The Dream of Water: A Memoir

The Dream of Water: A Memoir

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by Kyoko Mori

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"POETIC . . . REMARKABLY HONEST . . . Mori describes her experiences with an admirable mixture of forthrightness and restraint."
--The Wall Street Journal
In an extraordinary memoir that is both a search for belonging and a search for understanding, Japanese-American author Kyoko Mori travels back to Kobe, Japan, the city of her birth, in an unspoken


"POETIC . . . REMARKABLY HONEST . . . Mori describes her experiences with an admirable mixture of forthrightness and restraint."
--The Wall Street Journal
In an extraordinary memoir that is both a search for belonging and a search for understanding, Japanese-American author Kyoko Mori travels back to Kobe, Japan, the city of her birth, in an unspoken desire to come to terms with the memory of her mother's suicide and the family she left behind thirteen years before.
Throughout her seven-week trip, Kyoko struggles with her ever-present past and the lasting guilt over her mother's death. Although she meets with beloved cousins and other relatives, she agonizes over the frustrating relationship she barely maintains with her fierce father and selfish stepmother. Searching for answers, Kyoko attempts to find a new understanding of what her father is really like, and how it has affected her own place in two distinct worlds. As her time to leave draws near, Kyoko begins to understand that her family connections may be a powerful cry of the heart, but it is the new world that has given her escape from a lonely past and the power to believe in herself.
--Seattle Times-Post Intelligencer
"ASTONISHINGLY BEAUTIFUL . . . Through the clarity filters the beauty of a large heritage that Mori is by now too American to share, but still Japanese enough to appreciate its redeeming value and to be in some measure restored by it."
--Los Angeles Times Book Review
--San Francisco Chronicle

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Twelve years after she fled her home in Japan to study in the United States, Mori, now married and teaching creative writing at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, spends several weeks of her sabbatical revisiting the ``landscapes of my childhood.'' She has been unable to distance herself from the grief over her mother's long-ago suicide and the blame and hatred she feels for her cruel father. In Japan, she looks up old friends and relatives who might have provided more insight into her younger self and the events and characters that haunt her. But these people do little to change her feelings, and depressing visits with her cold father and detested stepmother make forgiveness impossible. But as she waits for her plane back to the U.S., she musters a symbolic gesture to close the book on these destructive relationships by throwing away the offensive parting gift of jewelry from her stepmother that earlier she had politely accepted. This beautifully written, troubling memoir by the author of a well-received first novel (Shizuko's Daughter) only infrequently rises above the private pain it attempts to exorcise. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Mori (Shizuko's Daughter, Holt, 1993), a college professor who now lives in Wisconsin, presents a poignant account of a journey to her Japanese homeland. We see Mori confront the tragedies that shaped her life up to the time she came to America as a teenager-her mother's suicide when Mori was in grade school, her father's indifference and mistreatment of her, and her stepmother's petty and self-serving behavior. Writing sparely, Mori evokes memories of her childhood as well as the landscape of contemporary Japan, offering a piquant juxtaposition of childhood and maturity, rice paddies and neon, patterns of behavior and detached analyses of them. Shining through the author's fears and insights as she encounters her parents and a culture that has now become quite distant are her own redoubtable inner strength and the warmth of her mother's family and her school friends. An affecting work for general readers.-D.E. Perushek, Univ. of Tenn. Libs., Knoxville
School Library Journal
YA-A poignant and honest memoir by a Japanese American woman who returns to her homeland after many years' absense. Mori explores the emotional and spiritual complexities of having severed ties with loved ones, and how a change in time and place recasts, taints, and illuminates one's perception. Central to her personal observations is the author's inability to forgive her father for his emotional and physical abuse after her mother's suicide. This narrative is in part about the young woman's journey but it is also about forgiving and forgetting even though Mori, herself, is unable to do either. Although she is unable to come to terms with her relationship with her father, she arrives at a better understanding of her mother's motivations and decisions that positively affected her daughter's life. Reminscent of David Mura's Turning Japanese (Doubleday, 1992), this title by the author of Shizuko's Daughter (Holt, 1993) will be good reading for YAs interested in Japanese culture, women's studies, and autobiographical writing.-Michele L. Simms-Burton, Department of English, George Washington University, Washington, DC

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Random House Publishing Group
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

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The Dream of Water

A Memoir

By Kyoko Mori

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1995 Kyoko Mori
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8050-3260-4


Distant Water

On March 16, 1969, the night his marriage ended, my father, Hiroshi, went to sleep as usual in his small room off the kitchen. The undertaker had dressed my mother, Takako, in her best kimono and left her on a futon in that room. For the first time in nearly ten years, Hiroshi lay down next to her and closed his eyes. The drapes in the room still smelled of the gas she had breathed in that afternoon by taping the windows shut, unhooking the gas line, and holding the tube to her mouth. She had even covered her head with a plastic bag, to make sure. There was no doubt that she really meant to die.

