A familiar love letter: A personal essay

Childhood photo of grandparents and a granddaughter
Olivia Rhee/Courtesy

Content warning: Discussion of suicide and mental health

I’ve never been the type of person to look back fondly on my childhood. Truth be told, there isn’t all that much to look back fondly on. My parents got divorced when I was 4 years old, and I’d moved cities three times before I turned 9. They both worked long hours to the point that I barely saw them, and by the time I went to middle school, I had gotten used to spending most of my time alone. Sure, I could probably turn that around by saying they taught me something about resilience and the idea that hard work pays off, but the less alluring truth is that I just didn’t have a happy childhood, in the traditional sense.

Growing up, though, I was lucky for one reason. When my older sister was born, my maternal grandparents somewhat forcibly badgered my mother into letting them help raise her from the house next door. Begrudgingly, my mom agreed, and they became a fixture in our lives from then on. They followed us from Toledo; to Denver; to Washington, D.C.; and finally, to Nashville, where we remained until I graduated from high school. Around the time I turned 8, they had decided to sell their house and move into ours, changing our family permanently.

My grandfather, a retired physician and self-taught Buddhist, was always doing something inappropriately adventurous, considering his age. Well into his 70s, he took a two-week-long vacation to India with old friends, returning with arms full of bread smuggled from roadside markets and flowing cloth pants that he actually wore. On his 80th birthday, he embarked on a river-rafting trip through the Rocky Mountains, where he hit his head on a boulder. He later remarked that he had probably become “70% dumber.”

As close as I was to my grandfather, my grandmother was my best friend. When I was young, she doted on me considerably more than my behavior deserved, peeling the skin from my apples and sneaking me off to the nearby toy store. I slept in her arms every night while I begged her to tell me stories about her own upbringing in Seoul. The day that my family moved away from Denver, two years before she and my grandfather followed us there, we clung to one another on the drive to the airport, tears rolling dramatically down our faces. She was always the most significant fixture in my life.

At the time, I was too young to recognize the behaviors that endlessly worried the rest of my family. I didn’t see the days that she spent in bed, immobile, and the subsequent sleepless nights marked by outlandish purchases and home improvement projects. I didn’t notice when she lost all of my grandfather’s savings in the 2008 stock market crash, rendering them completely reliant on my mother. I was blind to everything beyond my nearly reverential love for her.

The thing about my grandparents was that, even after 50 years spent together, they were still totally in love. They held hands on the sofa like teenagers and even kissed in front of their grandchildren, much to our horror. My endlessly calm grandfather perfectly balanced my grandmother, talking her softly through depressive episodes and willingly enduring her mania. For a kid who didn’t remember a day of blissful marriage between my own parents, I gathered a perfect image of love through my grandparents.

Together, my grandparents gave me the childhood memories that I’ll always remember, the ones that bring me a sense of nostalgia. Lying in between them in bed, watching “The Land Before Time.” Eating waxy Korean corn together, bit by bit; buying secret Coca-Cola Icees on the way home from school; watching my grandmother wash my kimchi until it was mild enough for me to eat. These are the things I hold onto when I listen to my peers talk about years spent on swingsets, playing on neighborhood soccer teams.

The older I got, the more I grew away from them. I stopped sleeping in their bed, deeming that endlessly embarrassing. I rejected the food they cooked for dinner, begging them to make something my friends could eat. I resented it every time they picked me up from school, hoping that nobody would see me getting into their car and realize that I’d been raised not by a typical nuclear family, but by an elderly Korean couple.

As I came into my early teenage years, my deteriorating mental health began to sneak up on me, recognizable only when it was too far gone. I found myself unable to hold a conversation with a stranger, my palms growing increasingly sweaty with each interaction, and I struggled to get out of bed each day. In my own helplessness, I wrote lengthy suicide notes and researched the most painless ways to die. My parents finally began to notice my actions, but at that point, I didn’t care; their efforts to stop me only fueled me more. I tuned out the screaming matches and ignored their pleas for me to help myself. There was no way, I thought, to end the cycle I had entered.

