My Grandmother Danced Barefoot to Korean Music
Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
My Grandmother Danced Barefoot to Korean Music
My grandmother danced barefoot to traditional Korean trot music. She spoon-fed me rice soup, making sure she blew the heat out before giving me a taste. The sweaters she knit for my two sisters and me were intricate, their patterns colorful and geometric and so carefully made that, even after her death, and long past our days of wearing them, my mother would refuse to donate or throw them away. My grandmother carried with her a confidence founded in an early marriage and a strong-willed character. With experienced fingers, she played the piano to accompany her voice, which sang aching, expressive songs in the foreign sound of the Korean language. She watched black-and-white classic American movies until she fell asleep, yelled at dogs when they jumped on her legs, and placed her false teeth in a pink cup half-filled with water on her headboard shelf.
Very few of the guests at her funeral knew any of this. Very few of the guests knew anything past the superficial facts of the old woman lying cold and stale and preserved to be presentable inside the coffin. They knew they were sad, and they knew she was dead, but they didn't know. I was only eleven then. I'd had my grandmother for eleven years, and almost half of those years I'm not sure about. I'm not sure if I truly recall or only believe I do because I've seen photographs. But some particular stories are too tender to forget.
The summer heat was stifling. On a straw rug, my sisters and I lay on our backs. Four big, red birds were sewn into the yellow straw, and the edges of the rug were curled and worn from use. Above us was the ceiling fan that we willed to go faster because the heat was nearly unbearable, and throughout the entire house, trot music was blaring. The singer's nasally voice made us squirm, and the old-fashioned style made us scrunch our faces and giggle. When my grandma came out of her room swaying along to the music, we giggled even harder. She really did love the music, but more than that, she loved to hear us laugh, so she swung her arms and moved her feet in exaggerated steps, joining us on the rug. We watched her strong, pale feet crinkle the straw rug. We resisted the temptation to dance with her, afraid we would break the magic of her silly solo dance, which she did with her eyes closed and a smile on her face. On the really hot days, like this one, she would always dance barefoot.
My grandma's window faced the outside street, so with my forefinger and thumb, I was able to split open the thin aluminum blinds to look for my parents, but they weren't outside. There was nothing but the blank midnight sky and an empty street illuminated orange by the streetlights. I felt like crying because I thought my parents had left me to suffer the boredom of spending the night with my grandma. My toes curled from the cold, so I turned back with reluctance after she called for me. When I went to her bed and lifted the thick blanket to tuck myself in, then I really started crying. My grandma asked me what the matter was, but between the suffocating heat of her embrace and my tearful hiccupping, I couldn't tell her that I didn't want to spend the night watching colorless old movies and sleeping in the same bed as a woman who smelled like old laundry.
The only light in the room came from the television, and the only light that came from the television came in slight variations of white. I never said a word, but my grandma must have sensed my disappointment because she got out of bed and told me to follow her into the kitchen. She sat me down on the wooden kitchen chair, where I waited for twenty minutes and listened to the sizzles and pops of my grandmother's cooking. There are things that fill my memory in order to make it real again and to allow this memory to unfold as a story-how long I waited for the food, how dismal the street looked to me that night-but then there are other things that I just can't invent or bring back. I don't recall everything she cooked, I don't remember whether she hummed as she shuffled around in the kitchen, and I don't know if there were a few sniffles still in me as I sat there as gloomy as a five-year-old could get. I don't remember those details at all. What I do remember, though, was the warmth of the food she brought out to me on a tray.
It was the same tray we would use for her once she grew too weak to feed herself. But I was at the inexperienced age of five then. I didn't even understand that death and sickness could touch anyone I loved. I was five, and my grandma was healthy. In fact, she was glowing from the excitement of letting me sample her food. She was near radiant. I remember her settling on the chair she pulled out across from me, and how delicately she blew across the surface of the soup so that it was the perfect temperature once she fed it to me. I was five and petulant, and now I'm seventeen and wistful, wishing that I hadn't let on that I didn't want to spend the night with her, but feeling lucky that it granted me a fond memory of a midnight snack.
I feel lucky because the scenes I remember the most after the happy ones were not tender at all. They were relentless and heavy and sobering-relentless in how these memories treated my mom, heavy in our chests when we stand in front of my grandmother's gravestone, and sobering in the way her death affected us.
She had Type 2 diabetes. She never ate well, and she didn't take care of her body. It landed her in a nursing home, and then it brought her to a hospital bed and kept her there. We didn't visit that hospital room often (I don't think my mom liked the idea of having us witness our grandma's slow death), but it remains as stark and glaring a memory as the hospital room itself. Everything in there was white. The starched sheets, the complicated oxygen machine, the tile floor-it was all white. My grandmother, too, pale under the thin covers, was so sickly white she was almost transparent. Medical tape stuck with a cruel adhesive hold on her wrinkled hands, and a tube stuck unnaturally out of her mouth. I don't think she was ever lucid enough to understand what was going on or where she was because her eyes were constantly glassy, so there was nothing to do but marvel at the sterile, white floor as the ventilator hissed beside us.
At the funeral, where we wore all black, my family and I sat in our own designated section of the room. There was snot on my sleeves and on the collar of my jacket because I was afraid to ask for tissue. My memory is spotty here too, but this memory holds no sequence. I don't know where it fits, just that it's seared into my collection of memories. My grandmother had high cheekbones, silver hair, even skin, and a full face. Her eyes were almond-shaped, her chin was strong, and dimples flashed whenever she smiled or yelled. The old woman in the coffin wasn't her. The face of that woman was warped, her hair was limp, and half her face was sunken. It scared me, and when I went alone to the restroom afterwards to wash my face, I did it as quickly as I could because I was afraid she'd pop up behind a bathroom stall or show up in the reflection of the bathroom mirror. I was eleven then, and old enough to feel guilty about my fear, but I felt it all the same.
These things are hard to talk about, and there are things that are even harder to think about-like how my mom ran sobbing to the casket as it was being lowered into the ground, the number of graduations my grandmother missed, and the new grandchild she would never help raise-but she did help raise my sisters and me. She was a part of our lives since we were babies, and despite her death, that's how she remains.