In early May I received a cassette tape from my mother in Osaka. It was a copy of a tape of her interviewing my grandmother, who died at the age of 90 last year. My grandmother lived in a public nursing home near my parents' house, and had become senile for the last couple of years of her life. Four years ago when she still made sense and had memories left, my mother conducted this project. The interview took place at an open space on the top of the nursing home building where scattered chairs and plants formed a makeshift patio, while overhead was constant air traffic of jets flying to and from Osaka airport. More than a year had passed since my grandmother's funeral. For some reason my mother had suddenly decided to make a copy of the tape and send it to me.
When the tape arrived in mail, it was Saturday, mid-afternoon. I began driving to Somerville to shop at an Asian grocery store called "Reliable Market". Passing through Harvard Square, I inserted the tape into my cassette player and pushed play. The recording began with the roaring sound of a jet passing by. A few seconds later I could hear my grandmother telling my mother what kind of canned coffee she wanted from a vending machine on the 2nd floor. Her high-toned voice filled the inside of my Corolla as I drove down Massachusetts Avenue.
"Well, Grandma, will you tell me where you were born?" my mother asked.
My grandmother was completely unaware of my mother's intensions. She didn't even know that my mother had a tape recorder. My grandmother was not the kind of person who would cheerfully agree to such a project. She was timidly proud. Knowing this full well, my mother naturally started asking questions in hopes of easing her into the interview. That was why the interview began with my grandmother complaining about someone stealing her pocket money and chronic pain in her knees.
"Grandma, where were you born?" my mother repeated.
"What? In Dairen, Manchuria."
"When did you come back to Japan?"
"When I was two years old. I came back on a big ship to Tokyo."
I parked my car on Somerville Avenue near Union Square, where Reliable Market is located. I turned off the engine and stayed inside the car to listen to the tape. On my right was the billboard for Mike's Liquors which was decorated with dusty blinking lights. A middle-aged shabby man with a Red Sox cap on came out of Mike's Liquors and glanced at me.
My mother asked questions about her mother's childhood in Tokyo. About the school she went to and the house she lived in. About her four brothers. My grandmother's family was quite well off back then, so they had several in-house servants. My grandmother talked about the ping-pong games she played with these servants. According to her, she won all the time. My mother changed the subject and asked my grandmother about the Tokyo Earthquake of 1923, which destroyed her family home. However, being reminded of this dramatic incident in her life did not make her talkative.
"Earthquake. Yep. I remember." That was all what she said.
My mother asked about her parents' marriage. She wanted to know how they had met, how her father had proposed, how wedding ceremonies had gone and so on and so forth. Once again, my grandmother did not sound very enthusiastic. She sounded far from romantic. Shockingly, she did not even remember my grandfather's name. (My grandfather had passed away 15 years earlier). She said, "Hey, what was his name? Your father. Heizou-san, yeah, right. What did I think of him when I saw him for the first time? Well, he was smiling all the time, so I thought he was like a woman."
Two young men wearing gold chains of various lengths around their necks passed in front of my car. I checked the signs on the streets to make sure that I was not parked in a towing zone. Somerville police cars drove by several times. The strong mid-afternoon light was beaming into my car through the front glass.
My mother asked about the Second World War. My grandparents lived in Tokyo during the war while my mother and my uncle stayed at their relative's place in Nagano in order to escape from the bombings in Tokyo. As a result of these bombings, my grandmother lost her house for a second time. She said with a sigh, "War, it was awful. It was not a trouble in your household. It was something that came from outside home. You can't do anything about that kind of things, can you?" Then she paused and continued. "By the way, do you remember Mitsukoshi's Takahashi?"
According to my grandmother, Mr.Takahashi was a sales representative of the Mitsukoshi Department Store in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, who had many businesses dealings with my grandmother. Their business relationship started at the time of her marriage. He was in charge of helping to prepare for her married life: he brought furniture, futons and all other household items of the best quality. He also prepared all the decorations and gifts that she needed for her wedding ceremony and accompanying parties. He worked very hard as if "grinding his soul and body" (This was my grandmother's expression). She began to trust him and called him anytime she needed to buy something. My grandmother told that my mother met him many times when she was still a child.
"Agh, Takahashi was such a sincere man. Too bad that nice guy died so young," said my grandmother. Surprised, my mother asked, "How do you know he died? Did he die when he was still at Mitsukoshi?" My grandmother did not reply.
All the rest of the answers my grandmother gave to my mother led to the subject of Mr. Takahashi. My mother tried to ask about the drastic moments in our family history: the move to Osaka, the flood in Kobe and my grandfather's struggle against cancer. But my grandmother's focus was completely on Mr. Takahashi: how honest he was in business, how sweet his smile was, and how happy he seemed when he saw my grandmother.
"When did you hear that your husband had cancer?" asked my mother.
"A doctor told me about a couple of years before he died. By the way, Takahashi once gave me a beautiful antique cigarette case from China as a gift. Have you seen it before?"
I got out of the car, and went into Reliable Market. It is a grocery store specializing in Asian food, especially Korean and Japanese products. Browsing through an aisle of rice crackers, I was thinking how interesting it was listening to the tape that I had chuckled at exactly the same places where my mother had chuckled. Anytime I laughed over what my grandmother said, my mother did, too, so that our laughs resonated in harmony. We did not laugh at anything that was obviously funny, but on subtle things such as the tones or pauses that my grandmother created in the conversations.
Before she moved to the nursing home, my grandmother lived in a house near my parents' place. I grew up sitting around my grandmother's dining table and chatting with my grandmother, mother and sister over tea and sweets. Those numerous afternoons of chat created an unique rhythm among us. Nobody else except my sister, who now lives in Osaka, could have joined and laughed at the same places on the tape, I thought. It was our music. It was our jam.
I brought some shabushabu meat -- Reliable Market is the only store in Boston that carries this paper-thin beef or pork --, some Japanese cucumbers, several kinds of Kimuchi and strawberry-flavored chocolate called Ichigo Pocky to the cashier. The young woman at the register looked at me and gave me the price in English. I know that the cashiers at Reliable Market talk to Koreans in Korean, but for some reason they always speak to me in English. I wondered what it was that made me not look Korean in their eyes. What was the differences?
I returned to my car and listened to the rest of the tape eating Ichigo Pocky. The interview ended abruptly when someone working at the nursing home came to look for my grandmother. It was supper time. They always offered supper at 4:30 pm. The interview came to close, but at the end of the tape my mother had added her own short message. "The finding of this interview is that Grandma had a life of not making any decision of her own. The End." The way my mother said "The End" was funny, so I chuckled. I was certain that my mother chuckled, too, when she stopped the tape recorder. My sister would, too. So would my grandmother.
After the tape was over, I drove through Somerville still nibbling Pocky. Looking at the landscape of Dunkin Donuts and flowerpot vendors, I felt there was a transparent filter between the surroundings and me. A filter, which was sort of a spider web stretched in a triangle shape connecting Osaka, Boston and wherever my grandmother had gone.
A big African-American woman wearing a black T-shirt passed in front of my car at a busy intersection. She might have been caught by her own invisible webs with their own rhythms and tempos. After all, catching yourself with various webs and various struggles is the whole point of life, I thought looking at the woman.
(2002/8/12. This essay is on Gate39.com)