There are pictures of my grandmother, my Halmoni, framed in our living room. I study her face, but I am not sure I could identify her if I met her in a crowded street. Memories of our life together before we parted remain, yet I cannot help but wonder what her face looks like now. It has been ten years since I saw her. She stayed behind in Korea while my parents and I immigrated to America. I was five years old then. Away from Halmoni for the first time, I had cried myself to sleep almost every night, missing the sound of her snoring in the dark. But I soon learned to stop thinking about her. Her voice faded. She simply lived in the glossy photos and the words of her letters.
I pick up one of the framed pictures, blowing away the dust on the glass that blurs the image. It is the last photograph all four of us took together at the airport as my parents and I were leaving. It sits, oddly out of place, among other photos of my parents and me at the beach, the Grand Canyon, and Disneyland. There is Father, pulling his chest up to his fullest height. He has a square jaw that makes him look strong and handsome. He smiles broadly in this picture, in a way I have not seem him do often over the years. He is young, ready to challenge the world opening up before him. It looks like he is the only one that hasn’t cried, but I know his eyes were moist when he spoke to Halmoni.
“Is there no one to take care of Halmoni in Korea?” I had asked Father.
“I am her only son; it is our duty to take care of her,” he said, but he looked away from me. I think Father is worried. Perhaps he wonders if he can play the role of the son again. Or maybe he feels guilty for having left Halmoni behind ten years ago. He does not tell me how to prepare for Halmoni’s arrival because he does not know how to prepare himself.
Mother stands next to him dressed in a mauve suit. Even though her eyes are red from crying with her mother, my Wae-halmoni, she looks like a lady. Her black hair is short and stylishly curled to frame her face. A white scarf is tied around her neck. High-heels bring her up to Father’s height. She doesn’t dress like that anymore. Always in jeans and t-shirts now, she runs a liquor store with Father.
“When Halmoni arrives,” she told me, “you must be good to her to make up for all that I have not done for her.”
In front of my parents stands Halmoni. Father says I look like her. I study her face closely to see which of our features are alike. One of her hands clasp my shoulder, while the other clutches the collar of my jacket. I look at those hands holding on to me. One of her thumbs is wrapped in a band-aid. Her hands look strong; they are not dainty and frail like some grandmothers’ I’ve seen. I am covering one of them with my own hand that is small and plump.
“Push me harder, Halmoni!” I shouted, kicking my legs in front of me. I thought I could touch the sky with the tips of my toes. My hands, sweaty and dirty, began to hurt from holding the chain too tight. Just as I was about to touch the sky, I dropped back toward the ground. My hair flew about my face, getting into my mouth and my eyes. I could see Halmoni jumping out of my way. I swung past her and the poles and up into the sky again, but this time, I saw the whole playground before me. I thrust my legs forward and pushed, willing my feet to touch the sky this time.
Halmoni was walking away. Where was she going? “Halmoni!” She turned and waved at me but kept on walking.
“Watch me fly!”
The ground was far away; the sky was so close. I hesitated. What if I could touch the sky this time. Too late. I jumped. I flew with my arms spread out. The ground was rushing up at me, the ripples and dents of the sand growing until my dress covered my face. I landed on my stomach. I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to cry but the tears would not come.
“Eun Kyung! Are you alright?” I felt Halmoni’s hands lifting me up from the ground. Those hands with the cracked skin brushed away the sand from my dress, my knees and my hands. But they shook as they pushed hair out of my face. “Are you hurt anywhere?” I touched my stomach. Halmoni carried me to a bench and sat down with me. She rubbed my stomach.
“Did you see me fly?”
“Yes, Eun Kyung. Yes, I saw you fly.”
My parents speak Korean to each other but rarely to me. I can understand them when they speak it, but I need to read the subtitles when we watch the Korean channel on TV.
I hate speaking in Korean. The words come out of my mouth so slowly because my mind is working twice as hard translating what I want to say from English. My jaw is tight and my tongue moves stiffly. I do not sound like the Koreans on TV. Korean adults laugh at my pronunciation or at my poor word choice. So I try to avoid speaking Korean as much as possible.
But Halmoni speaks only Korean.
I sit in my room with the door shut, practicing what I would say to Halmoni when I first meet her. “How was your trip?” I say out loud. My walls echo back my words, sounding unfamiliar and awkward. Mother often tells me, “Your ear drums have hardened towards the sounds of your own language.”
