When my grandfather was young, his father wanted him to be a schoolteacher. He had been visiting schools to have his son hired. Behind his back, my grandfather, who didn’t want to be a teacher, secretly applied to the biggest department store in the city and got accepted for the job there without any connections.
It was a famous, long-standing department store and before he started his job there was a three-way interview, the company personnel, my grandfather and his father. Now he came to a point to tell the truth to his father. Because he knew how much his father wanted to see him as a teacher, he braced himself for a stormy opposition. Instead, his father came to the interview, suggested to eat out on their way home, and ordered unusually expensive dishes for both of them, saying, “This is the best day of my life. I’ve never been this happy.”
My grandfather was quickly regarded as an executive candidate at the department store for his earnest and diligent work. But only a few months later, his father suddenly died. He was a farmer and the family lost its breadwinner and the master of the house. My grandfather had no choice other than quitting his job to take care of the family as a successor. He gave up his dream, became a farmer and dedicated his life solely to succeed the family, which I left although I was supposed to succeed…
episode from An Old Tree in Kyoto / Hidemi Woods
It was my grandfather’s birthday on Sunday. He would be 100 years old if he was still alive. His motto was to live until 100 years old. The reason was simple. A TV show. There was a show in Japan that introduced people who were 100 years old along with their family and their daily life. My grandfather’s dream was to appear and be introduced in the show.
He always had to be the center of attention. Every time his name happened to be mentioned in a local paper or a community bulletin, he would underline his name, clip the article, and show it to everyone. To me, it looked so stupid because he kept pointing at the underlined name although I knew his name duly. He craved to be famous. So, to be 100 years old was the chance of a lifetime for him to be on TV. He instructed us to be prepared for the filming. For instance, he told me to return home on the day of filming and answer questions about him from a reporter in front of the camera. His dream didn’t come true and I was the only one who celebrated his 100th birthday…
episode from An Old Tree in Kyoto / Hidemi Woods
Nephritis confined me in the hospital during the summer break when I was in the fourth grade living in Kyoto, Japan. Although I didn’t feel so sick, the doctor ordered me to be inactive all the time. Inside a six-bed pediatric ward and a hallway between the nurse station and the hospital kitchen was the allowed portion for me to move around. When I needed to go beyond it, a nurse put me in a wheelchair. Within a couple of days, I thought I would be bored to death, not from nephritis. I walked back and forth along my restricted stretch on the hallway many times a day, which also bored me quickly. One of my daily routines was to go take a tray meal of an unseasoned diet three times a day from the hospital kitchen on the furthest end of the allowed stretch. Next to the kitchen was a small recreation room that was carpeted and had a television. Watching TV was banned for some reason, and I used the room to blow bubbles. My mother brought me a bubble blower on one of her visits and I played with it out of the ward window. One day, I found out that bubbles remained for some time on the carpeted surface and that fascinated me. I blew as many bubbles as I could on the carpet in the recreation room and got me surrounded by glittering bubbles. I was obsessed with it as the room looked like a dreamland or heaven. That became my main pastime during my lockup and made the carpet so soggy and drenched that nobody could sit on it anymore.
One night in those hospital days, I woke up to the disturbing noise in the small hours. Doctors and nurses were hastily coming in and going out of my ward. They gathered around a girl whose bed was right across mine. She uttered in a faint voice, “It hurts, it hurts.” repeatedly. The curtains had been drawn around her bed and I had no idea what was going on, but at least I sensed something bad was happening to the girl. Next morning, I found her and her bed gone somewhere. I asked a nurse where she went, and she told me that the girl moved to a two-bed ward on the same floor. I understood that the number of beds in a ward corresponded with the patient’s condition. The fewer the beds were, the worse the condition was. A chart was made in my head. If a patient in a six-bed ward recovered, the one would be released from the hospital. But if a patient got worse, the one would be sent to a two-bed ward. And if a patient moved to a private room, the one would be close to death.
