It’s been just over a week now that I heard the news about Peter Jennings’s passing. I knew he had developed lung cancer, but still it was shocking to lose him so soon after the announcement of his diagnosis only a few months ago. When I heard about the cancer back in spring, I wept at my desk and couldn’t keep my eyes dry all day, not with doom and despair, because I was confident that he’d fight it, but more because cancer is tough. I certainly cried last week when I found out that he had passed on to whatever glorious afterlife is in store for him. I’ve been getting many kind words from friends and family. Thank you to everyone for your concern. It was sad.
I debated about whether to even make mention of it here in this place where I wax on and on and on about food, because the subject of death is rather depressing and this is supposed to be about leading a delicious life. But after I thought about it for a few days, I realized that Peter’s passing is really a time to remember and celebrate the amazing, though too short, life that he led.
Do I sound like I’m talking about a dearly departed close friend? A family member even? No, I didn’t know Peter Jennings personally. I’ve never met him face-to-face, never even saw him from the nosebleed seats of a stadium in which he might have given a lecture. I doubt that Peter and I were ever physically within 1000 miles of each other. But how else do I write of the man who basically joined my family via a tiny glowing box every night at or around dinner time for almost all of my childhood? Peter Jennings on ABC World News Tonight was there with conservative white shirt and tie, perfectly combed and sprayed hair that stayed in the same style from decade to decade, and the deep voice that I could recognize as his even when I had my back turned to the television. He relayed to us the good, the bad, and the ugly of the world as the five of us sat safely around our beige formica-topped dinner table with a lazy Susan, slurping down linguine with white clam sauce out of a can. And kimchee.
As we listened to this, that, and the other news about the world from Peter Jennings, the anchorman himself served as example in a few of Dad’s dinner-time lectures. Subjects of these lectures were varied, and were repeated so many times through the course of my childhood (even now) that I can give them titles: The Rule of 72; Everything Comes from China; Idioms that no Child Would Ever Use but Will be Taught to us Anyway; and my favorite, the one that has many many sub-lectures that I might go into another day, You are in America.
It is this last one in which Peter Jennings came up a lot. When the focus was on speaking, Dad would reference Peter Jennings, saying that national newscasters speak perfect grammatical and structural English, and more importantly, without any accent, foreign, regional, or otherwise. Listen, you should sound just like Peter Jennings. Dad didn’t want his little Korean children to be thought of as third world immigrant kids (even though we were all born in the States). That is why our dog’s name was Buffy, so we could practice “f,” a sound that doesn’t exist in the Korean language. Neither does the “th” sound, so Dad’s insistence on saying thank you was not so much training in politeness rather than speech practice.
Peter was also an example of how we should present ourselves, which was really a hybrid lecture of You are in America and Dad T. Molloy’s Dress for Success. Classic and conservative, in a style-less style that was neither vintage nor too fashion forward, and would not hint, again, at any sort of ethnic or regional influences. No cowboy boots (we were living in San Antonio, Texas at the time). I didn’t get it – I ran around in izod shirts and OP shorts all the time. Sometimes a Gloria Vanderbilt skirt.
You are in America would often turn into a discussion of food, and Dad would caution us about eating weird foods, even as we sat there happily popping dduk bok-ki or gim-bahp (the Japanese call it futomaki) with our chopsticks. Aside from the usual weird foods that included berries from bushes and other poisonous things that could possibly be out on the streets, he warned us that Korean food, especially kimchee, stinks. We are Korean, so we like kimchee and don’t notice the smell at all, but non-Koreans would sense that stinky stench from a mile away. He never told us not to eat it, but he discouraged us from liking it so much. When we are old enough to have jobs, we should never ever take kimchee to the office for lunch or we would be fired! He told us to just eat like normal Americans. Not too stinky, not too spicy. Not sitting on the floor, not with the bowl or plate shoved right up under our chins, and certainly not with chopsticks. He would take us to Denny’s to make sure we knew how to sit up straight at the table, and bring small bites of spaghetti to our mouths with forks and knives. I don’t think Peter Jennings ever came up in these lectures, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if my Dad had told us that Peter Jennings ate steak with A-1 every night.
After I flew the home coop and landed here and there all over the West Coast in my post-college days, my evenings with Peter Jennings became few and far between. School and work life didn’t allow for sit-down dinners anymore, if dinner at all. It just became that bowl of Special K or scrambled egg whites with sriracha at 11 pm standing over the kitchen sink. And with the massive invasion of cable tv on my life, 0+2, 0+4 and 0+7 were rare combinations on the remote control. I became enamored of the FoodNetwork back when it actually had good shows, and CNN. All food, and all news, all the time.
But on a somewhat dewy morning in that seasonal limbo between vacation and Indian summers in L.A., the digitized ring tone of my cell phone twinkled. I almost ignored it, almost shoved it under my pillow to “snooze” for nine more minutes. It rang again, and when I realized that it was a phone call, I answered. It was my sister Jess, and within minutes, I was wrapped in my binkie sitting on the edge of the couch in her apartment up the street, my glasses with a three year old prescription because I had no time for contact lenses, watching the t
v screen in scary silence, the events of September 11.
It was Peter Jennings whom we watched. CNN, Fox News, every channel was broadcasting, but with such horrifying things unfolding before us, we chose to watch the man we trusted the most, the face that was most familiar to us. His steady voice, broken with emotion a few times. In such a frightening moment, it reminded me of the childhood when I felt safe and comfortable in the dining room with my own family. Peter Jennings was there on the tv, hours upon hours, slowly the mousse and spray fading, hair becoming ruffled, sleeves rolled up higher and higher with each hour, his tie loosened, and finally removed, he was there in my living room, dedicated to keeping us informed. I had no appetite that day. I didn’t eat. All I did was watch Peter Jennings and the news explode in bits and pieces all over the media. He was there for almost two days straight reporting the news, just as dedicated to his job, his work, the news, and to us, as he had been his whole life.
I’ll never forget the Rule of 72. I’ll never forget that even though Everything Comes from China, I am in America. I’ll never forget my family dinners with Peter Jennings there on the tv, and how much we trusted him to bring us the world in one hour.
Good Night, Peter Jennings. Rest in Peace.