…I was driving. I had the impression… of being at the sea, in the middle of the day. The beach was empty, the water calm, but on a pole a few meters from shore a red flag was waving. When I was a child, my mother had frightened me, saying, Leda, you must never go swimming if you see a red flag: it means the sea is rough and you might drown.
A few years later, my grandmother flew across the Pacific to visit my family during what we had thought would be a temporary move to the United States. I had always been close to my maternal grandmother: she seemed to me a second mom, rougher than her meek daughter. But it was during this visit that I started to her roughness as having to do with a larger force than personality. One afternoon, she was giving my sister and me a bath, the three of crowded the small bathtub of my family’s modest apartment. We had soaked in steaming hot water, and were taking turns getting the dead skin scrubbed off our backs by Halmu. My sister and I, nine and seven years old, were mindless of how this fifty-something year old woman might be sweating from the steam and effort of bending over two children. We exacerbated the chaos by splashing each other in quick succession, I don’t remember whether we were fighting, or playing. In the chaos, I accidentally pulled the see-through curtain off of its rings, and the plastic sheet crumpled onto Halmu’s brown back. That was when she started screaming. She called us gashina, a word in Korean dialect that can be used as an insult to young girls, couldn’t we see she was tired. Why didn’t we just scrub ourselves. We ought to shut up, did we want to get hit. I had heard her pitch her voice in arguments with my father, but it had never been directed at us. I can still remember my ears ringing. We quieted right away after that, I remember the sudden desire to be obedient, to help flip the switch of the drain when she said that’s enough, get out, I wondered if this bad feeling that had seeped into the air would evaporate along with the steam when we finally opened the bathroom door.
That fear had endured through the years, and even now, although the water was a sheet of translucent paper stretching to the horizon, I didn’t dare go in: I was anxious. I said to myself, go on, swim: they must have forgotten the flag, and meanwhile I stayed on the shore, cautiously testing the water with the tip of my toe. Only at intervals my mother appeared at the top of the dunes and shouted to me as if I were still a child: Leda, what are you doing, don’t you see the red flag?
Reading Leda, the narrator in Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, I couldn’t help but hear Halmu alongside her. The novella takes place during Leda’s summer vacation alone on the Ionian coast. There, Leda is overwhelmed by memories of her difficult Neopolitan mother, as well her own experiences as an ambivalent mother of two daughters (they had eventually left her in Italy to live with their father in Canada). Leda’s memories are triggered by a beautiful young woman she meets on the beach. Every day, Leda observes Nina play with her toddler daughter and her beloved doll. To Leda, Nina seems to be a perfect mother: content, serene, and devoted enough to spend hours talking to her daughter and her doll in the pleasing cadence of the Neapolitan dialect that I love, the tender language of playfulness and sweet nothings.
I remember the dialect on my mother’s lips when she lost that gentle cadence and yelled at us, poisoned by her unhappiness: I can’t take you anymore. I can’t take anymore. Commands, shouts, insults, life stretching into her words, as when a frayed nerve is just touched, and the pain scrapes away all self-control. Once, twice, three times she threatened us, her daughters, that she would leave, you’ll wake up in the morning and won’t find me here. And every morning I woke trembling with fear.
Growing up with Halmu, I saw her roughness repeatedly. Not long after that bathtub scene, she scratched my sister’s hand hard enough to leave fingernail marks. She cursed feverishly under her breath when one of my friends ate an elaborate pajeon she had made for me and my sister. One weekend in the fifth grade, when she figured out that I had lied to her about which friend I was having a sleepover with, Halmu hit my calves with sticks she’d retrieved from the woods behind our apartment complex. In the year I attended elementary school in Korea, I had been hit like that by my teacher on my open palms, we were warned about our calves, for the severest mistakes. Halmu threatened, as she usually did when she was angry, to pack our bags, to take us back to Korea. By then my family knew I was much more at home in the U.S. Why should I sacrifice myself for you, you don’t know how to be thankful, do you think I am an idiot, just because I am mute here, never are you going to a friend’s house again-- never.
Leda becomes irritated as she watches Nina and her daughter play with the doll. Now they gave her words in turn, now together, superimposing the adult’s fake-child voice and the child’s fake-adult voice. They imagined it was the same, single voice coming from the same throat of a thing in reality mute. But evidently I couldn’t enter into their illusion, I felt a growing repulsion for that double voice. Of course, there I was, at a distance, what did it matter to me, I could follow the game or ignore it, it was only a pastime. But no, I felt an unease as if faced with a thing done badly, as if a part of me were insisting, absurdly, that they should make up their minds, give the doll a stable, constant voice, either that of the mother or that of the daughter, and stop pretending that they were the same.
This past May, when my grandparents picked me up from my parents’ apartment in Busan to bring me to their house in the countryside, I brought a stuffed animal I’d had since I was six years old. Halmu had known my pink lamb as long as I did-- my mother had bought it for me and my sister at Macy’s our first year in the U.S.; Halmu had inserted more cotton to plump up my sister’s threadbare lamb a few years ago. As I sat in the front seat beside my grandfather, Halmu sat in the back, cradling my lamb in her lap. Halmu started speaking in a baby voice to imitate my lamb, a high-pitched, airy voice she used over the years for this play. My sister and I had made baby voices a tradition in our family. But Halmu did it best. She brought my lamb to life, animating her with gestures only she had the imagination to invent. She folded the lamb’s soft body and moved her white cotton hooves to make her dance in mid-air. Soon the car filled with our happiness. As we drove away from my parents’ apartment and towards my grandparents’ house in the countryside, stopping by a beach grandfather, increasingly forgetful, had forgotten he had already taken us to before, I felt free. I was happy, as usual, to hear Halmu’s full-bellied laughter-- it infected me, as it always did.
