Mother Didn't Speak to Me for Five Years…
An extraordinary woman struggles with her estranged
relationship with her mother. An excerpt from author John Cha’s
Willow Tree Shade: The Susan Ahn Cuddy Story.
Susan Ahn Cuddy was born in Los Angeles in 1915 to Dosan Ahn Chang
Ho, probably the most respected and well-known man in all of Korea and
within Korean communities in the United States and around the world.
Because of his lifetime work for the freedom and for the independence
of Korea from the Japanese, Dosan is equated with leaders like George
Washington, Sun Yat Sen, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi.
When World War II came Susan joined the U.S. Navy because she wanted
to fight the Japanese war machine, the same military empire that had
imprisoned her father and eventually killed him. She became the first
Asian American woman officer in the Navy and distinguished herself as
the first woman gunnery officer in the history of the U.S. Navy. As
a gunnery officer, she taught the Navy and Royal Air Force fighter pilots
aerial battle tactics.
From there she went on to the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington,
D.C., where she met and married Francis Cuddy, fellow Naval Intelligence
analyst. Her marriage to a non-Korean man mortified her mother, who
would not speak to Susan for five years. In the meantime Susan moved
on to work at the National Security Agency (NSA) as an intelligence
analyst and then section chief of CREF (Central Reference Section),
supervising 300 linguists and experts on Russia.
She retired from the NSA in 1959 and went home to Los Angeles to work
with her siblings in the family restaurant called “Phil Ahn’s
Moongate.” Moongate was frequented by Hollywood stars like Frank
Sinatra and Marlon Brando, friends of Susan’s brother Philip who
was also a well-known movie actor.
But Moongate was also a gathering center for the Korean community,
where Susan began her work of collecting and organizing her father’s
papers and memorabilia, about 6,000 items in all. The family donated
the papers to the Korean government to the delight of the Korean scholars
and historians. In the process, Susan Ahn became reacquainted with her
heritage and became a historic bridge between past and present generations.
The following is an excerpt from John Cha’s narrative biography
Willow Tree Shade: The Susan Ahn Cuddy Story (Korean American Heritage
Not too many people knew about their marriage, only a handful of people
from Arlington Hall on Susan’s side and a few Navy buddies on
Frank’s side, along with Frank’s family. No one from Susan’s
family was at the simple wedding ceremony in the Navy chapel. They had
applied for a civil ceremony in Virginia only to find out that interracial
marriage was illegal in that state. Up until then they hadn’t
considered themselves an interracial couple, just a couple in love and
nothing else and no arcane law was going to dim their rosy glow. They
researched and found out that Washington, D.C. had no such ludicrous
and racist law, and well, why not ask the chaplain at the Navy Building?
The chaplain was delighted to do it, and they were married on April
25, 1947. Susan’s boss gave her away.
Susan didn’t tell her family anything. She knew that Mother would
adamantly oppose the marriage because Frank was not Korean. Mom was
stubborn that way. Her brothers would be only slightly more thrilled
than Mom, but for different reasons. Judging by Philip’s reaction
to Frank, her brothers and Frank weren’t going to become the best
of friends. All she could hope for was that they tolerate each other,
that was all, and she didn’t foresee much support for the marriage
from her brothers either. Just as she had kept her Navy enlistment secret
from her family, Susan kept her marriage under wraps. She wasn’t
concerned about whether she was doing the right thing or not according
to Korean tradition. She was more concerned whether she was doing the
right thing with her own life: she was convinced that Frank was the
right man for her and vice versa. No matter what tradition called for
there wasn’t a Korean man alive whom she’d like to begin
and spend her life with. She tried to think of Korean men in romantic
terms, but she couldn’t. To her, Korean men were more like young
uncles, brothers, comrades, friends, or pals whom she grew up and played
with. She liked the same food that they did, and she shared the same
background and concerns but that’s as far as it went. If there
were anyone like Philip—tall, handsome and suave like him—it
would have been a different story. But alas, there was no one like Philip.
