Mama said the flowers in Seoul were beautiful.
I might have believed her, but then, doesn’t everything look beautiful to someone with terminal cancer? Especially something as frail as a flower from the homeland she’ll never return too.
Still, she insists.
“Sena, the flowers there, you wouldn’t believe it…they are the most beautiful in all the world.” The hand she has clasped around mine is shaky and thin, mostly bones and veins—but Mama’s smile is bright like the sunrise as she leans against the pillows propping her up. “I cannot wait until you see.”
“I know, Mama,” I say. I squeeze her hand. Her bedroom smells the same as always—like warm milk and medicine and a hint of something like lemongrass. In two days, I’ll miss this smell. I smile a little as I squeeze Mama’s hand again. “I’ll bring one back for you.”
It is, of course, only the least I can do, when Mama is letting me go from Maine to Seoul with my Aunt Yoshiko to take the trip that she will never be able to make again.
Mama closes her eyes, an angel trapped in a cocoon of white sheets and oxygen and cancer in her chest. “That’s my girl,” she says.
I lean down to kiss her forehead, and then I quietly leave the room to finish packing.
* * *
When I and Aunt Yoshiko board the plane to Seoul, Korea, there is no one to see us off.
I’m alright with that, as the only person I want to see me off is Mama and airports and late-stage cancer don’t get along. But I do think Aunt Yoshiko is a little sad.
It has been hard for her, slowly losing her sister, I can see it in her eyes. But this trip is in honor of Mama and her love for Seoul—her wish for me to see it, its flowers. I will not spend it sad.
Inside the plane, I let Aunt Yoshiko have the window seat. “So you can see the world fall away,” I say, as I settle in beside her.
When the plane lifts off with a roar like a dying lion, I don’t press it to try and look out the window, too. I’ve already seen the world fall away.
I know what it looks like.
I will bring it back a flower from Seoul.
* * *
In all of Mama’s stories, it is Spring in Seoul—a perpetual fairytale of falling pink leaves and bustling markets, and street-side booths selling over-priced food that tastes so much more real than it does in America, because you eat it while smelling all of spicy, vibrant Seoul around you. And the flowers are beautiful there.
When Aunt Yoshiko and I land in Seoul, it is Fall, and I almost feel betrayed that Mama’s Spring-Seoul didn’t materialize straight into this Autumn-cloaked October just for us. But I suppose Autumn does need a turn with earth now and then.
The hotel we check into is clean, but not sterile, though in our room the bedsheets are so white I almost feel like they should smell like warm milk and medicine, with a touch of lemongrass. I take out my phone and snap a picture. Aunt Yoshiko glances at me with raised eyebrows.
“Mama will want to see,” I say, though I know really she won’t. Mama says that cameras are unnecessary distractions to seeing and remembering things with our eyes, and thus, our souls. But I want pictorial evidence that this trip happened.
So I take one more picture of the room before turning off my phone and sliding it into the back pocket of my jeans. I’ll need it tomorrow, because we’re going to the market.
I’m determined to find food, and flowers.
* * *
While Autumn-Seoul is, in some ways, not like Mama’s Spring-Seoul, the market is very much the same as she had said. Overwhelming. Loud. Alive.
I cannot stop breathing it in.
Hawkers cry out from their booths, selling plastics tins of gimbop or freshly-baked hotteok. Scents of cinnamon and meat explode in air, making my mouth water as the cold cement of the street bleeds through the soles of my shoes. It feels like adventure, but it smells like home.
“Sena, I’m going to text your father that we’re doing alright and get some kimchi, do you want any?” Aunt Yoshiko asks, hers fingers already on her phone as she eyes a booth selling dishes of kimchi a few strides down the street.
I nod, but my eyes are already darting in a different direction. Trying to find flowers. “I’ll meet you in fifteen minutes,” I say, striking off deeper into the throng of market-goers.
The sea of shopping and haggling is easy to lose one’s self in if one’s self doesn’t know where they’re going. I am going no place in particular, but I am looking for something, which isn’t nothing. I peer around small clusters of Korean women with small purses hung over their shoulders, squeeze through a pack of loudly jabbering men who are fighting over the price of fried octopus, and “excuse me” my way past a few well-dressed shoppers inspecting various, thin scarves that won’t do anything to protect them against this bitter Autumn. I tug my own scarf—thick, grey—closer around my neck and keep walking. There are no flowers to be seen, I can’t find them.
But there is an old man.
He’s sitting in a booth that’s empty, nothing to sell, nothing to shout. He simply watches the droves of people hustling by with a smile on his face and a cigar stuck in his mouth. He sees me watching, and his smile spreads a little wider, deepening the wrinkles in his face.
“Annyeonghaseyo, young lady,” he says. Hello.
The English falling on my ears is like sweet rain, and I duck around a portly shopper to walk to the old man’s booth. “Annyeonghaseyo,” I repeat to him, then look at his empty booth, sticking my hands into the pockets of my coat. “Nothing to sell today, sir?”
“Too many things being sold already,” the man says, gesturing with his small, wrinkled hands at the many other booths lining the street like an army of goods. “Not enough people just taking it in.” His cigar wiggles in the corner of his mouth, and he plucks it out as he scrutinizes me with his keen eyes. “You are looking for something in particular?”
I hesitate, wondering how strange my request will sound here in cold, cold Autumn. “Flowers,” I say. “My Mama told me that the flowers in Seoul are more beautiful than anything else.”
“Ah! Your eomma, she is from Seoul?”
The old man grins—a very genuine smile that makes his whole face look like a portrait of happiness. He leans back in his chair and holds his arms out, gesturing to everything. “Young lady, you are already among Seoul’s flowers! The people, eolin-i, the people—so strong, yet so frail, so quickly gone, so rarely cherished as they should be. Seoul is made of flowers.” His smile is about to crack his wizened face. “Do you see?”
Mama, you sly old lady.
I turn around from the booth and imagine myself as a tiny rock in the midst of a sweeping sea, just taking in the tides. It isn’t hard to imagine, as it is almost true. I lean against the old man’s booth and look out at the bustle of my Mama’s Seoul.
“Do you see?”
“Yes,” I say, “I see.”
My Mama’s Seoul was made of flowers.
Slowly, I pull out my phone and snap a picture—quick, brief—of the people. I found your flowers, Mama. Then I put the phone away, because I want to see this scene with my eyes, and thus, my soul, so that I can bring it all home to her.
Five minutes until I have to find Aunt Yoshiko.
And so, for that five minutes, I lean against the old man’s booth, where he sells nothing but sees everything, and we are both silent as I watch my Mama’s Seoul go by.
Seoul is made of flowers.
They are indeed the most beautiful in the world.