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…
I was raised by my grandmother on my father’s side. She was a very strict and unsociable woman. She led a secluded life and spent most of the time retreating into her room. She would take a trip or go to the theater with my grandfather only once or twice a year. On those rare occasions, she always wore glasses that she usually didn’t at home. A pair of glasses was a must for her to dress up. She had only one pair with gold rims. Although they were an essential item of her best clothes, she looked terrible with them. She had a stern face by nature but the pair made her look fearsome. Everyone in my family knew that she looked much better without them, and yet, none of us had the courage to say so to her. Consequently, on every important, memorable event in her later life, she had an awful look by putting them on. She did it not just outside. When there was a guest or I took my friends from school to our house, she always greeted with the glasses on. She had great confidence in glasses. Shortly before her death, she even urged my father to wear glasses because she believed they would help him look grand and dignified. Her treasured gold-rimmed glasses were put into her casket when she passed away. The unpopular pair went to heaven with her. I know she’s wearing them up there still…
My relative’s home where I mistook my grandmother’s uncle for a kidnapper was the place that my grandmother had lived in mostly until she got married. Her mother was a geisha and died right after her birth. As she didn’t have a father, her mother’s parents took her in and raised her at their home. When I visited there as a child, her mother’s brother had succeeded the family. Her mother’s brother, or my grandmother’s uncle, who is the one that took me to the secret place, was a medal-awarded artist for Japanese lacquer. He had a studio beside the house and his young son invited me in. There, his son made an origami crane with a tiny sheet of paper merely half an inch square and gave it to me. I felt like I watched magic. His older son was an architect. So, the lineage of my grandmother on my mother’s side is abundant in artistic people. When I left home to pursue a career as a musician, my grandfather approved and let me go despite of my parents’ opposition. But a few years later, he realized that I had been determined and wouldn’t come home to succeed the family. He began to blame my mother. He thought I became a musician because of part of my blood, which came from my mother’s side that had a geisha in the lineage…
The small town I newly moved in reminds me of the one where my relative’s house is located. They both are in the mountains, far from the city. Only, my relative’s is in the western part of Japan and mine is in the eastern part. I once visited there with my cousin’s family when I was little. At that time, my grandmother’s uncle lived there with his family. When I was playing with my cousin outside, an old man came up and told us to follow him. He said he would show us something wonderful. Since I didn’t see him inside the house, he was a total stranger to me. And judging from what he’d just said, he was quite plainly a kidnapper. Nevertheless, my older cousin easily accepted his offer and began to set off. I stopped her but she was sure it was all right and eager to go with me. I reluctantly followed the old man and my cousin. We got into the bushes that were spread out before the front yard of the house. The bushes became thicker as we walked on. While we were moving by pushing back big leaves, I had become certain I couldn’t come back alive. The bush had been too thick to find a way back. I deeply regretted that I had trusted my cousin. Then, out of nowhere, we reached open space and a beautiful river lay in front of my eyes. The sight was breathtaking even to a small child like me. But soon, the fear I was being kidnapped returned to me. I imagined my cousin and I would be killed here. When I was preparing for the worst, the man started to go back. We followed him and safely came back to the relative’s house. He was my grandmother’s uncle. If I had known earlier, I shouldn’t have been that scared and could have enjoyed the trip so much…
Last night, I had a nightmare. In it, I got up and found myself alone. I was a child still living with my family in my hometown. My parents and my little sister came back from McDonald’s. They had breakfast there without me. I grabbed my mother’s arms and said, “Listen to me! Listen to me very carefully!! You must treat your kids equally! Whatever you do to my little sister, you should do the same to me! You can’t keep doing nice things only to her! Besides, how could you bring home nothing for me? It’s McDonald’s where you can get take-out!!” But, no matter how hard I tried, my voice didn’t come out. I repeated those words very hard again and again but only my mouth was moving. In the end, I shouted at the top of my throat, and awoke from the dream. I’m still exhausted. I dream a lot every night. And this one is one of the repeated dreams. Although the details are different, I am ignored by my parents and left alone each time. I’m fed up with this kind of dream but I know I will soon have it again. When am I released from this…?
There was a small old cemetery near the house where I grew up. As the Japanese law hadn’t been changed to cremation until I left home, all of my ancestors were buried there when I was a child. A patch of land was allocated to each family in our hamlet of an old city Kyoto, and a family would divide the patch into individual graves for the deceased. Our family’s patch had about ten small graves each of which was marked with a few small insignificant stones. It was a very primitive burial site that young people nowadays wouldn’t believe.
