When my younger sister had learned Japanese dancing for a couple of years, my mother decided to get her on a local TV talent show. Unlike me, my sister was always my mother’s pride for her prettiness. To be on the show, there was an audition in a city, about 20 miles away from our home. My father was going to drive them there. I assumed they would go with just three of them, leaving me behind as usual. For this particular occasion though, I felt rather happy not to join them because I had borne a grudge against Japanese dancing since my mother let my sister take lessons not me. But my mother had the nerve to demand me to come with them to the audition, saying that it was a huge event for my sister and I should show support for her. I got in the car, not for her audition but for a possibility to eat out at a restaurant on our way back, which we hardly did and the three of them might do without me. My mother was never punctual and we were already late by the time we left home. From then, things were just like the movie, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’. When we got there, the registration was closing and the judges were leaving. My mother desperately begged for the audition. They reluctantly allowed it with the obvious intention of making it finish quickly. After my sister danced for a few seconds, they stopped the music and said thank-you. I kept asking my mother if it meant she passed or not while my sister gloomily undressed. When my mother admitted my sister failed, I felt over the moon. I thought justice had been served. I was in an utterly good mood and was saying, “Let’s eat out! Which restaurant shall we go?” all the way in the dismal car. My parents and my sister were too depressed to respond to me and we ended up going straight home. I couldn’t get to eat out after all…
Back in my Catholic school days, a teacher for home economics was Sister Carmela. I was in her cooking class. I had no interest in cooking at all and all I did during the class was giggling with my friends and washing the dishes. I simply couldn’t take anything in the class seriously. Home making seemed ridiculous to me, and to begin with, I could laugh endlessly when I thought about a sister called Carmela teaching how to make caramel.
As I was lazy all the time chatting and giggling, Sister Carmela often had to call my name in front of the class and shush me. She also noticed I hadn’t participated in any cooking but just been doing the dishes. No matter how hard and often she scolded me for my bad attitude, I didn’t obey and kept making other students laugh. Her patience snapped at last and she called me before the principal.
In my school, bad students were close to zero and a student was hardly ever called to the principal’s office. The principal was Sister Mary Catherine who reasonably believed I had done something extraordinarily wrong. But she was taken aback when Sister Carmela told her that I had fooled around during the class. She looked at her face with an impression of ‘That’s it?’ After mildly telling me to behave myself, she let me go. Sister Carmela’s punishment didn’t work and my bad behavior continued.
I was in her sewing class next year. Again, I slacked and asked my friend to make a skirt for me. Sister Carmela found that out when I turned in the skirt pretending I had sewn it. That snapped her completely. She decided to appeal directly to my parents and called up my mother that evening. Over the phone, she told her at length how bad I had been in her class. She blamed my bad attitude on my mother’s lack of discipline. My mother kept apologizing for a long time, but her tone gradually changed. As Sister Carmela strongly criticized my mother’s way of raising a child, my mother suddenly yelled, “I have no reason to listen to someone who has never married nor had a child!” and hung up violently.
I was stunned because it sounded to me the most insulting remark about a sister. She said to me, “Who does she think she is? She has never raised a child herself, and yet looks down on me who did raise a child. You don’t have to obey such a stuck-up person!” And Sister Carmela stopped complaining about my behavior ever since…
This incident happened one New Year’s at the end of the card game called ‘kabu’, in which my uncle acted as dealer for the yearly family casino at my grandparents’ house. He had lost quite a lot to my cousin, who was his son, as usual that night and my cousin had left the table as the morning dawned. My uncle, my mother and I were left at the table and the game was about to close. My mother asked for a few more deals because she had also lost a large sum and wanted to get it back. To recover her loss quickly, she bet by the $100. The game was played for high stakes every year, but I had never seen the stakes this high. She lost in succession and her loss swelled to $500 in a flash. “This is the last bet,” she claimed in desperation and put $500 on the table. She tried to offset her total loss on the last deal of the game. All at once the tension skyrocketed and strange silence filled the room. I held my breath and withdrew my usual small bet. The cards were dealt tensely and my mother and my uncle showed their hands of fate. Both hands were ridiculously bad but my mother’s was even worse. She lost $1000. Burying her head in her hands, she repeatedly uttered, “It can’t be! Can’t be true!” I saw tears in her widely opened bloodshot eyes. Then she repeated “Oh, my… Oh, my…” in a faint voice for ten times and staggered away. I clearly remember her state of stupor. A couple of days later back in our home, I enticed her into playing ‘kabu’ with me since I learned how poorly she played it and I knew I would win. I used to receive cash as a New Year’s gift from my relatives during New Year’s and it would amount to $1000. I dangled it in front of her and said that it would be her chance to get back her loss. She took it and we played for $1000. As I had thought, she lost another $1000 to me. She said she couldn’t pay, and I offered her the installment plan. I got $100 more to my monthly allowance of $30 for the next ten months. That was the richest year in my early teens. Many years later, she failed in real estate investment and lost most of our family fortune that had been inherited for generations. The amount she lost that time was well over $1 million. And that was the money I was supposed to inherit…
