16 Feb The Lady Vanishes!

Mrs. Park, the widowed Korean lady who did my laundry, has disappeared, her shop shuttered since September, the store emptied, a “closed” sign in the window. For nearly 20 years, ever since I moved to Baltimore, I’ve been taking my laundry to her. Even after I moved out of the neighborhood, I kept going to her because she did good work, she was pleasant, and I’m a loyal customer.

Every time I went in, she’d grin and say, “Oh, best customer!” Then she’d ask me how I was. Then: “Your wife‚Ķ.?” And she’d nod knowingly, her eyebrows raised in expectation of the good news I never delivered. She seemed desperately hopeful that Jill and I would have a baby. For a woman of her generation (she’s about 75), children–the family–are everything. She would tell me about her grown children and her grandchildren. I’d ooo! and ah! at her snapshots.

Jill and I chose not to have children for many reasons. We don’t regret that decision. Still, I didn’t want to disappoint Mrs. Park, and so I didn’t tell her that Jill and I would never have a baby, that we’ve put our energies and interests elsewhere. It just seemed easier not to get into it. As a result, I’m afraid that Mrs. Park pitied me, thinking, Poor man! What is life without children?

Mrs. Park was in very good health, wiry and quick-moving. I doubt that she has fallen ill or worse. Seven years ago, somebody robbed her in the shop, then shoved her to the floor. She was lucky she broke no bones. I thought for sure she’d retire after that. But she came back the next week, angry at the robber and determined to stay put. On his way out, the robber had wrenched the door off its hinges. It was never the same after that. Each time I walked into the shop, I noticed how the door wouldn’t shut right and I wondered if Mrs. Park thought of the robber when she struggled to shut the now-stubborn door.

Last September, she announced that her daughter and husband had invited her to stay with them in Colorado for a month. She had visited her children many times (she has a son in California) and, on several occasions, had closed the store for as long as two weeks. But she had never cleared out the store, as she was doing this time. I wondered if her daughter had asked her to do this, if this was a scheme to disengage her mother from her beloved business. I imagined that, once Mrs. Park was in Colorado, her daughter would convince her to stay–for the sake of the grandchildren. How could grandma resist?

Mrs. Park betrayed no suspicions of her own. She promised that she’d return on Oct. 14 to resume business. But October came and went and the store remained closed. I drove by every week for two months and then, finally, I admitted to myself that my Korean friend was not returning. Her daughter’s plan had worked. No doubt, Mrs. Park has a nice room in her daughter’s house–and her daughter has a 24/7 baby-sitter, not to mention an energetic seamstress and homemaker. Am I being uncharitable?

I must confess, I worried about Mrs. Park. How long could she have kept on in that little shop? Her two grandchildren will keep her plenty busy. She’ll cook for the family and treat them to traditional delights and everyone’s life will be richer for it. And, at last, Mrs. Park will have better things to worry about than whether or not her customers have children of their own.