I knew Wong Halmoni¹ through my mother’s stories. From these stories I gathered two images of her: she had given everything to her church even while she was poor, and she once took my mother “shopping” to buy a live chicken from the market and cook it into soup. My mother and her brother cried inconsolably, their tears mixing with the glistening oils of the stock as they spooned the steamed chicken into their mouths. Later they would profess that there was nothing else like it.
As we drove to meet Wong Halmoni in Hwe-in, her hometown, I turned these stories over and over in my mind, the same way I rolled skipping stones in my hands before flinging them into the river. The kind of stones that fit right into your palm, the kind you could wrap your fingers around and press into every fissure and smooth surface–firm, tangible, knowable. Not like Wong Halmoni. My impression of her was little more than “generous old woman.”
The radio songs began to crackle with static, signaling our nearing arrival–Hwe-in had poor reception. It was yet another isolating factor for Wong Halmoni, who already lived by herself in a small rural town. As the soft static hummed through the air, my excitement to meet Wong Halmoni trickled into curiosity towards this woman who seemed to be a saint and yet also quite alone.
“Why have I never met her before?” I asked my mother.
“I guess it’s because she lives in Korea and we don’t,” she said.
“Do her kids visit her?”
“I think they do,” she hesitated, “maybe once a year. They live in the city, about an hour away, but I’m sure they could visit more…”
She trailed off. We sat the rest of the car ride in silence.
When we arrived, Wong Halmoni greeted us without stepping out of her house. A smile touched her eyes. Come in, come in, she motioned. I peered into the room. Her floor was made of substrate and dirt. She began moving on her hands and knees, swinging her elbows in jerky movements to inch her body forward, her legs dragging behind like dead weight. My mother asked her what she was doing, but she just kept walking–no, crawling–and in the next moment our confused silence was splintered by my mother’s stammers in Korean and abrupt ruptures into the English that I could understand.
“…When did this…”
“…Nobody told me…”
They spoke back and forth in rapid Korean, and I strained my ears to understand a word or two. My mother later translated what Wong Halmoni said: she fell, the surgery wasn’t good, she couldn’t use her legs, but she was managing just fine, praise God. With that, Wong Halmoni carried on pulling herself across the floor with her elbows, and all I could hear was dragging and scraping, all I could think was where are her children?
Then I saw them on her walls, their photos everywhere. I was everywhere, alongside them. There were pictures from when I was born to my first day of school to my last birthday. A light peeked through the window, washing over the photos in a warm yellow. It was a wall common enough in our family to recognize it: this was a prayer wall. This was where she visited every morning and every night, asking God to keep her children’s health, to keep our strength. I took in her figure beside me–her white gossamer hairs that caught the light, her creased hands, her back hunkered over, her shallow breaths in and out, never uttering a word of complaint. Before I ever knew her, I realized, before she ever knew me, she had been praying for me.
In that moment I sat beside her with a rising sense of suffocation, as I fumbled with all the words I would say to her if only I could speak Korean. I wanted to take her papery hands in mine, the way my mother did. Tell her that I missed her and was glad to see her, the way my mother did. But my mother’s relationship with Wong Halmoni was different the way her Korean was different from mine–the syllables were soft and loose and smooth in her mouth, while mine were clumsy, brief. At one point Wong Halmoni tilted her chin towards me and called me yeppuda. Pretty. I thanked her in broken Korean, smiling more than was natural to compensate for my blundering accent. For the rest of the afternoon I sat wedged in between them, too embarrassed to ask my mother to translate word for word, studying their expressions instead to make sense of their conversation. Wong Halmoni kept her gaze even, her voice gravelly. Mother reached forward to touch her wrist every now and then. I nodded along, not quite understanding. And when it was time to leave, I couldn’t help but feel that despite discovering that my great-grandmother had loved me my whole life, I hardly knew her enough.
Some time later, after we left Korea, I would stop by the river to find a skipping stone. Examine it, then fling it far away. Watch it grow smaller and smaller until it becomes a dot in a space I can never reach. Hold my breath as it sinks into the deep blue, slipping out my field of vision like a memory.
¹Korean for “great-grandmother”
Miye Sugino is a seventeen-year-old who grew up in Tokyo and now lives in LA. Her work is published or forthcoming in Parallax Online, Cathartic Youth Literary Magazine, and HS Insider, among others. She will be attending the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop this summer.