Photographs, he likes to say, are the only things that remain.
On their road trip from Tacoma to Alaska, Dad takes too many of salmon: muscly gray things swarming in shallow water. It's the end of their spawn, a return to the rivers in which they were born. After a year or two eating and growing in the salty Pacific, they have come to mate and lay eggs, then give their lives over to glacier-cold Alaskan streams.S
"Did you know they go back to their place of birth?" my mom says in Korean. "And their bodies fall apart. They even stop eating," she tells me, narrating my father's pictures.
"Well, I guess we all go that way. My body, too—my hair is thinning."
In a photo from 1971, my mother is a decade younger than I am now and leaving everything she knows. She wears a tweed bowler hat and matching knee-length coat. Eleven family members come to see her off at the Seoul airport. I only recognize a few of them.
"Did you plan to go back to Korea?" I ask.
"Yes," she says.
What I don't ask is When? or How would you have known it's time?
My mother's mother fell ill six years later, in 1978. Mom scrambled for cash and days off but failed to land in time for anything but the funeral.
I uncover a picture taken three years earlier, of my mom, with hers, at Disneyland. They stand at the edge of a manmade river flowing beneath an imitation steamboat, the "Mark Twain," and a Tom Sawyeresque raft. My mother and grandmother face each other, rapt and smiling; a short-lived reunion. They seem oblivious to all else, even the small child—hat, right arm, Mickey Mouse toy-behind Mom's profile.
I conjure a similar shot of my brother and me, reluctantly posed side by side, knobby arms folded behind us, sweaty Disney mascot in the background. A road trip to southern California in 1993.
We vacationed this way through our childhood: the four of us in a used, sputtering Volkswagen camper—first light blue then white—zipping along blue-black stretches of interstate. Dad always drove. Mom slept in the passenger's seat.
America was gas stations, rest stops, and campsites; never hotels or restaurants. We hiked evergreen trails and built kindling fires. We fished for river trout, transformed on the spot into spicy fish jjigae, Korean-style stew.
My teenage years were busier; hectic anticipation. We all saw less of nature. First me, then my brother: we left home for college and settled in anonymous East Coast metropolises, where ties to each other, our parents, and land and sea loosened like aging rope.
In our absence, things became easier and lonelier for Mom and Dad. They embraced a degree of leisure and relearned life for two. They wore out another used VW Westfaila with the pop-up sleeper top.S
They finally splurged, in 2006, on a compact Airstream RV, which resembles a tall, silver snail. It's the width and length of a van but tall as a commercial truck. It folds down and rearranges like a Rubik's Cube or tiny modular apartment. There's a dining area for four, two double beds, a kitchen, and a miniature bathroom complete with sink, shower, and toilet-but not all at once.
The Airstream is their weekend home in the wilds and tamed tracts of the Pacific Northwest. There isn't much of the region they haven't seen, so they explore the far-off, obscure, and tucked away.
They also have several haunts. "We're regulars," Mom says of Mount Si, as though it were a neighborhood pub.
On visits home, I shed the city and molt into a fleece jacket. Mom, Dad, and I pack warm socks and fill the camper with gas and banchan, side dishes eaten with rice and savory soup. I sit shotgun and play navigation backup to a suction-cup GPS.
Last August, during the scarce, hot weeks of Northwest summer, we rolled down the windows and zoomed through a wind tunnel of our own making. Dad's left elbow poked out like a rudder, guaranteeing that his forearm would bake five shades darker than his right. We camped in Oregon, along Cannon Beach, where volcano-black rock formations rise into thickets of cloud.
At a private RV park not far from the shore, we were, as usual, the only non-white campers on the grounds. "Annyonghaseyo!" a middle-aged, bearded man hollered as he drove past. "Annyonghaseyo," my dad responded, amazed at the man's ethnic acumen.S
I walked the figure-eight of the campsite, observing my temporary neighbors. Those on multi-night stays erected awnings, weather-proofed picnic tables, and hung decorations of all kinds. Welcome mats, inflatable pink flamingos, flowery centerpieces, American flags, and sports team pennants spilled from enormous, house-like RVs. Gear-loving car campers in Himalaya-grade raincoats put up spindly stoves, propane lanterns, rain water collectors, and insect electrocution devices. REI's version of homesteading.
My brother wasn't with us, on account of work and distance. The last time we all gathered in the Northwest was a full five years ago, for Dad's sixtieth birthday. Recent photographs show just my parents and me, separated by months at a time, each of us visibly older.
The outdoors are only mostly peaceful. My parents squabble, provoked by the contradictions of camping: wide-open spaces versus a Tokyo-tight Airstream; communion with nature and forced communion with each other.
There had been some fighting on their Alaska trip. On the return leg, Mom says, they bypassed two mountains and a magnificent, eagle-encircled lake-to get home more quickly. I imagine them picking up speed through the Yukon: Mom erupting in angry bursts, Dad's mouth distended; pristine forests a windshield blur.