I hear the front door open. “Eun Kyung, come down!” I hear Father shout. “Halmoni is here!” My hands are suddenly damp as I grasp the door knob. I walk down the stairs, careful not to trip over my feet that are unusually heavy. She is shorter than I remember her. Loose grey and white curls cover her head. Her cheeks droop down over her jaw. So many wrinkles, and I wonder which of them belong to me. The crisp and shiny material of her hanbok rustles as she steps into the house. The skirt touches the floor, covering her feet.
And then I see the sign tied around her neck. It says, “I do not speak any English. I am flying to LA, California.” I want to tear the sign. Halmoni takes my hand and squeezes it hard. “Eun Kyung, how you have grown!” Her eyes are filling up with tears as she wraps her thin arms tightly around me. Her head barely touches my nose. I catch a whiff of a bitter and burnt smell. She has brought the smell of dried red peppers and of the coals underneath our house that we used to burn in the winter.
The smell of burnt wood and sweet nuts used to fill our warm room as Halmoni ripped open the brown paper bag. The roasted chestnuts, blackened and hardened, rolled into the wooden bowl, clattering against the knife. As I bit into the brown shells that were tough as leather, bitter juice filled my mouth, but I knew the taste of the reward that would soon be mine. My teeth marks allowed Grandmother to dig into the shells with her knife.
“Be careful; you will burn your fingers and mouth.”
I grabbed the first chestnut that was peeled, blowing on it as I tossed the precious ball from one hand to the other, careful not to let it roll away on the floor. Once in my mouth, the chestnut crumbled apart, the hard yellow ball melting into a soft sweet paste that stuck to the roof of my mouth and burned the gums. I blew on the second chestnut waiting in the bowl and put it in Halmoni’s open mouth. As I watched her chew, I imagined the warmth that traveled from her mouth down to the bottom of her stomach. She continued peeling the chestnuts, her hands steady and toughened against the heat.
I wait for the memory to overwhelm me into tears, but instead, I stand awkwardly in her embrace, wondering how long she will hold on to me.
“Halmoni, how was your trip?” I force out the words, forgetting to put the proper ending on for speaking to elders. She smiles and my parents look away in shame. For an instant, I am angry at my parents for letting me forget how to speak Korean.
Halmoni and I unpack her suitcases. The bags are new, made with tough canvas and leather. I can smell their newness. The clasps are still shiny. But everything she takes out of the bags smells musty and old. Her underwears are bundled up in a handkerchief. Her old socks have been darned in several places in the toes and the heels. A handful of seeds have escaped from a plastic bag into the folds of dresses. A tattered brown envelope holds my baby pictures, mostly creased and curled at the corners. “These are for your mother,” and she hands me packages of dried seaweed and red pepper powder. “I brought something for you, too.”
She gives me a small bundle wrapped in a white handkerchief. I untie the knot in the handkerchief and find many pairs of socks. Little white socks with pink bunnies holding blue balloons. These are not darned like her socks; they have never been worn before.
“Thank you, Halmoni.” But I want to give them back to her and ask her, “Can’t you see how old I am?” Instead, I take the gift to my room and put them on my bed. I stare at them for a while. The bunnies and the balloons make me laugh. I take the socks and bury them in my drawer, under plain white gym socks.
My parents enjoy visiting the Huntington Library to look at the gardens. I like them too, but I prefer looking at the paintings. Today, I sacrifice the galleries for the gardens because Halmoni is with us. I want to show her the Japanese garden, the one we get to by crossing over the bridge made of bamboo poles. The bonsai trees have always fascinated me. I think of them as “baby trees.”
“Dad, how did the Japanese keep the bonsai trees so small? Wouldn’t they grow up eventually?” Father often told me stories about the time when the Japanese invaded Korea.
“They trim the branches while the tree is still small and keep trimming them so that the tree never grows beyond a certain height.”
Halmoni is tired. I help her sit down on a rock by the path. A cluster of bonsai trees grow next to the rock. Their thin branches twist and bend into curves, delicately holding tiny green leaves no bigger than the finger nail on my pinkie. Their smallness makes me believe they are young and tender, but when I peer closely, I see how wrinkled and tired the trunks and limbs are. “See this tree?” Father asks, pointing to a larger tree.
“See how the branches are pulled this way by the ropes? Over time, the branch will curve and grow in this direction instead of straight up. Very graceful, but nature did not intend for the tree to grow this way.” I look across the water to the other side of the bridge. Tall oak trees grow straight and tall, pointing their tops to the sky.
“Where are you going for the holidays?” I ask Susan as we walk home together after school. “My grandparents’. They live in Colorado, so I get to ski and eat my favorite pie – Grandma’s pecan pie. How about you?”
