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.
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.
by Cathy Song
She was a year younger
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
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.
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.
Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.