Breaking Some Cycles

When I got to America when I was four, I was “reunited” with my mother and father who’d left me in Korea after I turned one. They’d left me with my father’s mother, my cheen-halmuhnee, who’d grown up poor all her life. But she was a survivor.

My parents had left to set up house and home, and even had their own business by the time I was summoned to join them in New York.

I was also reunited with the rest of my mother’s family who’d also moved to New York with them. My mother’s mother, whom I was to refer simply as halmuhnee, in particular, was one of the hardest bonds I remember having to build. She did not approve of my parents’ marriage, and it took her a very long to get over it. Eventually.

Growing up I’d read about little girls bonding with their grandmothers, or watch movies and shows where sweet grandmas did fun things with their granddaughters. But I never had any of that with my grandma. There are many reasons for this, because life is never simple enough for one reason to suffice, but I imagine my grandma’s failing mental health played a big part. I know that our years of separation didn’t help.

So in America it was my mother’s mother who became my sole grandmother. It took me a very long time to warm up to my mother’s side of the family at all, but blood is thicker than water’s weight in years, and I grew to love everyone to varying degrees. It took a while for all us to become a family in America and we were as dysfunctional as any other Korean family that looked perfect on the outside.

My grandparents lived a few building away from us in the same apartment complex on the Lower East Side. I avoided going there sometimes because my halmuhnee always made me do all her dishes EVERY TIME I went to her house. There were always a ton of dishes at my grandma’s house because there were always a ton of family, either living there or visiting there, and there was always food being served constantly. So when I was at my grandparents’ after school, or on a Saturday afternoon, I was constantly called to the kitchen by my halmuhnee to wash dishes. She’d grown up in a time where it was vital for little girls to be taught to keep house and run a kitchen. The younger the better, she’d said, like many other old Koreans would say.

I had a fight about it once with her, and it was the last fight I ever had with her. Who fights with their grandmother?!

Even now, nearly 30 years later, I’d never fight with my grandmother no matter what came out of her mouth while we Skyped.

Skype with your Alzheimer’s grandma is heartwarming and heartbreaking.


Halmuhnee hates it when she sees Noah using his left hand to do things. No matter how brilliantly he’s drawing or eating or beating a drum, it’s her Korean superstitions about left-handedness.

Halmuhnee hates it when she sees Noah following me into the kitchen on her screen, because boys don’t belong in the kitchen. Noah will do great things, she tells me, and should not be in the kitchen.

I just heave a deep sigh and say nothing. There’s no reason to anger her further when it’s not her fault. She’s sick. My gut wrenches for her. I appease her by taking the spoon or chalk from Noah’s left hand and placing it in his right hand, and it calms halmuhnee to see that on her screen. She then returns to praising her great-granchild and forgetting how she’d snapped at me just a second before.

Meanwhile, when we finally later say goodbye and hang up on Skype, I go back to raising Noah my way. I’m breaking cycles here and there, and hoping others begin elsewhere. My husband Davy and I let Noah use whatever hand he wants whenever he wants, and we’re about to take the plunge and invest in a great kitchen playset for Noah in our own. He’s crazy about spending time with me in the kitchen at home, and he’s crazy about playing kitchen in general.

We’ve realized it’s not just my halmuhnee who’s got these notions that boys shouldn’t have kitchen play sets. There still exist people who believe boys should only play with cars and lawnmowers. If anyone has a recommendation for a kitchen playset please do let me know!

In the meanwhile I’ll keep blogging out my stresses about Alzheimer’s…


I imagine as a grandparent you always wonder who your grandchild favors more or most among all the grandparents. I only had one grandfather because my dad’s father died long before I was born. My haraboji, my mother’s father, was that steady stream of peace like a river, and when he passed away a huge hole took his place in the family. That hole is palpable still, now 3 years later.

