Kim Chu Cha (1929-2012)
Last Thursday my grandmother died and what I’m most sad about is that the world knows so little about her. Maybe her story isn’t all that unique, and maybe I’m biased in thinking she and other immigrant women like her deserve more recognition. Here is what I know of her life, peppered with bits about why she mattered so much to me.
My mother estimated her birthdate at March 6, 1929 (she calculated a conversion from a Chinese lunar calendar). So when she died, she was just two months shy of her 83rd birthday. She had been living in hospice for over a year now in Merced, CA and before that was being cared for by my uncle’s family, who lived in Winton. Her life in America had come full circle — as California’s Central Valley was the first place in America she had called home.
Kim Chu Cha was her married name. She and her husband had eight children, all but two of whom immigrated to the United States (the other two died in their early twenties). My mother, her third child, was born during the Korean War. My grandmother was pregnant with two small children trying to navigate through a war that killed an estimated 2.5 million Korean civilians.
The family of 10 was poor, even by Korean standards, living in a one-room house on a rice farm shared with her husband’s family in Nonsan. Her husband died when their youngest child was not even 2 years old, though a few of her children were then old enough to take care of themselves and help her as well.
Fast forward four years later and her daughter (my mother) meets my father, an American in Korea with the United States Air Force. They have a child (my brother) and get married. At the same time, my mother’s sister was pregnant with my cousin. So my grandmother had two daughters married to Americans, and my aunt was even moving to America–land of opportunity–to have her baby. My mother would do the same when she was pregnant with me. (I believe there was something about delivering girls in America, where there was “better luck” for girls.)
I was still a toddler when my grandmother immigrated to America to stay with us in Atwater, CA. She cared for me when both of my parents worked (which was literally around the clock). She grew a huge vegetable garden in our backyard that included some of her favorite foods from Korea. What I loved most were the homemade pickles she would jar and keep in the cool garage. Even though she was only 4 feet 10 inches tall, she would carry her huge, Korean-American 4-year-old granddaughter on her back — all over town, because she couldn’t drive.
Eventually, she wanted her own place and settled into a double-wide not far from the Air Force Base. Like most immigrant women in the area, she would get occasional work in one of the canneries in town or pick fruits and vegetables — depending on the season. When she wasn’t working, I would go to her home after school and she would let me help her in the kitchen to make all of my favorite Korean foods. It was especially nice on hot days, when I remember there were always milk jugs emptied and refilled with poricha, cold and inviting in her refrigerator.
My favorite memory was when the entire family would gather at her home twice a year to commemorate the life and death of her husband. There was always mountains of food and cousins to play with.
She never remarried. She spent most of her life in America taking care of her children’s children, until finally, a few years ago, she couldn’t care for others anymore and sometimes needed care herself. She spent some time living in Hawai’i near my mother. She spent some time living in Las Vegas, near my aunt. But eventually she moved back to the Central Valley, where she lived with my uncle and his family until having to be moved to hospice.
The photo I have posted here was when she was still living with my uncle. She was a little blind then, and had some trouble walking, but that didn’t stop her from getting dressed up to see her granddaughter’s little girl. Though others worried about putting a wriggly baby in her arms, I knew my daughter would be fine. After all, this woman had spent nearly her whole life taking care of her babies and her babies’ babies.