The Color White

By Ginger Park

There was a faraway village, thousands of years old, one I could trace my bloodlines back to. Sogha was a place where my ancestors drew water from a well and stored earthen crocks of kimchi deep in the ground, where medicinal herbs were plucked alongside the river and dispersed to young and old, where babies were born at sunrise only to be buried by sunset, where tiny graves dotted flowering hillsides in spring.

Mom’s evening prayers were nothing if not theatrical―even Abby, our pot-bellied setter, whose Korean diet of pungent scraps, cocked her ears. Every night while a spicy chigae stew simmered, Mom would seek sanctuary in the living room where a low teakwood table awaited her. Like her mind, its carvings were intricate, and she would kneel at the table as though it were a shrine before the outburst of foreign prayers and chants began. Sometimes Mom could draw me into her world, and I could literally feel my soul split until I felt as Korean as her. But not when she prayed. That’s when something zipped up in me and I realized just how American I was.    

The teakwood table faced the front yard window and the thought of neighbors peering in ―and they did peer in―mortified me. What did they think of Mom, her praying, her rhythmic chanting? Coupled with Abby’s convulsive howls, it seemed like a scene from the movies. Only this was our real life in Springvale, Virginia―ten thousand miles away from my parents’ homeland of Korea.

Mom was always cold, riddled with deep-freeze chills. On a mild September morning when a soft breeze carried butterflies, she shivered in a luminescent ring of sunlight washing through the kitchen window. A flannel shawl was pulled tightly over her shoulders and brown wool socks were snug above her knees. Her expression was grave.

“Last night I saw color white,” she announced.

“The color white?” I echoed.

“In dream, Sojo.”       

“I don’t understand.”

She held herself, cold, so cold. “Last time I saw white, your daddy die.”

When Dad was alive, we had our own ritual. While he was deep in dreams―Mom making breakfast or playing her violin―I’d tiptoe to his night table, deliver a glass of orange juice, picking up the trusty coin he left me as a tip. A nickel usually, a dime sometimes. The money of course meant nothing; the ritual meant everything. In our silent way, in so many ways we were linked. One morning, though, I forgot Dad’s orange juice. It wasn’t until the evening when I went to my parents’ bedroom to say goodnight and saw a shiny quarter on the night table that I remembered. I frowned. The next morning, I poured Dad a tall glass of orange juice and carried it to his bedroom with the intent of leaving the quarter on the night table as my way of saying―Sorry, Dad. But the quarter was gone with nothing left in its place, not a nickel or a dime. My heart sank. Then Dad opened his eyes and cried surprise! and our eyes locked with laughter.

I never forgot Dad’s orange juice again. 

But in the early morning hours on that fateful day in 1979, I fought my way out of a nightmare that felt too real. When I opened my eyes, my heart was beating so fast, too fast, I could barely catch my breath. The dream was all about Dad, a mysterious force, and an infinite tunnel of light.

It started out with the usual recurring dream of flying high above my house, soaring over treetops, gliding down familiar roads, so safe, beyond the clouds where angel wings were at my fingertips. No school or drama or stress here. Peaceful… floating… soaring… gliding… Then I saw Dad engulfed in a warm halo of light, the kind of light you’ve imagined, heard all about… feared. Dad put his hand out, but when I reached out to him everything went dizzyingly wrong as if the sky had become the earth and I was trapped in a tortuous state of vertigo, spinning, spiraling downward descending at record speed away from the clouds, away from Dad. Crushing chest pain paralyzed me as I watched a galaxy of stars swallow Dad up like a black hole.

“Don’t go, Dad!”

“I’m still here, Sojo!” he said before I stirred awake.

I sat up and looked at the clock. Five a.m. I couldn’t believe it was just a dream.

Later that morning, as I carried Dad’s orange juice upstairs, something stopped me outside his bedroom door. Was it the dream or a premonition or the wistful sound of Si Bheag Si Mhor coming from Mom’s violin? I opened the door, straining with shallow breath as I made my way across the room. I found Dad in bed, but something was wrong.

“Dad?” I said. No reply. “Dad!” I cried this time.

I waited for his eyes to open, to hear him exclaim surprise! But even at sixteen, you sense things. He looked too still, pinched, even, as if he’d died in the middle of a bad dream.

My dream.

According to the coroner’s office, Dad died between the hours of three and six a.m. But I could pinpoint it to the exact hour, the fateful hour, five a.m., when Dad passed from this life into the next. 

