my parents met at the bar of a pizza place on my mother’s 28th birthday, my father was 30, my father told my mother he hated REM and wouldn’t see the Rolling Stones if they were giving a free concert across the street. My mother, despite these obvious faults, continued talking to him.
It’s a simple story of boy meets girl, except it’s not because boy meets girl ignores the fact that boy and girl are not inanimate objects floating through space and time waiting to meet. In fact, they’re people living their daily lives.
While this moment is important to my life, I’m only going to romanticize it so much because at the end of the day my parents met in a bar. I can change the mood lighting, have eyes meet across a crowded room, the music can slowly change to Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and everything will be perfect… but that’s not how it happened. It’s a simple story of boy meets girl, except it’s not because boy meets girl ignores the fact that boy and girl are not inanimate objects floating through space and time waiting to meet. In fact, they’re people living their daily lives. My mother turned 28 that day. She’d moved to the D.C. area recently. It made sense. She was a lawyer, and jobs certainly existed there for that, but that isn’t why she moved. My mom moved to my hometown in 1990 with her first husband, and in 1991 she met my father. The divorce papers had been sent in, and, for the first time in years, she was spending a birthday by herself. So she went to the bar of a pizza place where one of the only people in the area whom she knew worked, and an overly friendly guy talked to her. But here’s the catch: six weeks later she and that overly friendly guy were engaged. Yes, they’re still together; no, I’m not saying that everyone should get engaged as soon as they meet someone they think could be the one. All I know is that, for my parents, that gut feeling seems to have worked out.
They got married in September at the church where my grandfather sang choir. The reception was in my grandparents’ backyard. To this day, both my mother and father claim that they didn’t fight over a single detail. Looking back on the pictures my mother thinks about her dress, and how the cake was a little frozen, how she and my father walked down the aisle together on completely equal footing. She remembers the dress her mother wore and how my cousin who was 13 at the time directed cars into parking spots. But she also notices two bulges at her neck that at the time she’d thought were just signs of old age. Two months after my parents had been married, after the honeymoon in Scotland and the adjustment to my mother’s fetching new last name, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. The first years of their marriage were marked by Hodgkin’s disease and trips to get radiation. Infertility troubles in later years because of it, and yet they got through it.
I’ve certainly seen my parents fight, but whenever I ask either of them, my mom and dad both claim that it took a good five years before they had any kind of real argument. Growing up, my parent’s early romance always sounded like something out of a book. My dad used to have flowers mailed to my mom’s office spontaneously. He woke up every morning to make her coffee, even though he went to work later. By now, 23 years later, they’ve certainly settled into typical married life. They fight and bicker – and no, he doesn’t send flowers any more – but I don’t doubt that they love each other. I think there’s “love” and there’s “wildly in love.” One is about a companionship, it’s about taking people to the doctor when they’re being hypochondriacs and putting up with overly spicy jambalaya. My father’s singing Emmylou Harris out of key and my mother’s annoying habit of always being correct. The other is about a moment and a desire. I suppose that’s something my parents had for those five years, perhaps longer. But at the end of the day, “love” lasts far longer than the fire of “in love,” and, at least from my vantage point, my parents found lifelong companions in one another.
There was a war going on. No, not the present one... But there was a war going on when this story begins.
My grandparents met their freshman year of college at University of Iowa, and this year coincided with the Second World War. They were at the tail end of the wartime generation. My grandfather never saw combat but knew to fear the draft – he’d even been enlisted. They met as the war ended, and it was either in church or at a party. The two events appear to have happened at approximately the same time and over the decades have been tangled up into a singular knot despite their wildly different connotations. My grandfather, the tall, lanky William, was the son of the mayor of Council Bluffs, Iowa, an artist, engineering major and fan of the opera. My grandmother, Ann, was a city girl – as city as one gets in Iowa, at least – and found herself learning family studies as well as art.
They met amid the fervor and urgency of war. Before long, the war was over, and reunited couples started marrying all around them. It wasn’t shocking that the young couple soon followed suit. My grandmother always said that my grandfather proposed on the beach on a warm summer day, but once my grandfather stated that he’d proposed one time before on a bridge in the winter and she simply hadn’t heard him.
From the outermost shell, my grandparents didn’t make a lot of sense as a couple.
Soon after my grandfather’s 20th birthday, the couple wed. Before long, they had the first of their 10 children. My grandfather became an engineer and spent the next half-century working on bridges. My grandmother kept a love of art as she raised their children. From the outermost shell, my grandparents didn’t make a lot of sense as a couple. My grandfather had a collection of quirky loves: folk music, Spanish poetry, El Greco. He had a hearty laugh that filled a room, but an intimidating intellect. My grandmother was exceedingly smart, but receiving a compliment from her was a rarity. She was loving, but not prone to fits of laughter or being overly fond of hugs. They were both wonderful people who led happy lives, but I don’t think my grandmother imagined that she’d marry an engineer. He was a boy who had grown up spending his summers on a family ranch; her father owned a men’s department store in Des Moines.
