Grand mo

My Father’s Stories: Number Two, Part B – Grand mo.

My father’s grandmother was named Suh, Yun Iee.  She was born around 1877 and died around 1947, around the age of 70 – a long life for someone at that time.

According to my father, his grandmother was slightly petite; pretty; quite; had a tremendous memory and a strong character; was not afraid to talk to anyone, anywhere; walked fast; and was an unconditionally faithful wife, as we saw in the story of his grandfather.  She had two sons and two daughters, breaking her husband’s only-son-for-three-generations cycle.  For that alone, she must have been valued.  Apparently, she was a pretty optimistic and happy woman, except in her husband’s later years.  Her childhood is unknown – either she did not speak of it to my father, or he doesn’t remember.

Her children:

(1) Female (N/A): my grandfather’s elder sister (big Go-Mo = kun Go-Mo)

(2) Male     (Lee, Sang Oup): my grandfather

(3) Male     (Lee, Sang Ho): my grandfather’s younger brother (small Sam-Chon or small father = zakun Abuji)

(4) Female (N/A): my grandfather’s younger sister (small Go-Mo = zakun Go-Mo)

Interesting that my father does not know or remember his aunt’s names…

My grand mo liked me and loved me a lot because I was her first son’s first son (first grand son of her husband from her first son).

I remember that I asked grand mo to tell me stories of the old days all the time. I used to sit on grand mo’s lap under her chin and ask her to tell me a story. “Grand mo! Grand mo! Tell me a story will you?” Then Grand mo would say “eyee! how come this little one like stories so much” while she spanked my forehead lightly. Then, I would ask her repeatedly “tell me a story will you” while I was shaking my shoulders and repeatedly beating her chest lightly. Then she would say “I already told you all the stories I know, I don’t have any more story left.” Then I would think momentarily and say “then tell me the story of Shim-Chung again.” Then she would start to tell me the story. “Once upon a time there was a —.” She had an amazing memory and she repeated the same story in exactly the same way with amazing details while I had almost forgotten the story. (At that time I thought: Wow!  Grand mo remembers everything very well,” and I felt like I was a dummy.) During her story telling, she would say she was busy – she had to clean vegetables for diner. Then, I would follow her wherever she went and kept asking her “and then what happened grand mo?”


When I was young, she accompanied me wherever I went (moved). (I will tell you more of this later when I write the stories of myself.)

She did not care much for her daughter’s children.

She was very faithful to her first son’s (Lee’s) family. After grand pa died, she was a great ambassador to her daughter’s (my father’s sisters’) places, holding a big S.O.S. sign and saying that our Lee’s flag ship (grand pa’s first son’s) is sinking. Grand mo ran up and down but had limited results.

She had surgery for a breast lump by Dr. Sohn who was a family friend of grand mo’s family and their family when my grand pa was rich. He, Dr. Sohn, was working at the Dong-San (Presbyterian) Hospital’s department of internal medicine where I worked after I became an M.D. At that time, she was so poor that she could not afford to go any doctor, let alone any surgeon. Grand mo almost begged to Dr Sohn to perform that surgery. In those days, doctors were not very specialized and any physician, regardless of their specialties, could perform miner surgeries at their offices. Finally Dr. Sohn reluctantly agreed to do it at his office but not at the hospital because hospital rules were that an internal medicine man could not perform breast surgery. The procedure was done under local anesthesia at Dr. Sohn’s office. Grand mo asked Dr. Sohn to remove not only the very tumor but also to pull out the whole root of that tumor (like a vegetable root, she thought). And then she told me that when the doctor was pulling out the roots of the tumor (apparently he told grand mo that he was pulling out the whole root together with the tumor), she shouted and screamed like crazy as if she moved heaven and earth (that’s what she described to me). After the surgery, before heading home, she told the doctor “thank you Dr. Sohn, you know I don’t have anything to pay you, bye!” Of course Dr. Sohn did not expect any thing from her. A few weeks later, she bought a man’s necktie (I don’t think it was an expensive one) and went to Dr. Sohn’s house and said “this is a special necktie, I spent the whole afternoon to buy this” as if she was doing a favor to Dr. Sohn “ and said “here it is” proudly. Was it a benign tumor or malignant? I still don’t know. It was probably benign because I did not hear anything about her hospital visit related to her breast tumor.

[I wish I knew.  Whenever I’ve been asked whether there is any history of breast cancer in my family, I’ve always said: No.]

Later in my life, of course after grand mo passed away, when I started work  in Dong-San (Presbyterian) Hospital, I was thinking back about her beast surgery. Ironically, my poor grand mo, she still doesn’t know that I, her beloved grand son worked in the same hospital, in the department of surgery (not the department of internal medicine, as Dr. Sohn did).


However, as grand mo got older, she started getting health problems:

  • Chronic eye infection (Trachoma): she had eye discharges all the time.
  • Chronic respiratory illness: probably it was a chronic bronchitis and/or chronic bronchiectasis. Because of this, she would cough and produce sputum all the time.

My mother worried about me a lot because grand mo was somehow unhygienic in my mother’s view. Grand mo wiped her eyes with her handkerchief frequently and also wiped her mouth after her cough and sputum with the same handkerchief and with that handkerchief handled hand, she sometime grabbed fruit or rice cake and gave it to me to eat, sometimes put it into my mouth. When my mother’s feelings reached intolerable levels, she worriedly and cautiously said to grand mo “Mother! Please don’t grab those things with your hand, instead please use a fork or chop stick and give it to grand son”. Then grand mo answered back to mom “you are pretty strange, what’s wrong with my hand, my hand is clean.” In those days, it was very unethical for a daughter-in-law to argue or fight with her mother-in-law. She would not get any sympathy from anybody and she was viewed as a bad woman. So my mother could only worry and worry and worry about that but she could not do much about it.

