Silkworms by Jenny Hwang
Our necessity of communicating in the shortest simplest phrases instilled the habit of interpreting my parents’ words personally, into what made the most sense to me at any given moment. Sometimes, “Your grandmother was a good writer” meant she had beautiful penmanship, as I imagined her sitting on an ondol floor practicing brushstrokes with an ink brush in hand. Other times I’ve imagined her writing lovely letters to loved ones overseas. A woman with a knack for words. Like the way my mother asked my father to write the cards when we attended special occasions. Like the way I could write a well worded email to a friend.
But today in the kitchen, I decide to ask my father what he means exactly.
“She wrote.” he says.
“Wrote what?” I ask.
“She just wrote. She was a good writer.” he says, I think I see a flicker of annoyance for being asked to clarify.
A few days later my father places a pile of paper into my hands. “Here,” he says. Ah. This is what he means. Has meant. My grandmother was a good writer. Here. My Korean is limited and my grandmother wrote in an older vernacular. I am like a preschooler trying to read the King James Bible.
Summer and fall pass quickly. It is winter now. Nearing a year into the pandemic. My grandmother’s papers seem to have only moved from my father’s drawers to mine during the last several months. My fragmented mind occasionally feeling guilty for their untouched state. The days have shortened and it is cold. The kids have more energy than the bones of our house can hold and I am beginning to feel the cracks. But I have started to write more when I can find the time — a deep source of consolation that keeps me going. I start to look for someone who can decipher my grandmother’s words and finally find a wonderful translator on Upwork.
One night a document lands in my inbox. The atmosphere around me thickens and blurs. It is only me and my grandmother’s words that are clear. As I read, it is like she is speaking to me through a loop in time. Her voice as real and loud as my children in the next room. Remember me she says. Hear my story. Her voice is not stern and stoic like I have always thought it might be. It is soft and warm. It is pleading.
The first of my grandmother’s writing to come back to me is titled “Meditations on a Silkworm”. I read through it and come to realize that at one point in her life my grandmother was involved in sericulture — the practice of cultivating silkworms for the production of silk. First introduced to Korea in 200 BC, silk once played a vital role in Korean society as an important commodity in economic trade, and prized for its beauty and strength. During the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910), a yearly sericultural rite was held, where the Queen would demonstrate the rearing of silkworms and make ritual clothes to promote silk growing and weaving.
As I read her piece, it feels like I am learning to breathe for the first time. All the emotion and openness I have thirsted for sitting before me in her words. This is as much a lamentation as it is a meditation. I hear her trying to make peace with suffering and loss, with her disappointments and her
The lifecycle of the silkworm has 4 stages: egg, larva, cocoon, and adult silk moth. In places where seasons change, the cycle starts in spring, when the silk moth lays its eggs. Ten days later the eggs hatch and tiny silkworms emerge. The silkworms grow and molt several times as they feed on mulberry leaves before entering the next stage. This is where the magic happens. Where the silkworms spin themselves into silk cocoons with a strong single thread that can measure up to a mile long. It is this thread when wound with thread from other cocoons that becomes the precious silk fibre that has been cherished and venerated for thousands of years.
My grandmother describes how year after year in spring, the silkworm comes to visit her — how they recognize each other like old friends. She writes about providing meals to the silkworm and cleaning its waste. Of protecting it through the cold nights and warm days, and keeping it safe from predators. She describes how the silkworm soon settles down to cover its entire body with thread, and dangles like a flower as white as winter snow.
She describes the silkworm as a creature to be emulated. A creature who gives and gives and gives, sacrificing everything for humans and gaining nothing in return. A creature who clothes kings and queens in fine garments, and whose body is used to nourish poor men and children. “Your talents are unmatched by any creature of this world” she writes. “But tell me what sins have you committed in your past life. To sacrifice everything for us and gain nothing in return.” In traditional sericulture, silkworm cocoons are boiled while the larvae inside are still alive so that the silk threads can be harvested without being broken. I sense the ambivalence she feels with this practice in her writing. And I also note the ambivalence she feels with her own situation, feeling forgotten by her children and grappling with old age.
Unearthing of grief or sadness was something to be feared and avoided in our house — a pandora’s box that should never be opened. Most likely the inaccessibility was very real — the untampered need to keep going at all costs. Through death of loved ones overseas, store robberies, and family illness, it was stoicism and silence that kept everyone safe and kept us moving forward. Expressing sadness while we were treading water would have been ludicrous.
And now here it all is, sadness personified. My grandmother cries her sorrows out onto paper, transforms her tears to words, and sends them down 2 generations to give me strength. So that I know that I am not the only one who grieves what is wrong and what is hard, and that it is ok to feel.
I know now that my grandmother was left a single mother to 4 children during the Korean war. Her husband and eldest son separated from her forever once the borders between North and South Korea were made permanent. “What is there to boast of in these developed societies that have been poisoned with greed. Societies still dictated by the law of the jungle, where the strong prey on the weak. A silkworm leaves its silk and body, but a human leaves nothing. I will not overlook the truth I have found in this tiny creature — this generous being.” She writes with sadness but also solace. She finds comfort in her silkworm friend whose life she sees as even more self-sacrificing than hers has had to be. And with that she takes courage, and arrives at acceptance.
I think of all the struggles my grandmother must have faced against the life I am situated in now. I think of the independence and freedom that women have, and how isolating and relentless it has all become. How do I continue forward, standing on my grandmother’s shoulders? If my grandmother’s work was acceptance, can I dare to move towards something more? It’s hard to imagine what that looks like; these difficult early years of childrearing exacerbated by the pandemic.
Early in 2021, the New York Times came out with a series on the current crisis of American mothers and titled it the Primal Scream. They opened up a hotline that would record one-minute calls from mothers sharing their experiences. The recordings were stark; women screaming at the top of their lungs, crying in despair, and venting their rage. It was deeply resonant with my own experience; with the times I had run into my car to scream myself, beating the steering wheel until the palms of my hands were red and raw. Screaming at the impossibility of it. The demands of the world, of children, of family, and my complete inability to meet it all.
I wonder if we had infinitesimal hearing, if this is how the silkworms sound, as they are being boiled alive. Or if they have forgotten to scream at all. Sericulture over thousands and thousands of years have so completely domesticated silkworms that the larvae have lost all of their pigment, and the adult silk moths can no longer fly.
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