- Sister, My Little Soonae
Auntie came to visit my mom at the hospital ward near daybreak. It was still dark, but Mom could instantly make out Auntie's face even in the darkness. She looked exactly like she had at sixteen. Long hair tied back in a ponytail, black horn-rimmed glasses, the polka-dot summer dress she had made herself. A serene expression on her face, Auntie placed a hand on Mom's right knee where she had received an artificial joint implant. When Mom looked at her, Auntie smiled and spoke.
"I see your knee's causing trouble for you too, Hae Oak. Can you believe it? You're getting old too, hun."
"How did you find me here, sister?"
"I missed you, so I flew."
"How can you fly when you don't have wings?"
"Sure I do. Look."
Auntie spread white wings shaped like semicircular fans from her back and flapped round and round the ceiling of the eight-bed ward. Mom watched in awe at first, but the sight struck her as rather funny and she giggled like a child. Satisfied, Auntie folded her wings and descended to the floor.
"It's good to see you, Hae Oak."
"It really is."
"Would it have been better if we'd kept in touch?" [End Page 213]
Auntie leaned against the hospital bed and quietly gazed down at Mom.
"I still feel like we're little kids. But we're grannies on the outside now."
Mom nodded as she stroked the smooth back of Auntie's hand.
Auntie Soonae was the daughter of my grandmother's older cousin. Grandma was looking for a young girl to help out at the alteration shop and summoned Auntie Soonae, who was searching for a job in Seoul. Mom hid behind Grandma and stole glimpses of the girl standing by the water pump.
"Now you have a big sister too."
Mom liked Auntie Soonae from the moment she saw her standing quietly in the yard. She liked the ring to the word "sister," the affectionate pang it evoked. Why did girls only a few years her senior seem so much older to her as a kid? Mom couldn't even strike up a conversation with Auntie because her heart was beating so fast. Auntie didn't talk much and blushed easily. She was sixteen but she was smaller than Mom, who was eleven, so she had to get all her clothes altered down a couple sizes or make her own. If you were looking for the shortest, skinniest sixteen-year-old girl in the neighborhood, it would've been Auntie.
When anything interesting happened at school, Mom's first thought was to tell Auntie about it. She rushed to the alteration shop as soon as school let out, threw down her bag, and poured out stories to Auntie. Auntie listened to Mom's stories while she marked fabrics with chalk, threaded needles, pedaled the sewing machine.
The alteration shop was a five-minute walk from home, but Mom and Auntie often took the long way on purpose. Auntie would sometimes stand gazing at the high school girls walking home, pause in front of the stationery store, or pet a dog tied to a telephone pole for a long time. And Mom would watch the sunlight shimmering on Auntie's head. In such moments, time rolled gently [End Page 214] on, and the strange optimism that everything was going to be okay filled her heart.
Mom had heard from Grandma that Auntie was separated from her parents during the war, and her grandmother, whom she'd lived with ever since, had passed away. Auntie never spoke of those losses, but on days when work got tough or something troubled her mind, she would talk about the pet dog she'd had back home. Named "Bear," the dog had started to live with her after the war. Mom listened closely to the story, since she could count on the fingers of one hand the times Auntie talked about herself.
"Bear was so sick in his last days that he could hardly eat. Still, when...