(2) Mother taught Lee joy of serving
Mother came from a family of devout Christians. My father’s family abided strictly to Confucian customs and traditions. My father’s relatives looked at my mother and her faith with disdain.
However, were it not for my mother’s unwavering Christian faith, I’m certain that our family would have succumbed to poverty and its hardships.
Mother was a tall woman with a narrow face. She had penetrating eyes, always sparkling and alert.
My mother once told me she had attended elementary school, but I don’t recall her telling me if she ever actually graduated.
Although she had little formal education, she more than made up for her lack of book knowledge with her keen mind.
She had an uncanny ability to remember all sorts of things, such as the birthdays and memorial days of long-deceased relatives and the addresses of friends.
She even knew all the important dates of our neighbors.
To me, she was the wisest person. Our normal day would begin at 4:00 a.m. mother would wake us up and make us sit in a circle to say our morning prayers.
My mother would lead the prayer, and I recall her prayer being very consistent and unique. She would start off by praying for our country’s wellbeing.
Then, she would pray for our relatives.
After that came a prayer about our neighbors and their families. She would remember what our neighbors were going through and what they were distressed about.
She would know who was sick, who was going through trouble, and who had fought with whom. She would pray for them and also pray that all of them would believe in Jesus Christ.
And then she would pray for her children. Throughout her prayers, I never once heard her pray for herself. Our lives were hard, but others always came first.
These early morning prayers were a nuisance for me. I was always tired from work and desperately wanted more sleep.
I would sit in the circle, half-asleep, and would wake up, startled, only when my mother said my name.
When my mother prayed for her children, her prayers would be proportional to our ages. In other words, my mother would pray longer for my older brothers and sisters, while the youngest would get the shortest prayer. So my prayer was always short.
In fact, it was always the same. Mother would pray, “Dear father, we pray that Bak will grow strong. Amen.”
My short prayer was a reflection of my standing within the family.
Because my father worked as a manager at a farm that was owned by the chairman of the board of Dong-ji High School, both of my older brothers attended and graduated from the school.
My oldest brother had a talent for business, so he left home at an early age.
My second-oldest brother always excelled at school and was considered the smartest in the family, and so he was sent to Seoul to continue his studies.
As for me, I stayed behind in Pohang with my parents and worked to earn money to pay for my older brother’s tuition.
When I was young, I felt envious of my older brothers for being able to continue their studies while I had to work alongside mother.
My mother always believed that it was more realistic to support her oldest son than to try to send all the children to school.
In return, she expected the older ones to excel and to take care of their younger siblings. (For this, my second-oldest brother, Sang-deuk, always felt indebted to me. he would later encourage me to study so that I could pass the exam and go to college.)
My mother would often console me by saying, “Bak, you don’t need to go to college or get a degree to be successful in life.
You can become a rich man and help others by working hard.
Come, we’ll work together!” When my mother conceived me, she had a dream in which a full moon came and nestled inside her dress.
She told me the moon was so bright its light shone across the fields onto the next village.
She considered the dream so fortuitous that she convinced father to name me Myung (bright) Bak (far-reaching).
Mother worked hard all her life. At the time of the Korean War, Pohang was a small port city, mainly trading and selling fish.
This was where my mother would set up her small stall and sell fruit.
Her spot was always in the farthest corner of the market, where there was very little traffic.
From the age of five, I would hang around the market and do small errands.
When she sold her cakes (more like small muffins, filled with red bean paste) at the market, she had to carry a full load.
A metal pail filled with dough, a large bucket full of red bean paste, the metal bread cast used for baking, a water jug, and a kerosene lamp.
She stacked them onto a handcart and hauled it every day to her place in the market.
She then poured the dough into the metal bread cast; when the dough turned slightly crispy, she would pour in a bit of red bean paste and then turn it over.
It seemed easy enough, but there was a secret.
The trick was to bake the cake so that it was crispy on the outside while leaving the red bean paste inside just a little warmer without overcooking it.
