Conversations with Little Grandma, episode 1: Ah-Nak

Hey mom, did you have a best friend when you were little?

Yes, but I can’t remember her name.

What did you guys do together?

I don’t remember.

Where did you live when you were little?

It was called Ah-Nak, in Hwang Hae Do, what do you call it, the area Hwang Hae Do.

Like a region?

Yeah, yes, that region.

We pull up North Korea on google maps and hunt. There it is still, the town of Oh-Nak, close to Pyeongyang, the current capital of North Korean — but just a dusty farm village back in 1932 when Little Grandma was born.

Oh. I thought you lived much further north.

No, that’s where I grew up.

Who did you play with back then?

I don’t remember.

Her brow furrows. The questions are tugging at something, deep memories. Words are starting to come out, but it requires patience.

I know your family eventually went south. When did you leave Ah-Nak?

When I was seven.

Tell me.

My mother, your grandma, came and took me to Incheon.

I remember the story. Tell me how that happened.

She had polio and had to go to a hospital for a long time. And then my sister, Soonja, became very sick. My mother came back to be with her in the hospital, and then Soonja died.

Do you know what she died of?

Nooo, they probably knew. I don’t know. But it was something that was going around. She was five years old.

I didn’t realize Grandma came back to your village because Soonja was sick. I thought she left because of polio.

Yes. I was seven, Soonja was five, and your Uncle Sung Joo was about 3. Soonja died. Then my mother said she was going back to Incheon and taking my little brother with her. All her family had moved there. I remember they got in the car and she said good bye to me. I was screaming and crying, Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me behind, how can you leave me! I took of my shoes and chased the car and threw my shoes at the car, I was so angry. And they left. I was in first grade.

Oh my God, I never knew it all happened at the same time, Mom. I never knew Soonja died and then grandma left with your brother right after. And Grandpa didn’t pay any attention to you, did he?

No.

So you were suddenly just completely alone. You must have felt abandoned.

Little Grandma nods sadly, remembering. I wait a moment but she doesn’t speak, so I poke a little.

That’s incredibly traumatic. I don’t know if a person ever really heals from that.

Little Grandma nods in agreement, still without words.

Who took care of you after that?

You know, people.

What people?

House maids, house boys. We were rich.

Did you have any other relatives in Oh-Nak?

Sure, my father’s family. I went to first grade there, in my village.

I remember you telling me a houseboy would give you oh-boh-bah [piggyback rides] to school.

We laugh together, imagining this abandoned yet spoiled little girl, too rich to walk to school on her own feet.

Grandma came back for me after about a year.

I remember you telling me about seeing her next to a fence.

The story is a little different than I’ve heard before, but the feelings are the same.

Yes, I had to come home from school one day, about a year after grandma left with Sung Joo. That particular day, I had gone to school with no underwear on, and everyone could tell through my skirt fabric.

What the heck, Mom. Why would you go to school without underwear on?

I have no idea! So I had to go home. I remember I fell into some water on the way. There was water next to one of the fields, like extra water for emergencies? And I fell in that. And no underwear on.

Mom! What the heck were you doing?

I have no idea! A nice farmer saw me and pulled me out, and helped me.

So I walked home from there, soaking wet, and when I got home my mother was there. And that’s how she found me. She told me she had come back for me and she was taking me with her to Incheon. We took the train. When we got to Incheon, my mother realized I couldn’t read or write.

But you were going to school. How did that happen?

I don’t know. I was the rich man’s daughter. Maybe they just didn’t bother. My mom was shocked. She said, you need to read and write! So she taught me how.

Grandma taught me how to read Korean too; it’s one of my earliest memories.

She was a good teacher, wasn’t she? So Grandma taught me how to read and write in Korean and Japanese, because remember, the Japanese occupied Korea, and we were strictly forbidden to use Korean, except at home we did. By second grade, I could read and write, and by third grade I had become such a good student that they made me class president. That’s also the year, third grade, when I was given a Japanese name to use, because we were required to have Japanese names.

We look at the map of Korea some more.

Didn’t you end up in Busan at some point?

Yes, eventually, I think in 1941, we fled from Incheon because of the war. We took a boat down the coast.

Did you have family in Busan?

Sure we had family there – but they were also refugees, like us, like thousands of Koreans who fled to Busan.

