For a kindergarten school project, my classmates and I made web diagrams meant to serve as condensations of our five-year-old identities into the basics: pink and blue, macaroni and cheese, Disney World. We put our names in the middle circle of the diagrams and personal favorites in each of the sub-circles: favorite color, favorite animal, favorite food, favorite vacation place. Most of my answers looked like my classmates’, except for two — favorite food and favorite place. For these, I thought about my grandmothers. The circles read “Korean instant ramen” and “Atlantic City.”
When I brought this project home from school, my paternal grandmother hung it on the wall of her living room. It blended in with the rest of the school projects, family photos, and portraits of saints that covered her walls. It hung there through lazy summer afternoons and post-Christmas-dinner, stay-for-one-more-coffee evenings.
Later, when my grandma became sick with cancer, she lived on a hospital bed in her living room where access was easier for hospice nurses. Eventually, she lost the ability to speak. There wasn’t much for me to do other than smile, hold her pale hands and study her veins, or stare at the crowded walls. The walls which, like a magnet, had quietly collected memories across years and continents.
Both of my grandmothers were born in the 1930s and came of age during wars: my maternal grandmother in Korea, my paternal grandmother in Italy. My grandma left Italy as a young woman, while my halmeoni decided to stay in Korea. Years later, when her daughter, my mother, graduated college and moved to the United States, my halmeoni followed to help raise me.
My grandmothers saw my brother and me as battlegrounds for their cultures, each trying to make sure theirs didn’t disappear. That my halmeoni came forty years after my grandma gave the former a significant advantage, because the years hadn’t the chance to erode memories, customs, identities. Italian had already abandoned my father’s tongue. I went to Korean school every week, but no such thing existed for Italian.
After one too many tearful attempts at combing my hair, which had inherited my father’s curls, my mother gave me a perm so I had the same straight, black hair as she did. There was no First Communion picture on my grandma’s wall — I was raised Protestant, like my mother. My maternal grandmother took each of these changes as a personal attack, a physical manifestation of her culture’s diminishing existence in this new country.
My parents tried to play neutral between the two grandmothers, and thus I ended up spending elementary school afternoons split between the two.
Evenings with my paternal grandmother consisted of the click-click-click-whoosh of the stove and the clanging of pots and pans, the aroma of tomato sauce, the heavy steam that stuck to my skin — closing in until nothing was left in the world but her tired house. When I refused to eat tomato sauce, my grandmother would make a separate dinner for me: Tiny star-shaped pastina in chicken broth. My own mushy night sky in a bowl.
My halmeoni lived with my family at our home. Just as during afternoons with grandma, halmeoni afternoons brought the same click-click-click-whoosh of the stove. The stove turning on often released all the tension in the room — lingering tension from the day, from our relationship. I would feel vaguely unsettled as the headlights of passing cars flashed long, distorted shadows on our kitchen walls. Here, it felt like we should be the only ones who existed.
But the food halmeoni cooked tasted nothing like grandma’s. It was pure sensory overload, and I loved its ability to make my eyes water, tongue burn, snot run down my nose. The dish that did this best of all was Korean instant ramen — the food I wrote on my kindergarten web diagram.
The day I brought my web diagram project home from school, I spent the afternoon with my paternal grandmother. I pulled her side table next to the couch I was sitting on, slid her ChapStick and rosary out of the way, and opened my folder to do homework. When she looked down and saw “lamyun,” the Korean pronunciation of ramen, written on my project, her face remained stoic.
“Why you no write pastina?” she asked, her broken English a sharp edge.
Neither of my grandmothers ever mastered a language other than their own. They certainly would never speak each other’s. But at some point, they developed their own shared language: the bright colors and sounds of slot machines. These gambles were a promises of instant wealth, an equal chance for all—sort of like the American dream, but better, because all they had to give up was a handful of quarters.
This became our yearly summer tradition: my parents, my grandmothers, my brother, and I loaded into our minivan to make the trip to my favorite place: Atlantic City.
My grandmothers would creep quietly back into our hotel room hours after my brother and I had fallen asleep. I didn’t understand how they could spend hours and hours together without ever speaking, communicating only through laughs and gestures and eye contact.
When my paternal grandmother died, I saw the rawest form of grief I’ve ever seen in my halmeoni — no words, just sobs so visceral I thought she would run out of water for her tears.
Eventually, the hospital bed vanished from grandma’s living room, the stove in the kitchen went cold, and the collection of memories on the wall began to thin. As we took them down one by one, rewinding the memory reel, I noticed the kindergarten web diagram again. I remembered my mother’s laughs when she saw it (that a five-year-old listed Atlantic City and instant ramen as her favorite things). I remembered my childhood despair that I couldn’t fit everything I wanted. I remembered my grandmother’s anger that she and her pastina weren’t represented.
But upon closer examination, I realized I had missed an addendum. Next to the neatly typed “lamyun” in the “favorite food” bubble, I had scrawled in pencil, with big, clumsy, earnest letters, “And Pastina.” The project I had seen as a battleground was actually the space my two grandmothers’ stories came together. I wonder if they came to think of my brother and me the same way.
—Magazine writer Nina H. Pasquini can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @nhpasquini.