We were told Dad suffered a heart attack but how could that be? He drank his juice, avoided fried foods, and walked Abby every day before supper.

That night, Mom, steeped in prayers, came up for air just long enough to say, “It was his time,” as if to say God took him by the hand.

His time? Sometimes I thought maybe, just maybe, had I woken from my dream sooner and brought up his orange juice earlier, he would’ve woken up, too, and stayed awake and never had a heart attack. Or maybe in the deep recesses of his dreaming mind he would have half-heard me setting his juice down, smiled in his sleep and kept on dreaming. Everything in the world was timing, right? You could skip over a fatal moment like a bad heartbeat, and life would carry on. Instead, I came up at the usual time and everything―the glass, my heart, our lives―shattered.         

The day we buried Dad it rained and rained, and I cried like it was never going to stop, not the rain and not my tears, either. Mom told me to be strong, but I wasn’t a God-fearing soul who possessed her faith. As the days passed into weeks and months, I was still cratered as a grave.

Mom always wore a brave face for me, holding back tears until late at night behind closed doors. But I could hear her from my bedroom―even over the soundtrack of her favorite movie, Sayonara―crying herself to sleep.               

I wondered, fearfully so: Why did Mom dream of the color white?

“Do you think someone is going to die?” I asked her.

There was a faraway village, thousands of years old, one I could trace my bloodlines back to. Sogha was a place where my ancestors drew water from a well and stored earthen crocks of kimchi deep in the ground, where medicinal herbs were plucked alongside the river and dispersed to young and old, where babies were born at sunrise only to be buried by sunset, where tiny graves dotted flowering hillsides in spring.

Where the color white symbolized death―see the funeral goers? All dressed in white. 

Whenever Mom spoke of her life before this one, her expression softened and for a treasured moment she could forget who and where she was: a lonely widow in America. When I was a child, Mom told me stories of the old world, but I never listened, not really; they sounded like tales from some ancient map that no longer existed. That was before Dad died. Now when she spoke of the brother she lost in World War II or the mother trapped behind the communist wall of North Korea or the rivers that surrounded her family’s countryside home, I was mesmerized.  

“We knew all the rivers. It was our duty to know,” she would recite like a straight-A schoolgirl. 

Sogha. A mythical place would come to light, a land where mothers and daughters travelled like flocks of geese and goslings over rocky terrain as they balanced baskets of laundry on their heads―sparkling river streams were calling them. Squatting in the river, their fun began. They sang and laughed and washed, bubbles floating everywhere, downstream and in the air.

So how did we end up in Springvale of all places? Dad had left Korea in the aftermath of the Korean War, crossing the Pacific in pursuit of a Harvard education. Mom followed Dad two months later, traveling alone. In the years to come, Mom would lament―in broken English no less―that her journey to America was a foreshadowing of things to come.

She was right.

My parents had a plan: Dad would finish his graduate studies in the States, and then they would return to the homeland.

“But temporary stay in America become permanent one,” Mom had said. “Political climate in Korea unstable. Unwise for us to return. We decide to wait, and then I become pregnant. We watch our Korean baby doll grow into all American girl. Besides, post-war Korea not like America where children safe and blessed with long happy life.”

After Dad completed his studies, he went to work as an economist for the World Bank in Washington, DC, and we settled twelve miles outside the city in Springvale. Mom never found her footing in Cambridge, and Springvale was no different. The food was nauseating, the highways too wide. And where were all the open markets? Dad, on the other hand, soaked up their second country like sunshine. He ate it up, literally―a McDonald’s burger and shake on a Saturday afternoon was a feast for his Korean soul. The bottle cap pop! from a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer after gardening from dawn to dusk was the sound of a good life. Even though Dad was a scholar at heart, his hands were always in the dirt and the living proof was in his garden brimming with azaleas and Japanese maples, hydrangeas and lilies. Several years before Dad died, he had planted pine trees on either side of our home. I remember him saying, “Pine trees stand for longevity, Sojo.”

Now the pine trees were tall and unfurled, only Dad wasn’t here.

After Dad’s death, my fear of losing Mom was crippling. Sometimes when she fell asleep on her recliner―movie over, screen black―I would tiptoe into her room just to make sure she was still breathing. Listen. Feel her breath. Her heartbeat. Why? Because I knew our time together was like sand in an hourglass, as prophetic as the color white in a dream.∎