This time of year, for a week, Koreans celebrate Chuseok. It has to do with the moon and harvest and tradition, though growing up it was time to eat a lot of good food and maybe score some cash from your grandparents. But Chuseok is meant to celebrate your grandparents, your ancestors, your family line.
So much of my life was spent with my mother’s side of the family, because they’d made the trip back in 1976 from Seoul to New York. Immigrants. While my father’s mother, my cheen halmuhnee, had stayed behind. She was about all that was left of my father’s family line.
She and I spent three years, from my first birthday to my fourth, together, living in her little city-hut in Seoul, Korea while my parents set up a new life for me in America.
I know it would hurt my other grandmother to hear this, but she rests in peace and has had one or two or three blogs written about her already so she’ll probably understand, that this blog is about my cheen halmuhnee. My cheen halmuhnee was my first true love. She was the toughest woman I have ever personally known. And when I left her behind in Korea to reunite with my parents and my mother’s side of the family in America, it was a traumatic experience across continents. I was only four.
And I’d see cheen halmuhnee only twice more in my life.
My father was born in 1954, a year after the Korean War ended, but he was not born out of love. He was conceived out of the need to pay rent. I’ll probably get in trouble from someone for revealing this, but my cheen halmuhnee had given up her body for survival to her then-landlord. She’d become pregnant as a result, another statistic to add to the war’s tally. My father’s birth wasn’t even recorded until years later. There were too many more important things for the government to care about.
Having watched most of her family and friends die or disappear during the war, my cheen halmuhnee didn’t fantasize notions of love and happiness.
And my dad never even knew his father. His father died before my dad could remember what his face looked like. Another statistic.
So my cheen halmuhnee hardened, understandably. She chose to keep her baby instead of putting him up for adoption like so many others around her. She loved my dad fiercely, but the war buried her happiness along with the bodies. Her scowl became permanent and she prepared for the worst, every day, for the rest of her days.
She never wanted to have to depend on any man again.
And so she gambled. She was good at it. She became notorious for hustling anyone who crossed her path, and took home enough winning pots from seedy smoky gambling dens, to provide for herself and for my dad.
She. Was. Badass.
I know her blood runs in me.
Sadly, my cheen halmuhnee died when I was in high school. She died of cancer, from smoking too much, but I know she also died of pain and sadness and abandonment. You could always see the sadness in her eyes. You can see it in her eyes in the photo tagged to this blog.
Only my father made the trip back to Korea to attend her funeral. I was too busy being important. I was Senior Class President of my high school and busy waving around my acceptation letter from NYU.
“I just couldn’t possibly go.”
My mother didn’t want to go because of reasons of her own, and my brother was still too young to make such a heavy trip.
I feel bad now that my father made the trip to Korea alone. I feel like an asshole. But at least now my dad is up in heaven with his mom. Reunited.
On this Chuseok 2017, I am remembering them.