friday feast: my favorite picture bride

My 1st birthday party with both grandmas behind me (Grandma Yang, wielding chopsticks with her left hand, Grandma Kim, plate on her lap). Naturally, I’m sizing up the cake.

Grandma Kim lived in a small, tidy house right across the street from Grandma Yang. A row or two of baby pink carnations lined her front walk and she had a papaya tree and banana plants in the back yard.

She spoke slowly in broken English while winding her long gray hair into a tiny bun, and phoned us whenever she made a fresh batch of kimchi. Many mornings during the summer, my brother and I visited Grandma Kim for breakfast, even though Grandma Yang was our official babysitter. You see, we loved Grandma Kim’s food.

Loved to watch our eggs gently simmering on the stove, loved the way she sliced a freshly picked papaya in half, making sure to remove every single seed, and most of all, loved the way she made toast. White bread, lightly toasted, generous layers of fresh butter and guava jelly spread evenly all the way out to the edges, and then the slice folded neatly in half. When you bit into it, it was a little chewy, the butter and jelly so melty good — the perfect complement to a soft-boiled egg.

It would be decades before I learned that Grandma Kim was a picture bride. Her mother died when she was only four, and her stepmother decided it would be easier on the family if she married one of the men who had emigrated to Hawai’i to work on the sugar plantations. So at age 17, Maria left South Korea to begin a new life on a faraway tropical island with a stranger in his 30’s.

Treasured keepsake: Grandma Kim’s wood and brass jewelry box.

The journey from her home province to the port city of Pusan was long and arduous due to poorly repaired dirt roads, primitive forms of transportation and having to walk many, many miles. When she finally arrived in Honolulu, no one was there to meet her. She was sent to the immigration station, where she waited in “prison” for four long, terrifying days before my grandfather finally showed up with a minister, who married them on the spot.

Grandma Kim’s story is the story of thousands of Korean women who had arranged marriages with contract laborers; my grandfather was among the first wave of Korean immigrants to the United States, having relocated to Hawai’i in 1904.

A wave of familiarity washed over me when I first read Cathy Song’s poem. She could have easily been talking about Grandma Kim. Although Cathy was born in the same red dirt country town of Wahiawa where I grew up, our paths never crossed. It’s so powerful to share this common history; now I feel like we’ve known each other all along.

If only I had known Korean — I could have asked Grandma Kim what it was like to leave one life behind to begin another. It’s hard to fathom having no say about your future, being cast off when so young. I felt calm and safe in her presence, sat up straighter, used my best manners.

What was she thinking about, all those breakfast mornings so long ago, while she was buttering our toast? We didn’t sense any bitterness, hardship, fear or disappointment. But we felt the love.

Grandma and Grandpa Kim on their wedding day (1912).

Picture Bride
by Cathy Song

She was a year younger
than I,
twenty-three when she left Korea.
Did she simply close
the door of her father’s house
and walk away. And
was it a long way
through the tailor shops of Pusan
to the wharf where the boat
waited to take her to an island
whose name she had
only recently learned,
on whose shore
a man waited,
turning her photograph
to the light when the lanterns
in the camp outside
Waialua Sugar Mill were lit
and the inside of his room
grew luminous
from the wings of moths
migrating out of the cane stalks?
What things did my grandmother
take with her? and when
she arrived to look
into the face of the stranger
who was her husband,
thirteen years older than she,
did she politely untie
the silk bow of her jacket,
her tent-shaped dress
filling with the dry wind
that blew from the surrounding fields
where the men were burning the cane?

~ from Picture Bride (Yale University Press, 1983), winner of the 1982 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award and a nominee for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

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The lovely Irene Latham is hosting the Poetry Friday Roundup at Live Your Poem. Enjoy all the delicious poetry being shared in the blogosphere this week.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers and grandmothers out there, and special ((hugs)) to those of you who might be missing yours.

