The best thing I did all week was attend the funeral of Chong Wright. Chong and her husband, Wilbur, attended our church. Wilbur, a once tall soldier in the US army is now slightly stooped, his shoulders humbly sloping toward the earth. His Korean bride of fifty-one years, Chong, was tiny. Her legs were slightly bowed. Her sweaters, hand knitted and pastel pink, always bunched up on her small frame. The two of them would hold hands and hobble along.
Whenever Chong saw me, her eyes would light up. We would greet each other and have a short little conversations. English wasn’t the language of her heart but she made such an effort, in tiny sound bites, to communicate. What she couldn’t speak with her mouth she shouted with her eyes. They were always bright and welcoming. She looked into you and you knew she was happy to see you.
On Monday morning I read the notice of her death and the announcement that a memorial service would be held that very afternoon at a funeral home just around the corner from us. I wanted to go to tell her husband and their one child, Mary, what a bright spot their loved one was. I wanted them to know she would be missed.
Maybe thirty people gathered in the funeral home’s chapel. The strains of a recorded piano playing, Edelweiss, wafted over the group as we waited quietly in the pews. There were several pictures of Chong on the front table framing a large bouquet of pink and white flowers. Chong and Wilbur—at their wedding, while stationed in Germany, with their daughter, with their grandsons.
During the service I learned more about Chong than I had ever known. Chong Wright was born in Sinuichu, Korea on December 26th, 1940. When she was still quite young both her parents died. She then went to live with her grandmother. At the start of the Korean War, when she was ten years old, they fled, as refugees from North Korea to the safer South. Her grandmother died when Chong was thirteen years old and she went to live with an uncle and his family. Three years later, when she was sixteen, she enrolled in beauty school. Using her own resources she trained to become a beautician.
On September 8, 1964 Chong and Wilbur were married. Not all of Chong’s family was supportive of her marrying an American soldier. One family member told her that if she married Mr Wright, she’d be so poor they wouldn’t even be able to afford toilet paper. This began a personal commitment to paper products! Chong’s daughter, Mary, said that they always had great stockpiles of toilet paper, paper towels, and paper napkins. Long after Mary had married and had children of her own, Chong continued to supply them with paper products!
Wilbur and Chong were stationed in many places before coming to Fort Riley, Kansas. That’s where they were stationed when Wilbur retired from the Army life.
Whatever Chong did she worked hard at it. She was frugal and managed to pay off two homes and two cars. She was generous and good hearted. She was a good mother and a devoted grandmother. Both grandsons spoke of her generosity to them. On Thursdays she gave them money. They played games with the boys. They attended every band concert, school play, choir concert, musical. If the boys were there, so were Wilbur and Chong.
Last December there was a band concert at the mall. The seating was insufficient. I had gone early to save seats for our family. Just in front of me I saw Chong and Wilbur saving seats for their family too. At one point Chong turned and saw me. Her entire face lit up in recognition. She bobbed her head in greeting, her eyes beaming.
Chong Wright’s circle was small. There weren’t a lot of people at the funeral and many that were there came because of love and friendship with her daughter, Mary and her family. It might be easy to dismiss the significance of a person like Chong Wright—unknown, an immigrant, she couldn’t speak English very well. But Chong made a difference in the lives she touched. Her life mattered. Her circle wasn’t large but it was deep. She lived with integrity. She loved well. She made an effort to connect in the ways she knew how—playing with a baby, greeting those she knew, giving to her family. She was loyal and faithful until the very end.
It was such a profound moment for me. I have this relentless longing for a larger world. I want to go places, meet people. I want to make a difference. I want to have a global impact. But here was Chong– Her world, at the end, might have been little and yet her impact was undeniable. She will leave a large hole in the stories of her grandsons, her daughter, her son-in-law, the few at church she smiled at. Her life mattered. The breadth of her experiences, the suffering she had endured, the places she had traveled–for being a person of small stature she lived a large life and then settled into a small space. And she did so with grace.
I would do well to live…and die…..like Chong Wright.