Around the time I was in seventh grade, I started performing makeshift eye surgery on my grandmother.
Drip, blink, drip, blink.
My mother only had one eyeKoreans back then didn’t have proper medical equipment—the Japanese controlled the supply. He was young and so confident, we didn’t know if he was even trained in ophthalmology. My mother didn’t even get pain medication. Just glasses, to protect her droopy eyelid. She squinted for the rest of her life.
I remember the aunties in the soju shop next door describing the cloth my mother held to her face. They said it was drenched red, she’d bled enough to fill a wash basin. She called her left eye a dog eye. I didn’t know if she meant fake (), or that they’d put in a dog’s () eyeI never knew. I couldn’t tell.
Most of these wayward lashes were black, but thinner than thread and damp from the natural moisture in her eye; they were hard to see. The two of us giggled over the half-black, half-white lashes I found, how she was aging even there. Afterward, I would run cold water from the bathroom sink over small towel and tap it over Halmu’s eyes and cheeks to reduce the irritation. We repeated this “operation” every month or so when the lashes grew back, as if it were no different from clipping fingernails. Together we counted every plucked eyelash. Shiwonhada, Halmu would say, hugging me. So refreshing. I was ecstatic to see the relief in her wet black eyes, her open smile as she gazed at me.
Eventually, after I entered boarding school and Halmu moved back to Haman, she went to a real optometrist. The doctor recommended she get double eyelid surgery, a stock procedure in the country’s now-famous cosmetic industry. Although the doctor couldn’t stop Halmu’s lashes from growing, she claimed an extra layer of eyelid would buffer the irritation. Halmu had some relief for a year post-surgery, but then the prickling came back. A scam, she said, bristling. We call that a doctor? I’d said, appalled. I resumed plucking her eyelashes in my yearly visits to South Korea from New York.
Through the many months we lived apart, I worried about the itchiness and frequent dryness in her eyes. In time, as Halmu is wont to do, she found an herbal remedy: She bought rare saltwater made from salt cooked nine times, sealed in thick bamboo fired over pinewood. Halmu poured the liquid into small plastic bottles she found at the neighborhood market, and dripped three to four droplets in her eyes. The saltwater stung her, but ameliorated the pricking sensation.
During my last visit to Halmu’s home in the countryside, I tried the saltwater in my own eyes. The ferocious burn made me squeeze my lids closed, but when I opened them, seething, everything appeared crisper—even for my newly perfect 20/20 vision. Halmu and I decided to pluck anyway, me climbing into her lap as she tilted her permed head back. I was surprised to see fewer lashes on her sclera than I had found as a child—the saltwater, or age, had slowed the growth. I kissed Halmu’s eyelids gently shut, and caressed her soft cheeks.
Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by my inability to see all that she has seen.
I recently searched online for an image of the white stone sculpture at my old Korean elementary school. I found a close-up, and even in the photograph, you can see the creamy milk color of the stone. The mother’s hair is parted exactly like my great-grandmother’s was in the black and white photograph we treasure, and she, too, is wearing a plain hanbok. Beneath the sculpture is a plaque that reads: Even when my eyes are closed, I see mother’s face. Even when I block my ears, I hear mother’s words.
Maybe this is why I fixate on my grandmother’s face when we have our video calls—because even if I often feel as though I cannot fully understand her memories, because I cannot see what she has seen as clearly as I would like to, I can look at her face, as closely as I can, and find solace in it. It’s what I’ve done all my life, through all the years of climbing into her lap and cradling her head to pluck her wayward lashes. When I’m struggling to give words to what my grandmother saw in her past, I ask Halmu to tilt her smartphone so I can see her slender mouth and chin, her whole face.
I take screenshots as we talk, more screenshots than notes: Halmu stroking her chin like a philosopher as she worries for my future, Halmu swinging her arms in dance moves she’s been doing for exercise. I make a full-screen collage of these pictures, a cyberspace where our faces, frozen in rectangular frames, spiral and stretch into polygonal distortions, kaleidoscoping with every swerve and scroll of my mouse. And before we hang up, I always tell her 보고싶어, I miss you in Korean but, more literally, I want to see you.
Julie Moon is a writer, translator and teacher living in New York City. Her work has appeared in EssayDaily, The Rumpus, The Brooklyn Rail, and more, and she is the winner of The Missouri Review's Miller Audio Prize in Poetry. You can find her work at juliemoon.info, and follow her on Instagram @jhmoon612.