My grandmother Hee Soon Shin passed away this evening at 5:45 pm. She took her final breaths surrounded by two of her children, one of her sons-in-law and two of her granddaughters. She lived a full 91 years in two countries and several cultural shifts. She left this side of heaven with the same grace and strength I have always associated with her.
She was a widow before she hit her 40s, during the Korean War, with five young children in her care. Shortly after her husband’s death, she lost a daughter – an aunt I had never heard about until I was already a mother myself. She never remarried. I asked her once why she never remarried. She smiled, quickly covering her sweet grin with her right hand, and said in our mother tongue, “It’s not that I didn’t have the chance. But I had children, and I didn’t know if any man could love them like their own. Besides, I had already been married. Why did I need to do that again?”
My sister and I were sitting bedside this evening, urging our own mother and aunt out the door so they could run home, change out of their church garb, and return having prepared themselves to keep vigil. We had spent the day together, at one point in the hospital laughing as we noticed my grandmother was being kept company my mother and her two daughters – three generations of women born into varying degrees (if there is such a thing, truly) of patriarchy. My grandmother’s breathing had already slowed, but as they left my mother and aunt paused to say another goodbye. We noticed my grandmother’s breathing continued to shallow and slow. The stillness, another breath, another pause, another breath, another pause longer than the first.
I suspect my mother is still holding her breath. Waiting.
My grandmother was always a lady. I remember watching her wash her face, a painstaking ritual of cleansing, rinsing, refilling the sink with clean water to rinse her face again. She moisturized religiously, patting, never rubbing, her face. She massaged her neck and hands. Her hair was always cut and styled, her clothes tailored and pressed. She always covered her mouth when she laughed. Fortunately for me and my sister, we inherited some of those genes, though I suspect my tendency to smile and laugh with a wide opened mouth and wild hand gestures are a product of culture and recessive genes.
She came with me and my mother to get tattoos. It was actually a multigenerational field trip of vanity – my mother and grandmother having their eyebrows tattooed while I had my eyeliner, top and bottom, done in between nursing Bethany who came along in her car seat. I will never forget the four of us sitting over steaming bowls of rice and soup after having needles poke ink into our skin. Three of us with eyelids and brows puffy and shiny from the assault staring at each other, laughing over what we had just done, looking at Bethany sleeping in her carseat. Four generations of Korean (American) women who would share creased eyelids and a love for fashion, makeup and style.
She often vacillated between staunch traditionalist – especially thrilled that her first two granddaughters (me and my sister, the only children of her oldest surviving daughter, would give her five great-grandsons), and moments of almost-feminist – supporting my decision to keep my maiden name legally and professionally. She worried about my career ambitions getting in the way of taking care of my husband and children, but she would often tell me how blessed I was to have a husband who loved and respected me for and encouraged me to pursue those very ambitions.
I was supposed to leave for California Tuesday morning for a trip to speak at Pepperdine University’s chapel service Wednesday morning. Those ambitions that often conflicted both my grandmother and my mother (who am I kidding, those ambitions conflicted me!) brewing and developing and growing through writing and speaking and following God’s call and opportunities…instead of speaking to college student’s about the pain of being an outcast and alone and the grace, belonging and power of Christ I will be grieving, remembering, and learning. Sometimes, just when you think you’ve figured life out, life changes.
My grandmother lived through the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Korean War, and martial law. She lived through the death of an infant child, her husband, and a daughter all before immigrating to the United States. She was one of “those” people who never learned the language beyond a very, very polite, “I don’t understand. No English.” and yet she remained the matriarch, setting right her three daughters and son and their spouses; four granddaughters and four grandsons; and three great granddaughters and six great grandsons.
She and I didn’t meet until I was in elementary school, after my tongue had lost some of its Korean fluency. Over the years, my tongue spoke less and less Korean, but I understood her fierce love for three generations, each generation speaking and knowing less of her world yet still connected through blood and faith.
It’s way past my Lenten bedtime, but as I finally make my way to sleep I will remember how my grandmother taught me about self-care, grace, and strength. I will wash and moisturize my face. I will rub lotion into my hands. And I will rest in my Christ’s love.