My grandmother used to accompany me when she visited there twice a year. We would bring incense sticks, a box of matches, stale cookies and a tin kettle filled with water. She would stick lighted incense into the ground of each grave, put a cookie beside it and spilled some water from the kettle onto the ground. Since the stones didn’t bear names, who was, or were, under the particular grave depended on my grandmother’s memory and what she was told. After we finished praying to each grave, she always said, “Now, the dog,” sounding like the most important event remained. And she would stick the last incense and spill the rest of water along with the last cookie onto the foot of a weed-grown mound that was beside the narrow trail to our family graves. Under the mound was the place where our family dog had rested in peace.
I had never kept a dog but my father had. My grandfather reigned harshly over his family members and never allowed me to keep a dog. But he hadn’t started his hobby of growing chrysanthemums when my father was a child. No chrysanthemums meant an approval for a dog. When my father told me that he had kept a dog, I couldn’t picture that a dog was running freely in the yard of our house.
From time to time, I visited the cemetery with my father. His main purpose there was to pull out the weed that easily gulped up the entire grave patch, rather than to pray. After clearing up the ground of our ancestors’ graves, he would pray to each grave shortly. And in the end, he prayed to the mound, for his dog. Although among our ancestors, there were his brothers who were twins and died shortly after birth, he prayed for his dog longer than for them. Seeing him do that every time, I knew how much he loved his dog. That also explained my grandmother’s ritual for the dog’s grave. He was an important member of the family back then.
According to my father, the family never decided or even talked about keeping the dog. He was a stray dog that showed up one day from nowhere, and kept coming. Soon he stopped leaving and just began to stay in the yard. My father fed him and he slept under the eaves of our house. That was how they got to keep a dog. He was a big dog with long fluffy white fur. My father named him Maru, that means ‘round’ or ‘circle’ in Japanese, because he looked like a big white hairy ball. In those days, keeping a pet was so easy and casual that Maru didn’t wear a collar and wasn’t on a leash. They had never taken him for a walk because it was unnecessary. He was strolling and running around the yard all day. Although he had died long before I was born and I had never seen him, it was one of my customs to pray to Maru on a visit of our family cemetery.
I had wanted to keep a dog all through my childhood but never been allowed because my grandfather filled the yard with his chrysanthemums. When I was a teenager, my first boy friend gave me a big white stuffed-animal dog for my birthday. My father looked at it affectionately and said, “It looked exactly like Maru.” Instead of to a live dog that I couldn’t have, I named that stuffed-animal dog Pon-maru by mixing my nickname ‘Hidepon’ and ‘Maru’. He became my official make-believe pet. A few years later, I left home. My grandparents passed away. The family house was demolished and the site was sold. The rest of my family moved out of Kyoto. The custom to visit the family cemetery was gone. Only, Pon-maru still lives with me in my apartment that is far from my hometown, in a shape of a big, a little-grayish fur ball.
One day in my childhood, a family of stray cats appeared in the front yard of our house in Kyoto, Japan where I was born and grew up.
I was raised by my grandparents and my grandfather had cherished several hundreds of chrysanthemum pots in the yard in those days. The yard was practically a sea of chrysanthemums. For that reason, the apparent house rule existed, which was not to keep a dog. I had never had a pet.
The cats family stood in the middle of the ragged path between the front door and the gate. There were four cats, one was big and others were very small kittens. I was about six years old and standing probably ten feet away from them when I found them that day. While I had constantly talked with my staffed animals, I was quite foreign to live animals. I walked toward them slowly and carefully with full of curiosity and a twinkle in my eye. As I got closer, a mother cat and two kittens quickly ran away. But one kitten didn’t move. He stayed where he was and just stared at me. I reached right in front of him and crouched before him. He was a tortoiseshell cat with gray and brown marks on his fur. He fixed his gaze upon me and never left. We looked into each others eyes for a while. I tentatively stretched my arm and touched him. He didn’t so much as flinch and kept looking at my eyes. I sensed that I was chosen as a friend by this kitten since I had no human friends back then. I held him with my both hands and felt surprising warmth of his body. I brought him inside the house.
I showed him to my grandmother and she promptly prepared a small dish of dried bonito. As I saw him nibbling it, I asked my grandmother if I could keep him with absolute certainty of no. Her unexpected reply was, “As long as it’s not a dog, your grandfather will allow if it’s kept inside.”
I got my first pet. I named him ‘Joe’ because he looked nothing else but ‘Joe’. I asked my grandmother for something like a collar now that he’s my pet. She scrambled and got me a bell and a red ribbon. I put them together and proudly presented to Joe’s neck. His quarters were decided at the entrance of the house, right behind the front door. I gave him some milk in the evening that day and talked to him into the night although I had been sometimes regarded as mute by others to whom I rarely spoke.
I thought Joe was as happy as I was. But after I went to bed, he began to cry. He didn’t call me though because he cried toward outside. Soon, I heard a cat meow outside too. It seemed his mother came to him. They meowed to each other with the front door between them. His fragile meows to the door continued till late at night. My grandmother suggested that I should release him because she couldn’t bear to see him miss his mother so much. I agreed that it was cruel to separate them. He wanted to be outside with his mother. I opened the front door and took him out. He swiftly scurried away. The time I had a pet lasted for less than 12 hours. The time I thought was liked by someone was laughably short.