Out of boredom and curiosity, I decided to explore the further back of the pediatric floor. I sneaked into the banned area beyond my allowed stretch of the hallway. I turned the corner over the hospital kitchen for the first time. There was also a long hallway with wards on both sides, but it was a lot different from the one in front of my ward. Probably because it was far from the nurse station or the kitchen, this hallway was oddly quiet. It was completely empty with nobody walking and as still as a picture. Tense air filled the stretch like down the hallway in that hotel in ‘The Shining’. A room number and the name of the occupant were put up beside each ward door. I slowly walked along the two-bed wards and further down to the section with the private rooms. Although I was just walking down the hallway, a strange fear had gradually grown inside me that I was walking toward death, closer and closer. Then, a name tag on one private room caught my eyes and I froze on the spot. It was my name written on it. I gasped with surprise, confusion, and horror. I couldn’t grasp what it was. Had my private room been already prepared secretly? Was I being moved here soon? Had my condition turned so bad? I peered at the name tag with my heart thumping hard, and noticed one of the Chinese characters used for the name was different from mine while the pronunciation was the same. The patient had the same name as mine with one different Chinese character. Instead of relief though, I felt I saw what I shouldn’t have seen. I turned back hurriedly, almost running, feeling dreadfully scared of being chased by death. Back on my bed in my ward, I tried to figure out what it meant. Could it be a sign that my condition would worsen and I would die? Could it be a punishment for my exploration of the banned area? Could it be a warning that I would end up there unless I stayed inactive? Or would the person with the same name die in place of me? For a child, it was an uncomprehending, frightening, shocking experience.
A few weeks later, at the end of the summer break, the doctor decided my release from the hospital, possibly because of my shift to a more obedient, inactive patient. On the day of release, my mother brought me a pink summer dress into which I finally got rid of pajamas. The nurses told me about a hospital’s custom. A patient should visit a shrine on the rooftop of the hospital to thank for the release. I didn’t know there was a shrine in the hospital and felt strange. It didn’t make sense to me. At the center of medical science like a hospital, a place to count on unseen power existed. I wondered if the hospital conceded that everything here depended on God in the end. The hospital was big with many tall buildings, one of which had a shrine on the rooftop. It was far from my ward but now I walked throughout not in a wheelchair. Opening the door to the roof top, I went outside. The sunshine, the sky, the breeze, all of those things outside looked new to me. Numerous washed bandages that were hung from the rods to be dried outside were swayed by the gentle breeze like some sort of festive decorations. I plowed through the long pieces of white bandages and the small orange gateway to the shrine appeared on the back. From up there, I saw the building in which my ward was across the courtyard. I counted the floors and windows and spotted my ward. My ward mate’s mother was sitting by the window as usual. She had been staying at the hospital with her daughter because she was little and the hospital was too far from her home to visit, which made my hospital days as if living with her as well. I waved at her for a long time until she noticed me. Finally she waved me back. We waved at each other frantically for a while. Then I put my hands together to pray at the small shrine that was visited only by those who survived, thinking that it was God who decided life and death after all and what the hospital could do was limited compared to that.
That long summer in my childhood is unforgettable to me. And I can tell, it must have a great influence on my life thereafter.
One day, an unfamiliar middle-aged woman visited my family’s house when I was little. She was the first daughter of my grandfather’s sister. A long time ago, a man tutored my grandfather’s sister at our house when she was a high school student. She got pregnant, and the tutor ran away. She had a daughter whom she gave up for adoption right after her birth. A few years later, my grandfather’s sister got married by arranged marriage and had lived with her husband and her children at the back of our house. And now, her first daughter came up to see her birth mother, and we met her as her relatives.
