Grief and Comfort in Seoul
I made my mom an unwed teen mother. Back in the '70's, teen pregnancy wasn't exactly common in her town, but it seems there also wasn't the stigma attached that may have existed just a decade before. I doubt she found many benefits in her situation. However, my grandparents and I lucked-out; we got to bond closely for my first two years, a bond that was never shaken. My grandmother died of cancer in 1992; I still miss her like crazy. This story, however, is about my grandfather.
My grandfather was a cad. Or maybe he was a rake. I'm not too certain. At any rate, he wasn't the most upstanding man in the room. He was never far from a drink and his cigar - there's a story of him crossing a river somewhere during WWII, holding his cigar above his head to keep it dry. From what I've seen and heard and pieced together, he was never a dependable father or husband. Technically, he was probably a bad influence on his grandkids. He would give us a swig of whiskey to put us to sleep when we were young. When I was twelve, he taught me how to smoke a cigar (and I still feel this is something every woman should know how to do. You never know when it will come in handy). And if we didn't know how to play poker, by God, he would wipe us clean of our allowances after dinner. He made rules for everyone else to follow yet seemed to live by none, himself. Cad. Rake. Give it a name.
I still remember the smell of him. From the time I was 3 until I was maybe 14, I wore an old, white undershirt of his as my pajamas every time I spent the night at their house. There was an iron-on of two cartoon duckies marching across the front. The shirt eventually fell apart and I now wish I'd have been more careful with it; I'd have liked to have preserved it for posterity...and for his smell.
I loved that man fiercely and I knew he loved me right back. He loved most of his grandchildren and dared us to take risks, to taste the racier side of life. The funny thing was the more we resisted him, the more he respected us...well, as much as you can respect a child of 7 or 9 or 14. Maybe he admired our pluck. Not many people stood up to him and when his grandchildren did, he was mad. Hopping mad! But I think he was also impressed. Maybe he was trying to teach us through negative example. I don't know and I never will. I just know I adored my crusty, cantankerous, sleezy ol' grandpa, cigar, whiskey, fedora and all.
He had diabetes. I don't think any of us, his children or grandchildren, really understood what that meant until after he'd divorced my grandmother and shacked up with another woman who insisted he eat better and exercise. My grandmother had been a nurse and tried to keep him in line but it never worked. I don't know how she did it, but the other woman is the one who enforced his diet and exercise regime like a tyrant. It didn't help, of course. He had a stroke, he had heart surgery in which he got titanium a valve, he was hospitalized time and time again. But that kind of old coot just doesn't let go easily.
When I was 24, I went to Seoul, South Korea, to teach English. I hated it, at first, and wrote melodramatic, whiny letters home regularly. After three months, I'd fallen in love with my students, my neighborhood, pretty much the whole country and experience. I was very happy. And one day in February, I woke up feeling headachey. It was cold and drizzly out. The air was heavy, like a block of ice pressing down on the city. The phone rang. My roommate/fellow teacher/long-time friend had already left for work, so I hauled my cold, heavy self out of bed and answered it. It was my mother. She was calling to tell me my grandfather had died, which didn't make sense because I had received my first-ever Christmas card from him not two days before.
It had been really hard on me when my grandmother had died. She had been the most important person in my world for my entire life up to that point. What I hadn't realized at the time, though, was I had my friends and family to share in my pain. I had my house, where I could curl up in my bed and cry for days on end. I had familiarity all around me, comforting me. When my grandfather died, the country I had come to love became a foreign and evil place. It was gauche to cry in public. Even blowing one's nose where others could see was taboo. I walked to work, trying so hard to keep my face calm, the tears in. That cold, gray sky drizzled it's misery down onto my head and I got heavier and heavier with every step. When I got to the teachers' office, my friend was in class. I was the only foreigner in the room. I looked at all the Korean teachers, women who had become good friends, and a wall went up between us as they saw the my shining, panicked eyes. I trudged to my desk and went to the restroom when I couldn't keep it in anymore. I trudged through the day, scaring my students, making them look away, embarrassed. When night fell, it was time to trudge home. My friend had another class to teach and would not be ready to leave for over an hour and since I couldn't bear the thought of sitting in that office for that long, I just left. It was icy out. I opted to take the bus that had a stop on the hill above our apartment. When I got off the bus, I looked up to the sky and just felt so very lost and alone and small in that big, strange, cold city. I walked to the corner and was about to turn to head down the hill when I heard a door open and a woman's voice yell, "YAH!" People do that all the time in Seoul, so I paid no attention. But I heard it again, followed, this time, by the sound of running. Then a hand grabbed my coat sleeve and pulled me around. I was looking at the florist whose shop was at the bus stop. We had stopped in a few times for fresh flowers over the months. The woman spoke no English and would only nod gravely as we'd point to a lily or a carnation or a bromeliad and then she'd bundle them up into some fancy, artistic centerpiece. We would pay and bow and she would send us on our way with never a word. This time, though, she was motioning frantically for me to follow her, to come with her, come into her store.
"Oh, not now," I thought. "I don't want to deal with this right now." She pulled me into the warmth of her tiny shop, about the size of a typical galley kitchen. She hustled and bustled, a flurry of petals, stems and leaves. The store smelled very good and the warmth and moisture helped to melt the frigidity I'd gathered throughout the day. I kept trying to tell her I had no money with me, no won, and I couldn't buy flowers tonight. I just couldn't. Please stop. Please?
She handed me a bouquet, an amazing creation of things that should never be seen in winter. I shook my head and felt the tears starting up again, massing on my swollen lids, ready to overflow like little rivers. She shrugged, looked me in the eyes and said, "You..." and she searched for a word, then pantomimed a frowny face. Sad. I nodded. Yes. I was very sad. She said, "Por you," and motioned to the flowers. But I couldn't pay for them. I just looked at her, lost. She said, "You..." searching for another word..."granpapa..." searching....then she made the slitting-of-the-throat-with-a-finger gesture. And I started crying. Sobbing. She came around the counter and she gathered me up, flowers squished between us, and she held me, petting my head, murmuring into my hair. After I'd finally stopped, she pushed tissues into my hand, helping me to wipe away my tears. She filled my coat pockets with candy. She turned me around and she pushed me out the door, bowing to me as I left. I had stopped crying. In fact, I felt a lot better.
I walked down the hill and looked into the sky. The drizzle had stopped and the moon was peeking through the clouds. The ice had turned to glitter. Lights burned warm in windows and the smells of meat and garlic drifted through the air. I told my grandfather goodbye and that I loved him, then I walked home where I put the flowers in a bottle and placed them in the middle of the room for anyone to see.