My mom cooks meals for 40 with a composure that most of us lack when cooking for four. She makes lunch for her congregation every Sunday. My mom and dad sponsor midshipmen from the United States Naval Academy; it’s a volunteer effort that has them regularly hosting big Korean feasts. Someone is always stopping by or staying over. There is always something to eat. Cooking like this requires so much stuff. There’s a Korean fridge, an American fridge, a garage fridge, and a freezer downstairs. The pantry is packed with everything from oats to seaweed; the garage is stocked with everything from mixing bowls to boxes of soda. I often tell my mother that she runs a free bed-and-breakfast. She smiles and says nothing.
We’re just four days past the memorial service for my brother and six days past Thanksgiving. My mom and I are sorting through some things from the service. Clutter covers the dining room table, as it often does at my parents’ house. Eating usually happens in the kitchen; the dining room serves more like a drop zone. A niggling irritation creeps up. I had managed to clear off the table right before Thanksgiving and even bought a festive gold runner to dress it up. I dismiss the feeling and open a photo album. To my horror, I find that it has been marred by coffee stains. Even if the photos could be replaced, the album could not; Ric had made it himself. Mom immediately confesses; she had tried to carry too many things to the car at once. A month’s worth of sadness and injustice gnarls itself around the small irritation and squeezes it until it bursts. I swiftly turn her accident into an indictment on her homemaking skills and then on both of my parents’ inability to say “no” to others. The clutter fuels my bitter rant, mushrooming to take up way more space in my mind than it does in reality. Even as I speak, I’m incredulous at how harsh and old-fashioned I sound. I’m also confused; I know I’m not upset about the photo album or the clutter that’s covering the dining room table.
My mom was the last born of 13 children. Only seven of them survived infancy and war. Her family didn’t have much money. Most didn’t. Like many other Korean families, they lived in a modest apartment where function was valued over form. They ate sitting on the floor around a table that was covered with mismatched plates and bowls. My mother has always worked, and she’s on her feet every day except for Sunday. The only seated job she has ever had was her first in America, where she sewed pockets onto Levi’s jeans.
This background helps explain why things like centerpieces and table runners don’t even occur to her, and why a little bit of clutter in the dining room is not a big deal. My mother’s hospitality is simple: Feed people, and make them happy.
Cooking is how my mother expresses her love. I think I’ve inherited this from her, but somewhere along the way, I have also grown more concerned with how some of our already-happy gatherings are staged. Maybe Instagram and having a job in food have heightened my expectations. Or maybe it’s living in the South that has influenced how I think a dinner table should look.
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I fall silent. Obviously, in my grief, I was feeling a lack of control. It isn’t that the house is disorganized; it’s that life is. But just beyond the grief had lurked another shadowy figure: jealousy, the kind that can still surprise a grown-up with a moment of teenage angst.
Anger reshapes itself, and tears begin to fall. I look up and apologize, seeing my mom clearly for the first time in a while: She’s a busy and generous woman whose hospitality is rooted in action, not just things. She wipes the tears from my face and pulls me close to her. I cry not just out of grief and shame but also at the recognition of another wordless expression of my mother’s love.