“Oh, I’m not sure. I don’t think my parents will have much time off from their store.”
“At least your grandmother will be home with you.”
“Yeah. Call me before you leave, OK?” I wave to her as she continues on to her house while I walk up to our house.
I could see Susan and her family sitting around a huge table and her grandmother serving ham, mashed potatoes, pies… No chance of Halmoni baking any pies for Christmas. She does not even help Mother cook dinner. Mother explained that the duty of housekeeping and cooking belonged to the wife even though she worked all day. Susan would not understand what Halmoni is like. Her grandmother sounds like one of those old ladies who are always baking or knitting for their grandchildren. Someone who has soft white hair and twinkling blue eyes behind a pair of glasses. I used to think Halmoni was like that too.
“Halmoni, I’m home!” I say as I open the door. Nobody answers. I run to my room, drop off my bag and look into Halmoni’s room. It is empty. I run downstairs again and look into the living room. The TV is off. And then I catch a glimpse of her through the screen door. Her sleeves are rolled up and she is holding one of Mother’s gardening spades.
“What are you doing, Halmoni?”
“Your mother said I could plant some of the seeds I brought with me. I am going to grow green peppers.”
She has already dug up the soil on what used to be Mother’s flower bed. I am glad she has found something to keep her busy. Lately, she has been wandering about the house listlessly. When I am not home, I think she goes into my room. I find cookie crumbs on my desk or some of my books pulled out of the shelf when I come home. Each morning, when I leave for school, she follows me to the door and stands there waving to me until I turn a corner.
“Do you miss Korea?”
“I have so many friends there,” says Halmoni. “I used to visit them every day…” She looks up at the trees like they are not really there. The phone rings, so I run back inside. It’s Mother. She and Father will be late for dinner.
“Do you want me to cook something?”
“Why don’t you heat up some frozen pizza?” Pizza sounds good. We’ve been eating Korean food every meal since Halmoni came. I set the table and turn on the oven. Halmoni comes into the kitchen; her hands are soiled. “Are you cooking dinner tonight?”
“We’re going to have some American food, Halmoni. I think you’ll like it.” She doesn’t say anything. Instead, she opens the oven door and sniffs at the pizza.
“It smells strange…” she mutters and walks out of the kitchen. Instead of eating with us, Halmoni eats a bowl of leftover rice.
“Won’t she even try it?” I ask Father.
“Just let her be.”
We sit at the table in the kitchen, each with a tray covered with round thin skins for dumplings and bowls of filling made with ground beef, tofu, and chopped kimchi. Halmoni is teaching me how to make the dumplings Korean style for our New Year’s Day dinner. Mother has been in the kitchen since early this morning boiling stock for duk guk, a clear soup with vegetables, meat and rice cakes. Every year, whether we were in Korea or in the States, we had duk guk on New Year’s Day.
“Put some filling in the middle of the skin like this,” explains Halmoni. “Not too much; otherwise the dumpling will burst in the pot. Wet the edge of the skin with some water and then fold it over and press firmly. Pinch the edges. There, how’s that?” I follow each step she shows me, but my dumpling looks soggy with the filling oozing out in places. I wrinkle my nose at it.
“Try another one. By your third dumpling, yours will look better than mine.” But my third dumpling looks exactly like my first one. We work quietly. I am concentrating on shaping my dumpling while Halmoni is lost in her own thoughts. I wonder if she spent last New Year’s Day by herself.
Soon, both of our trays are full of plump half-moon shaped dumplings. All of Halmoni’s dumplings are the same size, the skins neatly sealed and pinched. Mine vary in size; most of them have holes in the skin. Mother will steam some and put the rest in the duk guk. Mine will probably go into the soup since they aren’t as attractive looking as Halmoni’s.
Halmoni comes down from her room dressed in her hanbok, reminding me that I should be wearing one also. I have not worn a hanbok for ten years. Early New Year’s Day mornings in Korea, before going to Wae-halmoni’s house, Mother would help me get dressed in my hanbok. First, she brushed my hair. She pulled too hard with the comb sometimes, but I never cried. She drew a clean parting from my forehead to the back of my neck, dividing my long black hair into two. She braided each into a thick braid.
While I stood up as tall as I could in the middle of the room with my arms up in the air, Mother wrapped the skirt around me. She pulled it tight around my chest and tied the straps that would be tucked into the skirt. She pulled so tight I found breathing difficult, but she explained that if she did not tie the skirt so tight, it would slip out under the jacket and reveal my armpits. I thought it would be embarrassing if people could see my armpits, so I endured the pain. My toes peeped out from under the row of embroidered flowers that ran along the hem of the skirt.
