I’ve had Hal-moh-nee on the mind this week. It’s amazing how much I long to see her sometimes. Maybe I would miss her less if I had committed some energy as an adult to seeing her more regularly while she was still alive, but I lived in DC and Grandma was in Seattle and I was a strung-out lawyer. Which is no real excuse. My failure to make time for Grandma in her last years is among the more significant emotional reasons why I’m glad to be out of the profession for good (I hope).
But also I think it’s parenthood that constantly brings her to mind, as I struggle with questions of how to be a functional parent to young children in different situations. Grandma taught me so many little lessons by just being with me when I was small. She was so good to me, a sweet anchor for my grumpy heart. I think I’ll spend the next week or two telling some Grandma tales.
Picture Seoul, Korea in the early 1970’s, a third world metropolis of millions, streets full of stray dogs and crazy drivers and three-wheeled trucks, and here comes the guy pushing a food cart selling beans and steamed rice cakes. I’m too lazy right now to find any photos. Maybe another day. And I guess I should say South Korea, though I wasn’t taught to say it that way. Korea was Korea to my Korean family members, who still remembered a time before the white peeps came and broke it into two nations.
Dad worked as a civilian DOD employee on the Eighth Army base in Seoul. Most Americans associated with the base lived on the base, but many of us with Korean moms lived in the city proper instead. In my child’s memory, the city neighborhoods where nice homes stood were bunkers. Concrete walls surrounded each house. At the tops of the walls were rolls of barbed wire to keep out slickee boys — burglars and thieves. Locked metal gates, topped with vicious spikes and big enough to admit a car, granted entry to a home’s yard.
We lived in a walled-in house at the dead end of one of these bunkered roads, in an area my dad affectionately dubbed Skunk Hollow, probably because of the smell. Grandma frequently walked to our house in the morning, spent the day with us, and then walked home to her own smaller and more traditional Korean home. I have no idea how far it was, but I’m guessing it had to be less than a mile. I used to make the walk with her sometimes, when I got to sleep over at her house. I held her hand tight as we trudged through a claustrophobic maze of narrow alleys, grey walls rising high and tight on either side of me, until we emerged mysteriously at her house on one end or my own home on the other.
One fine day my mom treated Grandma to a new purse and some cash. Grandma headed out in the afternoon with her new purse on her arm, and presently I heard voices of adults sounding very, very unhappy. Grandma had been attacked by two men who beat her up and stole her purse as she walked home. They even broke her false teeth (a full set of clackers, mind you). I imagined my poor Grandma lying broken in one of those bunkered alleys, her body smashed to the ground and broken into pieces by very bad men. I was terrified.
Not long after, Grandma came on over and sat with me in my room. I had questions for her. She was a storyteller and always answered my inquiries. She told me about how two thugs grabbed her purse and threw her against a wall, so that her face hit and her false teeth broke. She rued the loss of that pretty new purse and all that money. The mix of fear and curiosity I felt about the attack must have been apparent. Grandma offered to show me her injuries. She opened her shirt and bared her chest. I had seen it many times before — she wasn’t even remotely body-shy with me — but now the left side of her chest, from her shoulder and down her breast and rib cage, was black as calligraphy ink. I wanted to cry, it looked so awful. I was so upset about how badly she was hurt. But Grandma just laughed gently and told me I could touch it, it didn’t hurt anymore. She explained that it was a healing bruise, and then she assured me she was fine. And she was. It all healed up just right eventually. She was tough as nails.
Grandma had a way of laughing and shaking her head that sucked fear out of me, but I don’t think of her as a person who lied to me about the risks of life. She took them seriously. She kept me close when we walked around town. She warned me about kidnappers who would want to steal the pretty little blond girl and try to sell me into slavery or, even worse, kill me if my family didn’t pay a ransom. She told me about diseases and shared stories of war. She told me about how my grand-uncle, her brother, was brain-damaged as a child by a Japanese soldier who boxed his head so hard that his ear bled, and then he was never the same again. We affectionately called him “heh-leh-leh sam-chun,” which loosely translates to “crazy uncle.”
For all the scary tales, Grandma always added a touch of humor and made me feel safe about the adventure of life –- and especially about her. Don’t you think kids fear harm to their nurturers more than almost anything else? A year or so ago, when I had a breast biopsy to see if I had cancer, I remembered Grandma’s way of reassuring me. I tried to emulate her. I played it straight with the kids about what was going on, and I let them see the site of the biopsy, bloody bandages and all. I watched them react, the mix of curiosity and anxiety, and it was like looking down a tunnel into my own past as I stared at my grandma’s blackened breast. I’m glad she taught me not to keep secrets of things like that. Better to share some scary realities with your little ones than to hide it from them. Better to laugh down fear together than to shiver alone in the dark.
Once again, you have told such a moving story, so eloquantly and simply. I do love your writing. Your grandma sounds like a hell of a woman. I’m glad she was in your life.
Thank you Julie. I’m flattered and also profoundly embarrassed by your compliments. I dream of writing like Ursula K le Guin, but that level of sublime paucity is hard to come by. Thanks for encouraging me to keep going!
thanks for the stories on halmoni from back in the day. We never got to hear much about stuff that went down while you guys were in Korea, so this is awesome..Thanks!
Which cousin are u?