3 Love Stories, A Photo Shoot, and My Cobbler Recipe.

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This week, I’m sharing some of the photos from our EPIC photo shoot in Korea. If you’ve never heard of a Korean style photo shoot, it consists of a day-long (or sometimes multi-day) affair of hair, makeup, and elaborate costumes!

Read on for the thoughts this photo shoot inspired in three different kinds of love stories, this week’s recipe inspo, and, of course, my Parting Thoughts.

A Garden

“Daddy and I spent yesterday working on the garden,” Omma detailed, when I asked her how things were at home.

I was walking on the shoulder of Lakeview Canyon, a relatively quiet suburban road in the middle of Westlake Village, keeping an eye on my heart rate: it needed to stay below 80 beats per minute, an arbitrary number I picked out of the air. I’d just had a minor surgery the day before and my doctor instructed me to avoid any exercise, especially running, for fear it would slow the healing process. “Can I go for walks?” I croaked, as soon as I roused from the drug induced slumber. “Yes, yes, you can walk,” he agreed. I was thus on mile 3 of my “this isn’t exercise” walk when I decided to ring my mom for a general “how’s it going?”

As she described the pruning, cleaning, and watering of all the things she’d cultivated in the backyard of our Wilmette house–a project my grandmother (her mother) began literally on day 1 of moving into our bi-level home on the North Shore–I was reminded that Omma didn’t just have a “knack” for growing things. She was, at one point in her life, a professional farmer, since farming was, so to speak, the family business. It wasn’t merely a green thumb that allowed her growing collection of orchids to thrive, season in and season out, it was an expertise, earned over years and years of nurturing things out of the ground (or, out of a pot).

“It was such a mess when I got back,” she continued. Omma had stayed with me in California for 10 days after we all returned from Korea. While at my house, every single day, she called my uncle, her little brother, for an update on the perilla leaves, peppers, squash, and even my mom’s prized orchids that he’d promised to keep an eye on. And every single day, over dinner, Omma would talk wistfully about going home to spend time with her plants–almost enough to make one think she might prefer their company over her actual daughter’s.

“The vines–they grew all over the front of the house while we were gone, around the front windows.” And just like that, I could see our Wilmette house, the tall bay windows facing out onto the neatly trimmed lawn, framed by the boughs of a crabapple tree that would be thick with browning fruit by now. I’d never seen vines, though, climbing up the brick walls, probably because my parents had so rarely left home for months at a time. I imagined their curling fingers spreading up and into the shallow eaves, transforming my dinky childhood home into a romantic, country cottage.

“We had to cut them all down,” Omma stated, matter of factly.

“What? Why? I bet they were so pretty…!” I lamented, all my dreams of a Jane Austen-esque English cottage dashed in an instant.

“I know,” Omma empathized. “Daddy said the same thing: ‘But, they’re so beautiful.’ But,” she went on, “they were very messy and if we didn’t cut them down, they would grow out of control. Too much. Now, they are all gone and everything is neat and very organized.”

“Neat and very organized.” The way she articulated those words, as if placing smooth, round stones on a baduk board, made me think of the binder I put together in middle school when I got moved to advanced algebra. It was pale blue because blue always meant “math” to me. I divided it into six sections: one for notes, another for pre-homework, another for homework, next for quizzes, another for tests, and the last for blank sheets of notebook paper.

I thought of the pencil case Omma bought me from the Japanese bookstore, how I filled it with mechanical pencils, gel pens in hot pink and neon green, highlighters that I almost never used, erasers that looked like the gum I favored at the Korean grocery store. I thought of the stapler I kept at my desk when I was in college because I could not abide the unreliability of paper clips, the small bowl of paper clips I ended up keeping next to my computer when I’d been working at the firm for a few years because most standing orders rejected motions that were stapled, the stiff red cover of the first brief I ever submitted to the United States Court of Appeals.

