I went down to the basement through a narrow spiral staircase from the kitchen. The tiny kitchen has a small cooking stove and a large rice cooker on the counter.
Jennifer has set up her beauty parlor in the basement and takes care of customers at any time, early morning and late evenings. Customers are mostly family members: husbands, wives and children.
In the basement there are three almost brand new red toolboxes with several shallow drawers and strong and sturdy wheels attached to the bottom. The unhealthy plants with dry brown leaves from outdoors for winter are placed on top of the toolboxes. An old revolving chair is in front of the only mirror and one armchair is attached to a large hair dryer. There is an old sofa that is covered with a slipcover for customers who are waiting their turn. An old TV is on the shelf for watching Korean soap operas.
The thing I like most in the basement is a radiant heater from Costco that warmed up my leg while I sat on the chair in front of the small mirror. One other thing was a calendar from Jennifer’s Korean Catholic church with the date of the lunar calendar hung near the mirror. I need to know two days in the lunar calendar per year: My mother-in-law’s birthday and Korean Thanksgiving which is on August 15 in the lunar calendar and around the end of September in the solar calendar.
When I turned on the basement light, Jennifer came down immediately after me and turned on the heater. I sat on the chair shivering and she put a towel and gown around my neck and she started to touch my hair.
“Your hair grows fast. It is long. That means your hair is quite healthy,” Jennifer commented.
“I was busy and I just kept it in a pony tail. It looks ugly, but…” I did not finish my sentence and continued, “I needed a perm to last for three or four months at least, maybe a tight curl helps it to last longer?”
“Let’s see.” Jennifer continuously touched my hair with her warm fingers.
Before Jennifer finished her sentence we heard loud noises from upstairs and something hit the floor. BANG!! BANG!! It was like a grenade hit the floor and would make a hole in the basement ceiling.
Jennifer dropped her brush on the floor and ran upstairs. Again the loud voices spread throughout the house as loud as thunder. A few minutes later the storm calmed down and the kitchen door was opened and closed with a bang. Somebody ran out into the street.
She felt that she was caught in the middle between two giant forces and neither was willing to give an inch (like a small ship at sea caught between two gigantic humpback whales). But she was all right for handling this awkward situation. She came downstairs holding her breath and started to curl my hair. The quiet moment sprawled through the basement.
“Last night our house was so cold I thought that I would freeze to death. (It was not true). Kwang put the thermostat down to 65 F.” I was just making conversation to break the silence.
Maybe Jennifer did not hear what I said. Her hands were trembling a little bit, but she was able to settle her emotions.
Jennifer has taken care of my hair for more than twenty years now, but we have never talked about our personal lives. I did not even tell her about my business and I just told her all the time how busy I was with four children and a heavy workload. In exchange, she told me the stories of Korean soap operas that she watched.
I wished that I could avoid this uncomfortable moment and just say goodbye to her and leave but the perm takes about two hours. There was no way I could leave or comfort her.
Finally Jennifer thawed the chilly moment and started her amazing story. “Bob and I have two sons and one is a business manager of a small company and our second is institutionalized and just came home for the weekend.”
Silence reigned for a few minutes and then she continued that whenever her second son, Harry, came home there were frequent quarrels between father and son. Everybody had bruises on their faces and bodies. “When Harry is in the institution our home is much quieter than before. Since Bob is acting as a child, he starts the quarrels and not his son.”
I lost the words. I just thought about what a unique life she has. Then she went on. In December 1951 during the Korean War, her hometown was in Kangwon Province, which was in the South Korean territory before 1953. Her first husband died on the battlefield as a sergeant. She left home with a seven month old son and a three-year-old daughter with one thick blanket. Her son was on her back and the blanket and everything else was on her head. She walked with her three-year-old daughter for several miles to the train station where all the townspeople would leave for the south to avoid the war zone. Many, many times her three year old daughter lay down on the snow, cried and did not want to walk any more. Everybody had to leave the town because the North Korean and the Chinese armies flooded toward the town.
It was dark when she finally got to the train station where the refugees were. She was one of the last people to evacuate the town. All the people were in cargo trains and there was not even one inch of space left. People sat on other people’s laps. There was no room for them to stretch out their legs. This was the only transportation to leave the town.
Her hands were getting warmer and she was getting faster with curling my hair and her mind seemed to have regained control and she continued, “For three days we were in a cargo train without any food and could not even go out for a pit stop. When people needed it, they passed around a can for an emergency. For three days we did not eat anything and nothing came out as discharge. I sat on the lap of a middle aged gentleman and I used the can on his lap.”
