In my (relatively short) lifetime, I have worn a lot of hats and gone by a lot of different names. I’m a wife, daughter, sister, aunt, niece, marketer, professor, adoptee, and on and on and on. Strangely, one thing I suddenly became five years ago was a granddaughter. That sounds odd. One is normally bestowed the title of “granddaughter” upon birth, right? Sadly, I never knew much of my adoptive grandparents on either side. They met me a few times when I was a baby, but they had all passed by the time I was old enough to remember them. I never knew how much I missed out on until I became a granddaughter at age 23. This was when I met my birth family in Korea.
I’ve talked before about how I was terrified to become a big sister. I didn’t have any experience in that role, but knew, generally, what it was supposed to look like. Watch out for your kid brother, make sure he is taking care of himself, help him navigate life as he grows and matures. But when I became a granddaughter, I was at a loss. What was my job? Supply them with sugar-free candies and knit together? Don’t misunderstand, I would have been very happy to fulfill those duties! But I knew there was probably a lot more to it than that.
I never knew how much I missed out on until I became a granddaughter at age 23.
The first time I met my paternal grandmother, I was in my birth family’s home and she suddenly dropped by. This was not unusual because she lives about 30 steps away from their front door. It was a hilarious scene, though. I had just met my birth family 48 hours prior. We were slowly but surely making our rounds with the shocking news that I had suddenly reappeared and would now be a part of the Jeon family again. Everyone was worried about telling 할머니 halmoni, just because it was all so sudden and quite shocking. 아빠 Appa said he would go talk to her first and then call me over to her house to meet her. Well, she beat us to the punch. That morning, 아빠 appa had walked out the door to work, leaving Hyun-bae and I lazing around the house. Within minutes, he was urgently calling Hyun-bae‘s phone. “I just ran into grandmother. She is on her way to the house. I had to tell her quickly about Hyun-ah.” Hyun-bae‘s expression was panicked. “어떻게 Eotteokay?,” he shouted. “What do we do?!” We scrambled around the house, jumping up and down with hyperactivity, and shouting “어떻게?!” because we just didn’t know what else to do. We weren’t ready yet!
Within a minute, 할머니 halmoni was there. She busted through the front door, took one look at me, and dissolved into tears. “미안해, 미안해, 사랑해, meeahnhay, meeahnhay, saranghae!,” she cried. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I love you!” She grabbed hold of me and cried and repeated herself over and over again. I didn’t know what to do. I smiled and nodded and hugged her. She got a hold of herself and started talking to me. I just looked at her, because her older Korean dialect was impossible for me to understand. Was she even speaking Korean? I looked at Hyun-bae helplessly and he started to translate.
“She has prayed for you every day. She lived to see the day you would come back to our family.”
“She says she has prayed for you every day. She just wanted to live to see the day you would come back to our family,” he translated. “Ohhh,” I said. “Please tell her I’m OK. She doesn’t have to be sorry. Everything is fine.” She stroked my face and held my hand and told me over and over again how much she loved me. She wanted to hear all about my family in the States. Did I have any pictures? Her smile was huge as I showed her pictures of the Casey family and explained about each member. She thought all of my brothers were so handsome. She asked about my job. She told me she wished grandfather was still alive to see this day and meet me, too.
The next day, we were running errands and Hyun-bae said we should stop by 할머니 grandma’s house. I tagged along. We got to the house and she ushered me in. We walked through the living room and headed towards her bedroom. I looked at Hyun-bae, puzzled. He gestured me to follow. We went in and she had me sit down on her bed. “This is your room,” she said. I was so confused. “Isn’t this your room, grandma?,” I asked. “No, it’s your room. This is where you lived with us for two weeks right after you were born. We were taking you to all the doctors to see what we could do. Before we had to take you to Holt, you lived here with our family.” I was stunned. “So this house has been in our family all these years?” Hyun-bae nodded. “Yes,” he said. “After it was your room, it became grandmother’s room. She never stopped thinking of you.” I didn’t know what to say. I was completely overwhelmed. 23 years later, and here I sat in my room. I hugged 할머니 halmoni and squeezed her tight. It was my turn, then. “너무 감사해요, 할머니, 사랑해요, neomu kamsahaeyo, halmoni, saranghaeyo,” I said over and over again. There was nothing else to be said. “Thank you so much, Grandma. I love you.”
Stay tuned for the second post in this series, when Whitney will share a hilarious story about “becoming ‘granddaughter'” to her other (maternal) grandmother in Korea.
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