Dedicated to my mother

Korea’s Yi Dynasty began in 1392 and my mother was born near the end of that 508-year reign, during the rule of the last monarch, King Kojong. In her 95-year lifespan she survived the “annexation” of Korea by Japan, the brutal 35-year colonial occupation of her country (and the death of her two brothers at their hands), liberation in 1945, the Korean War (when Communist troops occupied her village), the birth of democratic government, and the record-setting “economic miracle” which followed. A turbulent century.

Her aristocratic family tree includes Confucian scholar Song Si Yul, advisor to three Yi Dynasty kings and author of 100 books. My mother was married at a very young age into another aristocratic family. During the Yi Dynasty, five of the kings selected wives from the Han family; they were known for their beauty, their intelligence, and their tenacity.  My father, Mr. Han, was 12 years her senior. Over the decades they had nine children; I was the baby and am now the last of that generation.

When our son Alex graduated from college my mother dressed up in her finest Korean dress (hanbok) for the occasion. Taken in Arizona in 1989, from left: me, Alex, Halmoni and John.

My mother combined caring, pure love, and absolute fearlessness. When the invading North Korean forces marched into our little village in 1950, perhaps a dozen thatched-roof homes with farmland on one side and a mountain on the other, she saw their feet were bleeding from weeks of marching south. Quickly she organized the other households and made food for them. Her kindness was not repaid. When they pulled out after the Inchon landing, the Communist officers lured all the men (including my brother-in-law) into the church and, to save bullets, burned them alive.

Before her death in 1995, I spent weeks preparing a eulogy to be read at her funeral. It highlighted her incredible life story and the marvelous family she raised. My nephew translated it into Korean and it was read in both languages at the service before her interment in Washington, D.C. All three of my children’s books were inspired by her indomitable spirit and are dedicated to her memory. The two books I wrote with John both include this black-and-white portrait I painted after her passing. The Korean text quotes the first page of her eulogy.