My Mother and the Roomer
Chu Yo-Sup
Translated from the Korean by the author

I am a little girl, six years old. My name is Okhi. There are only two in our family, my mother and I. Oh, wait, there is another one . . . my uncle. He is a high school student. He never stays home. He is always running around somewhere. Sometimes I do not see him for weeks. So I forget him.

My mother is beautiful. She is the most beautiful lady in the world. She is now twenty-four. She is a widow. I don’t know what widow means, but our neighbors call me the daughter of the widow. I know that I have no daddy while all the other children have one. Maybe that is the reason I am called so.

My grandma told me that my daddy died a month before I was born, just a year after he married my mother. She said my daddy was a teacher here. So he bought this house next to my grandma’s home. Since my father had to live here where he taught, my mother was not obliged to live in my father’s father’s house. My mother and father lived here together until he died. I never saw my daddy, but I saw his picture once. He looked nice. If he were not dead, he would be the finest man in the world. I feel very bad that I had to lose such a good daddy. I have not seen the picture lately. My mama used to keep it on her desk, but her mother told her to put it away. Yesterday when I was out of the room, mama took something out of her bureau and was looking at it. When she saw me coming, she put it back. I think it was the picture.

My daddy left some property for us. Last summer . . . oh, no . . . last fall I went with my mama to a place about three miles from here, at the foot of a hill. There was a thatched house. I had chestnuts there and a chicken dinner in that house. Mama said that it was our land and that we could eat throughout the year with the rice from the land. But there was not enough money to buy meat, fish and my candy. So she had to do sewing for others.

Strictly speaking, my mama and I are the only ones in our family, but since there were extra rooms in the house and mama needed a boy to help with odd jobs, my uncle came to live with us.

My mama told me she would send me to kindergarten this spring. I was glad to hear that, and I proudly told my friends. When I returned home, my older uncle . . . I mean the older brother of the uncle who lives with us . . . came with a stranger and was talking in the outer apartment. When my uncle saw me, he called and told me to bow to the stranger. I was bashful, but the stranger asked my uncle if I were his niece. So my uncle answered, “Yes, she is my sister’s daughter, Kyongson’s post-humous child.”

Then the guest said, “Come here, Okhi. Your eyes resemble your daddy’s.”

“Oh, come, Okhi,” said my uncle. “You are a young lady now. Come here and bow to this gentleman. He is your dad’s friend, and he is going to live in this room. He will be a good friend to you.”

I was glad to hear that he was going to live in the room. I stood in front of him, made a courteous bow, and then ran away to the garden. My uncle laughed at my action, and I ran to the inner room and told my mama what had happened.

“Mama, my older uncle said the new uncle will stay in that room.”

“Yes, he will.” My mother spoke quietly and was not excited about the matter.

“From when will he stay?”

“From today on.”

“That’s good.” I shouted and clapped my hands.

Mama stopped me and said, “Why all this excitement? Stop acting that way.”

“Then my younger uncle will go away?”

“No, he will stay there, too.”

“Then both of them will be in that room?”

“Of course.”

“Two in a room?”

“No, the sliding screen will be closed; your uncle will stay in the lower part and the guest will stay in the upper part.”

I had not known the new uncle before, but he was very kind to me and I liked him too. The elderly people of the village said that he was a good friend of my late father and that he had studied in our village. Since there was no hotel, someone had suggested that he come to our house and stay in the outer apartment. If he pays board and room to us, it will be helpful.

The new uncle had lots of picture books. When I went into his room, he lifted me up in his lap and showed me the pictures. Sometimes he gave me candy too. One day after I had finished my lunch, I went out to see him. He was still having his lunch, and I sat down to watch him eat. He asked me what kind of food I liked best, besides rice. I told him that I liked eggs best. Then he took one of the boiled eggs on his table and gave it to me. I took it and ate it. Then I asked him what he liked best. He smiled and said, “I like eggs best too.”

I was glad to hear that and I told him that I would go to my mama and tell her.

“No, please don’t,” he said. But I went into my mother’s room and told her. “The new uncle likes boiled eggs best, just as I do.”