When, one day, Nina’s daughter loses her doll on the beach, Nina begins a frantic search. Alone in her apartment, Leda realizes she had somehow taken the mangy-looking thing: the doll, half-blond and half bald, is in her bag. The novella circles around Leda’s inability to return the doll. Instead of confessing to Nina and her daughter immediately, Leda pretends not to know where it went. She wades deeper into her memories: how she had once punished one of her daughters by hurling her doll over the railing of their balcony. How during her daughters’ adolescence, she had flirted with their boyfriends out of fear for their possible unhappiness. How, when her daughters were toddlers, Leda abandoned them for three years, leaving them under their father’s care so she could focus on her work as an academic. The children stared at me. I felt their gazes longing to tame me, but more brilliant was the brightness of the life outside them, new colors, new bodies, new intelligence, a language to possess finally as if it were my true language, and nothing, nothing that seemed to me reconcilable with that domestic space from which they stared at me in expectation. Ah, to make them invisible, to no longer hear the demands of their flesh as commands more pressing, more powerful than those which came from mine.
I decided to spend one summer in college doing research for a professor at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul. I was living with Halmu in her six-story apartment, working on my laptop on the rooftop while she watered the flowers and vegetables she grew there. Before I met with the Women’s Studies professor for the first time, I asked Halmu to join me in exploring Ewha’s campus. Halmu, fashionable as ever, dressed in a silk pink top with her large pearl earrings: I knew she would have studied at Ewha, the country’s first university, had she been born into a more fortunate family in postwar Korea. After exploring the glass maze of the student center, and the lecture halls inside Gothic buildings, we settled at a cafe overlooking the school gates. I started to show Halmu the academic articles I had been reading on my laptop. Seeing her across from me, waiting as I struggled to paraphrase into my limited Korean vocabulary, smiling in her best lipstick, eyes sparkling with an eagerness to learn, I was hit by a mixture of emotions. I didn’t want her to take the bus back alone as she would when it was time for me to meet my professor at Starbucks, I tried to call her a taxi. But when I met the professor, dressed in an all-black outfit that reminded me of my college in New York, and listened to her talk about her research about contemporary feminist discourse in Korea, I felt confused. I tried to push that sadness I felt with Halmu-- waiting Halmu, hungry to learn, Halmu who should have gone to high school and college-- away.
During my last winter in college, I went to Brisbane, Australia, to visit my aunt and her ten-year-old daughter. I’d been traumatized by the abortion I’d decided to undergo that fall, and was looking forward to swimming in the sea. Halmu would be there with me. She had contributed to my suffering by saying I wasted my life raising you when she learned of my pregnancy, because she didn’t like my boyfriend-- she had been convinced he would hurt me in the end, she was reminded of things I never saw. For a few days, we all went to the Gold Coast. In my aunt’s elegant, sapphire blue swimsuit, I held Renee’s hand down the utterly soft gray sand of the beach. I remember the squeaking of the sand particles as they sank beneath our soles. I remember feeling, for the first time, like an adult woman.
As Renee and I sprinted to the aqua currents, Halmu sat on the shore, she wanted to look over our valuables. Eventually we heard the lifeguard announcing through the distance: a certain breed of jellyfish had appeared, and though they resembled the benign kind, they were fatally dangerous, we were to be careful at all costs. Still, Renee and I wanted to venture a tiny bit further. The water was shallow for a while, and I had become over the years a confident swimmer, swimming almost daily at the college pool.
Watching us wade deeper into the sea-- watching Renee try to kick and make strokes with her small body-- Halmu started to scream at us not to go so far, to say closer to shore. Beneath the white sun, her aged body cast a deep shadow on the shore. Her wide-brimmed hat darkened her scrunched up face; from where I stood in the water, she seemed cloaked in darkness. I had never seen Halmu’s face so blackened by emotion (she was so energetic, I rarely thought of her as aged.) I felt the old humiliation at being tied in public with a woman whose fits I had no neat explanation for, but also disturbed in a new way, and thus afraid. I could not recognize the darkness that now shrouding her face-- it was too frantic to be called rage, and too restless to be called fear. I thought Halmu might collapse from so much screaming. Why is Halmu so upset? Renee asked, looking up at me. I told her I didn’t know. Shortly after Halmu’s screaming began-- she glared at me, until we returned-- Renee and I both got bitten by the benign kind of jellyfish. The lifeguard was cheerful and mellow, I don’t remember what the probability of getting bitten by the dangerous kind had been. I felt relieved when Halmu decided to stay in the hotel room after that. When, while Renee was playing Marco Polo with other children at the pool, I thought I lost her for a moment, I panicked. A child, yes, is a vortex of anxieties. I willed myself not to unravel as I knew Halmu would have. After I found her I told Renee in my sternest voice: don’t leave my sight because I am responsible for you. As I waited for understanding to flicker in her eyes I thought to myself: this is who I am.
Julie Moon is a South Korean writer pursuing an MFA in Nonfiction and Literary Translation at Columbia. A former Iowa Arts Fellow, she is the recipient of the Missouri Review Miller Audio Prize in Poetry. She lives in Brooklyn.