In my grand mo’s later life, a few years before her death, she fell into Alzheimer’s disease. She was loosing her amazingly sharp memories; starting to get confused. All her ailments – eye infection, coughing and sputum – were getting worse and lastly she could not control her bowl movements for about a year. Can you imagine how much hardship my mother had to endue with all those problems?

One day, my first year in high school, I came home for summer vacation. The name of my high school was Kim-Chon Junior & Senior High School in Kim-Chon city. The school was located in the northern hill of Kim-Chon city and my parents’ home (my father’s church) was located in the southern outskirts of the city. The distance was about 5 to 6 miles across the city south to north. So grand mo asked one lady who lived close to my high school to put me up in their house for my schooling. That lady was my grand mo’s maid when grand mo was living well. Grand mo arranged for her to marry a nice guy; she paid for wedding expenses, etc. The lady called my grand mo “mother.” Apparently the lady could not refuse to accept me in their house. They were not rich and did not have enough room for me to sleep separately. I shared a room with their son. I ate meals together with them. They had a daughter that was about the same age as me, in the women’s Kim-Chon high school, pretty close to her house and she tried very hard to comfort me. She carried food for me, reheated my cooling soup, etc. However, to tell you the truth, I was not comfortable. I stayed there may be less than a year and then I walked the 5-6 miles to school.

[Here it is: walked 5 miles to school, uphill!]

So, to get back to the story, I came home for summer vacation from that lady’s house. My mother was expecting me to arrive; she was outside of the house, waiting for me. As soon as she saw me, she approached me and said in low voice and cautiously “grand mo died.” I felt like I was hit in the head with hammer and said “when.” Mother said in the same low voice “three weeks ago.” My immediate reaction was “ why didn’t you inform me” with my voice up and looking at mother’s face. Then mother started to explain the reason why she didn’t inform me, with a voice as gentle as possible, that she did not want me to get shocked and disturb my study — maybe she said those words. While mom was talking, I could not hear anything; I was in shock. However, I suddenly thought that I should not hurt my mom’s feelings – whatever has happened she did for my benefit. Then, I interrupted mom’s talk and said as gently as possible “I am sorry mom, of course I know why you did not inform me, it’s alright, I am alright mom.” I really didn’t want to hurt my mom. I know very well how much hardship she endured for grand mo. Then, I went into the house. I saw grand mo’s room was empty. I felt like the whole house looked empty and the surrounding neighborhood and the trees seemed like leafless winter trees; I saw only gray branches under a gray sky. I went out of the house and went for a walk. I passed the houses, hills, farm land, and rice fields and reached the river. Not very big but not small river. I sat on the bank of the river, looking at the flow of the water without focus and was thinking about my grand mo. I realized that tears were dropping from my cheeks. Good thing that nobody saw this. I stood up and grabbed a river bed stone, and started to throw it in to the water, one after another. I started looking for a flatter and rounded stone to throw on the surface of the water to make repeated jumps on the surface of the water in order to stop my tears. The sun was setting; birds were flying in groups toward or to find their resting place. Dusk was start to covering the river water, rice fields, farm land and nearby villages. Smoke was visible through the chimneys of nearby villages and started to mix with dusk and gradually you could not differentiate which was smoke and which was dusk. I started to walk toward home. I saw in the sky so many stars appearing and starting to twinkle toward me. I saw some were grand mo’s and some were mine. Grand mo’s stars were smiling toward me saying don’t worry about her, she is in good hands, good nature’s hands, there is no more suffering and it is peaceful over there. Stars representing me were twinkling for my tomorrows and my future life, giving me a great hope. It looked amazingly bright and I never realized that stars were so beautiful. I realized that I had come a long distance away from home. I hurried my steps toward home because mom might worry about me. When I reached home, mom was waiting outside. She had a worrisome expression and asked me “are you alright.” I said as softly as I could and even showing some smiley expression “of course I am all right mom.” She did not ask me anything further because she knew her son wanted to be left alone. After that day, I started to overcome gradually the sorrow of grand mo’s death. Also after that day, we (mom and me) did not talk about grand mom’s death for about a week until my emotions calmed down. Then one day, I asked mom about grand mom’s funeral and the site of her grave. Then she told me the following story.

Grand mom had been suffering from all kinds of illnesses plus Alzheimer’s disease in her later life. In those days, Korean life expectancy wasn’t that long and people rarely lived like my grand mo did. Alzheimer’s disease (No-Mang means ruin of old age) is considered to be a shame in one’s life. Many Korean people thought and openly said that they did not want to live so long that they got No-Mang. So, my father and mother decided that the  funeral had to be absolutely private without having an open funeral ceremony. Another, bigger reason for that was that my father did not want to involve church members’ labor or the church’s expenses for my grand mo’s funeral. In those days all suburban churches faced difficult times monetarily after supporting a pastor, especially in war time (World War II) under Japanese occupation. So, my father decided to cremate grand mo, put the remains into a wooden box, and went into a mountain. My father knew one place that was a prayer house which was combined with a retreat for pastors and church leaders in a deep mountain. He went there and climbed up  the higher streams of the valley where my father used to pray once in while. He prayed to God and then he scattered the ash into the cool water stream of a mountain valley. Perhaps, he pray to God while he was scattering his mother’s ashes “Oh! My merciful God in heaven, please accept my mother in your almighty hands, and please take care of this poor woman’s soul.”

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