After sleeping fitfully all night, Hiroshi jumped off his futon at dawn, wide awake. Someone was snoring. Takako was alive after all. But when he sat down and touched her forehead, her skin was cold. Hiroshi tiptoed out to the living room and found his father-in-law, Takeo, stretched out on the couch in his undershirt, his mouth wide open. My grandmother, Fuku, was curled up into a tight ball on the armchair. They had arrived from the countryside in the middle of the night and decided not to wake us up.

* * *

Later that morning, Grandmother made rice and miso soup for breakfast, completely forgetting that my younger brother, Jumpei, and I did not eat Japanese food in the morning. Jumpei poured honey over his rice the way we did over oatmeal. I stirred my rice with the chopsticks but didn't eat it. We were all listening to Hiroshi in silence. Grandfather's eyes were dry but red.

"For a minute, I thought it was Takako snoring," Hiroshi said. "Funny, isn't it? I don't think she ever snored. At least not like you were, Father." Hiroshi wasn't smiling or crying. He was just stating the facts: our mother was dead, and he mistook one set of breathing for another.

Grandmother suddenly got up from the table and ran out to the yard, where she began pacing back and forth with small quick steps. I could hear the dog straining at his leash, excited to see her. While my father continued to talk, I went to the refrigerator and poured myself a glass of milk. Almost every morning, my mother and I had bickered because I hated drinking milk, which she insisted was good for my bones. I had complained endlessly about how the sticky aftertaste made me sick on the way to school. Some mornings, I knocked over the glass, pretending to be careless. Sitting back at the table now, I lifted my glass and sipped slowly. I held my breath and kept swallowing each small mouthful till the glass was empty.

* * *

Jumpei and I stayed home all that afternoon while the undertaker's men rearranged our living room for the wake. Around four o'clock, a man from a photography studio brought back a portrait of my mother in her red sweater, smiling and squinting at the same time, her hair blown slightly to the left. When the picture had been taken the previous fall, I was standing next to her on a hiking path and we were both smiling at Jumpei, who was learning to use the camera. This was the only good picture he took that day. The others were blurred or cropped wrong. The man from the studio said she looked kind and happy in this picture. He sat at the dining room table in the morning and cut out a square around her face and shoulders so that he could enlarge just that small piece. As he brushed the rest of the picture — thin glossy strips — off the table into the wastebasket, I sensed how my mother might see the world now: small and insignificant, lighter than an eggshell. She had been cut loose from life as easily as the photographer's scissors separated her face from mine, her shoulders from the mountains in the background.

By early evening, our living room was covered with white drapes and incense, with an altar in the front next to the coffin. People started gathering for the wake in their formal black kimonos and suits. The priest from our family's Buddhist temple read the sutras for an hour, his monotonous chanting broken up now and then by the brass bell he struck with what looked like a small black chopstick. Though the priest left immediately afterward, people stayed on — they were mostly my mother's relations: her parents, brothers and sister, cousins, second cousins. Because most of them were staying overnight, they were still talking when I went upstairs. All day long, my grandmother and aunts had been watching me with worried looks on their faces. I closed the door behind me, glad to be alone finally. I laid out my futon and fell asleep immediately.

It was still dark when I woke up and saw my father sitting on the floor next to me.

"Wake up," he said. "I need to tell you something important."

I started going through the same thing I was to experience every morning for the next few weeks: reminding myself that my mother had really died and I was now alone.

"Remember when you went to your mother's cousin Takeshi Ogata's funeral?" he asked.

I nodded but didn't sit up. I couldn't decide whether the sky was gray because it was cloudy or because it was so early. Takeshi's funeral had been two years back. My mother had been sick with the flu so I had gone in her stead with Hiroshi and my mother's brothers Shiro and Kenichi.

"You remember what Takeshi died of?" Hiroshi asked me. He was sitting cross-legged. His gray pajamas smelled of stale cigarettes.

"Heart attack," I said. Though Takeshi and my mother had been friends in childhood, they hadn't seen each other much as adults. I hardly knew him and often confused him with his two brothers, who were also doctors.

"That was a lie they told us," Hiroshi said. "Takeshi killed himself just like your mother. He had manic depression, a mental disease. Your mother must have had it, too."

I said nothing. Sparrows were gathering in the ginkgo tree outside. They were chirping and fluttering.