I did well, for from that time on my mother bought more eggs than ever. Whenever the old woman came to sell eggs, my mother bought a dozen and sometimes two dozens. She boiled eggs for almost every meal, and each time she gave one of them to me. So I had lots of eggs. Sometimes, when I went out to the uncle’s room, he gave me an egg that he had saved for me. I liked that uncle. But my younger uncle did not like him so much. I think he had to wait on him too much. One day I heard my mama and younger uncle arguing after supper.

“Please do not go out until the teacher comes home. You must carry the supper table to him,” she said.

“Everytime I want to go out, he comes home late,” he muttered.

“But there is nothing else we can do. You must be the go-between.”

“Sister, why can’t you take the table to him? The world has changed. You don’t have to follow the old custom.”

My mother blushed. She thought that she should not see any man her own age face to face. My uncle laughed at her, but he went back to his own room and waited until the teacher came.

I began to attend kindergarten. There I learned to sing and dance and play. My teacher played the organ very well. The organ in the kindergarten was smaller than the one in the church, but it sounded very good. By the way, I had noticed something in the upper room of our house that looked like the organ in the kindergarten. So, when I got home, I went to the upper room with my mother and asked her what it was that looked like an organ. Mama said that it was an organ.

Then, since I had never seen her playing it, I asked,

“Can you play the organ?”

But mama did not answer at once. She looked embarrassed and explained. “This was bought by your daddy for me. I used to play it all the time. But since he is gone, I have never touched it.”

She was almost ready to cry, so I asked for some candy and we both returned to the inner room.

I liked to go to the outer apartment and talk with the new uncle, but my mother told me not to bother him too often. In reality, I never bothered him, he bothered me. About a month after he came to our house, he began talking to me this way.

“You eyes resemble your daddy’s. But this beautiful nose you must get from your mama. And those lips, too. Don’t you think so? Is your mama as beautiful as you are?”

I said to him, “Haven’t you seen my mama yet?”

He made no answer. So I said again, “Let’s go in to see my mama,” and I pulled his sleeves.

“Oh, no, I can’t do that. I’m busy now.”

I don’t think that he was busy at that time or he would have let me go away so he could do something else. But he continued to talk to me, kissed my chin, and said, “Who made this coat? . . . Do you sleep in the same bed with your mother? . . .”

One thing was funny about all this. He usually was very kind to me and caressed me, but whenever my little uncle was around, his attitude changed entirely. There was no caressing, no kissing, no questions. He just sat with me politely and showed me the picture books. He must have been afraid of my little uncle.

One day, when I was supposed to stay put and my mother was watching me, I tried to steal away while she was concentrating on her sewing. But when she heard the noise of the door opening, she looked up and caught me. She was not mad at me, though, and combed my hair and braided it and tied it with a beautiful ribbon, saying, “You must always be neat or the uncle will laugh at you.” Then she let me go. Another time she caught me and said, “Shame! Look at your blouse. It is too dirty.” Saying this, she took out a fresh blouse and put it on me.

One Saturday afternoon the uncle asked me to go with him to the hill beyond the village. I was very happy to receive this invitation, and I accepted immediately. But he said, “Go in and ask your mother for permission.”

Mama said that I might go, and then she washed my face, combed my hair, gave me a goodbye hug, and said in a loud voice, “Do not stay too long.” I think the uncle heard her, too. We climbed the hill, where we could look down on the village and the railroad station. The uncle lay on the grass. I ran about and played gaily, picking some blades and tickling the uncle with them.

When we came down, he held my hand in his. And when I met some of my kindergarten friends, one of them said, “Oh, she is walking with her daddy.” I wished that the uncle were really my daddy, and I was happy to be walking with him. When we reached our gate, I said abruptly, “I wish that you were my daddy.”

His face turned red as radish and he shook me as if he were angry, and said, “You mustn’t say such things.” I was frightened and ran into my room. When mama asked me, “How far did you go?” I could not answer, and just sobbed. My mother was surprised and asked me what the matter was, but since I could not tell her, I just wept and wept.

The next day, which was Sunday, I was all dressed up to go to church. While I was waiting for my mother to dress, I crept away and peeped into the uncle’s room to see if he was still mad at me. He was writing at his desk, and when he saw me, he looked up and smiled. I was relieved and happy to see him smile. He looked at me carefully and said, “Ah, you are so prettily dressed. Where are you going?”

“I’m going to the church with mama.”

“Church? Which church?”

“Oh, the church near here.”

“Near here?”