A few days later, I felt I heard a bell ring. I went outside hurriedly and saw the yard. It was Joe. He huddled together with his family in the middle of the path, at the same spot where we first met. I called out, “Joe!” His mother and siblings ran away on my call, but Joe responded and turned to me. I was amazed that he had learned his name was Joe although our time together was so short. He remained there alone and gazed at me. This time, it looked to me as if he was smiling. At that moment I understood. He came back to see me. I felt an undoubtedly sure connection between us. I walked to him and held him in my arms. I took him into the house and told my grandmother that Joe came back. As she fixed a dish of dried bonito again, she told me not to repeat what we had done to him previously. While I was so happy to be reunited with him, I also knew I shouldn’t keep him. My happiness wasn’t the same as his. After I watched him eating his meal and talked with him briefly, I said goodbye to him. He left again.
In the next few weeks, I heard Joe’s bell on and off. I rushed outside every time, but didn’t see him. Since at least I was informed that he was around, I assumed that I could see him again sooner or later. Then, I made a finding one day at the foot of the bush beside the path in the yard. A red ribbon with a bell was laid on the ground. Joe had come to return it to me. The moment I saw it, I realized I would never see him again. And that was to be proved right. That was precisely how it ended.
When I lived in my hometown, there was our distant relative’s house at the back of ours. The relation was too distant for us to consider them as more than old neighbors. The man in the family was usually just one of our neighbors but once a year, he behaved as if he was our close relative. In the New Year, he would visit our house, coming right into the living room. No doorbell, nor calling. He would simply walk in, pass along the hallway, open the living room door and say, ‘Happy New Year!’ Unlike my parents, I would never complain about his behavior, though, because he gave me money as a New Year’s gift each time, which was also the Japanese tradition. Actually, he was generous all the time. He liked to hold events for the neighborhood such as a golf competition, and treat people to dinner and drinks. He had long been a PTA president. He was well-off enough to build a new house of a modern style with the lawn. I often heard his daughter play the piano. The mystery was, we didn’t know exactly what he did to afford his generosity. One day, we noticed that we hadn’t seen him and his family for days. Then, his house got off limits with a banner of foreclosure. The family had run away with huge debt. A collection agency came to our home, as they thought we knew his whereabouts as a distant relative. Later on, his beautiful new house was demolished. The lavish family disappeared with its house…
New Year is the biggest holiday in Japan. There is a traditional meal for it, which is called ‘osechi’. It’s assorted foods of beans, boiled vegetables, boiled fish, and steamed fish paste, boxed in layered containers. The kinds of an assortment are slightly different at each family according to the family tradition. My family’s traditional ‘osechi’ was absolutely terrible. The assortment consisted of only three kinds of food. Boiled carrots, boiled burdocks and black soybeans. That’s it. We even didn’t have to buy them except for black soybeans because they were grown in our family’s field. It was accompanied by miso soup that had sticky rice cake and big taro in it. Big taro was grown in our front yard and my family held a superstition that you would become a head of something by eating it in the New Year. Unfortunately, it’s huge and painfully tasteless. As a child, I always wondered how they could call them a New Year’s special feast since our daily meals were better. To conclude the ‘feast’, we drank special tea. A cup of Japanese tea with a pickled plum sunk in the bottom. As another superstition, my family believed that it would bring happiness, but it tasted horrible and made me unhappy right away. And then, what I thought couldn’t be any worse hit the new bottom. On one New Year’s Day, there was a new addition to our traditional meal. It was called ‘kuwai’ and looked like a chestnut with a sprout. My mother heard that eating it in New Year made you ‘sprout’ to the world. It became her new superstition and my father began to grow it in the front yard. It tasted utterly awful. If primitive people found it in the woods and tried it, they would certainly dismiss it as inedible. Although I had endured the terrible feast until I left home, I’m not a head of anything, nor don’t sprout to the world…
Japanese people spend New Year’s Eve cleaning. Basically, they spend the closing days of the year on cleaning frantically because somehow they need to clean up the house thoroughly and wash the car before the new year comes. The cleaning reaches the climax on New Year’s Eve. Mothers also need to prepare the special meal for New Year’s. The pressure that everything has to be done by New Year makes them prickly all day. They often take it out to someone in their families. So, New Year’s Eve is a day of cleaning and fighting in Japan. I recall few New Year’s Eves in my childhood that I managed to escape my mother’s scolding. I sincerely wanted to get rid of that custom, and have firmly decided not to clean up on New Year’s Eve. Even so, every year I find myself cleaning up somewhere in my apartment in spite of myself. I did it today, too. Does DNA work in this act…?