Both my grandmothers had really bad shit happen to them before the Korean War started and long after it ended, except one grew up rich and one grew up poor. I love and respect both my grandmothers in my heart, but in my soul rests my cheen halmuhnee in Seoul. May she rest in peace and never feel poor again.


UPDATE October 4, 2017: It’s Chuseok. All my grandparents now rest in peace. But life moves forward. I take everything I’ve learned from them and cherish the good and bad.


Always dishing,



  1. Jerry

    As I live through more frequent “senior moments”, I have tried to learn more about dementia. I volunteer at a day program for people with memory loss. It can be a pleasure working with these wonderful people. I would recommend A Dignified Life: The Best Friends Approach to Alzheimer’s Care by Bell and Troxell. It will help in better understanding your grandmother.

    I wish you well.

  2. I would recommend not going overboard with the kitchen set. A few pieces will suffice. If you find that he doesn’t tire of those few pieces after a period of time. You can add to it. Or even begin getting him involved with the real thing by helping you in the kitchen once you feel he is ready. (Just don’t make him do the dishes ALL of the time)

  3. I love how you are handling your grandmother. It is a small gesture to please her to keep the peace. Hindsight has made me thankful for those moments I bent a knee to please others despite my wanting to snap at them. It is wise to choose your battles carefully 😉

  4. Lovely post. 🙂 I also let my 3yo son play with whatever he wants. He likes his big sister’s play kitchen and a doll stroller. But his true love is monster trucks! One of the great joys of parenting is watching my kids develop their own personalities. And as it happens, my daughter is a total girly girl and my son is all boy.

  5. NicoleNoreen

    My son had a nice kitchen set when he was smaller. I found a nice,wood, blue one at Target. He played with that thing until it was on its last legs. He had pots and pans and little wooden jars of seasonings. He’s 9 now and loves to help in the kitchen and make simple meals and I love it!

  6. You are a great mother, wife, daughter and grand daughter. Bless you sweetie. I admire you on so many levels. As I think about when I was growing up. I really didn’t like dolls that much. I like lincoln logs, car or plane models to build. Jigsaw puzzles, matchbox cars and racetracks. We had a big set up in our basement, Cap guns etc. But i still played games like “Date Night???” It was a game where you opened a door to see what guy was your date. And I love my little cake oven. I praise my parents to let me be me and find my own way into the world.

  7. Nancy Alexander

    very touching. men make the best chef’s & in todays world Noah can be whoever he chooses to be. with no doubt you’re a wonderful wife, mom, daughter, grandaughter to them all. kudos June

  8. kcsmum

    Of all your dishes, this one touched me to the core. I have a huge lump in my throat to choke back the tears. Some day I’ll let them go and I know you will be there.

  9. Anonymous

    I was especially interested in the last part of which grand parent you loved most. I always wonder that myself about my grands. Secretly I am hoping it is me. My grands sleep with me in my bed (they are used to sleeping with their parents and yes even the 17 (boy) 16 (girl) and 14 (boy) still want to crawl in my bed and the 2 younger ones (10 and 7) spend their time with me watching TV and playing on the Ipad laying around…the bedroom happens to be our hang out place, eventhough the big screen tv etc is in the living room. In the morning Grampa always has donuts ready in the kitchen. We don’t have the money to spend on them like the other Grandparents and I know they don’t get to sleep in their beds. So, I am hoping that in the long run these precious times have more impact on them than the money being spend on them by the other grand parents. At the moment though they are way too much into material stuff.

  10. Shannon Drew

    That was very touching Jun. I’m sorry for your losses. It’s so hard. I love that Noah is getting a kitchen!!!! My boys are older so I’m not sure what to recommend but both of my boys had kitchens they loved! Make sure to get dishes & play food too! And a play shopping cart! Some of the funnest play times with my sons were playing kitchen/grocery & them “cooking” for me. You will pretend to eat delicious meals Noah makes & have so much fun! Enjoy every second! My oldest 13 makes me breakfast for real sometimes! It will fly by.

