Grandma's Smile

Kassina Kim-Hayes, ‘18

USA, Korea

My cheekbones look like grandmama’s, but you can only tell when we smile. Asians are

known for having high cheekbones and round faces, but I think it’s funny that my big round

cheekbones come from my Black side. From my grandma.

I knew she was once strong. She raised three sons out of the South Carolina ghetto

where all of their childhood friends are now dead, in jail, or just got out of a lifetime sentence. I

remember a story about my dad’s high school friend who, the year after my dad left for Harvard,

got angry and cut his girlfriend up with a chainsaw and put her in the closet. One son now a

professor, one a lawyer, one in tech. The eldest son doesn’t remember her ever leaving the

house for five years. Her smile barely noticeable yet all the sons are known for their big goofy


My youngest uncle is stubborn. We’re all stubborn but he’s the worst. No one could ever

stop him during one of his rants about his opinion. If he disagreed he would go on for damn near

an hour letting people know. He tried to get grandmama to see a psychiatrist one time. Either

that or she needed to move in with him and his girlfriend who was a doctor. He was big and

adamant. He was strong willed. Forty-five years old and the biggest of all three brothers.

“Reggie” she said “I ain’t moving nowhere to be treated like a damn baby, now, stop talkin’ bout

it.” All of him succumbed. “Yes, mama.” He looked so small all of a sudden.

We had a family talent show. She usually can’t stand or walk for more than five minutes

unless it’s line dancing. Black line dancing, though, “not that country shit.” Put on “Cupid

Shuffle” or “Lets Get It Poppin’” and she’ll be on the dance floor all night no matter whose

wedding it is. That year at the talent show she did a little skipping dance while singing “Frère

Jaques.” I didn’t even know she spoke french. She ended with a lot of gasping and an unfamiliar

amount of giggling. That was the hardest I’d ever seen her laugh.

The middle brother was the quietest. He told a story about how when he and his

brothers were younger all the kids at the black school called them the three little white boys on

the corner because they took music lessons and did art. Violin, piano, painting.

When I was twelve she yelled at me. “Uh-uh Kassina I know you’re not using that tone of

voice with me now. You better sit down!” She had never been strict with me before. I didn’t know

how to react. I remembered she was a mother too.

The oldest brother, my father, was born in a segregated hospital. She was four foot nine

and 90 pounds before the pregnancy. It was 11:50 pm on july 28th and there were

complications. The doctor asked my grandfather to choose her or the baby. They couldn’t

perform a C-section because there were no black surgeons available and the white ones

couldn’t come into the black side of the hospital. He chose her. They could make more. My dad

calls July 28th his death day and July 29th his birthday. “She was a little trooper that day” as

Grandaddy would say. He hates when we tell that story though because it makes him sound

heartless. We all would’ve made the same decision. She pushed through the unbearable.

I had never felt so connected to my family until the last time I visited her for her 70th

birthday. I could tell she was ready to die and only needed a reason to do it. Too proud to do it

herself, so she visited five different doctors for some stomach pain she had. Waiting for one of

them to tell her it was cancer or some fatal illness. No one had the right answer. She would

barely eat. I saw her cry three times in three days. To see your grandmama cry is something

unbelievably mind-altering. The only other time I’d seen her cry was when her mother died. But

every health issue she brought up, she would blow out of proportion. She wouldn’t make an

effort to take her medication or do anything to alleviate her symptoms because of some excuse

she made up everyday. Three sons, three daughter in-laws, three grandchildren. She was

hurting more than she needed to for the attention and letting it interfere with everything good in

life. So much so that around us, she almost never smiled. Sometimes when I close my eyes I

can’t even picture her smile. I know it’s small. Dad doesn’t remember it ever being big and goofy

like the rest of the family. Even when she laughs, it stays so contained. Sometimes I think she

wants to laugh out loud, guffaw, but she lets it implode instead. She can’t let us know that she’s

happy in a moment.

I remember when I was little, when I was upset and crying, my brother would always

tickle me. I would do everything in my power not to smile because I WAS UPSET AND NO ONE

COULD CHANGE THAT. This is what we feel like sometimes. This is who we are. Externally

unbreakable or only broken. Only broken.

Maybe we are happy, my grandma and I.

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