Last week for my 50th birthday, I took on a personal project. On my birthday, I took a vacation day and visited several of the important locations from my past. For three hours, I visited my old homes, schools, churches and other important places.
I was flooded with memories at each locale. Most made me smile. Some brought tears. And a few made me cringe. All of these memories formed a mental tapestry that I’m still enjoying.
As I’ve reflected on this experience, I’m aware of three very vibrant threads woven into the tapestry. While my reflections aren’t profound or earth-shaking, they are very dear to me.
The first thread is love. Each location brought strong memories of being loved. Love fills my first memories all the way through to my present experiences. My parents were a source of constant love. Even though they had very little money, they loved my brother and me in generous and sacrificial ways.
I remember my mom spending long hours preparing homemade spaghetti or fried chicken. These meals mean even more to me knowing that as a Korean woman, she learned to prepare these meals in order to give my brother and me an “American” upbringing. I remember the occasional trips to McDonalds or Pompeii Pizza for special meals, even though we couldn’t afford them. I remember my special gifts like my first watch, my model train set, my telescope and my microscope. There are so many tangible memories of my parents’ love, that I risk boring you with too much.
I also remember the love of my small extended family. I have distinct memories as a little boy of my grandma taking me to a little diner for lunch. Even now, I can remember the aroma of burgers and sitting at the counter with her. I remember my grandpa buttering my toast for breakfast when I slept over. And as a new father, I remember him tenderly holding my babies.
My parents, grandparents, and aunt and uncle would gather weekly for game nights while my cousins, my brother and I would play together or watch TV. The adults would have bowls of chips and us kids would get one large bowl to share together. Our small extended family gathered regularly for birthdays, and every Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas to eat, laugh and celebrate each other.
I also remember a couple of special teachers at Temple Elementary School — Mrs. Haraguchi and Mrs. Roeneke — whose care still brings fond memories decades later. I remember various swim coaches— Bob Mount, Kevin Reynolds, Mike Gautreau and Ed Spencer — who believed in me and challenged me to excel. I remember good neighbors throughout my life like the Reyes, the Yamadas, the Hardwicks, and many others. I remember so many members of the various churches I worked at — the Azusa First Baptist, the San Gabriel Valley Japanese Christian Church and the Glendora Vineyard — who generously loved my family in both small and great ways. I remember the members of our small faith community in Mark and Barbara’s home that constantly expressed their love — Mark, Barbara, Gary, Anne, Jennifer, Angela, David, Alan, Maribeth, Carol and others.
And for the last 27 years, I have been loved by the most amazing woman in the world. It takes a very special woman to join her life to a 22-year old boy trying to finish college with the hope of being a pastor and potentially poor the rest of his life. Yet she did and demonstrates her love to me and our kids virtually everyone moment of the day.
I am overwhelmed with the amount of people who have loved me and my family over the years. It’s absolutely amazing that God would surround me with such amazing people.
The second thread is loss. Time, by its very nature, brings change and loss. Each of the places I visited are now just memories because the people and, in some cases, the places are gone. For example, Industry Hills Aquatics Club, where I spent most of my free time training as a swimmer, has been completely razed to the ground. What was once a beautiful swimming facility filled with young dreams and hopes for excellence is nothing but a dirt field.
I felt loss as I visited my parents’ homes in La Puente and West Covina and experienced volumes of memories with my parents and brother. Even after all these years, it still seems weird that strangers are living in my homes.
I felt loss at my parents’ pizza parlor, Marvel Pizza, where they served pizza and Korean food. My parents poured their energy and hope into this small business. It garnered a small following, but not enough to remain a viable business. Now it’s an empty space in a strip mall waiting to be leased by a new generation of hopeful business owners.
I especially felt deep loss when I visited my grandparents’ home. Their home was my first home. My mom immigrated from Korea a week before my birth. She and I lived in my grandparent’s home until my dad returned from his military service and bought their own first home. My grandparents’ home was a part of my life for almost 50 years. I have so many memories of overnighters, holiday dinners, and family game nights. When my grandpa died in 2001, the extended family gatherings began to diminish. By the time my grandma died in 2014, they were virtually nonexistent. My dad and aunt sold my grandparents’ home in 2015. As I stood in front of their home, strange cars in the driveway, I was deeply saddened that this part of my life is forever gone.
And I felt crushing loss standing before my Glendora home, where Debbie and I spent almost 20 years raising our family.
There have been many other losses. At fifty, the wounds seem more tender than before.
The third thread is faith. As I visited my different homes, I was staggered by the memories of faith. I didn’t become a Christian until high school. But even at the home where I lived as a young boy, I remembered moments of faith, even if they were someone else’s. I remembered my great-grandma, who prayed for me and hand-crafted simple gifts of God’s love. I didn’t appreciate this as a child, but cherish it now as an adult.
I remember as a young elementary school boy contemplating the reality of death and weeping at its sheer finality. Even at a young age, that was the catalyst in my personal journey to find that Something or Someone out there.
As a young teenager, I remember attending a Southern Baptist Church because my mom felt a Christian training would be helpful. I remember hearing for the very first time that Jesus was returning and we needed to be ready. While I didn’t fully understand it or the implications to my life, I knew at that moment that Jesus was real and I needed to respond to him. Thus began a several year journey of discovering Jesus and finally giving him my life.
As a young husband and father, I remember Debbie and I trusting God for the most basic things. We learned to trust him for finances to make it through the month or to pay for repairs on our car. I remember a harrowing episode as a parent of two little children without insurance. Catherine was only a couple years old and had been coughing terribly. We went to a local clinic where the doctor informed us that she had bronchitis and was on the verge of pneumonia. We couldn’t afford any medicine, so they gave us a handful of samples to give to her. In that dark vulnerable moment, all we had was faith and the goodwill of strangers.
I remember when our growing family needing a larger car. Debbie, who led our family in faith, kept praying. And someone at church approached us to give us a van.
As I visited each home, I was flooded with memories of trusting God for finances, health, jobs, tuition, relationships and other aspects of daily living.
These memories made me examine my current faith, which seems to be just a shade of its former self. Not that it was that great before. But there’s something… missing. And I’m not quite sure what it is.
Even though this post has gone on longer than necessary, it’s only a sampling of fifty years of memories — memories of love, loss and faith. And woven through this tapestry is another thread — God’s faithfulness throughout my life. I have lived a good life, a blessed life, an undeserved life. I don’t know why I’m fortunate to have this life while others have so much pain and tragedy. But I am grateful beyond words. And these memories stoke my heart to worship God and to become a better person.