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Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

65 thoughts on “friday feast: my favorite picture bride

  1. Oh, Jama, my favorite post of yours of all time. It conjures such pictures in my mind, makes me think (not easy to do sitting in the hospital day after day). Everyone has stories to tell. You’ve told your grandmother’s. It’s lovely and heart-tugging. And, by the way, you haven’t changed a bit!

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    1. LOL! Yes, I do look the same, don’t I :)?

      Thanks for the lovely comment; seems I can’t get Grandma’s toast out of my head . . .

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  2. I’m not sure which words I love more, Jama – your sharing of this family history or Cathy Song’s beautiful poem. Thank you. It’s hard for most of us to imagine this “not being in charge” of such major turns in life, and yet these women somehow made it work, and with such grace and strength. I have to sit up straighter, just reading about your Grandma Kim and how she buttered the toast!

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    1. You’re right, Robyn — how did they do it? But for many, I’m sure, it was a chance for a better life than if they stayed behind. Still — it must have taken so much courage and resilience.

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  3. I really have such love for those pigtails. Awesome baby punkin hair!
    As always, when I hear your family stories, I think, “there’s a book…” I, too, would have so many questions!!

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    1. I’ve also thought about further exploring G.Kim’s story. After all, Grandma Yang starred in Dumpling Soup, so G. Kim should get equal billing🙂. I did write a short story about both Grandmas — they were good friends and used to visit back and forth to talk about us grandkids. Of course we couldn’t understand most of what they said, assuming that it was about us being naughty.

      Ah yes, the pigtails. That’s another story . . .

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  4. It’s a lovely and poignant memory. You were so cute, sitting up so serious, looking at the camera, and maybe wondering what in the world you’re doing there on that table? I have often tried to imagine the strength that young women used when facing such challenges. Your grandmother must have worked out a happy life in spite of the difficult beginnings for you and your family to have such closeness. And I suspect it was she that did it, even down to the particularly good toast for her grandchildren. That attention to goodness makes a good life. Thank you for this Jama. And the poem must have been an amazing surprise to you when you first read it, such a connection!

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    1. I had read some of Cathy’s other poems before, but not the title poem from her first book until recently. Quite a revelation!

      The strength of women! Different times, different circumstances, different expectations. Hard for us to imagine, yet they did what they had to do. Made homes, raised children, survived. Funny how this one memory sticks out in my mind above others. As you say, the goodness, the small, simple gestures, speak volumes.

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  5. I love your whole family, Jama! You do such a terrific job of describing the love they show you, and the obstacles they overcome. Your photo goes so perfectly with the poem.

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    1. I do miss the familial closeness, living so far away now. If anything, I’ve learned to appreciate my family even more and take less for granted.

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  6. Wow. Powerful stuff. And a beautiful post. I just fell in love with that opening picture, too.

    I agree with Tanita: I want to read a book about your family.

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  7. You hooked me with that picture, but layers of richness upon richness gave me chills as you provided the best intro ever to that beautiful poem. This is one I’m going to come back to to savor later in the day. I agree with what everyone says: so many important stories implicit.

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    1. I found it interesting that in both pictures, my grandparents have solemn faces, my grandmother again on my grandfather’s right.

      His story is fascinating too — he also lost his mother at a young age (7), and left home as a teenager and worked for a time in Russia. I didn’t know he spoke Russian, otherwise I would have asked him to say something to me.

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  8. Thank you, Jama. Such a lovely story and quite an evocative poem, too. Many times it seems as if our grandparents and ancestors must have had superhuman courage and fortitude to face the things they had to face.

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  9. Jama,, you have described so succinctly, my memories of “halmoni”, as I called Grandma Kim. I too, always felt calm, safe, and most of all, loved, in her presence. Did she have a mean bone in her body? I remember the “coffee” she would make for me, with Carnation canned milk, and lots of sugar! Thank you so much for such a beautiful tribute.

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    1. Somehow Newton and I never called her “Halmoni,” although most of the Kim cousins did. Maybe she thought we were disrespectful! She definitely spoiled us, because we always arrived unannounced for those breakfasts. But she knew why we came and always fed us. Your coffee memory is like my toast memory🙂.

