Grandmother in the 21st Century

Jaden, age 5, meeting baby Sasha on the day she was born.

Something happened to my heart when Jaden was born. A chamber opened that I didn’t know was there: the grandmother room. He, and now Sasha, reside in this special place. I am honored to be their “Nina” and delighted to be partnering with their “Maga,” to be the nature grannies.


We bring them Island Life: unstructured and unsupervised time outside, time on the beach making up games with the corgi dog, constructing driftwood caves. We draw and collage and cook. We watch videos and eat popcorn in the evenings. We give their parents “Spring Break” through the deliciousness of having them with us for spring break.

Sasha and Nina on beach


Pretending to be a cave man.



And last month, we all spent Spring Break on our pilgrimage to South Korea, when Sally returned with her entire family around her to put her feet on the soil of her birth. Ann’s blog chronicles this trip; so what is left for me is a look at grandmothering through the lens of two moments with these beloved kids on their first foray into a world way beyond America.

Sasha at Jogyesa Temple

On our second day in Seoul, we stopped to visit the Jogyesa temple grounds on our way home from the Namdaemon market—two very different scenes! The temple was preparing for Buddha’s Birthday, a major public and religious holiday in South Korea. As we stepped off the street, we were offered green tea to shift from street vibes to spiritual quiet. Noticing our foreignness, they arranged for a woman who spoke English to escort us. Sasha and I went into a little welcome room where we were handed a decorated card and an opportunity to write a prayer to be hung on the side panels of the temple ground gates. Sasha’s private prayer was so thoughtful I knew we were going to have a special time. We hung our cards and stepped under a canopy of colorful hanging lanterns that made the whole place magical.

Sasha at the Dharma Hall

We stood respectfully on the steps of the main Dharma Hall. Inside the glass walls several hundred women were engaged in chanting and prostrations before tall golden statues of the Buddha. Sasha whispered:

“Is that their Jesus?”

After a while we wandered over to the smaller hall dedicated to ancestors. Here all the hanging lanterns were white, the meditation pillows and interior walls were white. We stood in silence at the back of the room while people on cushions sat is silent meditation.

“Is Uncle Brian an ancestor?”

The third room we visited was the hall of the Bodhisattvas. A central figure, with offerings placed at its feet, was the focal point of meditation. We—Ann, Sally, Jaden, Sasha, and I—all took off our shoes and sat. Behind the large statue was a wall of shallow boxes each housing a smaller statue.

“Are those guys like angels?”

A few minutes later we were outside the room putting on our shoes. “So they believe in Buddha, and we believe in God?”

I tied my laces, “Well, all religions believe in God,” I said. “God is the Great Mystery, a Creator who made the whole universe. This idea is so big human beings can’t really understand what God is. So religions show us different ways of practicing respect for this Mystery. In Christianity, Jesus comes as the Son of God to show people one way, and in Buddhism, Buddha comes as another way.”

“So everybody’s okay?”

“What’s important is to be a good person—following the teachings that mean the most to you to your heart. They all lead to God.”

“Like all these lanterns and the tree of lights, it’s kind of like Christmas, even though it’s Buddha’s birthday.” And she was off, skipping across the temple grounds.


Jaden in Busan

Taller than his mom, slender, wearing black jeans and black hoodie, phone in hand and playing some kind of game every moment we weren’t “touristing,” Jaden looked the part of an Asian teen. He could fit in, slipping into the street scene at night with his dad the official trip photographer or cruising the market eating fresh doughnuts, shopping for a cool shoulder bag. It was the company he kept, the language he spoke, that made him different and set him to thinking: how would life have been different if I’d been born here?

Dusk on the harbor cruise in Busan.

He spent a reflective evening staring at the light spangled cityscape by Haeundae beach, trying to piece together an image of himself in a completely alternative reality. Well, that’s what he does all the time on the phone—play in other worlds—only this time he was his own avatar.

After listening to him think through his “other life”—the one he’d would have had if his mother had been raised Korean, and he’d been raised Korean, I said to him, “You know, this is your century. You will define it, live your whole life in it, and make the choices that create the world around you. And by your bloodlines you are uniquely positioned to discover a special kind of leadership that is uniquely you.”

“What do you mean—my bloodlines?” He put down the phone.

“You are half Korean and half Hispanic, and especially after being here, it seems clear to me that in the 21st century Asians will rule the world, and Hispanics and other minorities will pretty much rule America. Hispanics are already nearly 20% of the US population, and in some cities are at a 50% mark. You attend one of the most diverse school systems in the country. And here in Korea you get to see the determination of the people to become a nation making a global technological impact.”

He was still listening, so I added—“Who will you be? How will you use the incredible diversity of your upbringing to be a 21st century citizen? What wisdom lives in your bones that can guide you?”

My dear grandson is a sweet-natured young man, thoughtful when probed and prodded, both shy and gregarious, newly elected to his middle school council, a kid who hangs out in his science teacher’s classroom after hours because the teacher is cool and an informal mentor. He’s piecing himself together in a world I barely comprehend. It’s like a video game—fast action, options coming and going, opportunities morphing. My role, my love, is to provide a thread that weaves through all this action, a whisper to the inner boy. I watched my comments sink into his thinking… Where are they now? I don’t know, and probably he does not know. What I do know is that they are working in his giant jig-saw puzzle of putting himself together.

Oh so thirteen.

I am grateful both these children are willing to listen to their sometimes so serious Nina, to allow me these moments.

