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.