I stood across the lawn from them, squinting in the sun. I was four, which means he would have been two. I only know this because I remember the house that we lived in then. We moved so often that I’ve learned to tell time by the house that we occupied at any given moment. Those houses stand like markers, points of identification around which three or four year clusters of particular experiences, people and places gather in my mind. Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. I watched as my grandmother squatted beside my brother, a faded yellow margarine tub in her hand, and began coaxing him to pee with a rhythmically hissing, “shee, shee, shee.” Potty training the Korean way. As he began to urinate, preening with a kind of princely privilege and pride, I yelled, “ewwwwwww!” My grandmother didn’t look in my direction, but her retort, “YA!” came cracking across the yard like a swat on my retreating rear. I turned my head to stick out my tongue at them before running away.
My relationship with my grandmother wasn’t complicated. I won’t elaborate now on all my conjectures about her projections of self-hate, but with me she was almost always harsh and dismissive. Without a second thought, she sent me back into the night to search for the extra pair of underwear I’d dropped along the way when I returned from my first sleepover, terrified and crying. I was five. She frequently wiped her thumb across my cheeks, voicing her displeasure at the unfortunate emergence of my freckles. For years I wore them, ugly and ashamed. My skin screamed as she scrubbed too hard at bathtime. “Owwww! You’re hurting me!” I once exclaimed. “YA!” she said, “gamanhi anj-a!”* Sit still. Cut it out. And she commenced the scrubbing with increased vigor. It was clear from the time that she came to live with us that she saw me as an inconvenience to and an intruder on her time with my brother. Sometimes I was permitted to sit up with them at night while M*A*S*H or the The Jeffersons flickered soundlessly in the background. Most times, though, theirs was a private club of two that I observed from afar, my face pressed up against the screen of their indifference.
*Last Thanksgiving, as we sat around the table for the first time without my mother, we listened to my son jabbering away. Somewhere along the way, he’d adopted the name “Aunt Da-da” for my sister, Rebecca. None of us know why that’s the name he’s settled on, but we reflected on the fact that it had an uncanny resemblance to my brother’s childhood name for me. When we were young, my brother called me “ya-ya” for the first five or six years of his life. Again, we never really understood why. But as we sat there, my sister remarked: “You know what? Tim probably called you that because grandma called you ‘Ya!’ so often.” It was one of those moments when life’s little mysteries suddenly give way right before one’s eyes and become glaringly obvious. How had we never considered that before? We cracked up as we realized that for all of those years, my brother had more or less thought my name was “hey you!”
For a long time, I thought of my grandmother with bitterness and then, eventually, with little more feeling than I might have for a passing acquaintance. The last time we were all together, we were visiting my parents in Korea. My grandmother was planning to move back to LA to live with my uncle, so my mother asked the three of us to perform a small traditional bowing ceremony (Sebae) for my grandmother. It included, as does every other occasion in Korea, presenting her with money in white envelopes. Out of respect for my mother, I obliged. As we concluded and made our way out of her room, my grandmother summoned my brother back in, and when he emerged, he smugly held all of our money in his hands. He relented, of course, when he came up against our seething wall of sisterhood and redistributed the money appropriately. We weren’t really angry, though. We were simply playing our roles; by then, we’d accepted the order of things.
Last month, we all met in California at my maternal uncle’s house to celebrate my dad’s 60th birthday. In Korean culture, turning sixty is a significant milestone, and it’s usually observed with a kind of ceremonial importance. While we were there, however, my uncle wanted us to go visit my grandmother who is now in her eighties and who, he told us, probably only has a year or two left. As we drove to the assisted living center, he reminded us, again, of the story we were supposed to relay if she asked where my mother was. Because of my grandmother’s declining health and dementia, my uncle and my mother decided that they wouldn’t tell my grandmother when my mother finally did pass away. Yup. Already feeling some anxiety about this charade, I was a bit on edge when my uncle began talking about my grandmother’s deteriorated state. Because she had fallen several times recently, they agreed that she would no longer attempt to walk around and would, instead, only use a wheelchair. Switching back and forth between Korean and English, we moved from one awkward conversation to the next until, somehow, he was explaining things that we already knew about the way one loses muscle tone and control over bodily functions when wheel-chair bound. I sort of tuned out for a minute, and then I heard him say, “so…doo-doo and shee-shee, sometimes just fall out.” Just like that. And I couldn’t help it, I was four years old all over again. The laughter erupted out of me and I couldn’t stop it. The strain of the week, the hundreds of little white lies, the secrets and the absolute absurdities about our lives that my mother’s illness and death had exposed just burst out of me—rudely, unexpectedly and uncontrollably. My uncle looked at me in the rearview mirror, bewildered, and my sister looked at me, eyebrows raised, with the look I’m usually shooting her: “WTF? Get it together!” Finally, I bit my cheek and managed to get myself under control, though my body trembled for several minutes more with laughter that begged not to be contained.
We sat with my grandmother for about an hour in the courtyard, surrounded by pale pink stucco walls and other residents (all Korean) shuffling aimlessly around. Despite the warnings, I was still a little surprised to find her so vacant, to watch as our presence dawned on her more than once. It felt like a scene out a movie. It definitely didn’t feel like real life. One resident sat in the sun where she’d been wheeled. She was complaining loudly about the sun being too bright. Her eyelids drooped so deeply that we wondered how she could see anything at all, but my brother got up and moved her to a shadier spot. “Hey!” she yelled, “who was that? There’s a man around here just coming and going!” We all giggled a little under our breath and my grandmother, looking confused, joined in. My sister explained what had happened, and my grandmother began yelling at the woman, “that’s not a strange man; that’s my grandson!” “EH?!” yelled the woman, “WHAT?!” And my grandmother, probably forgetting already what had happened, yelled back, “EH?! WHAT?!” Back and forth they went, the call and response of dementia, until one or the other forgot their part and they lapsed into silence.
In the time that followed, my sister and I watched, mostly in silence, as my grandmother lovingly caressed my brother’s face and exclaimed over and over how strange it was that he was so grown up and marveled at how handsome he’d become. I was unprepared for the flood of sadness and tenderness that washed away the laughter in me and nearly made me weep. I was sad for my grandmother, for all that she’s lost to the progression of time and, in the face of so much regression, for all that she doesn’t know she’s lost. I was sad for my mother, who would never be old and for her grandchildren, who would never know her, soft, in old age. And I was sad for myself, not old at all, but suddenly, the oldest in this line of women.
However, I was also grateful for the opportunity to go back. We don’t get the chance very often to return to those moments in life that shape us, to rewrite our narratives. There we were, children again. My brother and my grandmother were wrapped up in their intimacy, and I sat across from them in the courtyard. This time, though, I wasn’t angry or jealous or hurt. I thought of my son, who is the same age, now, as my brother was when we stood in the yard all those years ago. Time flies so quickly and we are promised so little. It’s up to us to find those small splashes of love and beauty where we can, to discover those moments that originate in us or around us and rock us gently or wildly to our core. And when we can’t, perhaps we can trace the ripples that began elsewhere back to their sources. Maybe I couldn’t love my grandmother, but I can love the woman who has loved my brother with such tenderness. And that is enough.