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  10. Such an evocative post. I found myself really studying the photograph of your Grandma Kim, trying to fatham (as you have) the tumult in her heart and soul at the prospect of this new life. I love the moments you shared about your summer morning with your Grandma Kim – those small but significant moments of love, recognition, family bonds. Such a lovely post, Jama.

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    1. It’s amazing how serene she looks in her wedding photo. I try to have some guava jelly on hand at all times. I always think of her when I eat some🙂. Thanks, Tara!

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  11. I have a wonderful nonfiction book about the Japanese picture brides who came to the Hood River (Oregon) area. I think it’s called _The Hood River Issei_, and I attempted a poem about picture brides after I read it. But I think you could do wonders with this subject.

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    1. That book sounds fascinating, Jenn. Your mentioning Hood River reminds me that cherry season is coming soon — they have the best bing cherries in the Hood River Valley!🙂

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  12. That picture is adorable.

    And what a story! Thank you for sharing it with us–both the post and the poem itself. Your posts always take me to another world, so far from mine, but somehow I feel so connected…

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    1. What a lovely thing to say. I enjoy blogging for all the “other worlds” that I’m privy to via everyone else’s stories, too.

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  13. Wow, that’s quite a life your Grandma Kim lived. Did she and your Grandpa come to love each other? Did he ever talk about why he chose a wife this way, just through a photo? And, wow, she was tiny!

    The wedding photo looks like they were appropriately dressed, however. Did Grandpa bring her a dress to Immigration so she could change on the spot?

    Is that also the Grandma Yang Dumpling Soup‘s grandma is modeled on?😀 (I love seeing real-life glimpses from the story.)

    You are, as ever, adorable.🙂

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    1. Your questions are my questions. I don’t know the answers. As to why he chose a wife that way, my assumption is that at that time in Hawai’i, there weren’t any Korean women there to marry. He had emigrated to Hawai’i 8 years earlier with several thousand other young men to work as a contract laborer and an intermediary was there to help him and others who wanted to marry. It probably seemed like a logical and practical thing to do at the time.

      That’s an interesting question about Grandma Kim’s dress. I think she probably brought it with her, since she knew she was going to Hawai’i to be married.

      The Grandma Yang in the first picture is the same Grandma Yang in Dumpling Soup.:) Remember the part in the story about the kids hugging Grandma’s fat tummy? You can see it in the photo.

      Happy Mother’s Day with MiniPlu and Two, Debbie :)!

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      1. Thank you!🙂

        Btw, were you ever able to find a satisfactory replacement for your alphabet noodles? I note you’re still spelling things out in your soup, but I don’t know if that’s from an old hoard or a new supply.

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      2. I’ve been using DeBoyles pasta. Now I undercook it to make the letters easier to handle. Still not quite the same but the best I can do for now🙂.

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  14. Wow. Glad I stopped by . . .

    I can’t even imagine what it would be like. This story is beautifully written, Jama. The lives of women! I suppose there’s some sort of raw and unlikely beauty in accepting your fate and making the most of it . . . while you, Missy, front and center with that cake — accepting your fate as well!

    Jet

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  15. This is such a powerful story, Jama. One that begs to be written either in a picture book, novel-in-verse, or prose format. There is so much resilience, singularity of purpose, and determination in little gestures that we could only attempt to conjure in our minds. Thank you for sharing these beautiful photographs and your grandmother’s lovely story, Jama. Fills the heart.

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    1. I only wish I knew more about her, Myra. Not speaking or reading Korean is a big disadvantage; I’ll have to pump my relatives for more information🙂.

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  16. Oh my, the story you tell of your grandmother and the woman in Cathy Song’s poem could be the same, except your grandmother was even younger. What a story! You come from wonderful, strong stock. (And how did they keep you still long enough to take the photo before you dove into the cake? What well-behavied one-year-old:)

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  17. Oh, the pigtails! The one year-old you contemplating the cake! The family photos and the stories, stories, stories. Such a fabulous post, and it gets richer and richer as you read through the comments. Thanks for showing us a moment in history through the lens of your family.

