Grand-aunt's Winter Banchan
by Minkyu Shim
I stepped off the blue town bus of Pohang, and the way to the entrance of the old fifteen-floor apartment shrivels under the frozen leaves of winter. Across the apartment, a few opened-up trucks are filled with gyuls and strawberries, surrounded by ah-jummas grabbing fruit with red and green baskets in their hands. Plastic traffic light covers are coated by the previous night’s snow while the frost of the day started to melt under the dangling sunlight. Heading into my grand-aunt’s apartment, I saw the security office with its “On Patrol'' sign while the security ajeoshi snores in his chair, his hat pressed softly on his forehead covering his eyes. The gate’s frozen door lock is still there, though it has remained unlocked for the past few years. After going up the stairs and stepping inside the elevator, I pressed the 11th floor, and the dust of Pohang’s winter flitted through the closing doors.
The eleventh floor always had our neighbor’s rusting orange bicycle resting against the stairs. Slightly knocking on the door, I press the password on Grand-aunt’s lock and open the front door. As I entered the house, one pink flower sneaker, and another purple tattered shoe to match lay down neatly on the entrance. The house was shaded by the sunlight, and Grand-aunt’s favorite music wafted from the old vinyl player. Heading into the living room, I saw her in the kitchen cooking. She had yet to notice I was there, because of the loud music playing. It felt like her hair got even grayer and her height became shorter. Walking quietly up next to her, I give a tap on Grand-aunt's shoulder and surprise her, “Halmoni!”
“Ummuh! Dongeun, how come you’re so early today?” Grand-aunt said, grabbing my hands.
“Halmoni, it’s me Minkyu.” I have called her Halmoni since I was young. “Dongeun is uncle's name” Hiding my confusion, I corrected her.
“Oh sorry Minkyu, I struggle to remember things these days.”
Even though I knew she was slowly getting worse at remembering, these moments always felt so bad. Giving her a small smile, I acted like everything was okay.
Grand-aunt gestured me to the sofa, wiping off the strewn trails of dust from it. Although it has been a few months since I visited my Grand-aunt’s house, this brown sofa always made me feel like I’m back in elementary school, when I would sit on it and watch television for hours. The antique drawings of mountains that looked like they were from the Chosun dynasty were placed on top of the TV, and the old vinyl player sat next to the television as usual. Next to that was a bookshelf with all the awards Halabuji achieved from his studying, and a picture of him hanging on the wall. Every time I visited my Grand-aunt’s house, my Grand-uncle, whom I called Halabuji, was always reading a book in the living room or studying in his own room. However, whenever we went into his room to invite him to the dinner table, he would always smile and walk together with me to the kitchen. Probably Halabuji’s death made Grand-aunt’s memory loss far worse. Halabuji’s blue harlequin tie and the beige checkered blazer were still hanging in front of his door, and the scent of him still remained next to the dusted ashtray on the balcony. As if she is trying to recall her memories with him, Grand-aunt would sometimes stand and stare at Halabuji’s empty room.
“Minkyuyah try this, I made it this morning.” Grand-aunt handed me a few banchan’s on a plate.
“Halmoni, how come your banchans are always so delicious!” I told her a mouthful of her jinmichae, chewing the shredded squid. Then, I realized I forgot about what I picked up from the market on the way here, Grand-aunt’s present.
“Also, I picked this up from Mr.Lee’s market just for you.”
“What is it? Open it for me.” Removing the yellow ribbon I asked for in the market, I pulled out a box of strawberries and a few Korean tangerines Mr. Lee gave us for free. Grand-aunt and I always loved eating Korean tangerines, lying under the heat blanket she would always place on the floor of the living room. As expected, Grand-aunt loved the tangerines more than a box of strawberries and she began peeling a tangerine as soon as she saw them.
“Please thank Mr. Lee for the tangerines for me.” Grand-aunt said, handing me the halved tangerine.
A few weeks after my visit to Pohang, my Grand-aunt was admitted to a hospital in Seoul. Appa told me to go to Pohang and make sure the apartment was well-cleaned for the time being. The three-hour train ride and a few minutes on the bus never felt so long, but today was different. The frozen leaves on the streets undulated under my feet, my knees felt weak every time I passed by them. The breeze of Pohang’s winter winnow through the pavement and the frost of the day froze my hands. The squeak of the old apartment entrance bent through my earphones while the windows of the apartments clouded alongside the bitter temperatures of December.
Entering Grand-aunt’s house, there was no longer nostalgic music from the old vinyl player, the clatter of the knife knocking on the cutting board, or the bubbling of the warmed-up pots starting to boil. It was the first time seeing the brown sofa dusted and folded but still sagged gently in the very center as if someone had been sitting on it for years. The sound when I grabbed a chair from the kitchen echoed through the house. Distilled inside the reverberating resonance were Grand-uncle’s ashtray and his checked blazer, Grand-aunt’s pink flower shoes, Mom and Dad’s wedding picture next to my baby picture, the scent of dried banchans and leftover tangerines, and the hissing of my faded childhood with Grand-aunt.