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Clipped Words on Her Tongue


We wake up every morning with a scratch in our throats—a rawness in the esophagus that keeps our mouths open and our tongues dry. We wake up every morning to stir the onggi pot and keep the kitchen clean and listen to the Seattle streets as the city rises with us. We wake up every morning to clipped words on our lips that remind us that language is a luxury. That the honeyed taste of English on the tongue is too sweet to be real, and the security that it promises exists only in our daydreams.

How lovely is language that it holds us with such tenderness, and yet how unforgiving in shutting us out from a country we so desperately want to call our own.

My mother was not simple. With some people there is an inherent ease to them. They take things as they come; the kind of simplicity that I’ve always envied and never really understood. You see, if at any point my mother was able to channel the every-day, it was long before I was born. Maybe in a different lifetime.

She was a complicated woman, but not necessarily in a bad way.

Intensity was her way of being. An organized madness that elevated and abused her, held and beat her, broke her but never tamed her. It was an intensity that could morph into fervent love or stubborn pride in only seconds—apparently, such a trait is genetic. The bottom line is that equanimity was never something she aspired to. Her circumstances brought that upon her, and she always refused to let go of the past. For all of the years she'd spent away from her life in Korea, the part of her that once rested easily was still back there—lost in some

forgotten shade, lingering in the background.

We sometimes saw it, my sisters and I, in scattered moments. At first, in the early morning hours, barley tea fogging up her eyes to make them seem softer; in the afternoons, using her Ohmma’s recipes for jjambbong and kalguksu, every motion a dance; and at evening time, when all at once her heart became overcome with pensive desire, a desire for home.

We didn’t always see it. No one understood it—but we wanted to. Desperately.

Or at least I did.

It’s hard to piece together the story of a woman you never really know. Even if that woman is your mother. Language, for instance, drove a boundary between us that seemed irreparable, both of us capable of expressing only half of what we thought, half of what we felt. When we tried to explain our confusions, insecurities, concerns, neither of us ever understood.


Whether that was simply language or fundamental differences, I’ll never know.

For a long time I dreamed my mother in a different light—I painted pictures across my walls of a young Korean woman, desperate for her daughters’ education, desperate for them to achieve the life she’d always wanted, so desperate it almost killed her. I painted and painted and prayed that a single shade would be enough to hold her in my life.

I never thought about all the other colors out there that could have told me something different. And when I finally understood how many I’d missed, I found that my mother was more than just swatches of paint on a wall—she was a mural of desperation.

SABINE CLADIS hikes and writes in her hometown of Barrington, Rhode Island. She writes prolifically and passionately about family and identity, usually with a warm blanket and a cup of tea. Sabine is a National Gold Medalist and Best-In-Grade scholarship recipient from the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, and she hopes to find more homes for her writing in the future!

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