A Tribute to My Daughter

I have just returned from a 10-day family trip to South Korea. Seven of us, age seven to 71, made the pilgrimage back to the land of our daughter and son’s birth. Everything about the trip was extraordinary, beginning with Sally’s invitation to have us join her.

Sally left South Korea in 1984 at age 17-months to begin her life in the United States as our adoptive daughter. Her return 34 years later with her entire extended U.S. family: two children Jaden (13) and Sasha (7); her partner, Joe; her father, Dave; my partner, Christina; and me was a pilgrimage of immense proportion. It will take us a long time to fully understand the impact of that trip on each of us. I begin my integration here with some photos and narrative and a bow of respect to a beautiful country with a long, complex and proud history.

Korean travelers: Joe (Sally’s partner), Dave grandfather, Jaden (Sally’s son), Sally, Sasha (Sally’s daughter), Christina grandmother, Ann grandmother photo by Joe Villarreal

On one level the trip is a story of spring time superlatives: gorgeous light pink cherry blossoms, multi-colored traditional hanbok costumes, fragrant food carts, and open-air market stalls of many, many items made in Korea.

Sasha at the cherry blossom festival

Traditional hanbok dresses



Joe and Sasha buying some street food








Carefully advertised pride in local products











On another level it is a story of an American family discovering its roots. I knew very little about Korea when we adopted Sally and Brian. I am only slightly more educated now, but feel a new alignment and kinship with the country and its kind, thoughtful people. Despite the fact that we collectively only knew one word in Korean, gamsa-hamnida(thank you), we managed to figure out subway and bus routes, restaurant menus, and taxi directions using rudimentary communication and gesturing because people were so kind to us. In one case, a young man even came out of his shop to hail two taxi cabs to a nearby park whose name we pointed to on our map.

We spent several days in Seoul, which was still gleaming in all its post Olympic beauty. The mix of old and new and the sheer density of everything was immediately striking: spectacular skyscrapers next to the traditional south wall of the city; alleyways containing many, many small restaurants and shops.

Sasha and the guard at the traditional South Wall of the city—note skyscrapers extending beyond


Our family in a traditional Hanok village found a surprise










The corgi dog we spotted in an alley way.




Sasha,Sally, and Jaden heading off to explore the first morning in Seoul










The longest stop and heart of our trip was Busan, beautiful port city and birth-home to our son and daughter. Sally said, “Somehow I imagined coming from a small fishing village.”  With 3.5 million people, Busan is the country’s second largest city and the 9thlargest port in the world.

Busan, the bustling world class port

Busy night scene in Busan








The city with cherry blossoms all over its hillsides









We spent our first day enjoying a hike at Igidae Park which gave us expansive views of the skyline and the Gwangan Bridge. The walk itself took about two hours along a forested path just above the seashore. Though there were numerous Koreans out enjoying this coastal walk, our group of seven found a rocky seaside nook to share some stories about Brian’s life and then each of the seven of us took some time alone to scatter his ashes on the seashore of his birth city.

Looking at Busan from Igidae coastal park where we scattered some of Brian’s ashes









In the spirit of honoring rituals, we journeyed the next day to the community of Jinhae where the annual Korean Cherry Blossom festival is held for 10 days. It is estimated that nearly 2 million people attend the 10-day festival. I would definitely believe there were 200,000 people there on our visiting day! Crowded, yes. Respectful, definitely. Beautiful, for sure.

Joe and Sally at the cherry blossom festival


Traditional male dancers at the Jinhae cherry blossom festival








Grandmothers dressed up for Easter and the cherry blossom festival










Riding back to Busan on our tour bus, we were amazed at the number of high-rise apartment buildings alongside the roadway. Two-thirds of South Korea consists of mountains and hills. Only 22% of the land is arable. Every inch is needed to grow food for its 51.25 million people.

Our final full day in Busan took us to the Jagalchi Fish Market where we marveled at row after row of fish, eel, octopus, clams, sea squirts, and seaweed. Our granddaughter, Sasha, became intrigued with one stall where dozens of live octopus kept trying to escape from a crowded plastic tub. She and Christina wrote and illustrated a book titled, “The Girl who Saved the Octopus.”

Jagalchi Fish market stalls

A fresh basket of mussels, clams, shrimp, and octopus










Woman vendor selling octopus at fish market

Sasha and Christina writing their book, “The Girl Who Was An Octopus Saver”












That final night we took a harbor cruise to see Sally’s city from the water. Busan is lit up like a world-class city—office buildings, bridges, etc. I said to Sally, “Wow, you really come from some where beautiful!” It was an emotional evening for all of us.

Cruise ship at night in Busan



Our cruise ship going under the Gwangan Bridge in Busan









Returning to Seoul for several of days of integration, we found comfort in our new familiarity with outdoor markets, local food, and subways.

Sally’s father and Christina eating at a Korean barbecue in Seoul which furnishes gloves to keep your hands clean


Lantern lights for the celebration of Buddha’s birthday in Jogyesa Temple, Seoul








Jaden, Sally, Christina, and Sasha at Seoul’s Namdaemum Market









Home now, I offer a deep bow of respect to the incredible adjustment my daughter has made these many decades to creating a beautiful life in the U.S. And a bow of gratitude that we were able to bring some of Brian’s ashes to the shore where he was born.

Now we walk with curiosity into the meaning-making story this trip will have in the generations of our family.