Winner, 2014 Bethesda Magazine Adult Essay Contest

It had to be done. My mother grimaced as I started to fill the garbage bag.

Thirty years of clutter had collected in our home’s armpit: the pantry. Inside, the room was deceptively white. The leaky white metal fridge, the white laundry machines, the white shelves, but none of it quite white anymore; shades of milk gone sour.

Then there were the stacks, the piles inhabiting every corner, every inch and angle of physically viable space. Mainly empty containers and kimchee jars, waiting, even yearning to be filled with something, anything. Tupperware boxes, their plastic gently degrading into the yellow of old parchment. Mismatched lids piled on their own, never to find their partners again.

Initially, I tenderly placed them in the bag. Then I dumped them, with increasing speed. As exhaustion set in, I felt a deliriously sick glee. Time raced down like an avalanche into the chasm, as in seconds I tore down what had taken years to collect.

Just when I thought I was making headway, my head would turn and I would see more of the rascals, lurking in another grimy corner behind boxes of cleaning supplies, old packages of dried noodles, sacks of rice, dusty cans. Why this repetition, this mad clamor for more containers, containing nothing? What was she trying to keep?

My mother left her country at age 23, a newlywed. She was the baby of six, doted on by her own mother. So it must have been a savage rip through the fibers of the heart for both of them. For my mother to say goodbye to her childhood, for my grandmother, to see the last chick literally fly away.

There is a photo that my mother can no longer look at, taken at Kimpo Airport in Seoul, of my mother standing with my grandmother outside on the tarmac. My grandmother has this unearthly look, as though her legs are about to give way from underneath her, as though my mother’s arm is barely holding her up. Her head is slightly tilted to the right, her wire-rimmed glasses unable to hide that strange, ephemeral gaze. In a time before Skype, the Pacific was a wide ocean. My grandmother knew it was farewell.

My grandmother passed away shortly afterward, just before I was born in the 1970s. Now my mother stands, shy like a little girl, just outside the pantry. The tension in her face has mellowed into both resignation and relief. The dirty deed is nearly done.

I open the last drawer, and there are remnants of my own time: a Gerber bottle used to feed me, little pink Japanese lunch boxes where my mother put seaweed-rice rolls, Betty Crocker cookie cutters from times baking together, a logoed foam cup holder from my college freshman year. My mother has clung to my youth, just as much as she had lost hers.

Everything still goes in the dark green bag. But one of the pink lunch boxes, shaped like Hello Kitty, I keep.

About the Author: Jean Kim is a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C. She is working on her master’s degree in nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins University and has been a nonfiction fellow at The Writers’ Institute of The Graduate Center of CUNY (The City University of New York). She grew up in Columbia, Md., and now lives in Bethesda.

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