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  18. Wow, this is beautiful. It’s hard to imagine those lives, so different from mine. How amazing to find a connection with another writer whose family had the same experiences.

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  19. Jama- Wow, what a story! Such amazing, strong women! I want more of these stories about your grandma– you need to put together a book of them! And I didn’t know Cathy’s work, but you have made me want to hunt it down.

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    1. I think Cathy has published five books of poetry so far. Her first book, Picture Bride, gave her national prominence. There is a quiet power to her work which I find compelling — her poems stand up well to rereading, offering more and more each time.

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  20. Jama, you have GOT to write more about your family history! This post is simply BRIMMING, and I want more more more. Have you thought about a memoir? Or a fiction piece based on this part of your history? I would love to read! And oh my goodness, how I wouls grab your little ponytailed self up and SQUEEZE. Adorable! Thank you for sharing

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    1. Thanks for your enthusiasm and interest, Irene. I do love memoirs, and want to find out more about my family history so I can write about it.🙂

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  21. This is so beautiful, Jama. Yes, the pigtails and cake are delightful, but the back story, that tent dress filling with the breeze, the knowledge that whatever the struggles were, they pressed on, found common ground, love, and family and home in a new place. Beautiful. What a heritage.

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  22. I’ll probably never eat another piece of buttered toast without thinking about your brave, calm, loving Grandma Kim.

    My Grandma Booie made the world’s best Anadama bread, and we ate it plain with butter. My Grandma Dike toasted Pepperidge Farm white and used margarine. Both were served with love, and tasted delicious!

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    1. There’s nothing like grandma toast! I remember your mentioning the Anadama bread before. It’s wonderful how a simple comfort food, served with love, can make such a lasting impression on us.🙂

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  23. Jama,
    I have to admit I haven’t checked your blog for a long time. I’m very glad I did today. I always knew you were a good writer, but this story really hit home for me. You reminded me of the times I would go to visit Halmoni when I was in the Army at Schofield. She always made me a simple, wonderful meal of water-rice, kimchi and whatever punchun she had.

    I really regret that I didn’t have the foresight to tape-record Halmoni and Hadabogi and have their stories translated later. Hadabogi would love to go visit any merchant ship from Russia so he could speak Russian again with the sailors.

    Have you ever seen the book that commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the first picture-bride ship? Her picture was in it. I had it at one time; I can only hope it’s still around somewhere in all my “junks”.

    I always laughingly remember a story about when Halmoni first laid eyes on Hadabogi. He had sent her a retouched photo of himself when he was five or ten years younger. He was one of the very few people who survived a smallpox epidemic, so he had deep smallpox scars on his face. When she saw him, she wanted to go back to Korea!

    One of your commentors asked the question, “Did they come to love each other?” Whenever I saw them, Hadabogi would always lovingly help her in every way possible. He unquestionably loved her. Halmoni? I think she came to respect the hardworking, honest and caring man she married. Love? I’m sure in her way she did.

    I also remember how she would comb her hair and twirl it into a bun. I would be curled up behind her on the pune while she did it. I remember she had a strong, straight back.

    Poetry has always been a passing fancy with me, but I really like Cathy’s poem. It evoked many wonderful images and memories for me.

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    1. Hi Gerry,

      Thanks for the nice comment! Loved hearing your memories — didn’t know you visited her while you were in the Army. She served simple meals with love — they always hit the spot and really filled more than your tummy.

      That’s a funny story about when she first saw Grandpa Kim. Never knew that! What a disappointment it must have been after making that long, tiring journey all the way from Korea. There was no turning back, just having to make the best of things. I’ve never seen or heard of the book you mentioned. It sounds fascinating.

      Glad you liked Cathy’s poem. She lives in Honolulu, teaches creative writing, and continues to publish new poetry books. It would be great to meet her someday.

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