Even as these images flickered through me, I was at once transported back to January 1, 2005, sitting on the peach leather sofa that Omma had in the kitchen of their Wheeling house. Between us was a piping hot bowl of tteokguk, or rice cake soup, an unsealed envelope with “Joanne” written on the front in my mother’s smart script, along with a pink Hallmark card containing a long note from my mother, followed by both my parents’ signatures. The card was open, its top still quivering from when I’d flung it down onto the glass table in front of me.

I was sobbing, hiccuping through declarations of love: “But I love him, I love him. I don’t want to be with anyone else. I want to marry him,” I proclaimed, while wiping snot off my upper lip with the heel of my hand. “I love him,” I repeated, because I could think of nothing else to say.

My mind was a jumble of thoughts, what I imagine a family would look like upon being woken up in the middle of the night because their fire alarm went off–running this way and that, collecting and discarding and collecting random things to save and not save, colliding into closed doors and tripping over a pile of shoes, raised voices that were not quite screaming but were in some ways more frightening because of what that restraint was for–some hope of salvaging what could be salvaged, putting out the fire that threatened to destroy everything.

My parents’ note was threatening to destroy everything. More specifically, my wedding.

In their Hallmark card, they asked me to call off my forthcoming nuptials because my betrothed was unsuitable for me and I hadn’t spent adequate time considering other eligible bachelors. My wedding was only four months away. The white satin princess wedding gown was with the tailor, after multiple rounds of fittings. The flowers, linens, and wedding cake had already been selected; a deposit with both the church and the reception hall already paid. My parents’ request had come out of nowhere, with no warning, just like a fire often does.

“I love him, and that’s all that matters,” I sniffed, when they said nothing in reply.

Daddy popped his tongue, the way he often did when he was ready to capitulate. “Well, if you love him… You right, you right. That’s all that matters.” He leaned back in his chair–a peach leather armchair that came as a set with the sofa–and, resting his right hand on his chest while nodding his head, he agreed, “You right. Love is all that matters. As long as you love him…” He popped his tongue once more. Everything that needed to be said was said.

I turned my gaze on Omma. She held her hands together in her lap. Her lips were drawn into a thin line, as if holding back an avalanche as she stared at some invisible spot on the glass table. I don’t know what she expected. The idea that I would somehow accede to their wishes and cancel a wedding with the only man I’d ever loved since I was 14 years old was, in a word, laughable. Maybe she was angry with my father for caving so quickly, silently regretting the unreliability of her accomplice. Maybe she was regretting how strict she’d been when I was in high school, refusing to let me date or have boyfriends until I was in college. Perhaps she, too, was masking a five-alarm fire in her own mind, masking it with far more persuasion than her 25-year-old daughter.

When she continued to remain silent and my father shut his eyes and leaned even farther back into his chair, I got up. Left the card on the table. The soup in the bowl. And walked out the front door.

We got married, as scheduled.

We got divorced 9 years later.


“Kimchiiiiiiii”

Is there anything more illuminating about one’s personality than their views on love?

Even as I continued to make my way up Lakeview Canyon towards the car parked in front of my favorite cafe, I marveled at the role reversal in my parents: my father, the Vietnam War vet, the math whiz, the man who spent our Hawaii vacation reading the Thesaurus, ever the romantic; while my mother, the woman who introduced me to Anne spelled-with-an-E, the published poet who brushed snatches of verse on the gingko leaves she collected off the pavement in fall, the hard-nosed pragmatist who efficiently removed any sign of the frail green filigree threatening the order of her front yard.

I often wondered where my father’s notions of love came from. As far as I knew, his own childhood had been bereft of any kind of affection between his parents. Not only were such things culturally taboo, love was a bonus, a gratuity, a privilege for people like my grandparents. And yet… Daddy did say that my grandfather ran away from home when he was only 13 years old because he refused to marry the maiden selected for him, the daughter of a wealthy family that was suitable for my grandfather, in his father’s estimation. Presumably, then, my grandmother was my grandfather’s choice. She was definitely not rich.