Despite their differences, my grandparents were married for over 60 years and witnessed the births of 10 children and 18 grandchildren. It’s strange for me to think that at my age two people met at church, or maybe a party, and ended up spending the rest of their lives together – but that’s just how it happened.
I never knew my great grandparents; my mother met her grandmother once or twice before she died. I’ve heard stories about Ruth over the years. She was the first woman to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. My only connection to her, however, is a painting she did of my grandfather as a boy that hangs in my dining room back home.
He swore that he would make a name for himself and one day earn her love.
Ruth Felts had been a staple of Council Bluffs high society. William Byers, on the other hand, was not. They met at some point in their teen years, and my great grandfather immediately saw himself as unworthy. He swore that he would make a name for himself and one day earn her love. So he went to college and then law school.
A decade or so later he proposed to the girl he’d met so long before, now a lawyer and branded with success. In his eyes, his plan had worked, although it’s never been clear to me whether or not her accepting his proposal hinged on his success in life. Plans for the wedding began, but soon one tragedy struck, followed by another. The deaths in the family prevented their actual marriage for quite some time but eventually their wedding day did arrive. But, by this time, they were older, especially for the standards of the time.
There was a caveat when it came to their marriage: even though my great-grandfather had sworn that he would marry this girl, the one whose love he’d spent a decade earning, he insisted that their children be raised Catholic and not Anglican as she was. As someone who wasn’t raised in a particularly religious household, the idea that the sect of Christianity one wanted to raise a child in could end a marriage before it even began is still hard for me to wrap my mind around. But, apparently my great-grandmother didn’t see this as any kind of deal breaker and agreed. On Sundays she would go to Anglican mass as her family attended the Catholic one. When my great-grandmother was in her mid-to-late thirties she gave birth to their only child whom they also named William. While I was growing up, I didn’t hear my grandfather talk about his parents much, but given the paintings of my grandfather that appear in the houses of all of my relatives, Ruth was a very devoted mother. I’ve never really heard about what their actual marriage was like despite the grand nature of their story, but I’m hopeful for the best.
Why so persistent? I don’t know. Do they still love each other? I guess so.
Here in Seoul, South Korea, Mr. Ko and Ms. Song are sitting in their bed playing cards and between them lies 23 years of marriage. During the family dinners and hangouts, these two unfolded the lovey-dovey episodes of their relationship.
There once was a doctor in the deep valleys and hills of Muju, South Korea. This whole village knew this doctor, for he was the only medical professional. He was well-respected and greeted warmly everywhere he went; but, deep down in his heart, the doctor abhorred the village. He was only a mandatory public health official for a bucolic town, which was a position he chose instead of military service. He despised being recognized by everyone. He was a man from the capital, and here his only means of entertainment was the unlimited indulgence of bittersweet ale down his throat.
Only a couple of miles down the dirt road from the doctor lived a teacher. After being certified, she was randomly assigned to the village just like every other teacher. Also well-known in the village as an English teacher, she was a stern, cold-hearted individual, hesitant to make anyone’s acquaintance. Having spent her whole life in the same province, second-oldest among four sisters and a brother, she was obligated to be financially stable and support the rest. Indulgence was not among her duties.
The awkwardness could not last, for laughters and flirts sweetened the passage of sound between their breaths.
One day, the teacher had a hard time blinking and seeing for more than a split second. Without hesitation, she made her way to the doctor. “I am not giving you anything unless you make me a promise,” the doctor said. She was wondering what could be delaying the doctor’s diagnosis. “Have a dinner with me tonight or I will let you suffer.” What a bold move it was! The two had never met before, and she was invited only a half hour after seeing him. “Yes,” she replied. She wanted nothing more than a quick treatment, which pushed her to go for a dinner date. Quickly after the treatment, the teacher returned to school and continued her lectures.
During her last class, a number of students started peeking at the window. “Ma'am, there is someone with a bouquet waving at you,” one of the students said. Embarrassment encroached. The more she inhaled, the redder her face became. “I’m ending this class short today.” As soon as she announced this, she gathered her belongings and rushed down the stairs to confront the doctor. “What the hell are you thinking?” The teacher angrily questioned the doctor. “I couldn’t wait, you know.” The doctor said. “I cut my work three hours short just for the dinner.” The doctor couldn’t hide his excitement. Who would be calm when it comes to spending time with the love of his life?
The doctor completes the teacher, and the teacher completes the doctor. Life-long partners, one may say.
Later that evening, the two were sitting in a diner. Awkwardness clouded the air, and, despite her watch making slow progress, the doctor was having one of the best days in his life. He was having dinner with a beautiful woman who was incomparable to anyone else he had seen in the world. Their dinner dates continued for a fortnight, and the awkwardness could not last, for laughters and flirts sweetened the passage of sound between their breaths.
