[Illustration by Anna Wray]
As with most babies around the world, my first word was “mama.” But the woman I called “mama” was actually my grandma. My birth mother passed away while giving birth to me, and my grandma stepped in as my primary maternal figure. She is the one who gave me the most genuine love in my most vulnerable state. She was the only mom I knew for most of my childhood.
Complications from my birth also left me with cerebral palsy, which affects my speech and mobility. Most of my family members thought that the disability would affect my intellect, too. Despite this, Grandma could see from my daily activities that my cognition was fully intact. While others could not grasp my speech patterns or look past my wheelchair, she and I had a unique way of communicating with each other.
Grandma was the first person to realize my full potential, and she knew from early on that my disability would not stop me from achieving greatness. Grandma made me realize from an early age that I needed to work twice as hard as my peers and to have incredible willpower. She became my strongest female role model, too, as she exceeded people’s expectations and did not confine herself to societal boundaries. Unlike her peers, she didn’t believe that a woman’s place was only in the house, raising kids and doing housework. In the 1940s and 1950s, she was considered ahead of her time, especially in Korea, where she lived then. She went on to receive the highest degree a woman could at the time and became a schoolteacher. Even after marrying my grandpa, she still worked and helped him to start his own binder-manufacturing business.
Grandma taught me how to take care of myself and showed me the tough love that ultimately gave me strength and perseverance. I remember when I was in the second grade, she scolded me when I got one word wrong on a spelling test. She taught me the importance of academics, and made me push beyond the limits that others had set for me. These lessons enabled me to graduate from Barnard and Columbia’s School of Journalism.
Tragically, I lost Grandma to brain cancer last January. I was beyond devastated. I did not know how I was going to go through life without her physical presence, love, and guidance. Without the first mom I’d ever known.
Last year was my first Barnard Reunion, too, four months after Grandma’s passing. While there, I realized something I had not realized as a student. Not only has Barnard provided me with a stellar education and endless opportunities, but with multiple maternal figures whom I now have for a lifetime.
These women include Claudia Cherry, who works at the Liz’s Place café in The Diana Center and who always made sure I ate and slept and provided my caffeine fix when I needed it; my Student Government Association adviser Dean Alina Wong, who not only guided me on my student council duties but also helped me through real-life crises; my First-Year Class Dean Lisa Hollibaugh, who checked up on me throughout all four years, even though at the end of my first year she changed jobs at Barnard and then moved on to Columbia before I entered my senior year; Nikki Weiner ’14 and Rebecca Douglas ’10, who are forever my Barnard older sisters; and many more incredible women who have changed my life for the better, many of whom were in my 2017 graduating class.
Sure, those women will never replace Grandma. But they certainly make the hole she left feel much smaller. With these women, I have the strength to continue.
Sarah Kim is a freelance journalist and writer based in Brooklyn.