Perhaps my father was audience to more of a love story during his childhood than I realized.

Omma’s solution-orientedness was understandable. Cutting a path towards resolution, the clarity afforded by eliminating clutter and distraction–all of that made sense given her own past. Given that her earliest years wove a grim tapestry of homelessness, hunger, and war, foremost in her mind, always, was “how do we get food on the table?” The adrenaline rush of outrunning starvation battled the butterflies of romance and probably always came out on top.

Lee Family Wedding Photo

It was thus both beautiful and awkward to see the two of them posing for photos like a couple of newlyweds during the family photo shoot in Korea. As I mentioned in an earlier email, on our final day in Korea, my family and I spent a whopping 8 hours at a studio in Seoul getting our hair and makeup done, selecting outfits, and having our photos taken throughout several levels that had been designed into various staged settings. At the photographer’s prompting, we decided to make a “do-over” for our parents’ wedding, a photographic documentation of their near 50-year union.

At one point, the photographer–a young man with a face and voice more suited to a k-pop stage than directing a family of 7 to say “kimchiiiiiiii” every 3 seconds–asked my parents to kiss. I had never seen my parents attach their lips to each other before in my entire life. My 80-year-old father and near 75-year-old mother pressed their mouths together in the most awkward looking kiss that ever existed. I covered my face with my hands, peeking out between my fingers like I was watching a horror flick.

I remember when I asked my father why he and Omma got married. He told me, “Your mom, she had such a nice voice–not like now.” The whole table (we were seated at a cafe here in L.A.) erupted in laughter, including my mom. Omma shared her own version of their love story–they’d been set up by mutual friends and she figured he was a nice enough man, graduated from one of the best universities in the country (Yonsei), seemed to have a nice family. And she was at that age where she needed to get married (25). I got the distinct “meh–why not?” vibe from the way she described the whole thing.

Jaesun and YJ

On a few occasions, the photographer focused his lens on my brother, his wife, their 6-year old son. Liam had been a trooper while getting his hair and make up done, happily immersed in whatever was on the iPad his mother placed in front of him, while they combed globs of styling gel in his hair and brushed his baby cheeks with a little powder. Getting him to pose for the photos was fun at first–he’d get up on his toes like Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk, throw his hands in the air like Rocky Balboa, plaster a grin across his face like a jack-o-lantern. It was impossible not to feel stunned, utterly and stupefyingly amazed that my little brother had somehow produced a perfect little person. Towards hour 7, though, we had to bribe Liam with Pokemon toys to get him to cooperate…

My brother’s own love story was unusual. Jaesun met Young Jung, my luminous, round-eyed sister-in-law, while he was working in Korea as an English teacher. I had, at first, been worried that Jaesun would be taken advantage of (he is my little brother, after all). I’d been told that he’d be viewed as a “catch” by opportunistic mothers-in-law hoping to dispatch their daughters to the glittering shores of America with an advantageous union, Bridgerton style. This fear was somewhat amplified when he and Young Jung came back to the States for a brief visit and casually dropped, without any warning or fanfare, “Oh yeah, we’re going to the city tomorrow to get our marriage certificate,” in the same way one might say “Oh yeah, we have to stop by Jewel to pick up a bag of grapes.”

But it soon became clear that friendship, an honest-to-goodness best friendship, more than anything, allowed their romance to breathe.

After Jaesun came home to the States with his new wife, I asked them to move in with me. I’d just separated from my ex-husband, was moved into my first “grown-up” apartment of my own (I moved directly in with my ex-husband from my parents’ home, and had thus never lived by myself), and was terrifically afraid of the dark (a phobia I’ve had since I was 4). Jaesun, barely just recovered from jet lag, was feeling increasing pressure from my father to figure out the rest of his future and to do it in his own home. The prospect of living with his older sister, even with his new wife, rent-free in a high-rise apartment in Chicago’s Gold Coast while studying for his master’s…? He wasn’t gonna say no.

