Thursday, September 10, 2009

Jiichan and Baachan

Today I am going down memory lane so this will be considered a post for family posterity.

It is interesting how the memory works. How far back can you remember? This week I am trying to draw memories of my grandparents out of my head for a project that a friend, Pat is doing. I was born and lived in Illinois until I was 4. I have no memories at all of that time. My memories start at about kindergarten age when my family moved to California and I VAGUELY remember a few elementary school teachers. After moving to California I saw my grandparents for a month in the summer when we visited them in Indiana and for a month in the winter when they visited us on the West Coast.

But what do I really remember and what are the "memories" of stories my mother has related and become my own memories? And what are the memories that have been trapped on film and I THINK they are childhood memories but are really thanks to present day album viewing?

My grandparents were the only Japanese family living in a small town in Indiana. They changed their ways of thinking, their customs, even the language they spoke in their home to match their American surroundings. In some ways they left Japan behind them both literally and in their minds. They raised their daughter (my mother) as the American citizen she was and so when my brother and I came along there weren't many remnants of Japan in their home. Still...

I remember that my grandfather (Jiichan... "grandpa" in Japanese. Probably my first contact with the Japanese language!) cooked with chopsticks which I thought amazing... I remember a delicately carved ivory crab that he must have brought from Japan. There were a few Japanese children's books with strange writing that had been sent a generation before to MY mother from HER grandmother in Japan (whom she never met).

No other "Japanese" memories.

But of my grandparents I remember their 50 acre farm (no animals, just flowers) on the outskirts of town. It had a long driveway that ended in a circle in front of their white farm house. And for some reason hollyhocks and gladiolas play heavily in my mind. The driveway was gravel but I do have a memory of learning to ride a bicycle there. And a memory of Jiichan climbing a tree in the front yard to put up a swing for my brother and me. I have an embarrassing memory of sitting on Jiichan's lap while he drove his tractor and wetting my pants all over him. I recall that he was quite exasperated about that!

Jiichan liked to paint and I remember watching him set up his easel to paint a nearby lake. He made wooden tables and lamps too and I remember him sanding something he was working on. He had a funny chopped off finger that I touched and wondered where the fingernail had disappeared to. He said he'd cut it off when trying to fix his tractor.

Of my grandmother (Baachan) I have very few memories. She died when I was 8 and so she stands in the greyness of there or maybe already not there. I sewed a couple cross stitch hankies in the summer (or maybe they were pillowcases) but I'm not sure if it was my grandmother who taught me or my mother... but we were at the farm. I think I remember being carried on my grandmother's back which must be true because this is a common practice for grandmothers in Japan...

After my grandmother passed away we continued to visit Indiana in the summers and Jiichan continued coming to California in the winters. He slept in my brother's room and did a lot of the cooking (my mother has never been a great cook). I recall another time when he was exasperated with me because I was dilly-dallying about my chore of washing the dishes and he stepped in front of me and said it was faster to do it himself! He wasn't a strict person (I think) but I do recall the two times he was disappointed in me rather than his expressions of pride...

In California our family became fast friends with another Japanese-American family, the Hiroshiges, and on weekends and holidays we would do everything with them. They had a grandfather (we called him Davey's Jiichan) who had immigrated from Japan but he didn't speak much English. On Thanksgiving (or maybe it was Christmas?) Davey's Jiichan and my Jiichan would make sushi as the appetizer for the holiday meal and I never realized until later that other families celebrating the holiday had never heard of sushi! And while the fathers played chess and the mothers traded stories and the children played hide-and-seek, the two grandfathers would sit on the porch and speak to each other in Japanese. I think my grandfather must have relished these times because for most of his life in America he never had a chance to speak Japanese.

My grandfather passed on when I was 11, before I took an interest in Japan or in him. Still, his presence in my life must have made some impression because here I am in Japan absorbing the culture he was born in, and in essence doing the same things that he and my grandmother did in reverse. Leaving my country of birth and learning to love and adapt to a new one. Having spacklings of one culture on top of a different one. And then to think my kids are in the midst of doing it all over in a double reverse in America! What a wayfaring family!

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