The Scholar Grocer

When I was in elementary school, my jolly Appa, or father in Korean, would hold my hand and walk me to the sunny, cracked sidewalk school bus stop. He hummed Sinatra’s “Nancy” or imparted peculiar wisdom to my fresh mind. One such piece of advice he gave me as he lit a cigarette and blew the fumes in the opposite direction:
Save everything.
He certainly followed his own advice. The walls of our apartment are covered in National Geographic feature spreads of awe-inspiring facts condensed into 12” by 14” displays. And although my parents are Korean immigrants who run a grocery store in Brooklyn, my father kept a slew of books on philosophy and history in their bedroom, the living room, and even the closet, each one containing tidbits of personal thought between the black-inked lines. When I was not helping Appa at the cash register, I tried reading his saved newspaper clippings. Yet my 4-foot-3-self had trouble resolving my father’s philosophy with the “Recycle Your Trash!” logos placed conspicuously near the store’s garbage cans. Do I save or recycle? That was the question!
But I began to understand Appa’s urges soon after, when I wrote my first story. It was written on lined yellow paper, and the cast of characters was an amalgam of people and animals from Charlotte’s Web, Anastasia, and Star Trek/Wars (I was not sure what the difference between Trek and Wars was back then…shamefully). Charlotte wants to steal Anastasia away to protect her from the evil intentions of the Russian dynasty, yet finds that she has misunderstood. Angered by the misunderstanding, the family sends in big starships from Star Trek/Wars to eliminate Charlotte and take back their princess!
I folded the yellow paper carefully and placed it in a Ziploc bag, to seal it for freshness. I imagined that years later someone would open the bag and be delighted to find a fresh story inside. But a few days later, I walked into the kitchen to find the garbage bag in my mother’s left hand and the Ziploc bag in her right.
“Nan-shee, do you need this?”
Thinking the worst was about to happen, I jumped forward to grab the Ziploc bag from her hands with a tugging in my throat.
“No…you don’t need this?”
“No! I don’t not need it! Please don’t throw it away! I need it! I made it!”
This was the first time I can remember feeling such indignation. The value of the Ziploc bag was in the ink pressed hard into the pages to form letters, sentences, thoughts. The Ziploc bag represented time: the time I had taken to write it, a time of the past that was preserved forever. Save everything.
Months after I turned fifteen, my Appa died of a brain aneurysm. My reflex was to grab him back from whatever greater force had taken him, but this time that tugging feeling in my throat told me I could only save so much. More than any of his material belongings—golf balls, books, his handwriting—I treasure Appa’s ideas. My quest is one of knowledge and of communication. I am more determined than ever to preserve the thoughts and characters that make individuals so different yet hold them together in humanity.
Hey, Proust and his madeleines had a point. There still exists a sharp consciousness of my childhood memory when I open a Ziploc bag and the breeze through the kitchen window is just so and my breathing heaves with that intangible, ever familiar feeling of growing up.
In memories lies the importance of human connection. Without them, ideas are monochromatic and the world is unmoving; there is only now and no history. But with memories, we plant our feet on the shoulders of giants, working to our passions so that our shoulders are ready too.
Save everything.
Indeed: Stories are best sealed fresh. But open the Ziploc bag often! It took one giant-shouldered scholar-grocer to teach me that.

Nancy Ko, Age 17 Grade 12, Stuyvesant High School, Honorable Mention

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