The first thing that jumped out at me when I met her was her physical weakness. Her hands felt small, thinned with age, soft, and leathery when I took them in mine. She was in a wheelchair, and she wore a patterned pink shirt that fit loosely on her tiny frame.
“You came all this way to see me?” She asked.
“Yes,” we responded, “we flew from America to see you.” She looked us directly in the eyes and said, pointing to herself,
“Okay. Well look at me. This is what I look like.” I knelt beside her wheelchair and was suddenly struck, not by her frailty but by her strength. She turned her head to face me.
“Who are you?” She asked, with an expression of fierceness on her face. Her forcefulness terrified me, despite her being not at all physically imposing. I became afraid that she was going to scold me and I, unable to speak Korean, would not know how to respond.
“What are you doing in my house?” I imagined her yelling.
“He’s your great-grandson. Chongkeo’s child.” My relatives told her, and instead of scolding me, she reached out her hand. I didn’t understand what was happening at first, but I soon realized she was reaching for my hand, and so I took her hand in mine. My great-grandmother, or jeungjo-halmeoni, is 104 years old, struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. She has lived through the Japanese occupation of Korea, World War 2, the Korean War, and the brutal suppression of the Gwangju uprising. She has watched the birth of two Korean nations and the rapid industrialization of one. She gave birth to six sons and a daughter. She endured the loss of one son in his infancy and her house to her husband’s gambling addiction. She watched her firstborn son move across the world to South America and then New York for a better life, and she waited for him to come back to be with her in his 70s. With all of that taken into account, her hands seem small but forceful, her shoulders not diminished but broad, and her hair, gray and curly, appears more like woven strands of iron.
She reminds me of a white pine tree I saw at Jogyesa, a Buddhist temple in Seoul. Brought to the temple by Chinese missionaries 500 years ago, the tree outlasted the Joseon dynasty and survived the Later Jin, Qing, and Japanese invasions of Korea. It saw through the end of the Japanese occupation, during which Jogyesa had served as a hotbed of resistance against Japanese attempts to crush Korean Buddhism. The pine is not a super tall tree, standing at around 10 meters, nor does it have any flowers. However, its branches are broad, its needles are thin, but forceful, and its shocking white bark resembles iron.