When she came to our house again, she asked my grandparents to go out with me. To my surprise, they allowed her to take me. Although I had met her before, she was practically a stranger to me. I felt nervous, but my grandparents’ decision was always something that must be obeyed. We set out and she bought me an expensive toy at a kiosk in the train station. I began to feel certain that I was being kidnapped by her because she was so nice. During the train ride, all that I was thinking was she found her birth mother for revenge and would hold me for ransom. I imagined I could be killed by her. I was trembling with fear when we arrived at her friend’s house. Her three friends were there, all dressed gaudily, and they looked like accomplices to me. We had a backyard party with delicious food under blue skies and had fun except for me who still thought of the whole thing as kidnap. Then, the party was over and she took me home safely. Finally I realized it wasn’t kidnap. I was so stupid that I was sullen all the way of the merry trip. I haven’t seen her ever since. I hope it has nothing to do with my attitude from misunderstanding…
My grandfather’s sister lived in a small house right at the back of our family’s house a long time ago. Until I was five or six years old, I had visited her house alone frequently. The main reason I spent a lot of time there was that my strict grandparents took care of me instead of my busy parents and I couldn’t feel comfortable with them for tension in my house. But, there was another reason.
Half of her small house was a print shop. It was a tiny typography place run by her husband, which mostly printed fliers for neighbors. I liked to watch the shop so much. The printing machine was running only occasionally, but looking at innumerable wooden types arranged neatly in the shelves was interesting enough for me. I used to spend hours sitting toward the shelves and just gazing the wooden types. If it was my lucky day, her daughter was home and cooked me fried rice.
Back then, I had been troubled with auto intoxication. I spent so much time in her house that my mother instantly imputed the cause to printing ink when I was diagnosed at the doctor’s office. In the following ten years, both my grandfather’s sister and her husband have passed away, her children have left home, and the house was demolished. The print shop was gone. A new house was built for sale and a young couple moved in. The husband was an office worker but soon he quit his job. He started his own business at his home and that was a print shop. The couple was newcomers to our neighborhood and had no way to know that there had been also a print shop on the site of their house. The site must be predestined to be a print shop…
Last night, I had a dream about being disliked. I got on the bus with my mother and there were a few dogs aboard. She told me to pick one dog as a favorite and I pointed at one dog. He looked at me startled, wrenched open the window and ran away by jumping out of the bus. Then, my mother detailed what she hated about me one by one, and it went forever.
When I looked outside, a teenage boy was slapped and scolded by his father who shouted “You’re no use! You’re a disgrace!” I was thinking, “I’m not the only one who isn’t loved. He is having a worse day than I am. Maybe my life is better than his. I’ll put this on my blog today anyway.” And, I woke up…
I’m not good at being with people by nature. I always like to being alone and stay inside my room. Basically, any contact with others is uncomfortable. Not to mention phone calls, public places are dreadful for me unless they are near empty with few people. I hate to have a person standing right behind me at the checkout counter in a supermarket. Whenever I take a train, I search for a car that has the least passengers. My so-called ‘body bubble’ seems excessively large. I often almost utter a scream when a person bumps into or even slightly brushes me. Needless to say, chattering with others is excruciating. My apartment building has a communal spa for the residents and I use it everyday. The residents are inevitably acquainted with each other and small talk between them is rampant in the spa. I’m often caught up in it and desperately try to find closure of the conversation by sweating all over. To avoid an ordeal, I’m usually careful not to share time together with familiar residents as much as possible. When I see them, I practically run away. My partner calls me a robot because of my behavior.
The time of recent social distancing shouldn’t bother a person like me. Social distancing has been already my thing for a long time. At least I had believed so. I had thought it wouldn’t hurt a natural ‘social-distancer’ as myself. But I found I was wrong.
One of my favorite Japanese comedians from my childhood was infected with Corona virus and was killed by it in a matter of days. Until just recently, he had appeared on various TV shows and his funny face had been the norm for TV. The daily TV time in a Japanese living room has changed suddenly, completely. He was a nationally popular comedian who earned the monstrous TV rating. When I was a child, my family gathered in front of TV for his show at 8 p.m. every Saturday and laughed so hard together. Kids at school would talk about the show next Monday and laugh again together. When I was in my early teens, I danced his signature gig called ‘Mustache Dance’ so frantically in the dining room that my foot slipped and I fell hitting my face on the dining table. Those memories made me feel as if part of me was lost with him by his death.