Another silent moment passed and my curiosity increased as to how she met Bob.
After three days the train stopped at its final destination of Daegu, that is a city in the middle of South Korea, which is now the second largest city in Korea. The refugee camps were full of people from North Korea and they were setting up another one but it was not ready. About one hundred to two hundred people did not have a place to spend a couple of nights until the camp was up.
Jennifer walked on for several miles with two children looking for a place to stay. After several rejections, she found a house with a barn. Jennifer asked the landowner if she could stay a couple of nights here until she could go to the camp. The owner was a very kind and warm-hearted person and explained her reasoning. “How can I let you sleep in the barn while we are inside the house?”
“If you let me stay here, it will be a great place since I have a thick blanket and we can be warm staying here,” Jennifer replied.
About a week later Jennifer and the two children finally went into the refugee camp. At that time there were several refugee camps around the town. The government provided a meal once a day with rice balls and bean sprout soup.
Jennifer continues, “After I settled down in the refugee camp I began to be concerned with the whereabouts of my family (parents and siblings). They were evacuated at a different time from North Korea and I did not know their location.” A couple of months later Jennifer got news that her parents were in a different refugee camp.
Finally the family was reunited but no jobs were available and getting food was very difficult. Her daughter was crying from hunger and her son was trying to suck Jennifer’s milk from an empty breast. Because of malnutrition her son started to walk at the age of two and Jennifer did not have a period for three years.
Through the assistance of the Catholic Church, Jennifer collected a mixture of leftover food. It was waste food from individual dishes from the U.S. army. It was more nutritious than just bean sprout soup or other Korean food at that time. With these connections Jennifer started to wash clothes for the G.I.s. First one and two, then later she operated a laundromat for about two hundred G.I.s with the assistance of several employees.
“Business was booming and it seemed to rake in money from the ground and the laundromat space was full of G.I. clothes. One day one soldier’s clothes were in our laundromat for several weeks without a checkout. I asked his friend the reason. He said it was Bob who was new to this division and because his paperwork was not properly done on time, the payment of his salary was delayed so he could not get his clothes back.”
Jennifer asked his friend to take his clothes and pay for it later. Jennifer’s intention was that she needed the space, but Bob thought differently about Jennifer. Bob paid back with a letter saying that he wanted to marry her.
Jennifer didn’t even blink her eyes at his proposal. She totally ignored him. She had many reasons. She already had two children from a previous marriage and Korean tradition did not allow for mixed race marriage at that time, especially marriage to a G.I. It means one class lower than our traditional social system. Koreans can no longer be proud of their pure blood because of so many mixed racial marriages.
Bob came to the Laundromat every day and sent her letters almost daily. Then he moved to another location and that division moved out of the town and a military police (MP) division came to that location. She operated the laundromat for a couple more years to serve the MPs and then she closed it.
Years passed, and Jennifer had a visitor from her church. Father Paul came. At that time Jennifer was with her father. Father Paul was hesitant to break the silence and finally he asked Jennifer’s father to leave the room in order to talk with Jennifer privately. After her father left the room Father Paul took out a ragged letter from his inside pocket. It was a letter from Bob. Since Jennifer had closed the Laundromat, Bob did not know her address, so he sent the letter to the main office of the Catholic Church and it was forwarded and finally wound up with Father Paul. Father Paul knew that Jennifer would not marry an American G.I., breaking Korean tradition. Not only this, Jennifer already had two children of her own. Her family and church members decided to at least meet Bob and then make the decision but this meeting did not mean “YES”.
It was nine years since the first time Jennifer had seen Bob at the laundromat. Bob flew in the first time with a ring. Nothing happened. The second time nothing happened and the third time he brought another ring.
Jennifer’s family and the priest thought he was a very decent man and he had fallen in love deeply with Jennifer. He would make Jennifer happy for a long time. They married in the Catholic Church.
As soon as Jennifer married Bob she began to recognize that Bob was not normal. He was different from what she first thought.
“Jennifer, how can you stay with him?” I interrupted her. I could not hear her story any more without frustration.
“This year is our 45th anniversary.”
I lost words. What an amazing woman. She has carried this load of frustration and uncertainty of Bob’s abnormal character for forty-five years. And I was full of sorrow for her. The Catholic principle made her stay with him without divorcing him. This was only my thought. But it’s possible that they might have many happy moments together.
“Bob is now in a nursing home fighting for his life.” Jennifer could not finish her sentence; tears were running down her cheeks.