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Albany, New York
My Mother's Music
"I believe that the Japanese word for wife literally means honorable person remaining within," says my mother. "During the nineteen twenties, when I was a child in Japan, my seventeen-year-old cousin married into a wealthy family. Before her marriage, I would watch as she tripped gracefully through the village on her way to flower arrangement class. Kimono faintly rustling. Head bent in modesty. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. After her marriage, she disappeared within her husband's house. She was not seen walking through the village again. Instead, she would send the clear, plucked notes of her okoto--her honorable Japanese harp--to scale the high courtyard wall. I used to pause to listen. In late spring, showers of petals from swollen cherry blossoms within her courtyard would rain onto the pavement. I would breathe the fragrant air and imagine her kneeling at her okoto, alone in a serene shadowy room. It seemed so romantic, I could hardly bear it." My mother laughs and shakes her head at her childhood excess. After a moment she speaks. "Courtyard walls, built to keep typhoons out, also marked the boundaries of a well-bred wife. Because of this, in others ways, the Japanese always have taught their daughters to soar."
"When I was eleven years old, my father gave me okoto."
During the 1950s, in our four-room flat on the south side of Albany, New York, my mother would play her okoto. Sometimes on Sunday afternoons when the jubilant gospel singing had faded from the AME Zion Church across the alley, my mother would kneel over a long body of gleaming wood,like a physician intent on reviving a beautiful patient, and pinch eerie evocative chords from the trembling strings of her okoto.
"Misa-chan, Yuri-chan," she would call to my sister and me, "would you like to try?"
"Hai, Okaa-chan"--yes sweet honorable mother--we would murmur, as if stirred from a trance.
"I was a motherless child," says Okaa-chan, when I have grown to adolescence. "My father gave me okoto to teach me to cherish my womanhood."
My mother plucks a chord in demonstration. "The notes are delicate yet there is resonance. Listen. You will learn about timelessness and strength. Listen. You will understand how, despite sorrow, heart and spirit can fly."
An American daughter, I cannot understand the teachings of my mother's okoto. Instead, I listen to the music of her words.
A formal, family photograph is the only memento my mother has of her mother. In 1919, an immigrant family poses in a Los Angeles studio and waits for a moment to be captured that will document success and confidence in America; a moment that can be sent to anxious relatives in Japan. A chubby infant, pop-eyed with curiosity, my mother sits squirming on her father's lap. My forty-five-year-old grandfather levels a patrician stare into the camera. By his side, wearing matching sailor suits, his sons aged three and five stand self-conscious with pride and excitement. My grandmother stands behind her husband's chair. In her early twenties, she owns a subdued prettiness and an even gaze.
My seven-year-old aunt is not in the picture. She has been sent to Japan to be raised as a proper ojo-san--the fine daughter of a distinguished family. Within the next year, her mother, brothers, and baby sister will join her. Five years later, my grandmother will be banished from the family. The circumstances of her banishment will remain a family secret for over forty years.
"Your grandmother loved to read," says Okaa-chan. The year is 1969. Okaa-chan and I sit in the kitchen, drinking tea at a table my father has made by attaching legs to a salvaged piece of Formica. It is after midnight; the house lies sleeping. "She was a romantic, an adventurer. In Japan, she caused scandal when she bought a set of encyclopedia."
"You must understand these were country people. A young wife wasting her time on reading, spending her money on frivolous facts, people must have thought, What nonsense! My honorable older brothers recall that each day she would read to us from the encyclopedia. She would tell us about science and foreign countries. I think she liked to dream about possibilities." Okaa-chan tilts her head and looks into the distance. "I was too young to remember this but it is a nice memory, neh Yuri-chan?"
"But why was she sent away? Why did your father divorce her?" Direct, assertive, American, I break into my mother's reflection and pull her back to the story I want to hear.
"Saa neh," Okaa-chan wonders. "Ojii-chan--your honorable grandfather--lived in America maybe ten to fifteen years before he went back to Japan and married. Our family is descended from samurai. We thought of ourselves as aristocracy; and Ojii-chan needed a wife from another samurai family."
"And the divorce?" I persist.
"Perhaps my father was na‹ve about people."
"What do you mean?"
"When he brought my mother to Los Angeles, Ojii-chan owned a pool hall. It was very popular with young Filipino workers. It was against the law for them to bring family to America. They were lonely and restless; and pool halls helped to kill times. My mother worked by Ojii-chan's side, and being young and pretty she was good for business. When work was done, father would leave us alone. My mother had read all the European, great romantic novels. She was much younger than Ojii-chan. She was lonely, and she fell in love with a young Filipino who could read and speak Japanese. He courted her by bringing books."
"She had a love affair!"
"They were very sincere." Okaa-chan is quick to correct any impression that her mother had been a libertine. "The man wanted my father to divorce my mother so she could remarry. Ojii-chan started moving us from house to house, trying to hide Mother, but her lover keeps locating us."
"Why didn't she just take you children and run away with him?"
"You must understand, my mother was from a good family. She would not consider taking her children from a respectable family into a disgraceful situation. She would not think of taking her husband's children from him. Romance is a private peril. Others should not suffer." Okaa-chan pours herself some more green tea. Its aroma is faintly acrid. "Perhaps Ojii-chan finally thought, This is embarrassing nuisance. He sent us all back to Mother's parents in Japan."
"But why did Ojii-chan wait five years to divorce your mother?"
Okaa-chan sighs. "That was a cruel mistake, neh? Ojii-chan was a highly honorable man but often he did not understand how his action would affect others. If he had divorced my mother when he first found out, in America, then she could have married her lover." Okaa-chan is silent again. Perhaps she is saddened to recall a flaw in the only parent she clearly can remember. "Ojii-chan divorced as an afterthought. He may have wondered: Why am I supporting this woman? Why is her family raising my children? He broke a promise to my mother's parents."
"When Ojii-chan sent my mother back to her parents, they begged him not to divorce her. It was a small village. If Ojii-chan and Mother divorced, her parents would have no choice but to send their daughter from their house."
"And so, when they divorced ..."
"My mother's ancestral home was adjacent to Ojii-chan's ancestral home. There had been warm feelings and intermarriages between the homes for centuries. With the divorce, relations had to be severed."
Okaa-chan is silent for a long time.
"After the divorce, my mother's parents would come to edge of Ojii-chan's ancestral home," she finally says. "My grandmother would be carrying a plate of sweets and she would call to her grandchildren. They only wanted to see us, to give us some candies. We would long to run to them but we knew it was forbidden. Instead, we would turn and run into the house to hide."
I stand and move to the sink and stove, heating more water, helplessly wanting to give Okaa-chan a cup of tea to compensate for losing her grandmother's sweets.
"Did you know beforehand? Did you know the divorce was coming?"
"Oh, no, I was maybe five years old, little more than toddler. But looking back, there are certain memories."
Okaa-chan is quiet as she moves back within her memories. "One day, mother took us to a photographer's studio for a formal portrait. I was excited and I turned to call my mother's attention to something. She was wiping away tears with her kimono sleeve. I never before had seen her cry and thought, Why in the middle of such a grand adventure?" Okaa-chan pauses. "I suppose that happened just before Ojii-chan had us sent from her house."
There is a longer pause.
"How I wish I could have a copy of that picture," she says.
In the quiet, I notice that the sky is lightening outside the kitchen window; birds are beginning to stir. Finally, Okaa-chan resumes her story.