I grew up in the 1950s, the youngest of six kids in a Korean immigrant family. There were eight of us in a two-bedroom house in Takoma Park, just north of Washington, DC. Outside of school and church duties, we five girls mostly spent our spare time helping my mother make kimchee, which she sold by the gallon to a few Asian restaurants downtown, or cooking, cleaning and hanging endless baskets of laundry. My brother, Luther, being the one son in an Asian family, got to eat oranges and read comics in the private bedroom my father had adapted for him from an old meat-smoking room in the basement. The few times I ventured into his private den—by invitation only, mind you—there was always the smell of oranges, and shriveled peels lying in long spirals on the floor. Though Luther was older by five years, he and I often roamed together since we were paired in our family—both of us skinnier than the others and with energy to burn. He used to walk me home after my morning kindergarten during his school lunch break, until my mother was sure I could navigate the ten-block route by myself. In evenings and on Saturdays, we’d play knights of the round table, war games, and cowboys and Indians until he started junior high school. I missed playing with him, but he was changing. I learned much later that all of my sisters felt they had a cherished childhood period of feeling close to Luther, and perhaps this was because he was made special in our family. He now lives in Texas, working in law enforcement, and though we’re not estranged, difference in our life choices and adult personalities exaggerates the geographical distance.
We didn’t have a television until my eldest sister bought one in the mid 1960s, so we read copious amounts of books from the library and listened to radio shows. (I cringe to think how old-lady-ish this is making me sound!) My mother ran a contest one summer: the prize of five dollars would go to the reader of one hundred books. I was in between first and second grade, so I was allowed to add Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit series to my list. She only ran that contest once because our preference to read conflicted with our chores—and we all achieved the goal, costing her thirty dollars. For entertainment, we also listened to my father’s reel-to-reel tape machine. In addition to his volunteer duties as co-pastor of the first Korean-American church in DC, he worked at the Voice of America, broadcasting for the Korean service during the Cold War. His job allowed him access to a variety of audiotapes, including classical music programs and, on occasion, soundtracks to Broadway and film musicals.
In this manner, the summer when I was eight, we discovered the soundtrack to “The Wizard of Oz” movie. There was no album cover or description to peruse, we just listened in a circle around the tape player like kids around a campfire. Soon, we all knew every song and all the lyrics, and we’d sing the entire album on car trips or while waiting the long hours after church for our parents to be done hobnobbing with their community. We each took roles from the voices: I was Scarecrow and the munchkins. My third sister did a mean Wicked Witch and Cowardly Lion, my second sister was Dorothy, and so on. My brother, of course, was the Wizard, terrifying in his deep changed voice as he thundered, “I am Oz, the Great and Powerful…!” But then later he’d squeak in alarm, just like the real thing, “Ignore that man behind the curtain!”
As that summer ended and fall led into winter, school activities and Luther’s newspaper route again separated my brother and me, and I didn’t think much about Oz, though I did miss the fun we’d had together. Christmas in my family was typically a chaotic, last-minute affair. My father would give us younger kids ten dollars or so, and off we’d go to the five and dime to buy our gifts for everyone. It was usually a tablet of paper for my mother, a handkerchief for my father, a barrette or bobby pins for sisters, that sort of thing. I don’t remember what I bought for Luther that year: perhaps a pack of rubber bands or a curiously shaped eraser. But I do remember the gift from him I opened on Christmas morning—my first ever hardcover books, Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Marvelous Land of Oz. I ran my fingers carefully over the white-covered book-boards, admiring the colorful illustrations, the whimsically shaped letters, and feeling the satisfying heft of grown-up books. I hadn’t known that the musical had originated out of a book, and I was delighted to have in my hands a continuation of the story, the delicious anticipation of experiencing through books more of what we’d shared that summer. We were not the kind of family that verbally expressed our emotions, so I hoped my brother could see by the way I waved my two books and shouted across the room to him, “Thank you!” how much they meant to me.
Nowadays, when Luther comes to the Washington area for business, he’ll sometimes stay at my house. One time I pointed out, on a high bookshelf in the guest room, those two Oz books he’d given me so many years ago. He didn’t remember them and seemed amused that I hung onto them. He’s still an avid and rapid reader, and I always leave a book I think he might like on the nightstand. Mirroring habits from our childhoods, he’ll stay up all night to finish reading it, and I think if I had oranges, he’d eat them while reading, littering the guestroom carpet with the peels.