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…
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…
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.
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.
When I was in junior high school, there was a tournament of the Japanese classic card game that I wrote about. One hundred cards were laid out before competitors and each card had an ancient Japanese poem written on it. A teacher read a hundred poems one by one and competitors picked the corresponding card. The one who got the most cards would be a winner. The game isn’t as simple as it sounds. While a poem reader reads the whole poem, only the latter half of the poem is written on a card. To pick a card fast before it’s taken by your rivals, you memorize the whole poem. The instant the top of a poem is read, you recall the poem’s latter half, find the card it’s written among the laid 100 cards, and pick it.
Because my family had the game at home and played it occasionally, the poems were quite familiar to me. I was able to memorize all 100 poems easily before the tournament, that let me beat a competitor one after another, as by the time the teacher read a first verse, the card of the poem’s yet-unread latter half was already in my hand. At the finals, I even beat the smartest girl at school and won the tournament. I came home with great joy and told my mother I had won. Her response was, ‘Where’s a certificate?’ According to her, without a certificate or a diploma, there’s no way to show people the result, thus winning is pointless. She urged me to have a teacher issue the certificate and I asked the teacher. A few days later, I received a makeshift paper for the certificate. The pitiful paper was decorated proudly in a frame by my mother…
As long as I could remember, my family members had told me that I was a successor of the family and I was to live with my family all my life as my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather and on and on and on did, by taking a husband into our family to bear our family name. They kept saying that as a usual chant so repeatedly that I was sort of under the spell that I would be stuck to the house as a successor until the day I died. So, I was an outsider when other girls chatted giggly about what last name they would bear after their marriage or where they would live in the future. I knew what my last name and what my future address would be because they wouldn’t be changed. My whole life was so predictable for that matter. Since I knew my future, I had no interest in my life, and days were so boring. I changed my future completely by abandoning my family, my friends, my hometown and the old tradition. Now, I’m free from my once-arranged future. Instead, I dread my uncertain future everyday…
When I was in the hospital with nephritis, I shared the room with five
other girl patients. Except for a very small or very sick child, parents
weren’t permitted to stay overnight with the patients. They came during
the visiting hours. I was nine years old and had never stayed outside
home such a long time before. I suffered from homesickness rather than
from nephritis. My parents were too busy working seven days a week as
farmers and only my mother visited me everyday. But she only made it
less than one hour before the visiting hour ended although I was waiting
for her all day long. No matter how desperately I begged her to come
earlier, she prioritized her work and I got to see her merely forty
minutes or so a day. Sometimes my father also came to see me, taking my
younger sister with him. In that case, when the visiting hour was over, I
would see my parents and my sister off. They went into the elevator
together and the door shut before me, excluding me alone. That was the
thickest door I’d ever felt it was. I went back to my bed and lay down
hiding tears from other girls and nurses. Maybe it hinted my future
relationship with my family. The three of them still live together in
our old house that I left after I struggled and couldn’t quite fit in…
Posted my new #blog. It’s about an unexpected phone call from my #mother. #family #Japan http://www.hidemiwoods.com