The family of my grandfather on my mother’s side used to be a landlord of the area and has lived on the ancestral land generation after generation. My grandfather succeeded the family when he got married with my grandmother. In the end, four generations lived together in the big house: my grandparents, their daughter and their son-in-low, their grandson and his wife, and their great-grandchildren. They had constant disputes but nobody could leave the house to keep their old family style.
My grandfather was unconscious for weeks in the hospital when his time was drawing near. A couple of days after his family decided to turn off his life-support system, their house was burned down to the ground. It was my grandmother who caused the fire. A candle she lit on the Buddhist altar made something catch fire and spread all over. No one was injured but the police questioned my grandmother persistently. She went to the hospital to see my grandfather and repeated loudly in his ear, “The house was burned down! It’s all gone!” She told my mother that she thought he heard her though he was unconscious, and he would die soon along with the house. As she said, he passed away the very next day.
I attended his funeral, worrying about how devastated my grandmother would be, because my grandparents were such a nice couple. On the contrary, she was fine and somehow gleeful. I wondered if their relationship was my grandfather’s one-sided love. Considering her life, it’s possible that she had hated the house all those years since she married into the family.
By the time the house was being rebuilt, she lived at a nursing institution with her daughter who had suffered from dementia and no longer recognized her mother. She herself gradually had health problems and spent the rest of her life in the institution. She died there and never lived in the new house…
Episode From An Old Tree in Kyoto /Hodemi Woods
I was a nine-year-old child living in Kyoto when I was hospitalized for nephritis. In my room for six patients of the children’s ward, a girl named Ayumi also suffered from nephritis and was next to my bed. She was so little, probably three or four years old, that her mother was allowed to stay in the ward on the makeshift couch beside her bed.
Ayumi’s mother studiously read thick medical books everyday to study kidney disease for Ayumi’s recovery while looking after Ayumi. She would ask millions of questions to an intern nurse and learned from her by taking detailed notes. For Ayumi’s medication, she went to get wafer papers and would divide a dose of powdered medicine into a couple of small wrapped doses three times a day so that Ayumi took it easily.
Next to her bed, I was struggling to swallow powdered medicine though I was nine, and often coughed up and blew powder all over my bed. My mother was hardly around. She visited me barely a few minutes before the visiting time was over and left immediately. She blamed her dash visit for her busy work as a farmer, but I doubted she cared. Looking at what Ayumi’s mother was doing for her, I was stunned by the difference between her mother and mine. Mine had never been attentive like hers even when I was a small child as far as I remembered.
The worst part of my hospitalized days was loneliness and hospital meals. As a nephritis patient, I was banned from taking in salt. My meals are salt-free and with minimum seasoning. I felt like eating sponge three times a day. The volume wasn’t enough either for me who was chubby. Because I persistently complained about the meals to my mother during the short visit, she brought me potato chips. Since potato chips were deemed as the biggest taboo for nephritis, she told me to hide under the bed and move the contents from its flashy package into a plastic bag. She continued to bring other salty snacks and I made a bag of my best mix under my bed. I was strolling about the hallway, carrying the plastic bag of snacks in one hand, munching in my mouth. In case I passed someone, I stopped munching and hid the bag behind my back. But one afternoon, Ayumi’s mother caught me. She asked me to show her the plastic bag. As I did, she said somewhat sadly, “It contains everything you can’t have.” I ignored her caution and kept snacking on what my mother brought. My mother enticed me to hide under my bed and let me eat a can of corned beef with a big topping of mayonnaise there. As a result, I stayed chubby in the hospital despite the controlled healthy meals.
One day, a younger girl who had been annoying all the time next to my bed on the opposite side of Ayumi enraged me. I was bashing her with a coloring book while yelling the biggest taboo word in the hospital this time, “Die! Die! Die!”, with full force. Impatient at my unprincipled behavior, Ayumi’s mother raised her voice toward me, “That’s enough, Hidemi! Clean up your act, already!” I thought she was a carping critic because I hadn’t realized evilness of my mother yet back then and had been such a nasty child who had totally accepted my mother’s bad influence.
