To be the wife of the eldest son in a Korean family is a life sentence of domestic labor, above and beyond the wives of lesser ranked sons.
It’s not a role to be taken lightly.
The eldest son’s house is where all of the family events take place.
One of the responsibilities of the eldest son is to hold Jesa on the death anniversary for generations of elders.
This tradition of honoring the dead includes a huge feast, which the wife of the eldest son is expected to prepare.
As a child, I just remember feeling different for having these customs. What would people think if they found out? What did our neighbors think when we propped the door open to let the spirits in?
Jesa was also a huge burden for my mother to do all of the cooking. Other members of the family would often arrive when the preparation was complete.
It just seemed like an unnecessary chore.
But my father took Jesa very seriously.
He is the only son of the family and he fully embraces his eldest son responsibilities without hesitation.
Normally a very jovial father, he’d become solemn, as he’d peel the chestnuts and carve the boiled eggs.
Jesa was around a dozen times a year (including Charae- which has a different name because it is not during the death anniversaries but during the holidays).
Some months, there would be overlap and my mother would have to cook two feasts.
I have been a part of almost a hundred Jesa's in my lifetime.
And all the while, I thought we were sacrificing something of ourselves to honor the dead. Taking time out of our busy lives to remember them. An inconvenience. But in actuality, we were the beneficiaries of the tradition.
The wisdom of our ancestors, that created the tradition, only dawned on me recently.
If left to our own devices, how many of us would come together as a family to share a meal? Or remember ancestors that have passed?
Jesa, is for the living. For the living to remember to live and appreciate family.
All those Jesa memories of food and family- they have become a part of me.