Most of you know my father’s story, and how much his life shaped me into the person I’ve become. But another one of the biggest influences in my life is and has always been my grandmother. She left South Korea with my grandfather and two of three of her children to come to America for a better life. She was one of five daughters, and one of the middle children. She was the sweetest and the prettiest daughter (according to some of her sisters). She was also the woman who raised me when my mother left when I was seven.
There were language barriers, and she wasn’t the greatest cook, but the lessons I’ve learned from her love and life are ones that I’ll carry with me forever.
1. Marry for love, not money.
I remember being in my father’s hospital room while he was asleep. My aunt, my grandmother and I had been there for hours, snacking on cafeteria food, exhausted from the uncomfortable seats, waiting for my father to wake up from his random naps while he was being treated for the multiple complications of cancer. It was a stressful time; my grandfather had already passed a year and a half before from cancer. It was like a bad case of deja-vu. But it sparked a strange session of reminiscing – my aunt started talking about how much her life would have been different if my grandmother hadn’t married for love, but for money, security and her parent’s approval.
My grandfather left North Korea (pre-Korean War) when he was 15 years old. He came from a family of eleven children, a relatively wealthy family up North – a life of happiness, security and comfort. That all went up in flames when his father and older brothers were prosecuted for their religion. His mother packed him a bag and told him to go down South, where it was safer. He listened. He never saw his family ever again. He was only 15 years old.
A working class man with no family who “looked too much like a police officer” at first – my grandfather – pursued my grandmother after meeting her through a mutual friend. He was stern, incredibly handsome, ambitious but refined.
But my grandmother had already been proposed to by a man who was wealthy and from an affluent family. Her parents pushed her to accept the proposal and deny the advances of my grandfather. Wanting to please her parents, she accepted the other man’s proposal, but only to renege that offer later.
She decided to marry my grandfather instead. She married for love, not for money. She went against her parent’s wishes and followed her heart.
At this point, my aunt is jokingly scolding my grandmother – attributing her own life’s series of events to my grandmother’s naive decision to marry for love. We laughed so hard we started crying. My grandmother married for love – she trusted herself, and made a decision and never looked back. And if she hadn’t, none of us would be sitting in that hospital room surrounding my father that day – laughing despite our pain, together as a family.
2. You have to work hard to be successful.
A new country, three children, no car, no place to live, and a huge language/culture barrier – the challenges they faced did not stop them as a family to find work, save money and get on their feet. My grandmother worked every odd job with her head held high – she did what she had to do to support her family.
Selling late night food and soju on the side of the street, making sandwiches at a deli, altering clothing and pressing pants at a Dry Cleaner’s – she taught me that hard work is absolutely necessary for success. And you should never let your pride hinder you from doing what you have to do.
3. You deserve it to yourself to forgive yourself.
Guilt is crippling. And if you don’t let go of it, it will drain you. When my father and mother decided it would be best for me and my brother to stay with my father, my mother went back to her hometown to start a new life with the support of her mother and sisters. My grandmother couldn’t find a way to get rid of the pity she felt for my father, my brother and me.
I remember watching her tear up as soon as she looked at us – at 7 years old, then again when I turned 12, again when I was 17, and even now. As soon as her mind crosses the memory of us being raised by my father without a mother, she would cry. And despite the constant reassurance from me and my brother that “everything was fine” and that “we were okay” – she would still feel this incredible guilt that we weren’t loved enough, or that we were to be pitied.
Whenever she would think about my father and the struggles that he had to go through. How maybe she didn’t work hard enough, or didn’t provide him with enough when he was younger. How maybe if she had dedicated more of her time to learning English, she wouldn’t have had to depend on him as much, and allowed him to follow his dreams.
All of these things would create sadness that she had trouble letting go, and it broke my heart to see her like that.
I’ve learned that you deserve it to yourself to forgive yourself, so that you can move on with your life and create a perspective that will allow you to be happy and grateful – despite all of the things that happened out of your control.
4. Learn to appreciate timeless, classic style.
“Stop spending all your money on cheap clothes.”
Growing up, if she saw my hair dyed a weird color, or she noticed the introduction of extra low-rise jeans in the 90’s – there’d be a wave of anxiety I’d see wash over her face. I spent too much of my part-time Ruby Tuesday’s money on clothes way too often – throughout high school, college, and even during my first few years working full time in New York City.
I had spent countless hours looking through her dozens of old photo albums – her style was always polished, classic, feminine yet wearable. I never truly appreciated the endless ways she re-wore her pieces, until I stepped foot in her walk-in closet one day and found this silk blouse.
As soon as I saw it, I couldn’t resist trying it on. A beautiful blush colored silk blouse with cap sleeves – tucked into a high-waisted bottom and it became the perfect mix of vintage meshed with modern. And with every outfit I’d see her in, she’d wear the diamond necklace my grandfather bought for her or a pearl necklace – classic and timeless.
She let me keep the blouse and bring it back with me to New York. I keep this blouse close to me and every time I see it hanging in my closet I think of her. And everytime I go shopping, I think about whether she’d cringe at my trend-hopping impulse buy or the classic items she’d be proud of. So I keep these items close – her blouse and this pearl necklace I picked up from The Pearl Source. Classic, simple yet elegant – a necklace I’d wear forever, a piece I’d be able to give to my own granddaughter one day. And I’m reminded that a young girl obsessed with trends should slowly become shaped into a woman who appreciates the classic and timeless.
5. You will face hardships in your life, but you will always find the strength to continue.
My grandmother – a woman who raised me when my mother left at 7, a woman who married for love, a woman who loved unconditionally, a woman who worked hard for and cherished her family, a woman who continued to find the strength to smile despite the challenges she’s faced.
She’s had countless surgeries. While gardening, she fell and almost split her leg open to reveal the bone – hello, stitches. She’s fallen and broken her hip twice – the most recent because she was diagnosed with a muscular disease. More surgeries. When pressing pants one day, her hand was accidentally burned to the point where she needed a skin graft. She’s been held at knifepoint when she and my grandfather’s deli was being robbed. She watched her husband and her son die from cancer – a year and a half apart. She had to spend last Christmas Eve in a rehabilitation center after being released from the hospital, post-hip-surgery. And to top all that off, she recently went into surgery this week as she too was diagnosed with cancer.
So no, some things will never make sense. Times will get tough. Your strength will be tested. But you have to keep pushing, just like my grandmother has always done.
This post is for my grandmother – the strongest woman I know.
I’d ask that you please keep her in your prayers, and I thank you so much for reading. And remember that no matter what, you will find it in yourself to continue, find peace past your pain, and never lose hope. Keep smiling. Keep pushing.