"I always thought there was something suspicious about his death," he went on. "Heart surgeons don't die suddenly from a heart attack. They kept his suicide a secret till last night. Finally, his brother Akira told me. There's something wrong with your mother's family. Both Takeshi and your mother had some problem with their minds. It must run on your grandmother's side. It's bad blood. Mental disease is hereditary. I want to make sure you and your brother turn out differently. Do you understand? You can't be like them."

He edged closer. I rolled away just a little.

"Your mother spoiled you and Jumpei. But I'm in charge of you now. I won't let you be like her. I'm going to help you by being strict." He abruptly got up and started walking away. "You can get up," he said.

I covered my head with the blanket and tried to remember something about the funeral or Takeshi's family. He had a daughter a day younger than I, but I had only met her that time at the funeral and wouldn't recognize her if I saw her again. All I could remember was the train ride to northern Kyoto, where his family lived. After the train had gone over two big bridges in Osaka, my uncle Shiro said we had crossed the same river twice. He breathed on the windowpane and drew the curve of the river and the tracks crossing it twice. Once the picture had faded, I could make it appear again and again by breathing on the glass.

* * *

I lay on my futon thinking, but I wasn't particularly surprised by the way my father had talked about my mother's cousin's suicide or about the bad blood he thought her family had passed on to me. He had never shown me any consideration because I was only twelve or even because I was his daughter. I didn't expect him to be kind. The day before, when we had come home from shopping and found my mother on the floor with a black bag over her head, my father called a doctor he knew and walked down the hill to meet him, leaving my brother and me alone. I made Jumpei go to his room upstairs while I opened the windows to let out the gas. I covered my mother with a blanket and waited. The doctor came but could not revive her. As soon as the doctor shook his head and pronounced her dead, my father told me to go and call my mother's relations and his own sister, Akiko. After that, he had me call my sixth-grade teacher, Jumpei's second-grade teacher, and our school friends. When I was done with all the phone calls, he sent me to the police station with the doctor to give our statements while he made calls to keep the incident out of the newspapers.

At the police station, the doctor told me to wait in the car. "You shouldn't have to do this," he said. "You're too young. I didn't want your father to send you. I told him so, but he wouldn't listen. He thought you should go as a witness. But I'll just go in by myself and ask them not to question you." When he had been inside for a few minutes, a young policeman came out to the car. He showed me into a small room at the station and gave me a cup of tea. He didn't question me. We scarcely talked except he kept asking me if I was warm enough. It was raining outside and chilly. Even this policeman must have a mother, I thought. The world was already rearranging itself. It was like a big gym with everyone who had a mother standing against one wall and the few of us who didn't standing against the other wall. The doctor came to get me, and we drove home in the rain.

* * *

I continued to lie on my futon though my father had told me to get up. While our guests were still sleeping, he was in the kitchen broiling some dried fish for his breakfast. The oily, salty smell reminded me of the rare mornings he had stayed home, when my mother had prepared him that same meal. I could picture the blue flames of the broiler leaving black marks on the leathery skin of the fish. No one else was getting up. The house stayed quiet except for his footsteps. Reaching under my futon, I pulled out the red notebook in which my mother had been keeping her journal for the past two years. I had known about the journal during her life, though I would never have touched it then. But when I came back from the police station, I took the notebook to my room and read it that night while my father was sleeping next to her body. I wanted to be the first, perhaps the only person to read her words. If necessary, I was prepared to burn the notebook to protect any secrets she might have wanted to keep.

But she had already destroyed the last few pages. The white thread that held the paper to the spine had popped in places when she tore them out. The last entry left intact was dated December 16, 1968, three months earlier. Most of the entries before that were from the preceding fall, though there were a few from the summer and from the previous winter, when we had first moved into our new house.

Sitting on my futon, I began to reread the notebook backward, starting with the most recent entry. Nothing my mother had written surprised me. Most days, sitting alone in the house made her sad; she wondered if her life had any real purpose.

"I am going insane," she wrote in October 1968. "I will become a madwoman. If my husband doesn't return home again tonight, I want to kill my children and commit suicide. I wish I were already dead. I cannot leave my children with him. They would only be a burden to him as he no doubt will remarry and start his life over. They and I are better off dead."

That was the only reference to killing my brother and me, unless there had been more in the pages she destroyed. The entries from the previous winter were no different, full of sadness, crows cawing, dead leaves stuck on the window, the times she wished she could simply evaporate and become nothing. Her thoughts had gotten stuck in that terrible sadness till death seemed the only way out. None of that — even the one mention of killing us — surprised me. I had slept next to her every night. I could easily imagine what she might have written in January, February, and early March and torn out.

Just about every night during that time, I woke up to the sound of her crying. Sometimes she would talk; other times we held hands and were silent. One night in the last week of her life, she turned on the light and woke me up. It must have been three or four in the morning. She wasn't crying this time. She looked pale and serious, her cheeks and jaws set hard.