Ayumi’s father came to visit her on his day off. I was taking powdered medicine on my bed that I had gotten used to swallowing without problems by then. He said to me smiling, “You have gotten the knack of it and no longer choked. Good for you!” I wondered how he had known that as I had rarely seen him here.
A family of caring. Not that I was familiar with.
One day, when I visited my grandparents’ house, my grandmother on my mother’s side asked me to sing a song. I sang the then popular song with dancing in front of my grandparents and my parents. I was about seven or eight years old and it was just casual singing. While everybody was laughing, my grandmother alone seemed very impressed. She seriously said to me, “You should become a singer when you grow up.” And turning to my mother, she said, “You should make her a singer.” Although my mother shrugged it off as rubbish, there was no joke in her suggestion.
She herself loved singing. In her later years, she learned Japanese old traditional singing, which had a unique, slow melody on a Chinese old poem. She often told people around her, including me, that she wanted to be skilled at singing one particular song for celebration so that she could sing it at my wedding. Eventually, I became a singer, but she passed away without singing at my wedding because I still stay single…
Episode From An Old Tree in Kyoto /Hodemi Woods
the new Kyoto
When I spent 40 minutes aboard the bullet train bound for Kyoto from Tokyo, an alarming notion popped into my head. “Did I miss Mt. Fuji?” It’s around this time that Mt. Fuji comes into view closely in the bullet train window. Somehow Mt. Fuji is a special mountain for Japanese people. It’s said that seeing the first sunrise of the year from the top of Mt. Fuji brings a happy new year. Many of them want to climb it once during their lifetime. They regard it as something holy and good luck. I myself try to see it every time I take a bullet train to Kyoto, and pray to it for a good trip. It was cloudy and rain looked imminent on that day of my latest trip to Kyoto. Whether the train already passed Mt. Fuji or it wasn’t visible because of thick clouds was uncertain. The outcome of the trip depended on Mt. Fuji. I felt that this trip might end terribly if I couldn’t see it, and I looked for it frantically. “There it is!” Above the dark clouds, its top section poked out clearly. “I see it! A nice trip is assured!” I was relieved and in high spirits. While I jinx it when I don’t see it, however, I’ve had horrible trips even when I saw a clear Mt. Fuji. Although I duly understand an outcome of a trip doesn’t have to do with whether I see it or not, there’s a reason why I’m nervous enough to pray to the mountain. A trip to Kyoto means homecoming and meeting my parents. Three out of every four visits, they give me a hard time. They insult me, deny me and complain everything about me. I sometimes feel my life is in danger when I’m with them because of their relentless attacks. Not to be strangled by them while I’m sleeping, I avoid spending the night at my parents’ home and stay at a hotel instead. I would rather not visit and see them, but I know it would make things worse. I couldn’t imagine how this particular trip would go especially as it was my first visit since my parents sold their house. They could no longer afford to keep their large house and its land inherited by our ancestors. Their financial crunch made them sell it where my family had lived for over 1000 years. They moved out to a small, old condominium outside Kyoto. Thinking about the situation they were now in, I couldn’t imagine their state of mind other than being nasty. The bullet train slid into Kyoto Station after two and a half hours. I stepped out on the platform for the first time as a complete tourist who didn’t have a house or a family there. To my surprise, Kyoto looked different. I couldn’t tell what and how, but it was decisively different from Kyoto I had known. It used to look grim and gloomy as if it was possessed by an evil spirit. But now it was filled with clean fresh air and looked bright. I would see all but mean people, but they also turned into nice people with smiles. I checked in a hotel and looked out the window. Rows of old gray houses were there. I used to think Kyoto was an ugly city with those somber houses, but I found myself looking at even them as a tasteful view. I’d never thought having the house I grew up in torn down and parting with my ancestor’s land would change the city itself altogether. Or maybe, it was me that changed…
My great-grandmother was a geisha. She grew up in a remote village surrounded by the mountains and left home for a big city to become a geisha. She had a daughter by a patron and died right after she gave birth. The daughter was my grandmother on my mother’s side. She didn’t remember her mother at all and didn’t know her father, either. No one still knows who her father is, except that he was a rich and powerful name.
