Thursday, December 1, 2011

love, food, and fire

note: i've wanted to share about my gma for a while now, but couldn't find a good way to do that. last night, in the midst of stressful paper writing as i near finals, i decided to make a snack and could not help but feel the warm comfort of my grandma. so please bear with me if you decide to read the following. it's quite lengthy and disorganized since i just wrote down what was in my mindgrape, but if you have some free time and want to learn a lil more about my family and the way i am, read on!
as i roasted goguma (we refer to it as korean sweet potato) in the oven, i thought about my grandma. as i peeled the goguma, i started to cry. goguma was one of my gma's favorite snacks, and one of the few she was able to eat comfortably in her last days because of its soft texture. a lot of my food memories-- the happy ones, sad ones, and everything in between-- have her smack dab in the center, and i've always believed that it's thanks in no small part to her that i have an appreciation for my family, a love for food, and a fire in my belly.

many say that when people die, they automatically become saints in almost everyone's memory. for the most part, it's true. i mean, yeah, i'm pretty sure no tearful eulogy would be able to convince you that saddam hussein was a completely delightful person, but usually the resting are remembered for their good qualities.

but i will always remember my grandma as herself, with all the good and not so good stuff. the woman was stubborn as a mule, and her tendency to recollect events in a highly skewed light started quite a few feuds within the family throughout my life. but my dad's mom aka ahn si bok aka sarah (which means princess. how fitting! she chose it for herself) was seriously a second mother to all of the kids in the family. when our parents went to work, my grandma took care of all of our needs and most of our wants that we needed the most. she bathed us, she cooked (freaking delicious food), she played with us, she filmed (she and my grandpa were always fond of capturing memories), she'd tell us about God, she sang around the house...

well, after reading what i just wrote, i guess she actually wasn't much of a princess on the daily, but she pretty much got what she asked for as the matriarch of the family. i can't deny that matriarchs hold a lot of responsibility and burdens though. still, there was a specific family quarrel (it was over something stupid, i don't even remember) that got so nasty i remember getting on my knees alongside my parents to beg for forgiveness just so she would return back to her rightful place on the throne with dignity (she had temporarily "moved out" of the house to my grandpa's small apartment) and the Ahn crib could be at peace once again. lawl.
pan-roasted spice-rubbed chicken, butternut squash, rainbow chard and mushrooms w/ bacon and balsamic.
let me go back to her cooking though. she lived with my family, and she cooked dinner every night, not to mention most earlier meals and snacks. rice, a billion korean sidedishes, a few "mains" to be shared family-style, and a korean stew or soup made up the typical dinner spread. she'd slave over the kitchen to bring the most delicious and comforting food of the motherland to our mouths, and she could go American, too. many summer days, when the neighborhood kids were over to play in the backyard pool, my grandma would call us all in for burgers or fried chicken tenders from scratch. she would smile and sit with us, panting in the heat and dabbing away the pearls of sweat on her face. to know that she dedicated herself to others, even when her knees and body ached so badly, made the food taste even more special. later on when we had returned to the pool, she'd tiptoe her way outside with a tray heavy with juicy watermelon. my summer days were some of the best times of my life, and she was a big part of that. oh, and special occasions were like our daily feasts times a billion. grandma would go all out. lots of dishes that required heavy TLC, lots of special ingredients. for special korean holidays, she made chewy rice cakes (dduk) from scratch. mochiko/glutinous rice flour? NO, that's for SISSIES. she made a huge pot of rice and commanded it to smooth, sticky rice cake consistency with a wooden paddle like a bawse. i almost feel like watching her make rice cake was a dream because i've never seen anyone use that old method before or after her.

she put her heart and soul into food and helped me appreciate the bounty of the earth. korean sidedishes are mostly veggies, and we eat a lot of fruit for dessert (ask any korean), but she'd still let us indulge in processed things like spaghettios and tv dinners if we wanted to! haha. anyway, many times throughout my childhood, she'd pack the car with my siblings, cousins and me and drive to random houses that sat on large plots of land in the middle of nowhere. somehow, she'd gotten word that certain houses had apple trees and others had chestnut trees. we'd scurry to the trees and pluck as many as we could, bagging away our booty and heading to the getaway vehicle. because of my grandma's strong belief that "the owners couldn't possibly eat all of it anyway," i got to see firsthand what hellish spikeballs chestnuts came nestled in. i got to taste the yellow morsels raw, right out of the husk that she pried off with a pocket knife, in all of their crunchy, mellow, grassy glory. i got to taste them again right after roasting, so sweet, rich and creamy. my modern-day, female robin hood of a grandma allowed me to realize in such a visceral way how things could grow, change, and nourish.
panang curry w/ chicken, carrots and green beans
and the years went by like that. i grew up as she grew older. i changed my styles as she changed her walkers. and i was nourished by my grandma and her ways, every single day.

