Jane Pak, Beloved Mother, 1940-2021

I want to tell you about Jane Pak.

Jane Pak, 1984, giving me a Jane Pak look.

She loved libraries and schools and museums.

She loved Half Price Books and WQXR, New York’s classical music radio station. She thought the Dallas Theater Center’s productions of Little Women, Christmas Carol, and Twelfth Night were just fantastic.

She loved the broth of the dduk guk I made her. She loved the chicken broth I made, the richer the better. I’d load the stock pot with garlic, onions, scallions, daikon, leek, shallots. Over a teaspoon of salt – no skimping. Let it simmer for hours. Skim off the fat. Pull the meat and bones, strain out the vegetables. She loved loved loved it.

She had no poker face at all. In her childhood pictures, I see the same big, joyful smile and funny little dubious expressions that she made to the very end. You could read her like a book, her heart on her face.

Grade school picture of Jane Pak, maybe 1946 or 1947.

She loved good writing and close reading and careful editing. She was a huge supporter of student journalism and a meticulous editor of the publications of the various groups she volunteered for.

She would have loved this essay, but she’d think it could probably be shorter. She’d be right.

From the Oberlin College yearbook, 1962.

She was her high school’s valedictorian, went to Oberlin College, and taught middle school English. She kept learning throughout her life, taking a speech class, cooking classes, photography and film classes, Spanish classes. She read thousands of books and discussed hundreds of them with the multiple book clubs she belonged to for decades.

She was so interested in things.

She took us to the library so many times. She took us to so many museums. She took us to concerts and operas and plays. She took us to state and national parks. She took us to nature camps and museum workshops. Around 1979 or 1980, she took me to the community center where I played Dungeons & Dragons for the first time, just because she’d read about it and thought I might enjoy it. She took us everywhere.

She loved spending time with young children, marveling over how they learn each new thing. I have dozens of pictures of her literally getting on the same level as little kids, sitting or lying on the floor with them, reading, playing, gently guiding, teaching and watching, totally focused and present, entirely happy.

Her greatest joy during the pandemic was the weekly virtual book club she ran with her school-aged grandchildren. Eventually I joined to moderate a writing workshop, which she participated in alongside her grandkids, delighting in every role as grandparent, educator, fellow student, and peer.

She loved Scrabble. She loved to be exasperated when a child or grandchild would play a word she’d never heard of. And then she’d demand the definition, because if you’re going to play a word, you should know what it means.

She was a brilliant visual creator whose luminous black and white 35mm vérité photography has been a fundamental influence on my storytelling and aesthetic. Her framing and lighting and ability to capture a subtle, intimate moment were stunning. She was a storyteller, shooting in sequence to establish scenes, move in close, follow action and emotion, document place and time and character.

Photo of me by Jane Pak, circa 1971.

The thousands of photos she shot over the decades are a tremendous comfort. They show her intense curiosity, her delight in so many different aspects of the world, and the joy she took in her primary subjects – her children, husband, and extended family – and the love we shared with her. Her own character shines in her photographs of her children inspecting things, poking through dirt and sand and logs, peering under rocks. She taught us to look closely, to discover for ourselves, to be curious and fearless in learning. And there she is behind the camera looking closely, discovering us as we discover the world, documenting it all with patience and quiet joy.

Monahans State Park, photographed by Jane Pak, circa 1980.

Even into her seventies, she took awesome pictures of interesting bugs.

An awesome picture of an interesting bug, photographed by Jane Pak in 2012.

She thought coloring books were awful. Instead, she bought us blank paper and crayons. She was my collaborator on the first comic book I ever wrote. I drew pictures of Superman naming things that start with “S,” a rip off of a Sesame Street interstitial, and she wrote the captions for me. I might have been three or four. She stapled the pages together to make a book and saved it for decades, along with dozens of my other drawings.

She loved a slice-of-life short story I wrote in 11th grade, “Mary Loves Her Boy.” She wasn’t a huge fan of fantasy or science fiction. But she thought Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine was tremendous and bought me a giant collection of Bradbury short stories for my birthday when I was twelve. I can’t remember her saying much about the comics I wrote. But she loved going to comic shops and telling the folks who worked there that she was my mom. She loved hearing me talk about the process of making comics and kept a whole binder of her notes on Persepolis and a box under her desk crammed with newspaper articles about graphic novels.

Her favorite thing that I wrote as an adult was an essay for Poetry magazine about the gifts poetry has given me. I’m so glad I wrote it, so glad she read it, so glad it gave her such joy.

She was so proud of the accomplishments of her children and grandchildren. But she was most intensely proud when she saw a kindness, a care for others, especially when expressed by small children.

She cared about people. She cared about the world we share and how we share it. She cared about the rights of individuals and the responsibilities of individuals to the group. She spent countless hours volunteering for Camp Fire, the League of Women Voters, the Gloria Shields Journalism Workshop, and many other groups. She thought we should help each other.

A framed poster on Jane Pak’s desk.

If you’ve ever benefitted from the community, political, or fundraising work I’ve done, you can thank Jane Pak. If you’ve ever benefitted from a shared undertaking or act of kindness or any kind of altruism from me, you can thank Jane Pak.

She liked certain things to be done in very specific ways. She was a tremendously good sport about being teased about it. But she was usually right. She had strong opinions about the best route to take to get anywhere in the city. Once when I was driving back to the hospital, I used Google Maps instead of following her instructions, ended up at the wrong entrance, and sat in the car laughing at myself. Jane Pak knew what was what.

She had a generally poor opinion of takeout food and preferred meals cooked by herself or one of her children. Except sushi. She loved sushi.

She was born at the end of the Great Depression and loved to clip coupons and find good deals. She loved the Staples clearance section. She was obsessed with boxes. Could never part with a good one. There are pristine boxes still in the house from computers bought, used, and recycled twenty years ago. Some of those good boxes are filled with other good boxes. She saved dozens, maybe hundreds of empty spice bottles. It’s entirely possible she never threw one out.

She used phrases like “Jeez Louise!” and “For Pete’s sake!” She swore with real curse words infrequently, and it was either harrowing or hilarious.

She thought of herself as a shy and reserved person, which I thought was astounding, because she was the one who opened the circle, who made people welcome, who smoothed and guided and kindled thousands upon thousands of positive interactions. She loved conversation. She loved to listen and talk. She loved to think and grapple with new ideas. She loved to laugh, even through tears.

She loved the Wordsworth poem “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” She quoted the key phrase to me as “trailing streams of glory.” We looked it up and saw it was “trailing clouds of glory.” But her edit was great. I’ll forever see those clouds as glorious streams across the sky.

Jane Pak was trailing clouds of glory her whole life. I told her that near the end, and she said “That’s children,” and she was right, because Wordsworth is talking about kids in that passage. And I said yes. And it’s you. That’s what you did your whole life. And she pursed her lips in a dubious smile.

I haven’t read that whole poem. Just the section with the quote. I’m not ready for the whole thing yet.

I had so much time with her. I’m so lucky. I know. Incredibly lucky. So many moments and hours and days over a lifetime. I told her that I’ve known her longer than anyone else in the world, and she smiled that Jane Pak smile. I loved her with all my heart and I know she loved me the same way. But I want more. I want more. I want more.

Donations can be made in Jane Pak’s honor to the Preston Royal Library Friends, c/o Preston Royal Library, 5652 Royal Lane, Dallas, TX 75229. In the memo section of the check, please indicate “In memory of Jane Pak for children’s educational programming.”

My mom and me, 1968.
My mom and me, 2014.