The last item to put on was the jacket. Bright colored stripes climbed from my wrists to my shoulders. The front of the jacket tied in the front by two long ribbons. Mother always struggled to tie a neat bow. She stood behind me, reaching over my shoulders, and looped one ribbon around her left hand while pulling the other ribbon through the loop to pull into a bow. I always enjoyed watching her dress me, her brows pulled to the middle of her forehead in concentration. But watching her dress herself in her hanbok and wondering when I could dress myself like her was even more pleasurable. I would sit on the floor with my skirt spread out around me so as not to get it wrinkled, and study her arms that slid into the sleeves, her hands that shook out the skirt to fall just so, and her head that bent slightly as she braided her hair.
“Aren’t you going to change?” Halmoni asks me.
Before I say anything, Mother says, “We haven’t been able to buy her a hanbok. There really is no occasion for her to wear one.”
Halmoni raises her eyebrows, but does not say anything.
Before we eat duk guk, Father wants us to jul.
“Mother, why don’t you sit here,” he says to Halmoni, patting the cushion on the couch. A couple of feet away from the couch, Father and Mother stand together facing Halmoni. They bend their backs and knees, slowly lowering themselves, and flatten their hands on the floor. They touch the tops of their hands with their forehead, almost as though they are about to kiss the floor.
I remember doing this at Wae-halmoni’s house. From the eldest to the youngest, we would file into the room in groups and bow to the two grandmothers who would then hand out money to all the children. Being the youngest, I had to bow to everyone, but that meant I had the most money at the end of the day. Carrying my money pouch, I would slip into one of the rooms, crawl under a desk and count my day’s earning. I was the richest girl in the world. When it was time to go home, my parents found me sleeping under a desk, clutching my pouch.
Father looks at me and points to the floor. It is my turn to bow to Halmoni. In my jeans and t-shirt, I feel naked somehow. This would be easier dressed in a hanbok, I think as I bend to the ground. My jeans stretch tight against my knees and pull at my hips. I look straight into Halmoni’s eyes as I bend forward and I see surprise, then disapproval on her face. I quickly touch my hands with my forehead and stand up straight.
“My children, you have not taught your daughter how to respect her elders,” says Halmoni to my parents. I can feel my face get hot with embarrassment. The pleasure of eating duk guk and the dumplings Halmoni and I made has left me now. I cannot look at any of them in the face.
“This house is too cold,” Halmoni complains to Father. He sits on the couch reading his newspaper. She is watching TV sitting on the floor with her legs crossed.
“Our home in Korea had wooden floors covered with thick paper pasted to the floor boards. Not cement floors like here. And in the winter, we burned coal underneath the floors to keep the whole house warm. Do you remember that? Now, why can’t you have a house like that here?” Father continues concentrating on his paper.
“I’m in a house full of deaf people,” she says and leaves the room. I hear her going up the stairs, but she stops halfway up and comes down. I look up, expecting to see her, but instead, I hear the front door close.
“Dad, I think Halmoni just went out.”
“What?” and he looks up from his paper. “Go after her and bring her back. What if she gets lost?”
I pull my shoes on and run out. Halmoni has already walked half a block from our house. “Halmoni, wait!” She does not turn to look at me. “Where are you going?” Even when I am right next to her, she does not look at me.
“Go back home.” I stop and stare as she keeps walking. Not knowing what to do, I turn back home. Father is standing in the doorway, watching us. His face is set – I cannot read what he is thinking. I brush past him and run up to my room. All of a sudden, my knees feel weak and I sink onto my bed.
Halmoni is yelling at my parents. I cannot understand what she is saying.
“Please, Mother,” I hear Father say. “I’m sorry things are not like how they were in Korea.”
I shut the door to my room. I don’t want to hear anymore. Halmoni starts to wail. I plug up my ears with cotton balls and sit on my bed. I try to concentrate on the sound of my heart beat, the hum in my ears.
Halmoni does not talk to me much these days. Ever since New Year’s Day, she ignores me. “The girl does not even know how to speak her own language,” she complains to my parents. I am a disappointment to her, just as life in America with her son’s family is a disappointment.
I walk over to my window. The sun shines onto my face, so I look down. Halmoni is walking to her garden. She goes out there every day to weed, to water, to wait. But her peppers are not growing. No matter how much she looks on her little plot of land, the seeds refuse to sprout.