The conversation winds down. I ponder her story as I go to sleep, and I have an unexpected insight. The next day as I sit with mom, I tell her about my blog. I tell her I want to have conversations with her, and tell my little world her stories. I tell her that these stories are for me, and for our family, so we never forget. She’s enthusiastic.

I share my insight. I tell her, as I choke back unexpected tears, how I finally understand why she was so relentless with my brothers, no matter what shit they got into, what trouble they caused, how cruel they were to her. On any given day, she might have been dysfunctional, she might have yelled and screamed, she might have been a lot less than perfect, she might have done more harm than good. But she never let go. She always tried to find a way to help, even if I thought she was insane in how she went about it.

I used to wonder why, but now, finally, I know. She would never pass on the legacy of what her family did to her, when she was seven. She would never abandon us.

Mom looks at me without blinking, straight in the eye as we sit side by side on the sofa. She can’t cry, but I see a tenderness in her stare. She nods gently. “That’s right,” she whispers.

Conversations with Little Grandma: prologue

My 88-year old mother moved to Wisconsin in March to live 300 yards down the street from my family. In the two months since then, I’ve probably spent more time with her than I have during the past 25 years combined. 2021 was our first Mother’s Day together since, I don’t know… 1989?

Mom’s move here was essential to her meaningful survival, for reasons I don’t want to talk about right now. I think her move may well turn out to be essential to my family’s survival too, in some as-yet-to-be-determined way. My children are still processing what it means to have Little Grandma (Jesse coined the moniker years ago) living so close, and I hope these times will leave them with a deeper understanding of the joys and challenges of love, family, and responsibility.

Mom has had a really tough run. A handful of years ago, she had a stroke that affected her cognition significantly. She lost her rage and her caustic humor and her executive functioning and her career as a really kick-ass realtor. Something went blank. She lost a lot of English and continues to experience serious aphasia in her ability to pull up words and speak. She lost the ability to cry.

When her husband John died two years ago, her inability to cry expressed itself fully. Though her throat burned and her heart ached, not a single tear came. She didn’t understand why.

Last August my brother Mark died at 58, collapsing in Mom’s kitchen. She held him and cried out to him as his spirit fled the flesh. No tears came, not a single one. Around the time of his funeral, she confessed it to me and wondered aloud if she was even grieving. I interrogated her like a lawyer would. Does your heart hurt? It is being crushed, she answered. Do you long for your son? Every moment. My heart is broken. She clutched her chest as she spoke, her face etched with pain. That sounds like grief to me, I replied.

And now here she is, 300 yards down the street from me in her own home, getting by with a lot of help from my family, and holding onto the tendrils of independent living and self-respect as she continues her long, long journey. My goal is to fight back her loneliness and help her live as happy a life as she can, retaining as much dignity as she can as the twilight advances.

Here I am, 54 years old, with the unexpected and extraordinary opportunity to see my mom every day (minus respite moments) for the foreseeable future. We’re building a new story together as we settle into new normal. I eat breakfast and dinner with her every day. She’s connecting with my kids and husband in beautiful ways. We’re gardening together and exploring her new world in Wisconsin together. She is showing exactly the kind of courage she’s always shown as she faces seismic changes in her life.

But I want to do more than just live in the now. Mom has had an epic life. I’d like to capture some stories of it before it’s too late. Not for sale, not for any venal reason, but just to hold them, and savor them, and treasure her.

An old friend Camille suggested the title of this blog: conversations with Little Grandma. She imagined it as a podcast, but Mom would likely be embarrassed by that. Sometimes it’s hard for her to pull up the words, and she shifts between English and Korean as she finds them. Sometimes she loses the thread and needs a little help rediscovering the path to the story she’s telling. So I hope to do what any good daughter would do: be an aide and guide to her history and her meaning. I will no doubt learn much about myself along the way.

Will the stories she shares always be factually accurate? Certainly not. But who asks that of poetry? Will my translations always be perfect representations? Certainly not. But who asks that of family?

We settled to our first little conversation this evening. I’ll just give you a teaser, and I’ll be back soon with the rest of it:

Mom was born in 1932 in a small farming village called Ah-Nak, in the region known as Hwang Hae Do, just southwest of Pyeong Yang in what is now North Korea. There were no cars or paved roads. In that village, the son of a rich landowner married a poor village girl beautiful enough to earn her an arranged marriage to a rich boy. They met on the day they married, and the first-born child of their union was a little girl who eventually gave birth to me.