Letter to Halmeoni

Dec. 27, 2022, 11:34 a.m.

Dear Halmeoni,

I’ve tried to write this over and over, and I’ve failed over and over. I keep remembering our family dinners: Those nights you’d eat standing up, your battered apron still tight around your waist. I have to do the dishes soon anyways. You’d shove a few spoonfuls of rice into your mouth before rushing back to the kitchen. If one of us offered to help, we’d be met with, It’s okay. Just stay in the living room. You wouldn’t stop your scrubbing to look up at us.

Our New Year’s celebrations: While my relatives and I would chuckle together on the living room floor, sharing a platter of fresh-cut fruit, you’d stay in the kitchen, cutting the fruit.

That one afternoon, a memory from early childhood: My grandfather yelled at you from the front door, Hurry up! A husband shouldn’t have to wait for his wife! You rushed over, rummaging the top drawer for his shoes and then placing them by his feet. I’m sorry, you whimpered.

That one summer night, I was 15: I woke up to a rapid cry coming from your bedroom, the sound a bleeding dog makes wailing from a dark alleyway. I peeked into the room, and you were curled up in a fetal position. When I called you from the door — H-Halmeoni? — your wailing didn’t stop.

Holiday visits: Whenever my school overseas went on long vacations, my family and I got to visit you in Korea. Every year, we’d ask you how you have been; every year, you’d say, Gwaenchanchi, mwo. (Alright, I guess.)

What I can’t remember is your name. Your real one — not Anae, Eomma, Halmeoni (Wife, Mother, Grandmother). I can’t remember what you’ve ever craved or what your smile looks like, what being happy means to you. I can’t remember what it feels like to be held in your arms.

I remember a few years ago, on your birthday, my father was calling you. He handed me the phone and said, Say a few words to your Halmeoni.

I pushed the phone away. What am I supposed to tell her?

She’s your Halmeoni! he snapped. You really can’t say anything?

As I write this, I’m still lost.

That one afternoon two years ago, at the start of my gap year. The rest of our family was out running errands, leaving just the two of us in your house. You walked over to me from the kitchen and asked, Can I show you something?

I was dazed; it was the first time I had ever heard you start a sentence with the words, “Can I.” I took a few extra seconds before mumbling a yes.

Come with me. There was a sternness in your voice that I couldn’t recognize.

I followed behind as we walked to your room. We sat down shoulder-to-shoulder on your bed, and you reached for a notebook lying next to your nightstand. For a minute, you said nothing.

What is that? I asked.

You handed me the notebook. It was palm-sized, sheathed in blue leather; the cover had “2020” written in black marker. Below, there was a cross stitched on.

I flipped to the bookmarked page. Four columns ran down the paper. In each column, there was a different word — a name — each written out 10 times in hanja.

My hands froze. Is this my name?

You didn’t reply. But your shoulders were hunched, your fingers digging into your elbows. I saw your eyes flared open as they looked down at the floor.

I flipped through the earlier pages in the book. Each one was identical to the other: my two cousins’ names, my brother’s and mine, each written 10 times.

Then, you pulled out a shoebox from underneath your bed. I found more notebooks inside. There was one for every year since 2002, my birth year.

As I sifted through the books, questions clamoring in my mind — Since when were you religious? Why did you hide this? — you spoke for the first time since we had come into the room.

You were the first person I prayed for, every morning.

I stared at you with a blanched face. Halmeoni… I…

The front door opened. I’m hungry, let’s eat! said a relative.

Before I could find my words, you were already rushing to the kitchen.

That one weekend, I was eight or nine. While my parents visited other relatives, my brother and I were staying at your house. We got into a fight one afternoon and knocked over a vase in the living room.

You rushed over. What’s going on?

He’s hogging the computer again! I yelled at you. I stomped to a nearby room and slammed the door, sending a rustle through the house’s thin walls. I curled up in the corner and sulked.

Half an hour later, I heard a gentle knock on the door. You peeked in with your apron tied around your waist, wearing plastic gloves speckled with seaweed and rice grains.

Against your stomach, you held a plate of rice balls. The night before I had refused to eat most of the different banchan you cooked for me, saying I didn’t like Korean food; you must have noticed the one thing I ate a bit of on the dinner table.

Are y-you… are you alright?

I didn’t reply.

I walked up to you and took the plate from your hands, not once looking up at your eyes. I shut the door.

What went through your mind when you wrote my name the morning after that day? Was it different from the other prayers?

That one night, later in my gap year. My family and I were eating dinner at your house. We were chuckling together, sharing the food you had cooked for us.

In the middle of the meal, you rushed to the kitchen.

You started scrubbing.

I had watched you do this countless times throughout my life, always nestled around my family’s laughter — but I couldn’t just sit back anymore. In that moment, anger ripped through me.

What the fuck are we doing right now? I wanted to yell at you. Why aren’t we talking to each other? We’re family, that word means we’re supposed to be close!

I took my plate and stomped to the kitchen; I couldn’t take another bite of your food.

I stood there, glaring at you.

You didn’t look up. The faucet stayed running.

I dropped my plate from an inch’s height onto the countertop, striking the marble.

Just look at me, please! I was crying out. We’re family!

You kept looking down, scrubbing.

Did you hear me that day?

Another night from my gap year, I was having dinner with my mother. I asked her that question.

Since when was Halmeoni religious?

She wasn’t for most of her life, my mother said, but she started going to church a few years before you were born.

Why?

The room fell silent. She put her chopsticks down.

It was when your father and I were having conception problems.

That time in our family history had always been a mystery to me. I only knew its silhouette: they were the bleakest years of my parents’ lives, and little else. No one had ever told me how you fit into this picture.

She wanted grandchildren so, so much — but she didn’t know how to help. So that was her way.

She continued, Halmeoni was baptized in June 2001. I conceived you and your brother one month later.

My mother left the church in college; religion had never been a part of how she raised me. But, I could tell that day, she knew in her heart that her two sons would’ve never existed without you.

The night of my 20th birthday, in my freshman year of college. It was almost midnight; I had spent the whole day out with friends and calling people back home. When I had just climbed into my bed, I received a call.

Hello? Hanmin? you said through the phone. I just called to say happy birthday.

Halmeoni! Thank you so much… I bolted upright. Thank you so much. How are things in Korea?

They’re alright…how about you? Isn’t it hot year-round in California?

Yep. Seoul must be getting warmer too, right?

A little bit… also, Hanmin — you have to keep your mask on, no matter how hot it gets. Always cover your nose, okay?

I will, Halmeoni.

We both fell silent. I struggled to say something — something that would get us past the one-line exchanges. I heard my father’s echo, You really can’t say anything?

Because there was always so much I could say: I could thank you for all those years you kept me in your thoughts, even when I had rarely, if ever, thought about you. I could tell you how ashamed I was for the times I was reckless towards you, how indebted I felt for the family you gave my parents. I could say sorry for still being so clueless about how to love you.

But, I couldn’t. I was scared.

Well… happy birthday again. Stay safe, okay?

Yes, I will. Thanks again for calling.

More echoes clamored in my head: the plate striking the countertop, my yelling, your scrubbing. Your silence.

I thought, Maybe this is just how things are.

My thumb drifted to the “end call” button. You said, Good night, Hanmin.

Then, you said:

I l-love… you.

As we both fell silent again, a tear trickled down my cheek.

Maybe that’s all we were trying to say, all along.

I love you, Halmeoni.

Your sonja,

Hanmin

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