The consistency of the dough and paste had to be just right; when one took a bite, the red bean paste inside had to ooze out.
The dough and filling had to be prepared fresh each day.
Each night at home, I would help mother prepare it. In the morning, I would go to school and mother would go to the market and bake and sell the cakes.
On our birthdays, mother would bring home five pieces of her cake and give one to each of us.
I remember once on my birthday she brought home these cakes as usual, and I asked mother why she wasn’t having one herself.
She replied, “Bak, it’s nice of you to ask, but honey, I can’t stand the smell of it. You go ahead and enjoy it.”
Many years later, when I was mayor of Seoul, I encountered a couple running a stall similar to the one mother used to have.
Out of curiosity, I bought a cake from them and tasted it. It didn’t taste right; it wasn’t crispy at all, and the inside had none of the richness of the red bean.
The couple looked like they’d just started out. I told them I was willing to share my mother’s secret recipe.
The couple just stared at me. It turned out they were a married couple and both of them were deaf (many such couples own similar businesses because the job doesn’t require much dialogue with the customers).
So I wrapped an apron over my suit and started to bake the cake.
I remember we sold out their entire batch in just two hours.
I went back to the couple several more times, showing them how to bake it right, just like mother did.
Mother was incessantly helping others. She would often tell me to go and help others, too. She also told me to accept absolutely nothing in return for my work.
Mother would give me instructions to carry out, such as, “Bak, the eldest daughter over at the oil shop is getting married today.
Go over there and help them out, will you?” If I protested, saying that they weren’t even our relatives, she would look at me and say, “didn’t I tell you that neighbors are closer than relatives? Now, go!”
Joy of serving
As I would reluctantly turn around to go, she would always shout at the back of my head, “Bak! Don’t accept anything, not even a glass of water, after you help out, you hear! I don’t want you taking anything, even if they offer you food, I want you to politely refuse and come straight home!”
She would drill these words into me over and over again.
I couldn’t understand why she was so particular about this.
And when she would order me to go and help out a rich neighbor who was throwing a party, I would often complain that rich people didn’t need my help.
Mother would take none of that, and she would again yell at me not to accept anything.
Years later, I understood why she insisted that I not accept anything.
It was because she wanted me to learn the joy of serving.
Rich neighbors would hand me leftover delicacies to take home, and I would politely refuse.
It was then that I realized that people, whether rich or poor, were grateful for my help.
And most importantly, I felt useful. As time went by, I started to feel proud of helping others and expecting nothing in return.
Neighbors also began to understand.
They said that the kids in our family were proud but not boastful, sincere but not obsequious.
It was difficult at first. Not because I didn’t want to work, but because I was such a shy boy.
I had trouble getting up the courage to say hello or introduce myself. I would usually wade in silently, wander about the kitchen or fetch water, and then leave silently.
Later on, I felt comfortable enough to say hello and ask them what they needed.
Another difficulty was fighting the temptation of food. I could have easily picked up whatever food was in front of me when nobody was watching.
I would imagine how much my brothers and sisters would like it if I brought them such delicacies.
We could all indulge in a feast! But I would remember the words of my mother, and I never did.
Years later, when I was rejected by the military due to my poor health, I came back to the market where mother worked.
I couldn’t make myself tell her that I had been rejected for being too weak.
When I stood in front of her, mother was startled to see me. I was supposed to be in the military by then. I told her what had happened.
Holding me, she said, “Bak, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize that your health was that bad. Please forgive me.”
She started to cry. “It’s because of all the lees that I gave you when you were little…It’s because I didn’t take good care of you when you were sick. I’m so sorry.”
That night, mother prepared dinner for me before the rest of the family came home.
On the table was a bowl of steaming white rice and one egg, uncooked. Our family ate white rice perhaps once a year, maybe twice. Eggs were normally too expensive for us, so it was an extra-special treat.
Mother and I sat together to eat, and we cried a lot that night.
That was the first and last time I saw my mother cry.