Around five years ago, 77-year-old Chan Jae Lee was recently retired, suffering from chronic pain, and increasingly sedentary. Chan, who’d emigrated to South Korea with his wife Marina in 1981, found the most happiness and bursts of energy in the afternoons he spent with his grandchildren. “His only meaningful activity was to take care of his two grandkids — my nephews — while their parents were working,” says his son, Ji Lee, a graphic designer. When Ji moved to New York and his sister back to Korea, Chan was left with little to do. Ji worried for his health and, especially, his mood.
Chan had a natural proclivity and talent for drawing; Marina, for her part, was a writer. To help stop him from falling into a rut, Ji encouraged his father to reconnect with his pastime and post his work on Instagram. The idea didn’t stick until Chan and Marina took a visit to New York following the birth of Ji’s son, Astro: “One evening, my dad wondered what Astro will become when he grows up,” says Ji. “I asked him ‘Why?’ upon which he answered, ‘Because I won’t be around anymore.’” The prospect of posting drawings that Astro and his cousins in Korea, Arthur and Allan, could peruse, was exciting — a way to communicate spatially now, and temporally later, when the kids were grown up. Grandpa Chan began drawing and painting every day, and Drawings for my Grandchildren was born.
Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking and perplexing results of social media is its function as a time capsule. When Facebook Memories conjures up a years-old post, it imbues even the most useless instance of your digital activity with fatuous meaning, because it’s yours. Sometimes, it’s arresting — photographs of an ex-lover or, devastatingly, someone no longer alive. Typically, you need no algorithms to utilize your device as a surrogate photo album: if I scroll back far enough on my Instagram feed, I’ll feel nostalgic, and newly anguished when I find photos of friends I’ve lost, the years quickly accumulating. If the app’s purpose was not to perpetuate a series of moment-to-moment responses but to build an intentional memento, the sentimental ache might feel welcome — part of the plan, and subsequently comforting.
Drawings for My Grandchildren is at once a scrapbook, photo album, and an extremely popular feed. The Instagram account, which recently won a Webby Award and has 385,000 followers as of this writing, is a reprieve, a visual oasis of enchanting watercolors and sketches, lush and sweet and deeply personal. Each caption is addressed to Allan, Arthur, and Astro, written by Marina and translated into English by Ji and into Portuguese by his sister. Much of the work has been made into prints and is available online. In February, Chan exhibited his paintings at the Brazilian embassy in Seoul; a month later, Looking Back, Life Was Beautiful, a book of his art and Marina’s text, was published and is now sold in Korean bookstores. The account’s comments are kind-hearted, sometimes devastating: “I am so happy you are alive and can be an inspiration for your grandchildren”; “I grew up without grandpa on both sides, now you are my grandpa.” (Another: “Do you follow this acc? Wholesome hangover content.”) Here is a time capsule of its own.
Pivotal moments in Korean history are recalled, in both Grandma Marina or Grandpa Chan’s voice — “When Junes comes and it becomes the day 25, I always remember the war and the night on the mountain” — and contemporary culture, too: “Arthur, Allan! Do you know what ‘mukbang’ is?”; “”Do you understand the tear of happiness that Korean players dropped although they were disqualified?” There are recollections of Marina and Chan’s youth, as immigrants to Brazil and as two young kids in love; more endearing are the reflections on their relationship today, an ever-changing thing: “Well, a few nights ago, with the breeze of May blowing so nicely, suddenly Grandpa took my hand and even entwined our fingers.” The experience of living between worlds — specific to both immigrants and to people who’ve witnessed the passing of so many decades — is described with gentle melancholy: the new unfamiliarity of Marina’s hometown in Korea and the sudden rush of memories, Chan’s discovery of his favorite food in São Paulo, a pointed missive about indigenous Brazilians.
Every passage — as if each post were the page of a book — is lit by scenes of apricot trees, villages aflame, lovers in embrace. Over time, Grandpa Chan’s images have grown denser and more detailed, and so have the stories. Ji himself knew a few anecdotally and in passing; translating the captions, he gets to know his parents more intimately. “I see their peculiar sensitivities, their melancholy about aging, their memories from their vibrant youth,” he says. At an early stage of the project, Ji suggested creating posts utilizing #grandpamemories and #grandpamemories hashtags: “My dad had a very difficult childhood involving poverty, the Korean War, and a complex relationship with his parents. I thought drawing and talking about these difficult memories would be helpful for him. But #grandpamemories also reveal my dad’s funny, light side.”
Browsing the account, I feel happy and sad, mentally toggling between my interest in this particular family and an overwhelming curiosity and love for my own. So does Ji: “I also have lots of mixed feelings, and often I feel the warmth in my heart and sometimes my eyes fill with tears. There are the quiet and intimate feelings as a son looking at the drawings and stories my parents create every day: Stories about their youth, their daily observations about the fast changing world … I contemplate their future, our past as a family of immigrants, our fights and laughters.” Astro, Arthur, and Allan are consistent stars — first shaves, Halloween costumes, birthday parties — mostly in paintings and sometimes in photographs. Grandpa Chan and Grandma Marina are wistful about the boys’ childhood as it fades in real-time, their grandchildren’s growth synonymous with their own — a simultaneous close-knitting and unraveling for which they feel both pleased and forlorn. Aging, time, and memory are the truths of Drawings for My Grandchildren. Not happening upon them solely by chance forces a kind of soft confrontation with their fact, and so it’s a tender gut-punch. I want to read it all, then spend quality time with someone and make a premonitory memory of my own.
Arthur and Allan, Ji tells me, are proud of their grandparents — who frequently appear on television interviews and in magazines — and Astro has become a budding artist himself, happily aware of his grandpa’s drawing practice. Ji feels fortunate, too, that his parents “have a whole new career at 77. They’re making new things, making money, publishing books, traveling.” Drawings for My Grandchildren has utilized Instagram’s capacity for income, however unexpectedly, and that’s one of its pleasures, too — that something so wholesome and gorgeous and often patently sad has captured this many fleeting attention spans; one time, Grandpa Chan let his followers select his new glasses. A caption for a carousel of Astro photos encapsulates, for me, the account’s generosity, and breaks my heart: “Grandpa and Grandma can barely keep up with him! And he keeps asking again and again why my hair is white and why I have wrinkles around my eyes. I wonder if we aged drastically or if Astro grew up suddenly, but anyway, Astro’s overflowing with energy! On the one hand I’m sad, on the other happy.”