Monday, May 7, 2012

Heavenly Readings - a tribute to my grandmother

In my pursuit of a Brooklyn accent for my next play, a twisted set of leads brought me to the TV show "Long Island Medium."  I am hooked.  Not only do I watch episode after episode on You Tube, but I outright cry at least twice per show.  For those who aren't familiar with Theresa Caputo, spirits of the dead talk to her, and she passes messages on to the living.  Be skeptical, call me and her crazy … but I routinely pursue the "out of the ordinary," so your opinion doesn't faze me.  I love this show.

I've got two people out there who need my number.  One, of course, is my mother who passed when I was just shy of my fourth birthday.  That meeting would be a straightforward "Hello, Mom.  I've never forgotten you" type of meeting.  The other encounter would be tougher.  I need to right a wrong which has been eating at me for a while.  If I could meet with my grandmother and get her forgiveness ... maybe absolution is a better word … well, I feel like my heart could dance a little lighter.

In short, I didn't help my grandmother learn how to read.  I can still hear her voice sounding out syllables of the Bible, interrupting my all-important TV shows.  As a teenager, she represented everything I disdained.  She was old, wrinkled and hunched, as any farm laborer would be at 78.  She was uncultured and unmannered, belching and slurping.  Even her speech was embarrassing.  Her country accent was thick and indelible, routinely garnering chuckles from fellow Koreans.  Adding smell to the offensive sights and sounds, she wore Korean back pain patches which perfumed her with a blend of menthol, ginseng and adhesive.  My teenage self was aspiring to conform to my All-American classmates, and she couldn't conform at all.

My paternal grandmother was born in the back country of Korea in 1907 when it was still the unified country it had been for centuries.  This was still an age of outhouses, shamans and polygamy, albeit the end of the age.   By the time she was 7, her marriage had been arranged, and when she was 14, she was married off to my then 12 year-old grandfather.  Education wasn't wasted on all boys, and educating girls was out of the question.  Hers was a seaside village in a mountainous country, capable of isolation from modern ideas.  Not 200 miles away, my maternal grandmother was busy completing high school and would eventually graduate from university.  The chasm between old and new was never so wide as in their generation.

Let me illustrate illiteracy.  Of course, a person can't read signs or write directions.  But you also can't tell time or dial a phone.  When my grandmother went to market, she would cup all her money in outstretched palms and trust the merchants to take the proper amount.  Needless to say, not all were honest.  In an environment of scarcity, pinching change from an old illiterate lady must be so tempting.  Remember, this was a post-war era.  Orphans were plentiful, hope scarce and people routinely died of the mundane disease called Hunger.

It's easy to blame her illiteracy on the timing of her birth.  But can't I be blamed, too?  Why didn't I teach her how to read?  She was in my daily life for almost 15 years.  Of course, chaotic family dynamics were in play.  Also, I knew her as illiterate, so it never occurred to me to change that.  The irony is that entire time we lived together, I was furiously learning and memorizing and studying.

Of course, I can't go back and change that.  But I wonder at my capacity for insensitivity.  How often do I turn a blind eye to those closest to me?  It almost seems to cruel to get annoyed at an old lady trying to learn how to read.  Do I still do that -- waft my frustration at those who are bettering themselves?  Since I'm regularly frustrated, it's certainly possible.

I have no answers today, dear Reader.  Strangely, though, I feel better just having written her story down.  She lives with me contantly, my grandmother.  As I walk past a pyramid of glossy bell peppers in Whole Food I think, "Halmuni would have been stunned by this."  She and I were born hardly apart -- a statistically insignificant number of years.  But in that span, the world hurled over colossal changes.  Look at me:  I read, write, tell time … own property … live alone … in her eyes, I must live like an empress.  So maybe I'll carry that with me from now on and see my life in all its majesty.  I certainly can't go back and teach her how to read, but perhaps my grandmother can still tutor me on how to live.  To see the world through the eyes of an illiterate back-country village girl.  To live in a steady state of appreciation and amazement.  Because my ability to read or multiply or tell time does not dim the fact that these are truly amazing times.  Thank you, Halmuni … and I'm gonna bet that out there, you're able to read this.

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