You always knew when she was somewhere up ahead. Traffic would be crawling at a snails pace and there would be a lot of cussing and horn blowing. Yet… the cussing was rarely directed at her nor was the horn blowing. It was at any “newbie” drivers who seemed to be getting frustrated at her slow progress and didn’t understand why this old woman was allowed such a free rein on the roads.
She had to have been at least 80 years old. This tiny Korean woman was as much a part of the bases family as any soldier. Nobody seemed to know if she was somebodies mama-san or housekeeper or just one of the many Koreans who had come here years before and become forgotten.
She didn’t seem to understand or care that the sidewalks were for human traffic and the roads for vehicles. She walked straight down the middle of the lane of traffic that was heading in the direction she was going, pushing her heavy beat up shopping cart in front of her. When there was a stop sign, she would stand there as if she too were a car, waiting for her turn to go. If a light turned red before she could finish crossing, she would simply stand in the middle of the road and wait as traffic would carefully go around her, soldiers greeting her with “hi mama-san; how are you today?” as they passed, most handing her folded up money or a small sack of groceries they had bought for just this purpose. Periodically she would just stop and sit down in the road to rest.
Inevitably, when she would sit down, the driver stuck behind her would offer to give her a lift to wherever she was going. Her response never varied. She would stand up, brush herself off with an inate dignity few humans can match and would wave both hands disdainfully at the offer saying, “go way marykin; go way. I walk goodly.”
Yet in her cart, sticking out, was a faded American Flag wrapped in plastic. If it rained, she would quickly pull it out and protect it under her clothing, hunched over to make sure no water hit her obviously precious burden.
At 5pm, every night, all traffic would come to a standstill as evening reveille was blown and the flags were taken down for the night. Soldiers all over base would get out of their cars or come to a standstill wherever they were and salute until it was done. Mama-san was no exception but her routine was known to have brought more than one soldier to tears.
Every night, as the sounds wafted through the air, she would get out her flag and lay it gently on the top of the shopping cart. She would then stand as straight as her aged body would let her and raise a trembling hand to her forehead in a salute as tears streamed down her face and the other hand softly stroked her plastic wrapped treasure. When it was over, she would tuck her flag back into place, wipe her eyes and continue her seemingly never ending walk.
She was found dead one day, flag in her arms, sitting upright in front of the Post Exchange when the staff got there in the morning. There were no identifying papers found in her cart or on her person. The soldiers of the base created a fund to give her a funeral and a proper burial. At her funeral, it was standing room only for this little old Korean lady known only as mama-san. Her dignity and her love for what was assumed was some long dead American soldier had won her a spot in the hearts of an entire military base. In a cemetery in Mannheim Germany is a tombstone that simply says “Mama-San; she was one of ours”
She has a place in my memory today, over twenty years later. Rest in peace mama san.
Have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend. To all the people out there who have lost a loved one because they willingly served our country, thank you for YOUR sacrifices. God Bless.