Ummanim. That's what she asked me to call her when my husband and I got married. It means mother. The word for mother-in-law in Korean is Shi-Ummanim, but she was adamant that the "Shi" wasn't needed. The appropriate word was Mother.
For the first couple years, I awkwardly avoided saying "Ummanim" or "Abonim", Father, as I wasn't sure I was pronouncing them correctly and my in laws seemed to not respond whenever I tried. "Um, blah blah blah" it is, then.
Then we moved to their US home town. It wasn't a big move for us, about 5 miles east, but it was a big lifestyle move. We bought the big house, that, I think, my husband and his parents always wanted for us. By then, I was a stay at home mom and it was my job to manage the various contractors and updates that the house needed. My in laws came to help. I wasn't sure what to think of this, as up to this point, my mother in law had been a somewhat scary and rather intimidating 5' 0" woman I didn't know very well. But, she spent time with me. We sat at the kitchen table and she talked. She talked about all kinds of things. Things she hadn't necessarily shared with her own kids. She told me about "her way" of doing things. It sometimes, often, varied from mine. And, for the first time, I began to see Ummanim as a real person and not just as the imposing figure in the room.
Ummanim began to cook for us. She cooked all sorts of things. Pickled stuff. Burdock burned 9 times in a pan. Potions to improve my husband's health and virility. I tried not to giggle. She brings rice, Goguma, Korean sweet potatoes and the fishiest soup and stinkiest kimchi I've ever smelled. I know my husband's eating it from upstairs. Her best dishes are Moo-guk and kalbi. Mmm. I look forward to those surprise dishes appearing in the kitchen.
Ummanim talks about all kinds of things. Sometimes it's about the things she wants me to know about her. She talks about her days as a nurse and hospital administrator in Korea. About how her sister has the job she should have had. About the power she wielded and the controversy she incited in those early glory days of her career. Ummanim tells me about when her kids were young and how she suffered 2 little ones (my husband included) in cloth diapers and a husband occupied with furthering his education. She tells me about her in laws. Life in America wasn't easy for her. She tells me about the war in Korea. How she witnessed executions outside her house on a daily basis while troops used her family's home as a base in Seoul. She was 5 years old. They went into hiding and survived on acorn jelly. I get choked up remembering the story when they serve it as banchan.
Ummanim is so proud of her kids. She talks about their accomplishments from baseball games to college graduations. Nothing is more important than education. I never know what to say. There was no such thing as a prestigious high school where I grew up. Not so for her. A good education determined your lot in life. In fact, that's how a prestigious granddaughter of the Mayor wound up marrying the son of a rice farmer. He had the best education in Japan. She tells me of her culture shock when staying with her in laws. I can only imagine what that was like.
In the last three years, I have developed a profound appreciation for my in laws. Their responsiveness to our needs is astounding. Their desire to be involved with our kids' daily lives is humbling. The thing is, they seem to enjoy it too! Ummanim tells me it's her way of doing things, but I often feel it's too much to ask of them. I can only say thank you, over and over.
The next stage for us is an unwanted one. A health challenge so ugly that it makes us all sick. Ummanim will be fighting. She tells me it's times like this that we need religion. I wear the prayer bead bracelet she gave me and pray she is healed.
I don't know what the future brings. It's early and there are new treatments. I only know that we'll be there. To help. To support. To host other helpers. To be there like she was there for her own mother in law. To become, simply, "Daughter".