My grandma used to visit us every summer. She was in her seventies by then, but she was still very robust and healthy. She would take the long twenty-four hour flight from her home in Seoul to where my parents and I lived on the eastern coast of the US. Even though she knew very little English, she still managed to get by.
I didn’t realize it then, but what she did was very brave. She came to see us for a few months, every summer, in another country where she didn’t even speak the language. She braved the airport, flight delays, and after 9/11 happened, intense airport security. But she did it, acting as a messenger and bringing clothes, hair bows, and lots of Korean spices. She did it and in doing so she forged one of the only tentative links I had with that side of the family.
When she came to see us, she would be the typical grandma and spoil us all. She would make several batches of every kind of kimchi there was. She would do my hair the way I liked it — making one long French braid with her strong, deft fingers. She would rub my stomach in circular motions while singing a catchy Korean song whenever I had a stomachache, and strangely enough, my stomach wouldn’t hurt anymore.
Everyday she would sit outside at the same time. There was a huge tree with wide branches that sprawled out pretty far. I don’t know what kind of tree it was, but it wasn’t pine. The branches and the leaves formed an umbrella, a canopy of sorts. This particular tree sat in our backyard for years until it was knocked down by a tornado that ravaged the area.
Well, my grandmother sat under that tree every day. She would sit, and look out over the gate separating our backyard from the few acres of open space on the other side. Our house backed onto land; I don’t know who owned it.
My grandma sat under the tree everyday and smoked. Sometimes I would come out and sit with her. She would always chastise me and tell me to go inside. She smoked for years. She always called her cigarettes her husband. I was always amused by that. I wasn’t sure why she called them her ‘husband.’ Her husband had passed away years before, before I was even born. Her cigarettes took the place of that empty space that must have existed within her. Even though smoking was bad for her health, it must have been good in the sense that it was always dependably there for her, like a faithful spouse. That is one lesson I learned from her: we all need someone to love and to confide in.
Another time I can’t remember what I was doing. It wasn’t very important. But my grandmother looked over at me and told me to enjoy my childhood. I look at her confused. I was enjoying my childhood. I was a happy kid. What did she mean? Now, that I’m older I realize what she was telling me, because I tell my kids the same thing everyday. She meant that childhood is the best time of our lives, and yet it is ever so fleeting and short. We should enjoy our youth because we won’t ever get it back.
Once, I was packing for an all-day school trip to an amusement park that was about two hours away from my hometown. I wanted to take a cute little gray colored book bag, but the problem was that I was having a hard time fitting things in. My grandma looked at the situation for a minute or two, and then came over and showed me how to roll the jacket really small so that it would fit. That day she taught me that there is a creative solution for everything.
At the end of the summer, it would be time for her to go back home to Korea. She would pack up her suitcases, which were heavier than when she first came to visit. But even though she only came for the summers, it never felt that she was far away. She left but promised to keep in touch by phone calls. Even when she wasn’t here, we still talked often. Whenever we talked, it felt like she was here with us. That is another thing that she taught me. That we can never truly be far from those we love if we put in the time and effort.
My grandma had a huge positive impact on me. I think about the lessons I learned from her. I carry them with me everyday. It is the greatest legacy that any person can have.
What is one lesson that you learned from your grandparents?