Living with Jaesun and YJ for 17 months remains one of the best chapters of my life, partly because I often felt like I wasn’t the main character of my own life. In retrospect, I needed this. The two years preceding this particular period in my life had been filled with broken glass, tequila dribbling onto the floor, lots and lots and lots of screaming, cardboard boxes crammed with artifacts from my “love is all that matters” life. The chance to be a mere bystander in my life was a welcome break.

I wrote in my journal back then:

“Can you buy for me…?” is a phrase heard often around the apartment. My sister-in-law tosses this shorthand for “love me, please” like handfuls of bright paper cranes, inviting my brother to collect them while dishing out the remonstrations that his current salary demands, yet placing them on the very broad mantel of his memory so that when he gets a “real” job and things get better, he can pick them off, one by one, and hand them back to her.

I sometimes feel like I am living my life backwards. Jaesun and I spent the latter half of the evening debating the merits of two people “merging” to form one. He calls me a cynic, I call him a romantic–I don’t believe “merging” is ever a good thing, and he thinks it can be, especially when the two minds are too fragile to survive alone. I don’t think frailty should be a prerequisite for soul-matehood. I believe the opposite: self-sufficiency is the most vital ingredient to a successful relationship.

But, I often wonder whether I allow myself to disappear too much in this home of ours, whether I am growing complacent with merely sitting in their backseat, collecting all their precious moments as if they are my own. There is a gnawing fear in my gut–that I will never find the kind of love I thought I had when I was 18 years old, that I’ve lost, forever, the one love that could have been the thing that propelled me to be the best me that I could ever be in this lifetime. It is a weird sort of fear–it doesn’t render me immobile, it just leaves me very confused.

The answer to this question remains undefined, though. Today, I thank God for this blue-grey chapter in my life–where I can watch, from the backseat, as two people bicker and pull each other apart in a manner more loving than I can ever remember seeing in my own lost love, without having to be concerned, in the least, where we are all headed.

“Where we were all headed” would eventually lead us to a frigid photo studio. My parents blushing like a pair of teenagers as the photographer urged them for one more “kiss,” my brother and sister-in-law high-fiving their 6-year old son for not stomping off the set, and me with Anthony, a love story that continues to surprise me at its reality every single day.

Coda: The Piano Guy From The Sloop

This email has already gotten too long, too much into “memoir” territory, so I will spare you, for now, the longer tale that led to the single-gal in her fancy high-rise condo with her fancy designer handbags falling for the Piano Guy from the South Loop and share that some other time (or for the memoir). By now, many of you are probably as familiar with it as I am, anyway. For those who aren’t, here are the highlights: Anthony and I met on an online dating site called OkCupid. He dumped me 6 months into our budding romance. I won him back 30 days later. Nearly 3 years later, one night in a studio apartment in Tribeca, while I read a story out loud to him out of my diary, he suggested that we spend the rest of our lives creating stories together.

And I agreed.

Thus, somehow, on our last full day in Korea, three different love stories converged, and I was glad, very very glad, for the paths we’d all taken, the ones that led us there.

What Is YOUR Love Story?


This Week’s Recipe Inspo.

“YUM! I made a gluten-free version to accommodate a guest, expecting not to enjoy that aspect of it, but it was great. Perfect to celebrate the 4th of July, or any day.” – Rachel

hero image of vegan blueberry cobbler in pan

Recipes You May Have Missed…

Banana Bread!

close-up-top-down-view-of-cutting-vegan-banana-bread

“If you’re thinking about making this recipe, this is your sign to DO IT. This is truly a 10/10 recipe. So easy to follow, LOVE the amount of substitutions Joanne provides, and absolutely unlike any banana bread I’ve ever tasted in the best way possible.” – Anna


Spicy & Cold Bibim Kimchi Noodles!

top down shot of kimchi noodles recipe

These cold kimchi noodles are PERFECT for the hot summer weather. It takes only 15 minutes to make, from start to finish–the hardest part is figuring out whether to share or eat the whole darn bowl yourself!! Bust out that kimchi that’s been sittin’ in the fridge and get to slurpin’!