Before I could answer his question, my mother called me and I had to go. As I ran out of the room, I looked back and saw that his face was red again. I wondered why he was so sensitive these days.

When we were in church, there was a song, followed by a prayer. While all the people bowed their heads, I remembered the uncle and wondered if he were in the church. I raised my head and looked around, and to my joy, I saw him in the men’s seats. One funny thing was that uncle did not bow his head as all the other adults were doing. He was looking round. I smiled at him, but he did not smile back at me. I thought that he did not see me, so I raised my hand and waved at him. He noticed me and suddenly bowed his head. At that moment my mother noticed that I was not praying and she pulled me down beside her. I whispered in her ear, “That uncle is here, too.” Mama looked shocked and told me to be quiet and took me on her lap. I saw her face become red again. The service was terrible that morning. My mother did not give me a smile until it was over and she just stared at the pulpit as if she were angry. When I looked at the uncle, he wasn’t smiling either and pretended that he did not see me. Every time I looked at the men’s seats, my mother pulled me around and faced me toward the pulpit. I was mad too and was about to cry, until I saw my kindergarten teacher nearby. So I could not cry.

When I entered kindergarten, my younger uncle escorted me to and from school for a while, but later I was able to go by myself. When I got home, my mama was always waiting for me at the side-gate and carried me into the house in her arms. But one day when I returned from kindergarten, she was not there to welcome me. She had probably gone next door to grandma’s house, but I felt lonely and sad. I decided to frighten her, but before I could do anything, I heard her voice outside the house saying, “Is my darling home yet?” I took off my shoes quickly and ran with them to the inner room. Then I opened the closet and hid myself in it with the shoes. A little later I heard her voice in the room.

“Okhi! Are you here?” Then I heard, “Oh, she is not here yet!” Then I heard her go away toward the gate to wait for me. I was pleased and smiled to myself. After some time I heard a commotion. I heard mama’s voice, and the younger uncle’s alternatively.

“I was home all day long. But just when it was time for her to come home, I noticed that her candy was all gone so I went to grandma’s to get some. Then this happened. . . .”

“I went to the kindergarten and was told that she had left there twenty minutes ago. Then, on the way . . .” this was grandma’s voice.

“I’ll go around and see. Where could that little thing have gone?” This was the younger uncle’s voice. Then I heard the sound of my mother’s sobbing. I thought at first that I’d better come out, but then I decided that she had not been punished enough for being unkind to me last Sunday in church. I lay down again. It was hot and stuffy in the closet and I think that I fell asleep soon. I do not know how long I slept, but when I woke I was frightened because it was dark and uncomfortable in there. I didn’t know where I was and I began to cry. Then I heard mother’s surprised voice.

“Oh, what is that?”

Then the closet door opened suddenly and she pulled me out. First she spanked me about five spats and I cried. Then she hugged me and sobbed. “Okhi, my darling! You are safe. Mama is here. Do not cry. Tell me you are all right. As long as you are with me, everything is all right. That is all I want. I don’t want any other person. You are my everything. Don’t cry any more.”

“Isn’t she queer?” shouted grandma. “The crazy little thing! Why should she hide in the closet?”

And then the younger uncle went out, muttering, “Oh, it’s bad luck!”

The next day when I was returning from kindergarten, I remembered what I had done yesterday and I felt sorry for my mama. Today I wanted to please her, but I could not think what to do until I remembered some flowers in a vase in the kindergarten room. I did not know the name of the flower, but they were very beautiful and must have been imported. I knew my mother liked flowers. I went back to the kindergarten room, but nobody was there, not even the teacher. I took two of the flowers and ran home. My mama welcomed and embraced me and said,

“What beautiful flowers! Where did you get them?”

I did not know what to say. I was afraid to tell the truth, and to my own surprise I heard myself saying, “This . . . the new uncle in the other room told me to give it to you.”

My mother looked shocked and stood there speechless. Her face became as red as the flower itself, and after a while she said in a trembling voice, “You should not have taken such a thing.” I was surprised to see her so deeply disturbed. Anyway, I thought that the lie was successful and I was happy that she was angry with him, not with me. After a while she said, “Darling, please do not tell anybody about these flowers, will you?”