How to deal with what came before has always been a point of contention. Watching the salmon spawn had got Mom thinking about Korea. Among her many regrets is the fate of her deceased parents, who are buried in separate, distant cemeteries in Gyeong-gi province.S
We'd visited their graves in 2009, when my parents, brother, and I traveled to Korea for my mother's 60th birthday, a traditional milestone. With the not-estranged half of her family, we wound through the cool, verdant countryside: first to my grandfather's public plot; then to the nicer, private hillside where my grandmother rests. We raked leaves and debris from their Korean-style burial mounds, and laid down fresh flowers and offerings of pear, shredded beef jerky, and rice wine. Mom cried as she bowed, forehead to ground.
Sitting beside my grandmother's plot, Mom said to her brother, "We really need to move Father to Mother's cemetery. How much do you think that'll cost?"
"A lot ... it's already a lot just to pay upkeep," my uncle said.
"I know. You've been taking care of everything, paying for everything all these years." She paused. "I don't have the words to thank you."
My uncle was pragmatic: "You know, these rituals are obsolete. Koreans are too busy to keep them up, to spend their holidays in traffic, to cook all day for dead ancestors. And now my children are going abroad. No one will be around to visit. I think I'll be cremated to save them the trouble."
My dad was silent. I watched him seethe. He picked at the grass distractedly. On the drive back to Seoul, I asked him what was wrong. "Your uncle," he sputtered, "you just don't talk that way about an elder. You just don't do that."
A few days earlier, we'd gone to see my father's father, who lies beneath a mound overlooking the few remaining farms of Cheonan city. We righted the silk flowers and dusted the stone altar, before which my devout Christian uncle said a long, whispered prayer. We put down a mat and bowed before the grave.
Grandparents are a dusky concept. My mother's parents died before I was born; I never got to really know my dad's.
I lived with his mother for nearly a year after college but had trouble forming a bond. Sitting in her dusty Seoul apartment, I wondered why blood did not feel thicker. Last month, at her funeral, I felt confusion and deep regret.
Before the Internet, Korea was no closer than outer space, no more real than trans-Pacific bundles of hanbok and dried anchovies, or half-hearted annual-then not-so-annual-phone calls to faceless relatives.
My piano teacher was the closest thing to extended family. From elementary through high school, I took weekly lessons with Dr. Knapp, a music professor with a curved back and unruly tufts of white hair. He and his wife, whom he met at Julliard, deigned to teach unpracticed children like me.
I remember driving up the their cobblestone street, parking under an awning of pale-pink miniature roses, and entering their unlocked door—to the smell of roasted potatoes and the strange harmony of etudes and cuckoo clocks. I would watch Dr. Knapp's calloused fingers and try to coax my own sounds from ivory.
I visited him once or twice during college; after that, I was too guilt-ridden—having abandoned piano playing—to call. Later, just lazy or forgetful.
Two summers ago, back home at my parents', I finally searched for him on the Web, only to find that he'd recently passed on. I felt my chest tighten as I studied the obituary photos: one in particular, black and white, of a younger, tuxedoed Dr. Knapp, leaning pensively against a Steinway grand.
My parents and I paid our respects at Haven of Rest, a funeral home in Gig Harbor. His grave was difficult to find-marked, to our chagrin, by an ugly plastic pot of marigolds and a tiny American flag. Perhaps Mrs. Knapp wanted an eventual, joint tombstone.S
On our way back across the new Narrows Bridge, we were quiet and red-eyed, thinking the same, inevitable thoughts. I finally asked my parents, "Where do you want to be buried?"
"Well," Mom said. "It's a hard decision. We have to see where you end up. With both of you on the East Coast, it wouldn't make sense to be buried here."
"But your whole life is here," I said. "And what about Korea?"
"We need to be where you can visit us," Dad said.
A few months after Dr. Knapp's passing, 100 miles northwest of his grave, removal of two notorious dams began on the Olympic Peninsula. Though the river had been blocked for 99 years, dozens of spawning salmon were found butting their heads against the concrete wall on the first day of demolition.
Power companies had built the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams along the Elwha River, starting in 1910. Against the protests of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, they were erected without safe passageways for salmon.
"Elders remember watching those big fish waiting below the dam, trying to get upstream. They remember pools below the dam full of dead salmon which had not spawned," a tribal pamphlet reads.
My parents and I visit the Elwha reservation. At the community center, I peek into the tribal elders' room, a circle of sofas and office chairs draped with Native American textiles, drawings of salmon on the walls.
Neither the Elwha receptionist nor a federal park ranger believe we will be lucky enough to spot a salmon. We hike down to the turbid water nevertheless, imagining the Coho that once spawned, red and determined, in their natal streams.S
Mom and Dad walk through cantaloupe-size gravel and dip their fingers in icy, sun-tipped water. I snap a few pictures, nature-colored but for Dad's bright-red shirt.
The river dwarfs us completely, in life and on film. Sitting on the Elwha's jagged bank, I imagine a century of detoured salmon winding their way back home. I think, too, about the wandering strays-the 10 percent of adult salmon that end up lost, dam or no dam.
Scientists hypothesize the cause: an olfactory malfunction or magnetite deficiency; perhaps daring. Whatever the reason, the strays adapt, reproducing in new lakes and rivers.
E. Tammy Kim writes in Brooklyn and hankers after the Pacific Northwest. Her writing has appeared in outlets including The Nation, Salon, The American Prospect, and Guernica.