Moreover, her love for the Navy and those in it precluded other men
from the running.
By the time Mother got wind of the budding romance between Frank and
Susan and rode the train across the country to Virginia to dissuade
Susan from marrying Frank, they were already married. During the time
Mother stayed with Susan at her Wayne Street apartment, she tried to
persuade Susan to give up the marriage. In her quiet, stubborn way,
Mother spoke of the difference in cultures, the inherent incompatibility
invisible to young lovers: You will see it later. When the fire dies
down, you are left with who you are and who he is and you haven’t
had a chance to see who you really are. Susan understood everything
Mother was saying and she did not present an argument. Susan remained
demure, only to remind Mother about the time when Professor Paul Pfaff,
then a USC student, had walked by their 37th Street house and Susan
had told Mother that “I’m going to marry a tall, handsome
man just like that.” That was just an infatuation of a young girl,
Mom argued. You are not a young girl, you are a grown woman who has
served the country in the War and now you are talking like a young girl.
Frank wasn’t about to face the music. The big, gentle-hearted
Navy boxer was no match for the tiny, determined woman. She was far
more formidable to him than the Virginia law prohibiting interracial
marriage and he stayed away at his home in Washington, D.C. during Mom’s
campaign. Luckily for Susan, a group of visiting Korean dignitaries
diffused the tension somewhat. Unaware of the mother-daughter struggle
surrounding the “most important decision” Susan had made,
or the “greatest mistake,” depending on who was talking,
the gentlemen from the first-ever judiciary legation from the Republic
of Korea enjoyed the sights around Washington D.C.
As she had done for years, Mother cooked for the men with whatever
ingredients she could find in Arlington: steamed rice made with long
grain rice from Texas, stir-fried pork slivers and string beans, squash
chunks dipped in egg batter and fried, sliced cucumber marinated in
soy sauce, sliced cabbage doused with chili pepper powder and vinegar.
In the strict sense Mother’s cooking was not authentic Korean,
and Mother apologized for the make-shift kimchee made of Virginian cabbage.
Nevertheless, the judges and congressmen for the brand new republic
her husband had dreamed of ate heartily, joking how they had stopped
in Los Angeles just for her cooking only to find out that she had gone
to Washington and so they had to follow her all the way across the country
to track her down. After the boring food on the ship and on the train—meat
and potatoes with more meat and potatoes— Mother’s cooking
was indeed scrumptious and they hoped she would be around Washington
while they finished their work there. Mother said nothing of her real
mission in Washington, nothing of Susan’s “secret marriage.”
As far as they were concerned Susan was an unmarried ex-Navy lieutenant.
Mother knew, though, her stay in Washington would not be for too much
longer: she saw in Susie’s determined jaw and steady gaze that
her cross-country trip was a failure.
Mom would not speak to Susan for five years to come. It took her mother
five years to overcome her silent state of mortification, until the
eve of Philson’s wedding, with her to remark to Philip: “I
wish Susie were here.” Philip walked away immediately and went
to a telephone. He called Susan and said, “Get over here right
As swiftly as she could Susan packed up a few things belonging mostly
to Tina, then two years old, and the two of them boarded an airplane
to Los Angeles. The airplane soared above the Capitol and so did her
anxiety. What would she say, how would she say it? What would Mother
say? Will Mother smile, will she hug me when she sees me? Will she be
surprised when she sees us?
The innocence of a beautiful and precocious child facilitated the reunion,
thawing the estrangement between them. Mom’s stubbornness was
no match for the little girl’s crinkly smile, her dark curly hair
and dark brown eyes. Little Tina discovered the magic in the word, “Halmoni,”
and that the word meant more than just “grandmother.” She
followed Mom all over the huge house on Victoria Avenue, calling after
her grandmother with her clear, ringing voice, “Halmoni, halmoni!”
There was no rehashing of the events five years before, no admonishment
from Mom—it was as though the whole business had never occurred.
Just like that, the five years of tears evaporated, and Susan became
Susie again in Mom’s eyes.