I finally reached rock bottom when I stole a bottle of pills from my grandfather’s medicine cabinet, less than a month after I had been hospitalized in a psychiatric institution. My parents found out before I could take them, and in their desperation to stop me, they grounded me, hoping that some time spent at home would force me to reflect on the person I’d become. I only fell deeper into my isolation. I pretended not to notice my grandparents’ consuming guilt, and I refused to speak to my parents or sister about my feelings. I assumed I was experiencing something that nobody in my family could possibly understand.

Like most things, however, my mental health got better over time. I started to find things I was passionate about, and I leaned into them. My grandparents were there for every phase of my recovery. Their support was quiet, but ever-present. It appeared in the form of soft white peaches and sweet grapes on a flowered platter while I studied for my exams. They came to every single one of my mock trial competitions, and even though they never really knew what was going on, they glowered at my opponents and patted me on the back after each performance. They came with me on hikes around the nearby lake, always careful to walk a few steps behind me. Even though they never said much, I knew that they were there, and I knew that they cared just as much as they had when I was a young child happily watching their Korean dramas.

I didn’t find out that my grandmother had bipolar disorder until my senior year of high school. When I finally did, the pieces began to fall into place. I was angry that nobody had ever told me. At the same time, I was relieved. I came to understand that my depression, as much as I hated it, had come from her. I thought I had been suffering alone, but this entire time, my grandmother had been right there with me. I wasn’t some enigma in the context of my family; I was a reflection of the woman who had raised me.

I thought I had been suffering alone, but this entire time, my grandmother had been right there with me.

Even as I struggled with the recovery process, I was comforted by the knowledge that my grandmother had gone through something so similar, and she had come out on the other side. In spite of her challenges, she had created a family. She had gotten her college degree and held down a job while raising three children in a country that wasn’t her own. She had married a man who truly loved her, even with the aspects of her life that I’d always thought were impossible to accept. That gave me lasting hope.

Last August, I finally gathered the courage to come out to my grandparents. I had known I was queer since my early teens, but even after I accepted my own identity, I struggled to share that aspect of my life with them. They had been raised traditionally in South Korea in the post-war era, and my grandmother was deeply connected to her Christian faith. For years, I harbored the fear that the people who had always cared for me so much would not accept me if they knew the truth.

I was walking through Stern Grove in San Francisco when I decided that it was time. Fresh out of my freshman year at UC Berkeley, I had spent a lot of time connecting with my queerness, and I realized how important it was to me to open myself up to my grandparents in every sense. My hands were shaking when I finally called my grandmother.

“I’m gay,” I told her haltingly over the phone, “I’ve liked girls for a long time. And I wanted to tell you because it’s important to me, and I want you to know who I am.”

My grandmother didn’t hesitate. Maybe my mom had warned her about the phone call, but for a woman who’s known among our family to always say the wrong things at the worst times, she somehow knew exactly what to say.

“I know,” she told me, “I’ve known that for a long time. I want you to keep telling me things, and I don’t want you to hide anything from me. And I don’t want you to worry about me, because I’ll be OK.”

Before I hung up, she gave me words that have carried me through the past few months. “I love you more than anything in the world,” she said. 

I don’t let my emotions up easily, but that made me cry like a little kid. My mom had told me that, when she and her brothers were growing up, my grandmother struggled to express her love through words. But she found that ability for me right when I needed it, and it meant more to me than anything I’d ever been told in my life.

But she found that ability for me right when I needed it, and it meant more to me than anything I’d ever been told in my life.

My grandfather’s response was less emotional, but perfectly fitting. I got a single text from him the next morning that read: “When you were younger, you used ask me who is my favorite grandkid. My answer was you were number two. Now and future will remain same, number one is Mimi. Too bad.” Mimi, their beloved goldendoodle, accompanies them on far more walks than I ever have, so I could hardly be mad.

I’ve always wanted to write a love letter to my grandparents, to thank them for everything they’ve brought me. Instead, I’ve tried to go home every so often and try my grandmother’s new recipes, or go with my grandfather on strenuous hikes that he insists will be easy but that always leave me substantially more winded than him. The older I’ve gotten, though, the more words have seemed to matter. My grandparents found the words for me, and I want to do the same for them. Now, from someone who has never had the language to sum up the love my grandparents have always provided, I hope this suffices.

Contact Olivia Rhee at [email protected].