All because I clicked the shutter at that precise moment. For an eternity, the sun casts shadows that accentuate the angles hidden beneath the baby-soft curves—almond eyes, sharp cheekbones, a refined nose, and a strong, square jaw.
An old artifact that belonged to your father—your great-aunt’s Fuji camera—snapped a frame, this moment, in our history.
Let me explain: the summer you were almost four and I was twenty-six, we returned from Korea for a month—we’d been gone a year. Most memories of that time have vanished, but this photo conjures the dry heat of that day, the slimy mud because the water was so low we had to walk out past the sand into the algae riddled murk to get our feet wet.
With this relic from your father’s past, I captured an image of reunion with our Canadian family. It seems commonplace—you smile up at me and I snap the picture. Twenty years later, I will begin to make connections between the obscure facts and the shades of grey in this snapshot. The fact that we were all there at that beach with your great-aunt’s Fuji camera is remarkable.
It was a hot, sunny day, so Granny drove us from her yellow house in Swift Current to the Landing. I still wasn’t well—my lung removed six weeks before we left for Korea. This photo is a reminder that your sturdy little body, your handsome face smiling up beneath the fisherman’s hat embroidered with colourful insects around the band at the brim is what saved me. You clutch the driftwood in your firm grip the way you held my hand and dragged me along each time I was too exhausted to continue.
In retrospect, recording a bit of our history with a piece of your father’s history is marvelous. Your father knew nothing about the camera, so he asked your halmonie. She told me its story, and, in translating, your father learned about his family’s history. I’m sure by now he has forgotten, and he isn’t here to ask.
The photo is all that remains of that day at the beach when you were almost four. You grin up at me—a smile much like mine, a twinkle in your black half-moon eyes much like your father’s—the epitome of strength and beauty. Much like your great-aunt must have clutched the Fuji camera when she journeyed from Japan to Korea once the Americans jumped in to save them, you clutch the piece of driftwood we found on the shore at the beach. The angle of the sun accentuates the rounded muscles flexed at your shoulders and the small hollow between your pectorals. This photo of you on the beach when you are almost four is a premonition. It is as though, in snapping this picture, I recorded an image of the man you grew up to be.
Me—holding the camera your great-aunt rescued—struggling to breathe as I snap this photo.
Zoom in on your arm clutching the driftwood in the photo. Near your wrist, inner elbow and armpit, the skin is less smooth. Tiny bumps rise up as though your epidermis is rebelling against the fungus in the damp sand. Granny, your cousin and I are gathered around you beyond the camera’s lens, blind to the suffering this day at the beach will cause you. Had I noticed your skin’s reaction as I capture you in the frame, it would already have been be too late to stop the events from unfolding.
One of the most difficult tasks asked of a mother is to stand by while her child suffers. It is worse when there is little to alleviate her child’s discomfort. My heart goes out to your jinju halmonie—imagine raising and hiding your children on the enemy’s countryside, the possibility of capture and torture lurking in every shadow.
We came to the beach on a blazing day in July to celebrate our togetherness, not for a photo shoot. It is coincidence that I load your great-aunt’s camera with black-and-white film I spotted at the pharmacy, chance that you stand at an optimal angle to the sun, and luck that I click the shutter as you beam into the lens.
We build sandcastles and picnic on the muddy beach, feeding bread crusts to greedy sea gulls. After we bury Granny in the sand, you and Luc chase the whitecaps breaking against the beach. Granny and I collapse onto brightly coloured beach towels, grind our calloused heels into the sand, basking in the sunshine and the thrill of our closeness on this beach. We are unaware that this day will result in the most formidable eczema outbreak of your life
The next morning, we travel to Saskatoon by bus. You, unusually grumpy and tired, squirm against the stale upholstery and fitfully nap against my shoulder. When you start scratching, I investigate, and my stomach summersaults. Your half-moon eyes shrink into crescent moons and violent hives spread like flames across your body. There is nothing I can do but hold your hands to stop you from scratching until we arrive in Saskatoon.
It is hard for me to scrutinize the raised patches of skin in your photo. Imagine Granny, standing somewhere behind us on the beach, watching me capture your smile in the photograph. Rewind to a year earlier, when she was forced to stand by while I struggled to breathe. Picture her pacing the narrow antiseptic aisles of the waiting room while she waited to see if I’d survive surgery. She must have ached as she dropped us off at the airport six weeks later. She must have suffered watching us disappear into the sky.
We control little about our children’s health—and in dire circumstances, little we can do about their well-being. Imagine Granny watching her child struggle to breathe as forty-four staples hold me together at the seams. Imagine Jinju-Halmonie praying her daughter will make it to safety, the Fuji camera tucked safely in her bag, fifty years before this photo.