Saturday afternoons, Father and I work at the store to give Mother time to run errands and do things around the house. I learned to use the cash register by watching Mother, but my parents have only recently let me help them out. Father has just finished stocking the shelves. Without any customers in the store, we sit behind the cash register on wooden wine crates drinking bottled water.
“Dad, Halmoni isn’t happy here, is she?”
He doesn’t look at me. That’s how he always is when he doesn’t want to tell me something or when it is difficult for him to explain. He takes a deep breath. “Adjusting here is not easy for her. She is old; I think I was foolish in thinking that she could change just as we had to when we first came.”
Father’s hair has more grey in it today. He shuts his eyes and leans his head back against the wall. The harsh line across his brow disappears as he nods into sleep. His cheeks that were once taut across his high cheekbones and strong jaw are stretched loose now, sagging into his face. I sometimes forget how old Father is.
When we come home, Mother is in the kitchen washing dishes. Halmoni is outside watering her garden.
“Mom, what’s this?” I point to a large brown package on the dining table.
“Uh, you don’t need to know.” She looks at Father, but he has already turned to go upstairs.
“Is it something to eat?”
Mother sighs and turns around from the sink. “It’s Halmoni’s funeral shroud.”
“Halmoni wants to wear proper burial clothes when she dies.”
“Why did she give it to you now?”
Mother does not answer so I peek into the bag. White linen clothes are folded in a neat pile. The linen is coarse beneath my finger tips. I pull it gently out of its covering and shake it out. It is a long robe made of material so loosely knit the light shines through its many holes. If she dies in winter, she will be cold. And the fabric will scratch against her throat. My hands shake. I feel like I have looked into a forbidden moment in the future. I see Halmoni laying pale and stiff in this coarse garment. It does not fit with pictures in my mind of angels wearing fluffy white gowns up in the clouds.
“Does she think she will die soon?”
“Eun Kyung, put that back in the bag,” Mother warns. She turns back to the sink and vigorously scrubs the pot. “Halmoni had it specially made before she left Korea.” In my room, I look at Halmoni through the window. She is clearing the land for a different set of seeds. Zucchinis. I hope that the seeds sprout this time.
There’s a full moon out tonight. Halmoni and I go outside to look at the sky.
“You used to tell me that if I looked real hard at a full moon, I’d see two rabbits facing each other.” As a child, I had believed that those rabbits really lived on the moon and worked at night under the bright lamp that lighted their moon home. Now I know they are really shadows on the moon.
Halmoni smiles. “But here in America, I see only one rabbit,” she says. “Look, his ears are pointing up to the right. Even the moon looks foreign here.”
“Maybe his friend is on the other side of the moon today.”
Halmoni does not answer. For a moment, I wonder if I offended her, but when I look at her, she is deep in thought. I want to hug her in a way I have seen grandchildren do to their grandparents in movies. I want to tell her that she must not die soon. But my arms and my mouth remain motionless, afraid I cannot make her understand. Instead, I pat her shoulder gently and say,
“It’s getting cold, Halmoni.” She takes one more look up at the sky, and we turn to the house.
“Halmoni, we have covers and sheets here for your bed. You don’t need these.” She doesn’t understand my English. She pulls out her blankets and rolls them out on the floor. She even pulls out a pillow, long and round like a stuffed sausage, that thuds on the floor like it was full of metal balls. I push it down with my hand but it does not give.
“How can you sleep with this?” I ask her, forgetting how I used to share one just like it with her. “Won’t your neck hurt?”
Halmoni lays everything on the floor and stretches out her short body on the blankets with her head resting on the hard pillow. She pats the blanket next to her. “Come lay down with me.” My legs are much longer than hers; my feet fall off the edge of her bed. Halmoni closes her eyes; her mouth curves up gently. Her face relaxes, her wrinkles soften until she looks like a sleeping baby.
I wonder what it would be like to sleep next to Halmoni again. I used to tuck my legs into my chest, hugging them as I pressed my back into her soft body that molded around me. Halmoni’s one arm held my head while the other draped over me to keep the cover in place. I fell asleep to Halmoni’s soft breath on my head, each breath warming me to sleep.
In my own room, I stretch my legs out under the covers. I know that my body is longer than Halmoni’s body, fleshy with youthfulness while Halmoni’s is bony, wasted away with time. I left her body too soon. It was not there to mold me into the shape it desired me to grow into. I cannot be trimmed to fit now. I cannot bend and roll up into the old ways.
Soyoung Kim spent eleven years in Kenya and South Africa. She is currently going into her final semester at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the MFA Writing program. She hopes to write a book of stories about Kenya soon.