She was taken in and raised by her mother’s parents at their home in the mountains, but for various reasons, she was soon handed over to one relative to another. She lived in countless different homes of her relatives and changed her school for innumerable times in her childhood. At every school she attended, she was the smartest honor student and had never dropped to second.
One of her relative’s homes where she lived for a while was my grandfather’s. Years after she left, he told his parents that he wanted to marry her. She got married with him at the age of sixteen and moved in his house again as his wife. She settled down and got her family at long last. But only five years later, my grandfather was drafted for World War II and she was left with her two daughters, one of which is my mother, and her in-laws.
A former prodigy with no home and no parents found herself working hard as a farmer everyday in the fields with her in-laws…
Episode From An Old Tree in Kyoto /Hodemi Woods
When I was nine years old, I suffered from a kidney disease called nephritis. I skipped school and stayed in bed at home for a week as I felt sick and had a fever every day. It had gotten so worse that I vomited blood one night and passed out. My mother found it next morning and called in a neighbor who worked as a nurse. She urged my mother to take me to the local clinic which doctor in turn urged her to get me examined at the hospital. As a result, I was hospitalized for nephritis.
As it was when I lived in a small village of Kyoto, Japan, no one in my family knew what nephritis was. My mother rummaged out a supplement of a homemaking magazine that featured medical issues. It had charts of disease that showed a result according to symptoms by following the arrows to correspond applicable symptoms. I chose the arrows of my symptoms and ended up the result of ‘death’. No matter how many times and how many different patterns I tried, the bottom of the chart concluded with a word ‘death’. “Does it mean I’ll die of this disease in any case?” My mother and I asked the same question to each other and closed the booklet.
My hospitalized days in a shared room of six patients at the children’s ward began. As a nephritis patient, I didn’t have freedom of flushing the toilet. Urine had to be kept in a glass jar each time to be examined. Its amount and color told a condition of a patient. Other patients’ jars were put on the shelves along with mine. Compared to others’, mine was less and darker. I was afraid if my condition was so bad. Because I didn’t want to admit it and didn’t want doctors and nurses to find it either, I tried to cheat. Into a one-time jar, I urinated twice so that at least my amount seemed normal. It had escalated gradually and I urinated the whole day into one jar. Ironically, the abnormally large amount of urine drew an alarming attention of a nurse who thought my illness had taken an inexplicable turn for the worse. It worked directly opposite to what I had intended and I confessed my cheating helter-skelter.
My six-patient room wasn’t usually lonesome as we were kids and some of their parents were allowed to stay with them on the couches next to their beds. But some got permission to go home for the night provisionally, some got well and left the hospital, some got worse and moved to a single room, all of which coincided at the same time and the room was almost empty one night. A girl whose bed was on the opposite side of mine and I were only patients in the room. After the lights-out time, she asked in the darkness if I was still awake. As I answered yes, she started telling me a story that she made. I thought she felt lonely and couldn’t sleep because the room was too quiet that night with just two of us. Her story was about two rabbits. They seeded, watered and grew carrots at each section in the field. The night before the harvest, one of the two rabbits sneaked in the field and pulled out all the carrots from the other rabbit’s section. He ate them all and put leaves back on each hole to cover it. Next morning, two rabbits came up to the field and started to harvest their carrots on their each section. The other rabbit, who knew nothing about the night before, was excited to reap his carrots since he had been looking forward to this day for long. But every time he pulled out his carrot, there was nothing beyond the leaves. He was puzzled and sang, “Nothing but leaves my carrot gives!” While his friend rabbit was pulling out a ripe carrot one after another next to his section, he pulled out only leaves out of a hole repeatedly and sang each time, “Nothing but leaves my carrot gives!” I dozed off and woke up by the girl’s voice of “Hidemi, are you listening?” a few times during the story. Unfortunately, my patience didn’t last until the end. I had been completely asleep at that part of the story and didn’t get the ending. With hindsight, her story may not be her original but something she read or heard since it ‘s too good for a story that a small child makes. Either way, I still remember the story for some reason. When my song didn’t sell at all although I had spent many years to complete it, I heard “Nothing but leaves my carrot gives!” from somewhere.