I expected that she would throw the flowers away, but she put them in a vase and set them on the organ in the upper room. She left them there many days until the last petals were withered. Then she cut off the heads with the scissors, laid them in the hymn book, and pressed them.

That evening, I went to see the new uncle and as I sat on his lap looking at a picture book, he was startled by a sound. It was the music of an organ, and it came from the inner room. I thought it was mama and went running to see. The lamp was not lit, but in the bright moonlight I could see mama in her white dress seated at the organ. She played better than my teacher at the kindergarten. I went close to her, but she kept on playing without noticing me. Soon she started to sing too. I did not know her voice was so beautiful. My mama was more beautiful than the kindergarten teacher and she could sing better, too! I felt I must be in heaven as I listened to her, but soon her voice became fainter and fainter and finally was still. After a few seconds she rose and embraced me. At that moment she looked like an angel. Then I saw the tears in her eyes.

“Mama, why do you weep?”

“Ah . . .” There were no words for a while, and then she spoke. “Darling, you are everything to me. I don’t need anyone else.”

One night when I was returning form the uncle’s room, he gave me a white envelope with something in it, and told me to give it to my mama, saying, “This is the money for the last month’s room and board.”

When I handed it to my mother, her face became white and she was petrified at the sight of it. Then I spoke, “He said that it was money for room and board.” At these words, she returned to her senses. Then she blushed.

She opened the envelope and took out something. It was paper money, and she drew a long breath of relief. But she looked surprised once more, peeked into the envelope, and took out a folded piece of white paper. At first she hesitated, but then she unfolded it with decision and read. I do not know what was written on it, but her hands were trembling and her face was flushed. After a while she folded it, returned it and the money to the envelope and dropped it into her sewing basket. Then she sat down and remained motionless, but she was breathing deeply. I was afraid that she was going to be sick, so I said, “Mama, let’s go to bed.” She said, “Yes,” and then she kissed me; her lips were hot.

After a while I woke up, and as usual, reached out to feel my mama. But she was not there. I was afraid and raised my head to look for her. The room was bright with white moonlight coming in the windows. At the farther end of the room, where there was a large chest in which my daddy’s clothes were kept, my mama was sitting dressed in her pajamas. She took out my father’s clothes and laid them on the floor; then she leaned against the chest with her eyes closed, whispering to herself. I thought she was praying. I went close to her and sat on her lap and said, “What are you doing, mama?”

She stopped whispering and opened her eyes. She gazed at me for a long while and then she spoke softly to me.

“Ohki, my dear.”

“Yes, mama.”

“Let’s go to bed again.”

“Will you go to bed too?”

“Yes, I’ll be with you.” Her words sounded sad to me. She picked up daddy’s clothes and caressed them one by one, and then put them back into the chest. When she had finished, she closed the chest and locked it. Then she took me with her into the bed and I said, “Let us pray before we go to sleep.”

It was her custom to pray each night before we went to sleep, but this night she had forgotten; so I reminded her now. So she answered, “Oh, yes, let us pray.”

I asked her because I liked to hear her soft voice praying. She started to chant the Lord’s Prayer and I joined her: “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive our trespassers. And lead us not into temptation . . . lead us not into temptation . . . into temptation . . .” Mama was repeating this passage; she must have forgotten the next. So I chanted in a louder voice, “but deliver us from evil; For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.” I finished the prayer, and after a long time, she whispered, “Amen.”

It was hard to understand my mama these days. She did many unusual things. Some evenings she played the organ, and sometimes she sang, too. Then I was happy and listened to her. But often her singing turned into sobbing. Then I wept with her until she would embrace me. As she held me tightly and kissed me, she said, “You are enough for me. Aren’t you, dear?” And then she wept again.

One Sunday soon after kindergarten had closed for summer, my mama did not go to church, saying she had a headache. We were alone in the house, and after a while she called to me and said, “Darling, do you want to see your daddy?”

“Yes, I want to have a daddy,” I answered. For a while she did not say anything and then began to speak softly.

“Darling, you daddy was gone before you were born. You had a daddy. He is not here now. But you should not have a new daddy. If you have one, all the people around here will curse you and me. You don’t know the world. But these folks will curse you, and your friends will laugh at you. Then you cannot marry a good boy and you cannot be famous even though you are a fine student.” It seemed that she was telling all these to herself, and then she spoke to me.

