A year ago, my grandmother passed away. The day before Thanksgiving.
It was hard. She was sick for a couple months leading up to it and I hated watching her suffer. My grandmother was a big part of my life and I miss her a lot.
In memory of her, I’d like to share the remarks I made at her funeral.
My earliest memories of my grandma are of her driving.
When I was really little, she would navigate my family’s big gray Buick through Koreatown with ease—she knew the neighborhood like the back of her hand. There was always somewhere to go: The Korean grocery store, a friend’s house for tea, or Bullocks—a fancy old-school department store on Wilshire Blvd. that has since become a law school.
When my grandma drove, it was like we went back in time. She would often wrap her hair in a scarf, put on huge Jackie O sunglasses, and wear a pair of pristine white gloves.
Since then, I have never seen another human being wear white gloves while driving. Unless it was in the movies or on an episode of Mad Men.
I think there’s something significant about memories of my grandma being tied to her driving. To me, driving represents American independence. And ever since she was young, my grandmother had dreamed of living in the U.S. When she finally immigrated here in the late 1960s, she learned how to drive right away. Keep in mind, in the 1960s, Halmoni was in her 40s. I don’t know many people in their 40s now who learn how to do new things, let alone a new thing in a completely foreign country where you don’t speak the language.
And it’s her independence that I think of the most when I think about her many unique qualities. She maintained it until the very end. Most Korean grandmothers I knew lived with their children and their lives revolved around grandmotherly activities. And she had a lot of grandmotherlyness—she babysat me and my sister throughout our childhood, knit tiny pieces of clothing for our dolls, and made jars of kimchi like the best of them. She doted on her grandkids and was very proud of her family. But, unlike a lot of other grandmas I knew, she always valued her own independence as well. She made new best friends at the age of sixty, best friends that I knew my entire life. With my grandma at the wheel, they traversed LA and went on little daytrips, lunches throughout K Town, shopping in Beverly Hills. They all lived in the same senior housing together. In fact, my grandmother lived by herself in that senior home for the last thirty or so years of her life.
Her apartment in that senior housing was a very pure reflection of my grandma. The living room was filled with delicate and expensive glass figurines, photos of the family in heavy floral-etched frames, and big vases full of flower arrangements. And in this generic popcorn-ceilinged apartment, my grandma managed to make her bedroom and bathroom luxurious. She had a four-poster bed covered in lacy pillows and comforters. A huge vanity made of gleaming wood topped with a billion little perfume bottles and dainty jewelry boxes. Her bathroom had floral-embroidered hand towels and this turquoise soap dish set that looked like something hipsters would give their left arm for today. And her little patio that barely fit any furniture was filled with plants—pots of bougainvillea, geraniums, and azaleas. They were always in bloom.
I spent a lot of my childhood summers in that apartment. My sister and I were like the child mascots of the retirement home. My grandma loved to show us off, she was always so proud of us for being well-behaved and, let’s be honest, of how cute we were. We played weird old people games like shuffleboard and read back issues of Reader’s Digest in the common room. But a lot of our time was spent hanging out with my grandma watching old movies and soap operas. My grandmother loved old movies—she was a huge film buff. I attribute my own love of classic films, especially old Audrey Hepburn movies, to those days spent with my grandma.
She was a fountain of knowledge on golden age Hollywood, and only just recently requested a DVD copy of Gigi. As for watching soap operas, I’m pretty sure it’s how my grandma learned how to speak English so well—even in her last weeks at the hospital, she was able to communicate with the nurses in English. This may not seem like a big deal, but it is. Some of my friends’ parents aren’t fluent in English, and there was my grandma, at 92 in her hospital bed, chatting with my white husband about what kind of cats she liked best.
For the past ten years or so, my sister and I made regular trips to the grocery store with my grandma. She would tell us, every time, that the best way to pick out produce was to select the best looking ones. Whether or not that was actually good advice, I don’t know, but I find myself doing it anyway. I only pick apples that are shiny and well-shaped and have a healthy color to them. In general, Halmoni loved beautiful things. Art, design, home décor, what have you.
But I would say what sticks out to me the most is how much she loved fashion.
You see this dress I’m wearing? I bought it especially for today because I knew that everything in my closet was complete garbage when held up to my grandma’s standards. If any of the granddaughters showed up to her funeral wearing pants or flat shoes, we’d be haunted by her angry, fashionable ghost forever.
Because Halmoni was always impeccably dressed and coifed. In the sixties she did look like someone off the set of Mad Men. And growing up with her, I never saw my grandma shabbily dressed, even in her own home. She had Italian heels stacked up next to her sack of rice. Dressers full of sweaters wrapped carefully in tissue. Closets full of slacks and blazers with sparkly brooches attached. The first thing she noticed when I walked in the door was my hair sloppily tied up in a bun or what cheap sandals I was wearing. She always looked at my hands to see what kind of nail polish I had managed to put on. I knew that she derived sincere pleasure from seeing her grandchildren dressed well, so I did my best when I went to visit her. It may seem superficial, but I understand it now as an adult. Yes, she liked beautiful things, but I also think she liked civility and manners and tradition.
I always joked about how fancy my grandma was. How she wanted me to take horseback riding lessons as a kid and drive a Jaguar as an adult. How she often urged me to go travel to Europe when I was a broke grad school student. But what’s the first thing I did when I finally made it to Spain, to Paris, London, and Germany? I bought souvenirs for Grandma. Pretty ones with flowers and the cities and countries proudly emblazoned on them. Like with how I dressed, I knew that these little things made my grandmother happy, because being well-traveled was something she valued.
So while there was a side to her that was very traditional, there was also a side to her that was very progressive for her time. When I got married, she always told me I had to learn how to cook for my husband. That was the traditional side. But she also said, “If you don’t want to have children, it’s no big deal.” I often think that my grandma might have been born in the wrong time. I wonder what she could have done with that independent spirit if she had grown up as privileged as me.
The last story I’ll tell you is kind of a sad one, but I think it really says a lot about Halmoni. A few years ago, when she was in her 80s, she insisted that I come over and take her to the DMV to retake her written driver’s test. She hadn’t driven in years at this point because the family no longer allowed her after she got into an accident. I knew that taking away my grandma’s car was essentially taking away her freedom. But I was so confused as to why we were going to the DMV, what did she think was going to happen even if she did pass? There’s no way we would let her drive. I tried to convince her not to go but she insisted. And so we drove to the horrible DMV downtown somewhere and waited for a long time until it was Halmoni’s turn to take the written test. It was in Korean. I watched from afar, as she stood at the counter and carefully answered each question.
As you can imagine, she didn’t pass. The DMV worker said she could try it again, but I couldn’t bear watching that and told her we should go get lunch instead. I was so depressed by this incident, so sad for her. But she took it in stride, even if she was angry about it and I’m sure a little embarrassed. It goes back to my grandma and her independent spirit. How she fought until the end to live her life the way she wanted to.
I don’t want to remember my grandma in the hospital the last few weeks of her life. She would be furious if that’s how we remembered her—not able to walk, talk, and fix her hair. I want to remember her in those white gloves, driving me through the city. Wearing pearls and Ferragamo heels. Taking care of her grandchildren and living on her own terms.