Jin Hee Lee was born in 1919 in Kaesong, during the Japanese occupation of Korea. She was third of seven children. She married at age 19 to a nobleman, and at age 21 she gave birth to her only child, Sung Lan Lee. She lost her husband at age 25. Jin Hee never remarried, devoting her life to providing for her daughter, and later her four grandsons through the turbulence of the Korean War and reconstruction and immigration to the US. After spending two years as refugees on an island off the coast of Incheon during the Korean War, Jin Hee and Sung Lan made their way back to the mainland, having lost the entirety of the family fortune to the war. Jin Hee left her daughter at a boarding house to join her younger brother in his retail business near the Demilitarized Zone in order to fund her daughter’s education from middle school through Ewha University. In 1967, Jin Hee finally reunited with her daughter in Seoul after the birth of her first grandson, Joo-Ho. She followed her daughter to Okinawa, Japan, then ultimately to Kansas City to help raise the growing family.
With only a grade school education, Jin Hee was profoundly resourceful and intelligent, from growing her Korean vegetable garden to making her own miso and tofu. She poured out her love in her invisible work for the family. She acted as a second mother in the home, while Sung Lan and son-in-law Won worked outside of the home to build their American dream. Jin Hee had and encyclopedic knowledge of traditional Korean recipes for every occasion, lovingly preparing mountains of mandu, kimbap, and kimchee for the growing boys. She studied fiercely, entirely on her own, to teach herself English and civics in order to pass her US citizenship exam in the mid-1980s. Her leather bible cover matched her tiny hands, worn with use over a lifetime of good work. In her own way, she was also a tiny rebel, thwarting her daughter’s sometimes draconian disciplinary measures. She maintained her mothering instincts despite her end stage Alzheimer’s, still parsing out tidbits of advice and suggesting healing soups for ailing family members until her death. Her legacy lives on in her daughter, Sung Lan; her four grandsons and their spouses; and fourteen grandchildren.