“Okhi, you must not leave me. You will live with your mama. Even when I am an old woman, you will live with me . . . even when you have finished kindergarten, grammar school, high school, and the university, you will live with me. Ohki, how much do you love me? Can you tell me?”

“This much.” I spread my arms as wide as I could.

“Oh, I see. That is good. And you will love mama only, won’t you? You will go to school and study well and become a fine woman. Even then, you will love mama only.”

“Yes, mama, I love you this much,” and I spread my arms both sideways and backwards.

“Surely, darling, your mama does not need anybody else. All others are useless. I need only my Okhi. That is all.”

She hugged me hard.

That evening she called me, combed my hair, and dressed me in all my new clothes. When I asked her where I was going, she said with a smile, “You are not going anywhere.”

Then she took a white, folded handkerchief from the top of the organ and handed it to me saying, “This . . . this is the new uncle’s handkerchief. Take it to him, please, and come right back.”

As I took it, I felt a paper folded inside it. I carried it to the new uncle and handed it to him, but his attitude toward me was quite different from usual. He did not smile, and looked stern as he took it without a word. I was uncomfortable and I returned to our room. Mama was sitting calmly at the organ, and she started to play softly as I sat down close to her. I did not know what the melody was, but it sounded very sad. She played for a long time, repeating a certain refrain again and again.

One afternoon I went out to the new uncle’s room. He was packing his things. Ever since I handed him the handkerchief, he was a changed person; sad and melancholy all the time. He did not talk much but just stared at me. So I had lost all interest in him and I did not go out to see him often. But now that I found him packing, I was surprised.

“Uncle, are you going away?”

“Yes, I am going far away.”


“Right now, today.”

“By train?”

“Yes, by train.”

“When will you be back?”

He did not answer this question, but he opened a drawer and took out a doll, which he gave to me, saying, “Okhi, this is for you. Okhi, you will forget me soon after I leave, won’t you?”

At this question, I suddenly felt sad, and I answered, “No, I will not.” Then I returned to our room to show my doll to mama.

“Mama, look! The uncle in the guest room gave me this. He said he was going away today by train.”

But my mama did not say anything.

“Mama, why is he going away?”

“Because the school is closed for the summer.”

“Where is he going?”

“He is going back to his home.”

“Will he come back?”

She did not answer my question, and I said, “I hate to see him go away.” There was no reply from my mama. When she spoke, she said, “Go to the closet and see how many eggs are there.”

“Six,” I reported.

“Bring all of them here.”

She boiled all of them and wrapped them in a handkerchief. Then she wrapped some salt in a piece of tissue paper and put it in the package. Then she said to me,

“Okhi, take this to the uncle, and tell him it is for him to eat in the train.”

That afternoon, after the uncle had left I was playing with the doll he had given me. Mama came in from the kitchen and said, “Shall we go up to the hill to get some fresh air?”

“Oh, yes, I’d like to. Let’s go.”

Mama told the younger uncle to stay home until we returned, saying that we would not be gone long.

“Mama, may I take the doll the uncle gave me?” I asked.

“Yes, that will be all right.”

We went up to the top of the hill, hand in hand. Pointing to the railroad station I said, “Look at the station. The train isn’t there.”

My mama stood in silence. A soft breeze blew her linen skirt gently and she looked more beautiful than I had ever seen her. Then the train appeared around the corner of the mountain and came whistling toward the station. I shouted with joy, “Look, the train is coming!”

It stopped for just a moment and then started again. “The train is moving again!” I shouted and clapped my hands.

Until the train disappeared at the other side of the village and as long as the smoke of the engine hung in the sky, my mama watched it without speaking, without speaking!

After we had come down from the hill, and returned home, mama went into the room, closed the top of the organ, which had been kept open these days, and locked it. Then she put her sewing basket on top of it. Next, she opened the hymn book, took out the pressed dried flowers and said to me, “Throw these away.”

Then the side-gate opened and the egg seller came to bring us eggs.

“We will not be buying any more eggs,” mama spoke in a quiet, lifeless voice. “There is no one here now who cares for eggs.”

I was going to ask mama to buy some eggs for me, but I lost my courage when I saw how pale she looked. So I just whispered to my doll instead.

“Mama told a lie. She knows I like eggs. But mama looks sick. She is very pale. So I will not ask her to do anything now.”