The Parent Trip: Ilyssa and Dave Kyu of Passyunk Square

Ilyssa and Dave Kyu and baby Lula June.

THE PARENTS: Ilyssa Kyu, 27, and Dave Kyu, 31, of Passyunk Square
THE CHILD: Lula June Kyu, born January 18, 2017
THEIR DIVISION OF LABOR IN THE EARLY WEEKS OF PARENTING: Ilyssa handles the “inputs” — that is, nursing — while Dave manages the “outputs.”

The four-month road trip was meant to push the “pause” button on their adult lives. It was a chance to blend their passions for art, nature, and community by visiting six national parks, collecting folklore from each, and gathering those stories into a book.

But three weeks into their adventure, Ilyssa slipped into an Airbnb bathroom in Nashville with a pregnancy test tucked up her sleeve. The line glowed unmistakably blue. “I went face-down on the bed, laughing hysterically for 10 minutes,” she recalls. “Then I came up for air and cried.”

Dave tried to slip a word between his wife’s hoots and sobs. “I thought: This is a strange reaction. But I was immediately happy, excited at the news.”

The two wondered whether they should pack and head home. Their itinerary called for camping at 10,000-foot elevations in Colorado, hiking in the Utah desert, eating out of a picnic cooler, and spending most nights in a tent.

Then an OB in Denver reminded them: People have babies in all kinds of environments, all over the world. “He helped us realize that camping was not going to put our baby at risk,” Dave says. “We decided to keep on with the trip.”

Forging an unconventional path was nothing new for this pair, who met when Ilyssa was a high school student bagging groceries at the North Wales Whole Foods, where Dave worked as a cashier. Their first date, on New Year’s Eve, included a stop for pho in Chinatown and a shivery midnight picnic in Rittenhouse Square. They’d hoped to be dazzled by fireworks. They forgot about the canopy of trees.

They dated through college and lived together in Ilyssa’s one-bedroom Center City apartment before moving to Bella Vista. Dave planned to propose in the gazebo near the Art Museum, a spot overhanging the Schuylkill that always seemed unreachable as they sped by on I-76. “My big metaphor was: We’ve gotten so many places in our relationship that we didn’t expect.”

But the symbol was lost on Ilyssa; she had one ear clogged from a bad head cold, so,  as Dave knelt and offered his wordy explanation, she could barely hear what he was saying or understand why he was giving her a small container of loose diamonds for a ring they could design together.

He popped the question. She popped the lid. And then both were crawling over the gazebo’s concrete floor, hunting for tiny, glittering chips.

Their 2012 wedding, a potluck in the sanctuary at the Fleisher Art Memorial, was one more crack in convention. “Coming from two different cultures, we knew we couldn’t satisfy everybody” -- meaning his traditional Korean family and Ilyssa’s Jewish clan, Dave says.

So they walked in together as a friend played “It’s Only Time” by the Magnetic Fields. Ilyssa’s vows included lyrics from a Carter Family ballad, “Lula Walls.” The banquet table held falafel and Korean kim chi, casseroles, and pizza. Guests perched on hay bales.

Their first serious conversation about children happened while hiking in Yosemite a few years ago; Ilyssa had taken a one-month sabbatical and realized, on that trip, that she yearned to have a baby. But they didn’t feel rushed. First, they wanted to be more purposeful about their lives.
They toyed with moving to Portland, Ore., or Asheville, N.C. Then, after a camping trip during which Ilyssa found herself reaching reflexively for her phone and wishing she had an absorbing book of campfire stories instead, they decided to write that book together.

They kept the pregnancy a secret while they traveled, stopping for prenatal appointments at critical junctures in Colorado, California, and Wyoming. By the time they reached Yellowstone, the temperature had dropped to the 30s after dark; five or six times each night, Ilyssa would unzip her sleeping bag, the tent, and the rain fly -- then do it all in reverse -- so she could pee in the frigid air.

The smell of Dave’s Field Trip Jerky made her gag; she took naps in their hammock while he set up and broke down camp. But they plugged on, hiking for hours each day and interviewing rangers, Native elders, and community members from Acadia to Zion.

By the time they landed back in Passyunk Square -- a real bed, a bathroom down the hall -- Ilyssa was in her second trimester. They found a doula, took classes at Blossoming Bellies, and planned for a natural birth. Instead, Ilyssa was induced at Pennsylvania Hospital at 39 weeks -- her OB was concerned about possible pre-eclampsia -- and rode the waves of a 17-hour labor that included Pitocin, an epidural, and, finally, startlingly, a vernix-coated infant.

“Dave and I had never held a newborn baby before; I was terrified that she would drop,” Ilyssa recalls. “But because she was covered in vernix, she was sticky. … Every part of me was focused on staring at her. The rest of the world just kind of faded out.”

They named their daughter for that “Lula Walls” song; “June” is for June Carter and Ilyssa’s birthday month. 

The baby’s last name is the one they chose for themselves, drawing from "Dave Jong Kyu Kim" and a shared habit of signing messages to one another with the initial "Q."

“We have a complex relationship with our families and heritages,” Dave explains. “Taking a new last name was a marker to start our own family.”

Their other baby -- the book, Campfire Stories -- is due out in fall 2018. When Lula is older, they’ll read her the ballads and folk tales, Native legends and community stories.

Lula, at one month old.

Perhaps, they speculate, that first journey has already given their daughter a bit of trailblazing pluck, a wide-lens perspective. “Inclusion and diversity were important pieces of our research,” Ilyssa says. “I hope that’s important in anything she does when she grows up.”

“She’s already traveled [in utero] to 22 states,” Dave says. “I hope she knows the world is a big place and a small place at the same time.”