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Credit: Courtesy of Gregory Han

This Bull Horn Ship Model Reminds Me Of My Father’s Memory and My Mom’s Sacrifice

published Aug 4, 2020
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Twenty stories of objects and areas in people’s homes that nourish their souls more than their social feeds. Read them all here throughout August.

In my home office today sits a model ship made of bull horn, a mid-century design that’s more tchotchke than heirloom. Despite its unassuming appearance, I consider it possibly the most valuable item in my possession.

The nautical model once belonged to my father—something originating from his life before marriage and children. Fashioned after a clipper ship and made with four brass masts festooned with sails carved from cow horn, there’s nothing particularly special about the ship beyond novelty. Despite its vintage pedigree, similar designs are commonly found in antique malls, thrift stores, or online for around $30. I would consider its desirability as a decorative object practically non-existent today.

When I was very young my dad kept this ship behind glass, locked away from his son who only saw the temptation of a plaything. When I was old enough to comprehend the notion of “look, but don’t touch,” he’d move it to the top of his bookshelf—purposely stationed in view, yet always kept tantalizingly out of reach. And for decades it sat prominently over his sea of books, its masts threatening to touch the ceiling, amongst books about philosophy, art history, literature, political science, and even an unassuming copy of “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)” which I would furtively revisit at every given opportunity (*because I was afraid to ask).

When my father died in 2000, he left little in the way of personal effects. A sketchbook of drawings and a handful of photos offering glimpses of his life in Korea before immigrating to the United States in the 1950s. A collection of well used fishing gear. Pickle jars crammed with matchbooks chronicling long-shuttered coffee shops and greasy spoons frequented across decades during his time as a corporate expeditor. An overstuffed wallet with photos of his family. There was also a closet lined with crisply pressed suits with banners of wide paisley ties, silently awaiting a return that was to never be. My sister would take some of these things for her own, I’d take a single suit to adopt his look as my own, while my mom donated almost everything else, so painful was the memory of his absence. But she kept the ship.

Credit: Courtesy of Gregory Han

For years after, I would regularly ask her if she’d let me have the ship. It was the only possession of my father’s I’d ever ask about. She never relented. For a long while I wasn’t able to acknowledge how my mom harbored her own memories and attachments with the curio, and my requests were often met with annoyed resistance. After a decade of asking, I would eventually give up.

Then a few years ago, while helping my mom KonMari her home, with little warning or ceremony my mom brought out the ship and handed it to me.

“It’s time for you to have it.”

We didn’t say much afterward, the gesture sufficient enough to communicate I had earned an inheritance of memory, the wind in our sails blowing in the same direction.