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What a pair of modern chairs revealed about my grandmother

I told myself that after the Korean War, my grandparents must have bought them to begin rebuilding their lives

One day in 2005, my grandmother entered the hospital, and the next, she was gone. A few days after her death, most of my extended family descended on her Oakland apartment to sort through her things.

We needed a task to distract from the grief, and being the efficient Koreans that we are, her quaint one-bedroom was emptied within a couple of hours. Nothing we found surprised us: photos of us, trinkets from her travels around the States, news clippings from whenever her grandchildren did something newsworthy (the local Korean newspaper had a broad definition of “newsworthy”).

In the flurry of cleaning, I noticed two chairs sitting in the hallway. Low, dark wood, soft triangular cushions of a rough, pea-soup green fabric—they looked out of place. How had these sleek, albeit battered, modern chairs co-existed in the same apartment as stuffed animals, ruffled fabrics, and Christian inspirational artwork?

I asked my mom and my aunts, but was dismissed; no one knew anything about them. Since they were earmarked to be tossed, I laid claim to them, believing they just needed a bit of love and reupholstering. Plus, I was in no position to reject free furniture.

As a broke 20-something, post-college bachelor, my living spaces were always filled with cheap, particle-board pieces most commonly found curbside. Yet those triangular chairs persisted, always slightly out of place next to a dented Ikea Expedit. They served less as a reminder of our family matriarch and more as a sign that I would eventually graduate from assembling flat pack furniture. And in fact, over time, my aesthetic and tastes matured seemingly to match the chairs.

Still, the mythology of the chairs grew in my mind. I told myself that after the Korean War, my grandparents must have bought them to begin rebuilding their lives. Surely, they strapped the chairs to their backs as they traveled to the U.S. to start over. Why wouldn’t they be worth thousands of dollars as historic proof of some underground, postmodern trend in war-torn Korea? After carting them from place to place for 12 years, I finally decided to find out once and for all. After all, maybe halmoni would have wanted me to pawn them off if it meant a down payment on a brownstone.

It was almost comical how easily I found information on the chairs: I flipped them over to read the label. Samick Furniture, 1981.

One quick Google search and there it was: A company timeline on a Korean website. The first thing I learned was that the chairs are younger than I am. This meant that they were manufactured in Korea after my grandparents had moved to the U.S. in 1979. But beyond that, due to a less-than-adequate record-keeping system, Samick Furniture wasn’t able to provide much more information. The company was able to confirm that it didn’t distribute outside of Korea at that time, so while my grandparents didn’t cart them over, someone else’s surely did.

Gone were my visions of hiking through remote, mist-laden Korean villages in search of the descendant of a long line of furniture makers. And yet, with a few fundamental questions answered, more questions cropped up. How did these Korean-manufactured chairs end up in an elderly woman’s apartment in Northern California? Rather than tracing the journey of the chairs, I began tracing the journey of my grandmother.

I’m the child of Korean immigrants who moved to California in the late ’60s in search of stability and opportunity for their future children. With language and cultural barriers, the divide between myself and the older generations at times felt insurmountable. This was particularly true with my maternal grandmother. A proud, strong, fiercely religious woman, my halmoni was a fixture of my childhood.

She lived in the same city, so we would see her every Sunday at church and whenever we stopped by her apartment to pick up food she cooked or produce she snagged for a great price in Chinatown. She was far from the American vision of a grandmother that I saw on TV. And yet, I knew she loved us through her cooking; her daily, hours-long prayers for all of us; and her cash-filled cards every single birthday. At the same time, I didn’t feel very connected to her. Blame it on my youth, on my gender, on the language barrier, it doesn’t matter. So when she passed away, I experienced equal parts grief and guilt.

In trying to solve the mystery of the chairs, I learned that my grandparents, unsurprisingly, lived difficult lives. For the first time in too long, I spoke with my eldest uncle to try and understand who my grandmother was and why she might have been drawn to the chairs.

When asked about her hobbies or interests, my uncle reminded me that people “didn’t have leisure time back then.” Despite having a college degree in education, my grandmother’s job was to raise five children in the midst of the Korean War and postwar recovery. And when her husband had a stroke at the age of 39, she took on odd jobs to support the seven of them until he was back on his feet. Lack of time and money meant fewer opportunities to flip through the latest House Beautiful. Given the opportunity, would she have appreciated the silhouette of a table or the sweep of a floor lamp. I allow myself to believe that the chairs teasingly allude to this untapped potential.

I regret never knowing my grandmother as her own person. I yearn for stories and experiences that I will never know. And while the story of the chairs has changed, another story has taken its place: the story of my grandmother, in a different set of circumstances, being a designer or an architect or an art collector.

The story of these two chairs lacks the drama of the sweeping period film of my mind. They didn’t shield my grandparents from Communist bullets, nor were they carted over on a steamship as the only remaining artifact of my family line. It may have simply been that my grandmother was gifted them by a fellow senior who passed first, or that they caught her eye in a hallway, much like they caught mine.

Perhaps my appreciation for the curves and the craftsmanship isn’t completely random. Maybe, like halmoni, I saw the beauty in these simple pieces that were worth what little space we had to spare. And maybe she was just waiting for one of her self-absorbed grandchildren to exhibit similar taste so that she could pass them along.