  11. cindy

    I think it is so interesting how we bond with our families. I lived near my father’s mother when I was little, but she was mean to my mother and fought with my dad a lot–I was always a little scared of her–I never felt close to her.
    My mother mom was a lot of fun but we never lived near her, and for some reason, I yearned for her–I never had enough time with her when we would visit–and I was the only grandchild who didn’t live near her so we never felt close.

    I like that you are helping Noah to learn to love to cook–it will be something for you to both enjoy doing together.

  12. I was blessed to grow up with both grandmothers. My dad’s mom was very prim and proper. She’d only worn house dresses until my parents bought her her first pantsuit in the ’80’s. My grandfather left her for a young floozie when my dad was 25 so we rallied around Grandma (who never shed a tear). She wasn’t very grandmotherly, and if we expected to play when we visited, we took our own toys. But I never doubted her love for us. My mom’s mom, ‘Nanny,’ cussed and smoked and would yell at my mom if she yelled at us for anything. We could count on her to grab us as we ran by for a quick kiss on the head and a swat on the butt. They were two completely different ladies, but I miss them both every day.

  13. Ellie (aka Slykittee)

    I love the kitchen set at Ikea. I’ve seen it in person and it’s so simple but includes enough that he can cook & do his own dishes.
    My dad’s mom died when he was only 15, my mom’s dad died when she was 15. I loved loved loved my dad’s dad (Grandfather, we all called him). My mom’s mom, Mimi, I loved as I should until she had another baby girl when I was 3. From that point on my ‘Mimi’ gave me reason after reason to hate her and eventually I did. I did not go to her funeral and do not regret it now and doubt I ever will.
    I do love with all my heart my aunt that is 3 years younger than me. Not one thing my nasty ‘Mimi’ did was ever her fault.

  14. debchr

    Jun, your post was heartbreakingly beautiful.

    My ‘halmuhnee,’ whom we called “Mammy,” was poor but had been rich (circumstances took it away) – only she was rich on the inside and loved by many, so she had much more than most and was never bitter about losing her money. I only knew about it by hearing family stories over time.

    My other grandmother was also poor, but not as loving as my other grandmother. She was cold and distant. I learned (also over time) that she had emotional problems from losing a daughter in a tragic accident. I remember visiting her when my Mammy died in 1973, looking at her and thinking, for one brief moment, “Why couldn’t it have been you instead of Mammy?” That was my brief guilty thought I was ashamed of thinking that few know about. When she died in 1994, my grief was much less devastating, although I loved her, too.

    Both my grandmothers and everyone else in the family has been mentally sharp until the end, so I was not prepared, four and one-half years ago, for our Mom’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. What a CRUEL disease that is.

    It is amazing to me that your grandmother is aware of Noah using his left hand, because she is opposite him, and his left hand would appear on her right. That means she translates her right side as being Noah’s left, then remembers that less people use their left hand as their main hand. Again, AMAZING.

    My Mom (I think) is worse off, I’m sorry to say. She talks in what is commonly known as word salad. She has always been reserved, but now speaks gibberish, incessantly, as if to reassure herself in some way that she can communicate. She wants constant reassurance about what she’s talking about, yet what she says makes no sense, so speaking with her has become very difficult. Sometimes she wants a “no” and sometimes she wants a “yes,” but it’s difficult to tell which she wants, because nothing she says makes any sense. She’s frequently talking about people, and either doing or not doing what they’re doing, but she can’t tell you what it is they’re doing or not doing. Sometimes they’re in the room (but nobody can see them but her) and sometimes they’re elsewhere.

    The word salad appeared after her husband’s death in Jan. of this year. I’ve noticed that major events make her cognition worse, and she never recovers. Many family members of other Alzheimer’s people have told me they’ve noticed this about their family member with Alzheimer’s disease.

    Bless you, Jun, and bless your Mom for having such patience with her Mom.


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