Great-grandmother's Warmth and Strength
November 27, 2018
Portia Sungsook Choi, guest contributor
I was born in South Korea. When I was two, the Korean War started with the sudden invasion of South Korea by communist forces. I became a homeless refugee with my mother and older sister, as well as many of my countrypersons.
After the fighting ended, I lived with my mother’s relatives before coming to America. It was the best year of my childhood. I lived with my great-grandmother, grandfather, grandmother, mother, an uncle and my older sister.
I especially liked my great-grandmother, Whang Yungyoung (Pictured in the front row. I am on the right). There was a special bond between us. She was the oldest and I the youngest in the extended family. I slept with her. She felt warm. I sensed her love for me.
I was the only one in the family that was born in South Korea. All of my extended family, including my sister, were born in North Korea. My parents decided to move to South Korea, when they noticed harsh treatment of Christians and anyone connected to America. My father was a Christian minister, and he was studying English. He wanted to study in the United States (US) or in Europe. He, in fact, went to the US to study when my mother was pregnant with me (her pregnancy was hidden from my father.)
After the Korean War ended, my mother decided to live with her family before going to America to join our father.
We joined our father in Los Angeles, when I was eight. He was the minister of a Korean church where I met other Korean children, among them Brenda Paik. We became part of the Sunday School group; and we had fun at picnics and house parties.
As I was growing up, I did not remember what it was like to have been in the Korean War. There were no photographs to help me remember. My mother told me about her experiences during the war.
It was not until I was in my twenties, that I became consciously aware of my feelings and of being in the war. At the time, I was in counseling due to being unhappy. Although my life seemed to be going well, there was something missing in my life.
The missing part was my childhood memories. I had a wonderful counselor, Henia Haidu, who had experienced being in World War II, as a Jew, in Europe. She was much older than I, and she seemed to care for me. She took me to a “Rebirthing Session” where through deep chest breathing, one was able to come in contact with one’s childhood memories and feelings. Henia was with me as I began to remember being the little girl in the war.
After the session, I wrote a poem of my experience of being in the war. I remembered being alone and hungry; and so happy with a ball of rice that was left for me. The poem is Ball of Rice:
Ball of Rice
My ball of rice: nice
warm, light and bright.
Where is mother?
Where is sister?
My ball of rice: nice.
I eventually wrote more poems about the Korean War from what I remembered, what my mother told me and from stories by American Korean War veterans that I met after coming to America. The poems were collected into a chapbook, Sungsook: Korean War Poems. The title is taken from my Korean name, Sungsook, that I was given at birth. Portia is the name that was given to me in America.
When Brenda Paik Sunoo told me about her granny project, I thought, “I am not a grandmother, but who I really remembered was my great-grandmother.” So for Jejugranny, I wrote the following poem about my nohalmony, which is great-grandmother in Korean.
My Nohalmony, My Great-Grandmother
You and I,
we have a bond.
You are the eldest and I am the youngest in our Korean family.
In your eyes,
I feel your joy watching me eat kim-chee with chopsticks or
walking wiggly-waggly in the front yard.
Your hands of a life-time of touches now stroke my hair, nurture my goodness.
I run into the folds of your arms after being scolded for
dropping sticky sauce on the floor.
I stay in your warmth until I soften into happiness.
In the night, between the comforters,
you mumble words of sorrow raising a young son alone.
Within the warmth of your wrinkles, I learn a gentle strength.
After going away, away to America,
I heard from mom that you had died, in Korea.
You had dementia with loss of memory and needing care.
Yet now, in the still moments,
you smile and weep with me.
After my retirement from my career in Public Health, I became involved in promoting poetry in our community (Bakersfield, California) and producing events for peace; most notably, the International Day of Peace on September 21st of each year.
There are selected poems from Portia’s chapbook on her website www.portiachoi.com. The chapbook, Sungsook: Korean War Poems, is also available from Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Sungsook-Korean-Portia-S-Choi/dp/1482007258.