The living room in my grandparents’ home was used for a card game when the house turned into a family casino during New Year’s. The game was a blackjack-like one called ‘kabu’ and organized by my uncle. It used to be the best treat of New Year’s for me in my childhood and early in my teens. Unlike ‘mortar roller’ I had introduced before, this game was played seriously and intensely because it was for high stakes. The players usually bet a dollar or more, sometimes as high as a hundred dollars. The deeper into the night it got, the higher the bet went. The family members would leave the table one by one, as the higher bet would make them tense and deprive them of pleasure. As for me, I liked to see the game get heated so much and would play throughout the night until the game came to an end in the next morning. The usual players who stayed at the table near dawn would be my uncle who was a dealer, my eldest cousin, my mother and I. My uncle was a successor of the family by marriage and so my grandparents were his in
laws. He was on terrible terms with my grandmother who raised my eldest cousin in place of him and his wife because they were too busy working at the family farm. Consequently, he didn’t get along well with his own son either. New Year’s ‘kabu’ would become an intense battle between my uncle and my cousin by dawn. My uncle couldn’t lose especially to his son and that made the game extraordinarily thrilling. My cousin would bet more than $10 on each deal and my heart would be pounding by seeing bills on the table. My uncle would concentrate on the cards dealt to him and his son too deeply to care about my small bets. Because he would forget to count me in and settle my deal thoughtlessly each time, I would end up winning quite a big amount of money in total every year. He would summon all his strength when he saw the last card dealt to him. In spite of his prayer-like chants “Come on! Come on!”, most of the time the card would be the least one he had wanted. Hand after hand, he drew the worst card possible while my cousin was rolling on the tatami floor to stifle his giggling. As far as I remember, he had never won against my cousin. He was manly and frank, but I can still picture him going back to his room after the game in the morning light with unsteady steps, worn out, drooping, and on the verge of tears. Three months after the house was burned down, he died of cancer without becoming the head of the family…
When I was eight, my uncle got married and left our house. He had collected small change in big jars and gave all of them to me when he left. I had always wanted him to leave soon, but I found a lot of toys that he had given me in all those years besides the small change. About five years later, he also gave me my first guitar. It was a white classic guitar that he won as a prize for a golf game with his friends. Although it was a cheap model, I had played it for years until it got completely tattered and I bought a new one for my first gig. While my uncle was a giver, his wife was very careful about money. She came to sell her homemade bread to my parents, or reaped away with her neighbors most of persimmons that my parents grew in my family’s field. Long after I left home for music, she visited my parents’ house and asked about my first white guitar. According to my mother, she wanted it back now that I had left home and hadn’t used it anymore. I was purely surprised that she remembered the guitar. It must have been her longtime grudge that my uncle gave it to me. After 10 years, she retrieved the worn-out, battered guitar at long last…
It’s common in Japan that a child remains at a parents’ house after going on to college or starting to work at an office, or even after marrying. That had been my family’s tradition for a very long time and as a result, we lived in the exact spot where our ancestors had lived, without moving for hundreds of years, because a firstborn should have stayed in the parents’ house. That had lasted until one particular firstborn broke the tradition by leaving the house; that was me. So, my grandparents, my parents, my uncle, my younger sister and I had all lived together when I was little. This uncle of mine is my father’s younger brother and he was such a trouble some existence when we lived together. He constantly teased me and stole from me. My biggest pleasure back then was to get a snack at a nearby small candy shop after school with my scarce allowance. But the snack was often gone the moment I put the bag in the house and looked away from it. My uncle would eat it. I never understood why a grown-up like him sneaked a kid’s snack. He brought me a toy whenever he went on a trip or out for an errand. Even so, his daily plunder harmed goodwill, and I earnestly wished he would leave the house as soon as possible…
When my uncle got married with my mother’s cousin by an arranged
marriage, my grandfather paid for his new house. He was proud of having
his own darkroom in the house. His hobby was photography and he used to
have the latest models of a camera. He planned to enrich his hobby by
developing pictures by himself. After he quit a job at a gas station, he
found a job supplying ice cream to small candy stores. He finished
drifting jobs, had two daughters and finally settled down. I visited his
house with my parents one day, and found that his darkroom had been
converted into a family closet. He explained he no longer spent so much
time taking pictures as before, with a weak smile. Several years passed
and I had become a student at a private Catholic school. The school was a
prestigious girl’s school that included from the elementary school to
the college. I had been there from the junior high and had acted as if I
had been from a rich and noble family to fit in. By the time I advanced
to the high school, I had been quite popular among the snobbish
students. Most of their parents were rich, and they looked down some
students whose parents weren’t so rich. One of those girls we looked
down came to me and said, “I saw your uncle yesterday.” And she started
talking about my uncle to my friends. “Do you know what her uncle is?
He’s an ice cream man!” she giggled. Her parents ran a grocery store and
my uncle went there to refill their ice cream case. He noticed her
school uniform and told her I was his niece. Her point was that I was a
niece of a funny, loud, rude ice cream supplier in spite of my snobbish
attitude. She went on spreading her encounter with my uncle to other
students and they all laughed at me. I was indignant rather than