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.