Many years have passed, and only a thin air of romance and a pair of old silver rings characterize their marriage. But their companionship was what lasted until now, and it proved to be the decisive factor in their sharing of a household. Only the wedding photos on the living room wall grant a peek of the past, the grand start of its sacred covenant. Starting from an unexpected encounter, the two have never stood apart during the times of hardships and dilemmas. The doctor completes the teacher, and the teacher completes the doctor. Life-long partners, one may say. Their children have become the emblem of their endless commitment and prosperity. Despite the uncertainty, their marriage sustained. A future is never guaranteed, but that should not matter when two hands join for warmth.
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Dad grew up in Daegu, a then-small city in Korea. Among Koreans, men in that part of Korea are known for being paternalistic and conservative, and my mom agreed. Mom, who is also Korean, spent her most formative years in Europe because of my grandfather’s job as a consular. To my dad, Mom seemed to have a lack of understanding of Korean culture because she went to school in France.
It seemed and felt like the plates of the East and West continents were colliding head-on, and my world was shaking.
My dad is a businessman and an entrepreneur, and my mom quit her job as a part-time French professor, which my dad and his parents constantly suggested she do so. He has always been busy and stressed with work while Mom diligently took care of us. Mom didn’t want my brother and me to receive education in Korea, while Dad wanted us to stay. Mom wanted me to grow as an independent thinker, whereas Dad often recommended a safer path for me: going to a top school majoring in a practical area, like economics or statistics. Even when they were watching TV shows, the characters they liked had opposing personalities. When they got into arguments, they often used each other’s backgrounds as reasons why they could not understand each other. It seemed and felt like the plates of the East and West continents were colliding head-on, and my world was shaking.
The tumult continued inside my mind and out. When I was 10, I saw a harmonious family of four on a reality television program. The family members were holding a meeting, gathered around a table, and the youngest boy in the family wrote down the details of the day’s discussion. The peaceful and constructive conversations they had seemed idyllic. I had some recommendations to propose if our family had a meeting: Dad should quit smoking, my parents should stop arguing with each other and we should be more affectionate altogether.
In hindsight, I can feel the signs of affection, but they were not obvious to me or to each other back then. The loud clashes had worn us out.
When I was upset about their fights, Dad held my hand and walked with me outside of the apartment. My lips stuck out, still angry and bitter. Then, one evening, he said to me, “I love your mom. We just have our differences.”
It has been 10 years, and I still remember the way my dad told me. I never heard him actually tell Mom that he loved her, so the four words, “I love your mom,” were powerful to me. My mom never showed him affection either, but she prepared the following meal no matter how furious she was. This was something my dad acknowledged and quietly appreciated over time. In hindsight, I can feel the signs of affection, but they were not obvious to me or to each other back then. The loud clashes had worn us out.
The tension between my parents’ relationship shaped my own romantic values. My mom would sometimes tell me what I should look for in my prospective partner. I agreed with some of them, although really, what I wanted the most was a significant other who was also a great friend. I’ve fallen in love with people for their charming looks, but I found myself worrying about what they thought of me because we lacked real connections. I realized I needed someone to truly connect and have fun with.
Fast-forward to college. Fall quarter of my sophomore year, I took Introduction to Russian Literature with Professor Morson, whose interpretation of Anna Karenina taught me that knowing and embracing my partner thoroughly is essential in a relationship. His argument about “ordinary love,” or familial love, summarized what I sought in a romantic relationship: not exactly having “butterflies in your stomach” all the time, but rather struggling through problems together. As I learned more, I started to develop criticisms of my own family’s beginnings.“They should have dated longer to figure out what each other were really like,” I thought. My determination to deny my parents a say in who I chose to be my partner became as staunch as ever.
The family that started with opposites stayed with opposites.
When I was walking New York’s streets during a summer break with my family, my dad, a little drunk, again held my hand and said, “I know I haven’t been able to spend much time with you guys, but I’m happy that I can support your education. I’m doing my best.” Although Mom often criticized Dad, she made sure that we knew Dad was working hard for us, and we should always greet him when he is back and say “bye” when he left for work. My parents had settled for aggressive communication styles, and letting each other know their true feelings had become rare and challenging.
The family that started with opposites stayed with opposites. My brother and I have been very different from the beginning. He is not a “typical Korean kid,” as our family members would say. I guess they associated Korean-ness with studiousness and mild behaviors. My brother is a wild kid whose interests do not yet include academics. He cares little about what others thought about him; he loves tinkering with action figures and eating at his favorite restaurants, even by himself. I have been more of a people-pleaser, and I feel more comfortable going with the flow than speaking up for myself. It seemed like my brother’s outspoken personality mirrored that of my mom, who grew up in the West. I had milder dispositions, which resembled my dad, whose rather rigid personality is common in Korea.
Inherent sensitivity made me more susceptible to the rambunctious environment our parents often exposed us to. No, they were not violent people. They just had strong disagreements, and as a kid, the sense of conflict was challenging to handle.
Although the fights may have been a little too aggressive for a 10-year-old to bear, they fought because they wanted to uphold different values; these disagreements helped fill the gap between their cultures. Yes, they did not know each other well even when they married because six months were not enough time for their flaws to surface. When they did, I was born to witness the couple with two quite opposite souls hold it together through the two things they did have in common: their love for us, and their love of the family.