Mom paces back and forth in the kitchen, speaking Korean on the phone with her mother-in-law. Words drift and linger, conversation dies, eventually she hangs up. “Your grandma wants us to visit your father.”
I complain, for there’s homework, along with a million other things I’d rather do, but nevertheless we prepare for the long drive ahead. My father, buried underneath a veteran’s cemetery in South Carolina, is waiting.
His grave serves as a meeting ground: Grandma will call, two or three times a year, having already left West Virginia hours ago, expecting us to be there by the time she arrives.
This lack of advanced notice is not easy to accommodate. Still, my mother stays silent.
Mom calls my little sister. Emily’s with her friends and wants to stay there until we return. My grandma doesn’t care about her since we don’t share the same father.
“Emily isn’t your real family,” Grandma once said to me.
“She’s my sister.”
“No. I’m the only family alive you have left.”
Before we leave Georgia, Mom drives to the florist to buy flowers for my father’s grave. I used to think she only bought them because they would please her mother-in-law. But on the rare occasions when we visit him without Grandma, fresh flowers are still purchased.
With Mom at the wheel, I rest in the passenger seat, shifting and turning with my eyes closed. On previous visits, I’ve been able to successfully sleep away the hours, but not this time.
My father died when I was one. His biological father also died when he was one.
Unsettled by the eeriness of this pattern, I attempt to keep myself sane by pointing out a more comedic similarity. After their husbands passed away, my mother and my father’s mothers both remarried to white men. This I can believe to be more coincidence than curse.
I've shared with my friends that I’m already scouting out potential white replacements. “Someone has to take care of Kenneth Jr. and my beautiful wife when I’m gone, and it’s not going to be some stranger. It’s definitely not going to be you, either. You’re too handsome.”
It’s a joke I make half-heartedly. The vetting of my friends is fiction, but my worry is far from exaggerated. This conviction that I, too, will die and abandon a wife and newborn son just because it happened to my father and his father before him defeats logic. It only happened twice, why would it happen a third? But my brain always worries, what if?
Perhaps it’ll be from drinking, like my father. Liver failure. Or a car crash from a drunk driver. Maybe even a desperate suicide.
With each scenario, each grisly crime scene, I see my life snuffed, although I’m more concerned about interrupting and ruining the lives of others: an innocent family reliving the same suffering and loneliness my mother and I experienced.
All these years and the drive still feels unfamiliar. The stretch of asphalt underneath us is hostile, unwelcoming, urging us to turn around.
But we don’t; instead, my mother grips the wheel, fingers tightening until her knuckles turn white. I haven’t bothered to memorize the route, but she has. Acquainted with these roads far more than she’d like to be, she knows where to turn right, left, everything I haven’t bothered to learn.
When we arrive to the remote patch of South Carolina graves, we’re the only ones there. A yellow ball of fire hovers above us as we wait for my grandparents. The air is hot, oppressive, and unkind. As always, they’re running late and won't be here for 20 or 30 more minutes, so we park on a nearby road, next to the field my father is buried.
My mom is always stressed and angry whenever she’s forced to meet with them. Always calls them your grandparents, your grandpa, your grandma.
When my father died, there were some legal disputes about the amount of money he left behind for Mom. Instead of grieving with us, Grandma pointed fingers and called lawyers. Once, she even pushed Mom up against a wall. My mother, all alone, just took it and cried.
The cross around her neck, the way her voice sings whenever she boasts about her church attendance—my grandmother swears she’s now transformed, a better person, baptized and forgiven by Jesus himself.
But that’s not enough. Mom still cries and sweats, trembling in fear whenever she shares the same space as her. She make me feel so weak. I’m scared. I always get so scared around her.
A rusty station wagon approaches from the entrance. I step out of the car and scan the wide field of white marble headstones, wondering how many more men have been buried here since my father died. I wonder if my father feels any disappointment over the visits he rarely receives.
My grandparents exit their vehicle, bombarding my mother with packs of Cheetos and colas for us to take home. She keeps saying no, but they ignore her and unload more random junk food into our car, forcing their paltry, dollar-store peace offerings onto her.
Short with wiry dark hair, Grandma hugs me tightly and speaks in a jumble of Korean and English. I understand her less and less as time passes. Harold, my grandfather, is bald with round-framed glasses. He’s American. Served in the Korean War. Raised my dad.
For the majority of these meetings, my mother ends up speaking to Grandma, and I end up with Harold, although right now, both my grandparents stop to tell me how much I look like my father over and over again.
All I can do is smile. My mother’s house contains no pictures of him. Our fridge has crayon drawings held by colorful magnets, stickers containing bible verses, snapshots of my little sister and me. He is even absent in the photos framed around our living room.
Growing up, I only had a single photograph of him. Mom gave it to me when I was five, after she told me the man living with us was my stepdad and my biological father was dead. He’s standing up, wearing a green army uniform. Short hair, stern face, thin glasses that make him look extra serious.
I remember holding this photo with care, my tiny fingers gripping it tightly, afraid I’d drop it and lose it forever. But then I opened the bottom drawer of my dresser and shoveled a large stack of clothes over my father. He stayed there buried and forgotten, year after year after year.
My grandparents walk towards my father’s headstone with my mother and me following them closely. Our footsteps sink into the crisp, spring grass as we navigate the various names of the dead. Mom and Grandma lay their flowers in front of my father while I stand respectfully beside them.
When I was younger, I stared at the name etched on his headstone, imagining the funny jokes and encouraging advice he might’ve delivered when I felt lost or unsure of myself. In these imagined scenarios, for whatever reason, his voice sounds Midwestern. Less military man, more eleventh grade history teacher.
I actually heard his voice once, years ago when I was visiting my grandmother. The video didn’t contain much: I’m sleeping soundly in my crib. Soft voices speaking in Korean can be heard behind the camera as it moves closer towards me: a man's and a woman's. Their faces aren’t shown, and I cannot understand their words, but I’m certain they belong to my parents.
It’s just a brief recording of me at different angles with commentary set in a foreign language. And then it ends.
After everyone finishes exchanging farewells, we walk back to our vehicles and drive away.
The next year I will visit him for the final time with my mother. Just the two of us, no grandparents. On Saturday, we’ll drive up to plant more flowers where my father’s headstone rests.
I’ll wait by the car, she’ll ask if I want say something to him, and that’s when I’ll tell her the truth. “There’s nothing I can say.”
She’ll nod her head, whispering her final goodbyes to a man I barely know. With my dad’s headstone becoming a distant, blurry relic in our rearview mirror, I’ll worry my own son, years later, will inherit the same emotions I have now. He’ll leave me buried beneath a field of white, marble slabs, unwilling to know me.
Kenneth Lee is currently enrolled in Georgia Southern University, in which he is pursuing a journalism/writing double major. His writing has appeared in Entropy.