"Are you okay?" I asked, sitting up. "You look sick."

She didn't answer. As we sat side by side on our futons, she took my hand and held it. Her hand was cold. She must have been sitting up for a long time.

"If I asked you to do something important," she asked after a while, "would you do it?"

"Of course," I said.

She squeezed my hand. "What would you do if I died? Could you go on living by yourself? Or would you wish you were dead, too?" She let go of my hand to wipe her tears.

I pulled my knees up and rested my forehead on my kneecaps, trying to think. My mother didn't say anything more. She was waiting for my answer. Finally, I said, "I don't want to die."

"Even if I were gone?"

"No. I don't want to die even if you were gone. But you are not going to die. I don't know why you keep talking about it. I wish you would stop." My voice sounded harsh, but I kept saying, "I want to go back to sleep. I'm so tired." I turned away from her and started crying.

"I'm sorry," she said. "Maybe I'm going crazy. All I can think of is how I would be better off dead."

Alone now in the room where she had said these things, I knew that my mother would never have forced my brother or me to die with her. That night when she woke me up, she might have been on the verge of asking me. She must have been relieved, then, to hear me say that I didn't want to die. I had told her what she wanted to believe: that I would continue to live with or without her. My words became the go-ahead she had been waiting for in the last few months. I reread her last journal entry from December: "Many times, I wish I could die in my sleep. I look around my house. I feel no attachment to my furniture, my clothes, everything I've worked hard for all these years. Even my children, I believe, would be happier with someone else. Someone stronger and more competent would be a better mother to them even if she were not related to them by blood." I closed the notebook. What I had said must have sounded like the final confirmation to her. Now, she must have thought, I can go ahead and do it. I wished I had said something entirely different. Why hadn't I told her that I didn't want to die but I didn't want to live without her, either? I should have shown her that I wanted both of us to be alive for a long time.

Downstairs, my father was sitting down to his solitary breakfast of salty fish and rice while, in the various rooms in the house, my mother's family who had stayed the night were beginning to get up. I could hear them walking about and getting dressed. I put the notebook under the pillow and closed my eyes. Soon I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. The door slid open with barely a sound. I opened my eyes just enough to see it was my aunt Keiko, my mother's younger sister. She sat by my futon for a long time while I pretended to be asleep. She did not want to wake me up, I knew, because in my sleep I might have forgotten about my mother's death, and she didn't want to remind me. Finally, she reached out her hand and touched my shoulder.

"I'm awake," I said. "Don't worry. I'm awake."

I sat up. She leaned forward and put her arms around me. We sat holding each other a long time before I got dressed for the funeral.

* * *

May 20, 1990, Green Bay, Wisconsin. At four in the morning, the air outside is already warm and humid. The screen door creaks shut behind me. As I begin to run without my glasses, everything looks blurred in the gray light from the sky. Daisies and clover spread a fuzzy green on the roadside, like moss. Above the sidewalk, the branches of oaks and maples are black shadows without clear edges. In the residential areas, porch lights are still on, cars and vans parked in driveways. Behind them, houses look larger than life and slightly tilted, as though they were sinking into water or floating out of it. Two miles into the run, I think of all the time and distance ahead of me.

I am taking a trip to Japan for the first time in thirteen years. "A trip" is how I think of it, not "going back" or "returning," which would imply that my destination is a home, a familiar place. As my running shoes pound the predawn sidewalk of this small midwestern town, Japan seems like a place that exists only in dreams or on television. Even my itinerary, which I have almost memorized, seems unreal.


Excerpted from The Dream of Water by Kyoko Mori. Copyright © 1995 Kyoko Mori. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Dream of Water: A Memoir 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
When I was reading her book, I had to put the book several times. Sometimes I found myself with tear in my eyes. Because it was so painful to me in her situation. I went to back to my home after seven years living in the States. It was the place where I don't have to ask lots of question for direction and I know the name of buildings without question. same ask Kyo-ko did. I decided escape from Seoul when I was seventeen and I am comfortably living here. Taking a trip to seoul was one trip I tried avoid hard until the time. Being there brought lots of good memories and bad memories, specially my abusive father. There was people who love me a lot and concern about my feeling and they made me feel I returned home. There are lots of similarity between Japanese and korean culture. I felt I was no longer one of them. Because how i dress up and how I respond to others. I was not dressed up as my age and was just wearing my jeans and T-shirt like what I do here all the times. I did not care how people will see me like other Koreas do. When my plane was reaching to San Francisco, I felt I am finally returning to the place where I will live last of my life comfortably. I knew Seoul will be just my hometown where I grew up and I will just be able to visit there for time being only. UNderstanding her too much was very painful but I think there are more than one person who also understand her.