We are walking from their apartment. Up a steep street in the sweltering heat. She is due. Her stomach is wide, round, the baby’s head engaged. Food couriers whizz by with chicken dishes for locals. We find an allotment behind a school, in a valley, overlooked by the mountains and power lines. None of us knew it was here. There is clover to entice the bees, tomatoes staked and beans already sprouting. We talk about bringing the compost here to share.
We can bring baby here when she is born, I say. Her mother is both excited and a little frightened. I grew up she tells me in the countryside, but you know, we didn’t have bugs and things. I lived in an apartment. She waves away what might be a sand-fly or mosquito, but possibly her imagination. We speak of the labour to come. Our language inhibits us. Instead, we breathe together. Breathing we agree will help the baby to arrive. I’m not sure she is convinced.
I am a Halmoni, the Korean word for grandmother. This baby is not my first grandchild. The other granddaughter lives in New Zealand and she will turn 11, just a week or so after this baby is born. I am reminded of her birth, of my love for her and of my own journey as a young mother, without a mother.
Here in Korea, the mother is mothered. My daughter-in-law is well supported. We have travelled from New Zealand to be here for four months, to be helpful. I’ve taken leave from my paid job. Her own mother is also a working woman and spends the weekends making nutritious food for a feeding mother. Seaweed soup, chicken porridge, foods that comfort as well as contribute. I am out of my depth. My daughter-in-law craves the food of her childhood. I can make chicken soup with a fresh chicken from the market. But there are family recipes and rituals I can never replicate.
So, I bring my love in my suitcase. I haven’t changed a baby’s nappy, since the father of this child was a baby. Before this baby arrives, the parents have invested in cloth nappies. We nodded in approval. Now that baby is here, we are using disposables. I cry a little with the emotion of being trusted with this new day-old baby, although my son ensures I know how to hold her fragile head. He checks, initially, whenever he passes his daughter to me, that I understand the way to hold her. And then he is back at work, and I am trusted with her lovely head.
Memories of being a new mother emerge in vignettes. I try not to say too often to the baby’s grandfather who is here with me… remember how often you were away. I recall our farm holiday near the Coast. The clothesline strung from one wooden prop to another. Cows roamed beneath. When the line was full, it collapsed, and the nappies fell in the cow pads. We had crayfish though, undersized crayfish, that the farmer gave us to eat.
At night, I recall the mishaps. The window that fell on my eldest son when he was 18 months old. He still has the scar. His wife finds it attractive. I can still see the million pieces of glass, the blood on the floor, the blood on me, and my pregnant belly. I remember the rush to the hospital in a neighbour’s car (because you were at work darling). And the night our youngest lad’s foreskin became a tourniquet around his penis due to an infection and at midnight I phoned my neighbour for help (because you were away darling…). He reminds me, this besotted grandfather, that he was trying to pay the mortgage. And we both agree, it’s much of a blur. These vignettes come unbidden, to remind us, who we once were. Brief recollections, possibly inaccurate, all follies forgiven.
Back home, my other granddaughter sends me messages on Kakao, using filters on messenger and I can’t work out how to do the same. She is wearing a cat nose with whiskers and making funny noises. I think she likes her new cousin, so I keep sending her photographs. Her mother is strict about phone contact, so all my messages are filtered through her mother. And she is right to do this. Still… I dream of the day when we will chat back and forth freely, unfiltered, to see what sort of conversation we might have.
I am her cooking granny. She learned to crack eggs (all eight of them when she was three). Sitting on our kitchen bench, making scrambled eggs. She had no fear. Cracking the eggs in one go. And quickly she learned how to separate the yolks using the open palm of her hand. Watching the albumen slide from her fingers, the yoke intact. We moved from scrambled eggs to pikelets, to buttermilk pancakes. We made faces in the pan, flipped pancakes, wasted mixture, licked the spoons and drank the melted butter. I didn’t change her nappy, because I wasn’t needed. At the time it felt like rejection, but her mother had a mother. And I’ve learned as a mother-in-law, to adjust my expectations. It’s a wise woman who learns to adjust her expectations in life. Where once I saw loss, I know love.
I’m recalling how it was as a young mother, with no mother. At the time, I was so absorbed in mothering I didn’t miss her. Our babies survive our good intentions. It is only now that I grieve, as a grandmother, wishing I’d known my own mother more. Wishing I could ask about her mothering of me. She was often unwell and had four babies, one after the other – my two eldest siblings only 11 months apart, and then a baby that was ‘removed’ for health reasons (a polite euphemism of its time…) leaving room for me. I know my older two siblings spent time in foster homes and a local orphanage run by nuns, when my mother spent periods in hospital. I’ve no idea where I was? I wonder now. Was I picked up and held by strangers, or by my mother? There is no one to ask. I feel sympathy for my mother. That I never bothered to enquire. To ask her how it was for her.
Now, I am needed. The mother of my Korean daughter-in-law is a working woman. I have taken leave from my job to come and be a Halmoni. I worried at first that I would no longer know what to do. But rocking from one foot to another and patting a baby’s back and bum is instinctive. But too, I have learned, with all my love and patience, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, but a mother, that matters to a new baby. I watch with admiration, the bond, the commitment, the patient learning as this new baby teaches her new mama, that she, this tiny infant is really the one in charge, the schedule is hers, and the sweet surrender of mother to child is a revelation. This is what we do as mothers. We surrender.
I remember my closest friend when my babies were small. She had a daughter who was between the age of my two lads. We shared coffees, recipes, babysat, and supported one another. Our children shared bath times and bedtimes. She became my rock. She too was a motherless mother. We were motherless mothers, doing our best. My friend died aged 40 from a brain tumour, leaving her 11-year-old daughter motherless. I recall her last days, the determination not to die. The fluids she drank to keep hydrated, as her breath came, it seemed, minutes apart, each breath, a wish to live longer. A wish to never leave her daughter. It still breaks my heart, and I try not to ever imagine my granddaughters motherless.
My newest granddaughter is giving involuntary smiles that some people call wind. She is opening her eyes and responding to sounds. I lean in towards her, put my face up close, dare to kiss her on the cheek, just briefly, not wanting to impose, but impossible to resist. I watch her feet as they kick the swaddle cloth off, and her hands in cotton mittens find her mouth briefly, but perhaps I am exaggerating, it’s too early, she’s only three weeks old. Her father no longer worries quite so much about her head, because her neck is strong, and she can push herself away from my shoulder as I burp her. My daughter-in-law can write burp in English and we chuckle together, waiting for the sound.
I used to worry that I wouldn’t see my babies grow to men, when my friend died. And now I grieve for the women these granddaughters will be that I might never see. I am a Halmoni.