What I’m…

Watching.

I’ve been a Bridgerton fan from the start, but I got a little delayed with starting Season 3, because I wanted to wrap up This is Us. I’m now more than halfway through and as enthralled as ever!! Think K-Drama meets Gilded Age: beautiful cinematography, great writing, and jaw dropping chemistry. Watch Now!

Reading.

I’m still making my way through my beloved Expeditionary Forces series (on Book 15!), but would love to hear from you about what you’re reading and loving right now! Comment or reply to this email with recommendations to add to my library! Tell Me Your Favorites!

Loving.

After nearly a decade, I finally caved and replaced my wallet. I loved my old wallet, but even the person who gifted it to me was like “Uh… I think it’s time you got a new wallet.” I’m a little picky when it comes to wallets. It has to be vegan (obviously), but it also has to be small enough to fit into my back pocket. It also has to be, uh, cheap! I don’t want to spend too much money on this thing that carries money! So, I picked up this wallet on Amazon and it totally fits my bill(s)! Shop Now!


The Korean Vegan Kollective

Join now to discover a world of culinary inspiration at your fingertips.

Use code TKVSUMMER20 at checkout for $20 off the annual membership price.


Parting Thoughts.

“I picked some sangchoo this morning,” Omma reported. I could hear the “snap snap snap” of her slippers in the background, her bare feet slapping against the soles, as she moved between the kitchen and her living room. “Then I picked some cucumbers, and the cherry tomatoes–the cherry tomatoes are not ripe yet. But, the garden is finally ok now,” she finished, as if the garden had been in peril of withering away in her absence.

Snap, snap, snap.

“What about the peaches?” I asked. A few years ago, my mother planted a peach tree in her front yard and every summer, she’d crow over the bounty of precious peaches she’d dole out to her favorite friends and family members.

“Nope. No peaches. No one has peaches this year. We had really bad weather in April. Just when the flowers started blooming, it snowed. And they all died. So, no peaches,” she ended authoritatively.

“But maybe it’s just too early? What about in August? Could the peaches come in August?”

“Noooo. No–there were no flowers,” she repeated, as if speaking to a slightly dense child. “No flowers, no peaches.”

Snap, snap, snap.

From somewhere, I recalled something or other about pistils and seeds and the very un-romantic mating ritual of plants that resulted in fruits like apples and strawberries and peaches. But as with any kind of love, I guess even with plants, timing is critical.

“I’ll have to wait until next year,” Omma continued. “Hopefully, next summer, I’ll have lots of peaches.”

Wishing you all the best,
-Joanne

Comments & Questions

A Family Photo Shoot in Korea

July 8, 2024

Join The Discussion

  1. Elizabeth Belden Handler says:

    My spouse and I met August, 1976 when I was training to be a school bus driver. He was already a school bus driver. I didn’t have a car and he started giving me a ride every day. I thought he had a girlfriend. He thought I had a boyfriend. Neither was true, but we didn’t know it. In January he asked me to come to a party he was having. I asked him should I bring a date, trying to find out if he was just saying come to my party, or if he was asking me out. He said I could bring a date.
    I asked my unofficial big brother to go with me so I didn’t look like a loser who couldn’t get a date. Mark had been working all day and collapsed on my couch, telling me he just had to nap for a little bit before we left. He was so tired I couldn’t wake him, so I didn’t go to the party, and Mark slept on my couch all night.
    On March 5th I was hosting a party and asked him to go. He replied, “It’s a date.” A date? Okay. So, I had my mom’s car and picked him up. The first time we danced that night it felt like coming home. 23 days later he proposed, and 5 1/2 months later we married. Almost 47 years later we still like, love and appreciate each other.

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