fast forward to 2011. within a few short months, my grandma became increasingly ill with complications due to her diabetes, bladder cancer, old age, physical injuries, etc. she became bedridden. she lost her ability to form coherent sentences and pretty much speak, except late at night for hours on end when she'd let out bloodcurdling cries for my parents, my siblings, me, and her parents (up to that point, i'd never heard her refer to them informally as "umma and appa," translated as "mom[my] and dad[dy]," and all i can say is you just knew she felt like a frightened child searching for her parents' comforting faces. several times, i heard her cry, "엄마, 내 배 아퍼..."). we still wonder, to this day, how she mustered up the energy and willpower to call out like that. guess it was just that undying fire she had inside.

i came home from school and from my summer internship during this difficult time to spend time with my grandma. i helped to change her soiled sheets. i helped to roll her to one side during one hour, and to the other side the next to inhibit bedsores. i talked to her as she looked towards me with hollow, sunken eyes. but the most difficult thing for me was when she would ask me to feed her. you see, by this point, she couldn't chew and swallow much of her pulverized rice porridge, let alone more solid foods. but the woman loved flavorful food and she was stubborn. one time, she asked me what the family had eaten for dinner the night before, already knowing that what we ate tasted a hell of a lot better than what she was getting those days. i hesitated as i wondered whether or not to lie to her to make her feel less cheated. but she caught me.

"tell me the TRUTH," she snapped in korean (i seriously don't know how she formed an intelligible sentence out of nowhere because, again, that was quite a feat by this time).
hoisin-honey pork riblets
i told her we'd had galbi (korean barbecue short ribs). right away, she told me she wanted to eat a few pieces. i pleaded with her to reconsider, telling her that it wouldn't be good for her to try to eat something so tough. but the lady wasn't havin it -___- so i walked to the kitchen, wrangled a sharp knife from the counter and the meat from the fridge, and minced away until the meat was almost a pulp. i heated the meat up and mixed it with some rice porridge so she could swallow the food more easily.

i fed her the first spoonful. i could tell she wasn't swallowing the food as hard as she tried to move it around in her mouth.

"grandma, i don't think you should eat more of this, it's too hard to swallow..."
"no. give me more, i'm so hungry!"
"i shouldn't... you can't swallow it well."
"please... just give me more."

i could hear the helplessness and desperation in her voice. all she wanted to do was be able to eat something delicious. she was so tired of eating bland gruel.

then, she started to choke and cough the food out. i scooped the food out of her mouth with my finger, because she just couldn't eat it. i wiped her mouth and face with a warm, wet cloth and told her maybe we could try again later. my heart was breaking... i felt so guilty and frustrated that i wasn't able to help her do something so simple that had become so difficult. by the last two weeks, she wasn't able to eat anything at all.

as she slipped through my fingers, i wanted nothing more than to go back to the days of my childhood. I found myself pleading in my head. God, I just want those summer days of floating in the pool and being forced by grandma to swim laps as exercise before we hunker down for lunch. Please! I just want to eat the chestnuts halmuni peels for us as she "hoooooooo"s on them to cool them down.

but you and i both know what was coming. her condition got a lot worse so we entered her into hospice care at her request that was given in advance, along with my grandpa's urging. a short while after all of her children drove and flew to virginia just in time to be with her, she passed away surrounded by her husband, children (and children in law), and a granddaughter (+fiance). i'd left to stop by my internship location and didn't return in time.

these days, i think to myself: maybe i will stick more to my memories of her before she was really sick. the good and bad events and qualities. they're still good and bad and whatever else, but they all feel good to me now. does that make sense? she was so vibrant for a good 80 years, and obviously part of being a real firecracker is being feisty and stubborn, which she was til the end. while i will remember her passing (and the difficult days leading up to it) as a testament to the fact that we, as believers, don't ultimately belong here on earth and instead long to be with Christ, i still weep when i think about her state towards the end of her days here. so i think more about how loving and crazy she was, about how loving and crazy she made me, and about the food that shapes both my memories with her as well as my life every day.
i'm not the only one who got my grandma's passion for all things delicious and her feistiness. out of the 7 kids on my dad's side who grew up in the states, 5 of us are females. we are fiercely supportive of our family, we love food, we are pretty damn stubborn, and we have fire in our bellies. it's actually a running joke that our bouts of frustration and 'tude are inevitable bc "we get it from grandma." ha!

i love you, grandma. thanks for the love, thanks for the food, and thanks for the fire.

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