Among my familiar residents in my apartment building are a mother and her daughter. They are athletes and rough, thudding around restlessly and talking loudly in a vulgar tongue all the time. I heard that they were moving out soon. Since I was bothered with their noisy manner and pushy conversations toward me at the communal spa, I felt relieved that I could reclaim the quiet bath time. One evening during the days I had waited for them to move out, I saw them at the spa. They left for the locker room while I was still in the bath and I intentionally took time in there to avoid meeting them at the locker room, as usual. After giving them enough time to clothe and go home, I stepped out to the locker room, assuming they were already gone. On the contrary, they were still there, standing side by side courteously toward me. They had been waiting for me. The mother told me that they were moving out tomorrow and this would be the last time to see each other. She said politely, “Thank you so much for all these years. You helped us in various ways.”
I had known them since I moved in nine years ago. The daughter was still a small child back then, who was running and shrieking around the locker room. She is to be a freshman in high school this spring. She occasionally talked to me about her school days or her passion for skiing. The mother once broke her foot at her workplace and she had been on crutches in the spa. I got out of the tub to open and hold the door to the locker room for her every time until she stopped limping. When we were late together at the locker room that went black after the spa’s closing time, we would clothe together under the light of my pocket LED lamp. Those memories flooded back to me all of a sudden at the last time I saw them although I had thought it would evoke nothing as I had been looking forward to getting rid of them. While I was looking at the daughter’s liquid eyes that were staring straight at me, I was overwhelmed by inexplicable sadness and my eyes began to be filled with tears in spite of myself. I clumsily said goodbye and returned to my apartment. A robot couldn’t say goodbye well.
Curry rice is the most popular dish in Japan. Probably people have it at least every ten days. It’s a thick curry stew put over rice. It’s regarded as a kid’s favorite, but I used to dislike it most when I was little.
My parents were busy for work as farmers and cooking was my grandmother’s task. She was as stingy as my grandfather was and she would thin curry powder with water as much as possible to save money. As a result, the curry of our family was like curry-flavored hot water that drowned rice.
When I got older, I realized that I’d had the wrong curry rice and the right one existed, and it became my favorite. Today, I cooked curry rice. For dieting, and saving money, I put it over barley instead of rice. Rice is ironically expensive in Japan because the government controls its price. Yuck. But barley didn’t fill my stomach so well and left me hungry. So I ate some snacks after finishing it. Am I really dieting…?
My father’s hair started thinning in his late twenties and he has become bald by his mid-thirties. As a child, I knew him only as a bald man. One day, I came home from school, and found that my father’s head was full of hair all of a sudden. I was so surprised that I asked him what had happened. “Nothing,” he replied. I rushed to my mother and asked the same question. She said, “His hair grew back today.” I wondered how long I had spent at school. My conclusion was a toupee, except for which there was no other explanation. But my mother bluntly denied it. She reiterated his hair had simply grown back in one day. From her tone, I sensed that this was a sore subject I shouldn’t mention further. Back then, it had been my favorite trick that I quietly slid the bathroom door open and startled my father while he was taking a bath. I played the trick one evening and saw him covering his removed toupee frantically with a basin. Unfortunately, the basin rolled down from the toupee, making it lay bare. His embarrassed eyes met mine. I closed the door without saying a word and never played the trick again. I had lived with an unaccustomed-looking father in an awkward atmosphere for a next few weeks. Then, his toupee days came to an abrupt end and he returned to a bald man as if nothing had happened. We’ve never talked about it to date. A couple of years ago, I had a chance to see my cousin and we talked about our childhood memories. He said he hardly remembered his childhood, but did remember one thing vividly. His only memory was that my father showed up at his house wearing a toupee…