Yesterday a close member of my “family” died. In Korea, your cousins are your brothers and sisters, older people, even strangers on the street, are grandma and grandpa. So Auntie Han, though an old friend of my parents, was family.
I was talking to my dad about her just yesterday — she might have already passed away by then. I called him again today when I heard the news. I said, “Dad, I don’t have any pictures of her.” He said, “I don’t either. I just have the pictures in my mind.”
Auntie Han, who signed her paintings Moon Mi Ae, was particular about things like getting her picture taken, or being visited during her long illness. I did once convince her to pose for a photo — at my dad’s 60th birthday party — and ironically, the photo came out washed in red and overexposed. I figured that her dislike of cameras somehow destroyed the film! Nevertheless, as it was the only photo of them I had, I displayed it on top of my piano for several years. I think I’ll find it again and frame it on the wall.
Years ago, Auntie and Uncle Han were traveling in Venice, Italy when they arrived at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, where I was an intern. For some reason, I don’t think I knew they were coming — or at least I wasn’t sure when to expect them. But one of the other interns, an Asian-American woman, stopped me and said in an admiring voice, “I just saw the most striking, beautiful couple in the main gallery.” Curious, I said I would check out the gallery, too. And when I went, there they were, Auntie and Uncle Han!
Both artists, they did make a striking, beautiful pair. Uncle Han is tall — especially for a Korean man. He played volleyball — attacker — in college! He has smooth, dark skin and prominent cheekbones. He has a full head of black, wavy hair that’s now turned gray. His eyes are really shiny and he dresses in artfully casual clothes — lots of corduroy sports jackets with black turtlenecks and the like. Auntie Han was much shorter, probably my 5′ 4″ height or less. In all the years I’ve known her she had the same dramatic wedge-shaped bob. At first, it was salt-and-pepper, but about 10 years ago it went totally white, and it always looked fabulous. She also had prominent cheekbones, never wore makeup, and wore layers of earthtone, comfortable clothes with simple jewelry.
But aside from her distinctive hairstyle, Auntie Han also had an unforgettable voice. It was gravelly, from years of smoking. It was deep. And it was resonant. “Jeanhee,” she would always begin, pronouncing the second syllable as though it were “eh,” but really, more like, “ehhhhhhhhh,” dragging the sound. “Are you making jewelry.” Even though it was a question, it always sounded declarative. Everything she said sounded declarative, instead of inquisitive and unsure, the way many women speak.
Whenever I saw Auntie and Uncle Han, they always asked me how my jewelrymaking was going. They would encourage me to continue. And then, inevitably, they would recall a painting I made in high school that hung in my parents’ sunny kitchen. Or, how once when I visited their home as a child, I drew the same exact picture on sheet after sheet of brown paper towel — the kind they dispense in public school bathrooms. It was a sunrise peeking through mountains. Over and over I drew the same picture. I don’t remember why.
Auntie Han died of lung cancer. She refused visitors and didn’t come to the phone when I called. She was particular, like I said, and I do understand. I will keep the picture of her in my mind. They are mostly fragments, though: the shape of her hair, the way her skin stretched over her cheekbones, how she could wear pants like no one’s business! I will remember the art galleries she accompanied me to. The restaurants that she and Uncle Han would take us to. And mostly, I will remember how every visit with Uncle and Aunti Han felt like a celebration, an event, a happening.
They never had children of their own, but somehow, I feel they had many children.