Saturday, March 19, 2011

Footsteps Behind My Shadow: A Story of My Grandmother

My dad’s house was burglarized a earlier this year—the entire house was ransacked. When I came home to California in the summer, I checked my room to see what had been taken. I first checked my jewelry box. I didn’t have much in there and the only thing that was of any worth was the diamond ring that my grandma had given me before she passed away in 2004. And it was gone. Disheartened, I consoled myself that it was just a ring.

A few days ago, I was looking through my jewelry box in my room in Salt Lake City (a different one than the one at home). Among the tangled necklaces and earrings, I saw a thick ring with seven studded diamonds in the shape of a flower. I had found my grandma’s ring! I must have brought it to Salt Lake with me sometime last year. I put it on my right ring finger and stared at it for awhile as my thoughts spiraled to what she might have been like not as a grandma but as a woman.

My grandma or halmuni as her grandchildren used to call her, was born in 1910 as the last bits of monarchial rule of Korea was being swallowed up by Imperial Japan. She grew up in a milieu of national oppression and gender bigotry in an extremely patriarchal society. She received a formal education up to maybe the third grade. She barely knew how to read and write. At age fifteen, she was married off to a man she had never seen before her wedding day. Since that day, she was responsible for drawing and carrying water from a well a mile away every morning at five, making fire to cook rice for her husband, parents-in-law and the field workers. It was her job to deliver lunch on a large pan that she carried on her head to the workers in the rice field. Sometimes she faltered and spilled at which point she ran back to the house to prepare the meal again. She washed, mended and made clothes for the members of her household until the wee hours before she finally went to bed. She labored diligently all of her life as a wife and mother of six children even as she faced pain and humiliation of her husband’s infidelity and domestic violence.

When I was younger, I just assumed this was the stuff of life for Korean women in her days. Only recently, as I looked at her diamond ring she had purchased herself, I realized that she must have had a desire to be seen, heard and be beautiful. Her wedding day was the only day that she wore makeup. Her teenage years were spent working and serving. But she must have had a desire to be educated, to discover and develop her talents, to fall in love, and be loved, to have nice clothes, to be praised for her intelligence and beauty. I wonder what she would have done with her life if she were given the same opportunities as her grand-daughters--what kind of career path she would have taken and what kind of man she would have married. I wish I could get to know her again as a woman to woman.

When she was alive, I remember her sometimes fanning herself furiously saying there was a fire in her chest. I imagine that that was perhaps the fire of anger she was never allowed to voice or channel for the injustices she suffered. She didn’t do anything great in the eyes of the world—she was never allowed to. She may have dismissed her life as a failure especially during her last years as she became increasingly invisible. And yet, she is my hero. She practically raised me and my siblings when my parents divorced. She was the source of warmth and comfort when life got cold and sad. She loved with great love.

I marvel at her story and how she didn’t let a trace of bitterness cloud her love for her children and grandchildren. Her circle of influence may have been small, but she touched everyone she met with kindness and compassion. When I don’t feel loved, I could always think of my halmuni and find an ember of warmth in my heart that she left me while she was alive. Even though she may not know, in my eye, she lived her life humbly, yet magnificently.

As I ponder on my own life, I become acutely aware of the rich blessings of this generation. I have freedom, rights, and opportunities because of the sacrifice of my halmuni and the countless women of yesteryear. They walked the road history allotted them so that I could start much more ahead. As I stand on the threshold of uncertainty, I am infused with a sense of responsibility to live a life much bigger than what I allowed myself to believe in. After all, my life doesn’t stand on its own but as a culmination of history of great, heroic women whose stories will never be told.


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