One day, we had a new comer in the six-patient room. Although she was a junior high school student and wasn’t supposed to be in the children’s ward, she was sent here because the women’s ward was full. She was unhappy to be confined with kids and complained to her mother and the nurses. She looked a grown-up to me and I liked her instantly. I went to her bed to talk to her and tried to console her. I had been stuck to her bedside every day since. She often told me not to make her laugh because her wound from an appendix operation hurt. She laughed at my talks anyway. When she left the hospital, she gave me a gift. It was a small porcelain doll who was wearing a white bouffant skirt beneath which was a bell. On the skirt, there was a printed inscription saying, “I wish for your happiness.” I had put her on the shelves in my room long after I left the hospital, until I grew up and left home.
I think those hospital days have influenced me immensely. I had been constantly aware of death in those days. I got well after all but I had never felt death so close to me in my life. As it’s said that people don’t live life unless they understand death, that experience has driven me to think things based on the idea that I eventually die, and therefore to do what I want for my life. Even if my carrot gives nothing but leaves.
Once, on the festival for the local shrine of my hometown, my favorite grandfather on my mother’s side and I were talking alone at the front yard of my house. He knew a lot about plants and taught me the names of trees in the yard. There was a rooftop space above the garage and it was surrounded by a fence. We went up the rooftop and my grandfather began to climb the fence.
I tried to stop him but he said he could walk along the top of the fence. He was a war veteran and had been a POW in Russia for many years. In those days, according to him, Russian soldiers made POWs climb up tall chimneys and shot them from the ground for fun. His fellow POWs fell or got shot to death. Luckier men continued to climb up and survived.
My grandfather was one of the latter. Although he was old and a little drunk after the festival meal, he balanced himself and walked on the narrow fence, which was merely 4 inches wide and 13 feet above the ground. Watching him easily walking on the fence, I understood how dreadful his life as a POW was. This must be a cinch for him compared to forced acrobatics. He jumped off the fence and said smiling, “See? It’s easy!” while I was crying for many reasons…
Episode From An Old Tree in Kyoto /Hodemi Woods
I answered the phone from my grandfather on my mother’s side one day when I was in junior high. I sensed something wrong at once from his unusually somber tone. He wanted to talk to my mother and she began to tell him repeatedly to wait right there. My grandfather called her to let her know he was going to kill himself. He picked up the pay phone at the train station before he took a train to a place where he had chosen to die, and said goodbye to my mother.
My father rushed into the car to get to the station while my mother stayed home in case my grandfather called again. My father caught him at the station, asked him what was going on, and persuaded him not to take the train. As he didn’t want to return home, my father checked him in at a hotel near the station. My mother joined there and they talked him out of killing himself.
She came home at night and told me what had happened. As an old custom in Japan, a married couple used to live with the spouse’s parents. My grandparents on my mother’s side lived with their another daughter and her husband, and they had tackled everyday arguments and disputes. The center of their domestic troubles was often my grandmother. She finally got mad at my grandfather who had always steered himself away the troubles and stayed out of quarrels. He was a war veteran of WWII and had a reward certificate from the government. She picked it up, said “Is this peace of paper making you some kind of honorable man?” and tore it before his eyes.
Without saying a word, he left home for Atami, which was a Japanese popular seaside resort where my grandparents once visited on their honeymoon. Thankfully, he ended up staying at a hotel with my father instead of committing suicide there. When my grandmother called my mother about his disappearance that night, my mother made her worry all night to punish her, by telling a lie that she didn’t know his whereabouts.
Next day, he calmed down and went home safely. He just told my grandmother he had been in Atami for sightseeing, that she had believed until she died. He was always a quiet, gentle, tolerant man who never seemed suicidal. The war reward certificate must have meant a lot to him, probably a token of his desperate survival for his beloved wife. His choice of a place to die showed their honeymoon was the best time of his life…
Episode From An Old Tree in Kyoto /Hodemi Woods