Becoming Grandmother

“Is this Korea?” My grandson, sporting his backpack and holding on to his little suitcase rolling behind him, looked around the busy airport in Baltimore.

My husband grinned and whispered, “It’s going to be a long trip!” We were dropping our son and his family off for the first leg of their flights to pick up the sibling the four-year-old had longed to have for over a year. Big brother had seen him on video, exchanged photos, and finally he was going to get him!

When my son and his wife flew to Korea to bring their new son home, their counselors were wrong about two things. First, they warned the new father that his size would frighten the child because Korean men are not large. Give the boy time, they advised. Second, they told them not to present him to the extended family until he had adjusted to the nuclear family: father, mother, and four-year-old brother.

The first photo our photographer/daughter-in-law emailed to us was a picture of the tot sitting on his father’s lap, placing a tin pie plate on his dad’s head, and laughing. His dancing black eyes were full of mischief. The agency underestimated my Pied Piper giant. The family flew home in stages, first flying from Korea to Seattle, and then, several days later, to Baltimore. We continued to receive happy photos of the brothers tussling like baby bears, sleeping side by side, or contented ones of our new grandson nestled in his father’s arms.

Shortly after they arrived home, I received a frantic call. Mommy’s job was at stake. After spending five figures on this foreign adoption, her workplace was threatening to fire her. As a contract employee, even though she had arranged maternity leave, they could do that. The adoption agency had required that they keep their new little one home for at least a month, to give him time to adjust to his new culture and language. Day care was out and Dad, too, had to go back to work. Could grandmother come?

You betcha! My husband put me on a train, and I made the trip that day. We got along well, my grandson and I. Each morning I put him in the double stroller, walked him and his brother to the preschool to drop off the older boy, and then the little one and I rolled to the neighborhood coffee shop for juice and a treat. With language difficulties, the easiest way to get him down for a nap was to walk until he conked out in the stroller. Of course all passers-by wanted to know his story, and outside the Hyundai dealership, I proudly boasted about our beautiful boy.

“Does he talk?” the lady asked.

“Oh, constantly, but since it’s in Korean, I haven’t a clue what he’s saying.”

She sent me inside to talk to a salesman from Korea. The lovely man chatted easily with my grandson in his native tongue. His black eyes sparkled, and he was overjoyed. Then the salesman turned to me. “What is your relationship to this child?” he asked.

“He’s my grandson,” I said proudly.

The gentleman looked at the boy and pointed to me. “Halmuhnee,” he said.

Sturdy brown arms flung around my neck as my grandson realized with glee I was neither babysitter nor nanny, but I belonged to him. He laughed. I laughed. We repeated the magic word over and over. “Halmuhnee, Halmuhnee.” Like a mantra, he repeated it all day, lest I forget, and every time I repeated it back, I patted my chest and pulled him into hugs. He would plant his chubby hands on my face to garner undivided attention and repeat, “Halmuhnee.”  On that sunny day in Alexandria, Virginia, I became grandmother to a precious little boy from Korea. Two years later, he chatters away in English. I wonder how much of his original language he remembers, but every once in a while I will point to myself and repeat, “Halmuhnee,” and we smile before we begin another round of hide and seek.