A few days ago at a garage sale, I paid $1 for a brand new backpack with a broken zipper on the back where a detachable bag once connected. As I began to remove the zipper, stitch by stitch, I remembered my very first sewing class, held in my own home during the summer of 1950.
The war had changed the look of our town of Pusan, as war refugees milled in daily and built temporary huts on every empty space, using such material as cardboard boxes (for walls), flattened Coca-Cola cans (for roof-tiles), straw mats and torn military blankets (for floors on dirt.)
The city had issued a new ordinance: Every home owner was forced to share his or her home with refugees, according to the size of family and living space they had.
Our household of 11 — our parents, seven children and two house employees — accepted two refugee families. A single mom with a 2-year old boy and a couple with a boy my age came to live with us. With so many women in our typical Korean home with eight rooms, including a storage room, a kitchen and the bathhouse, Mother must have decided to give them something to do, including her three daughters between 9 and 13.
We never had a set schedule; she just called out, “How about some sewing, ladies? Bring anything that needs mending,” and we’d come to the front room that served as our classroom, each with our project. Our club consisted of eight — Mom, two refugee moms, my two older sisters and me, and our two employees.
At age 9, I poked my fingers with a needle more often than I poked my sock, but I loved being with adults and listening to their conversations. I had thought that being a child and living with my six unruly siblings (two older brothers, two older sisters, and a younger brother) was my daily ordeal, but it seemed that being an adult was not much better.
The grownups shared their miseries of being women in a society when any man could shush his wife by saying, “Legend has it that when a hen crows, the household collapses!” But here, at the sewing club, the “hens” crowed as loudly as they wanted but the roof never collapsed.
They openly criticized their roosters. “My husband drinks too much!” one would begin, and another replied, “Mine, too! He spends most of his salary at a tavern, without leaving me money to buy food.
“Is there a boot camp that sobers men without sending them to war?” another would say and they’d break into laughter.
It was refreshing for me, seeing hens crowing and laughing together. They also talked about their kids’ behaviors. In general, they all agreed that kids should never talk back to any adults at any situation, which was difficult to swallow. But we sisters knew better than to voice our opinions, knowing that Mother would revoke our memberships with a “Go to your room!” We played deaf.
One day, one of the refugee moms, whom we called Big Aunt because of her height, confessed that her alcoholic husband had been beating her regularly. Everyone was surprised.
During Mother’s interrogation, Big Aunt revealed that her husband was careful not to beat her while people were around, so he had been forcing her to go for a walk, and when no one was around, he’d punch, kick, or beat her. She then rolled up her sleeves to show the blue and purple marks.
“A psychotic like him will never learn to behave, Sister!” Mother lectured. “You must leave him for your own sake as well as your son’s.”
“I’ve tried,” Big Aunt said. “But he always finds us!”
The other refugee mom said, “Leaving your husband isn’t easy, whether he’s a wife beater or not. In my opinion, having a psycho husband is better than having no husband at all.”
Big Aunt quietly sobbed, while others shook their heads.
Mother said, “Ladies, we have to do something for Big Aunt. When you see them leave together, let me know. We can follow them to make sure he doesn’t touch her.”
But the wife-beater outsmarted everyone. The next morning after breakfast, Mom called out for another sewing session, but Big Aunt didn’t show up. Mom went to investigate, and told us their room was empty. “Who told him of our plan?” she asked bitterly. No one knew for sure, but everyone had the same idea: Big Aunt’s husband somehow made her reveal our secret.
Mom spent days lamenting that she hadn’t rescued her friend from her abusive husband.
My restoration job of the backpack was satisfactory, if you’re wondering. I am glad about my investment of money and time, but I treasure my memories of my mom’s ingenuity in gathering five women and her three daughters to do something positive when our country’s future looked bleak.