This gallery contains 4 photos.
I promised you some small breaks from the writing process here. So I wanted to tell you about the Girl’s Day celebration we had this year. Continue reading
I have written versions and drafts of this to you in my head, upon waking in the middle of the night, on the mat at yoga class, during my run along the grassy median in my neighborhood. Places where spring’s starting to poke out of the ground in crocuses, swell the budding tips of branches, blossom in the cherry and plum trees. And I have written it at my laptop, which is usually next to the kitchen.
I have to begin, I think, with our neighborhood grocery store. It’s less than a mile up the road from our house, and it is our version of Cheers: everybody knows our names, or at least our faces. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that we go there almost every day. We get our double iced Americanos and caramel macchiatos there, our daughters have had birthday serenades and we’ve eaten family cups of gelato there. We’ve made friends there. So it is partly a place where we find community.
Sometimes we do plan our meals for the week, but more often it’s a day or two in advance. Partly because of the store, and because of its proximity, planning what we’re going to have for dinner is one of my everyday pleasures. It is where most of our disposable income goes. We don’t go out to movies very often anymore, we don’t even go to bookstores and music stores very often. But we do allow ourselves the pleasure of our grocery store. And, though we don’t have a year-round farmers market in our city, we do live within five miles of three farmers markets when the season begins. We try to go there even in the rain and cold.
Breakfasts are usually staples on hand. My latest breakfast obsession is peanut butter granola. (Before this it was toast with jam; before that it was peanut butter and jelly toasted sandwiches; before that it was smoothies.). Homemade peanut butter olive oil granola, Greek honey vanilla yogurt, sometimes with a spoonful of homemade rhubarb compote, blackberry jam, or cinnamon-vanilla applesauce. Usually in a glass ramekin, sometimes layered in a jam jar and smuggled in my backpack to school.
Lunches for me are usually leftovers from the day before. Sometimes I will pick up a bagel and cream cheese, or a salad, from one of the campus cafes.
Dinners, it must be said, mostly involve my cravings, and I usually crave some sort of Asian or Italian meal. Sometimes I’ll read about a recipe, and want to make it (parmesan-squash cakes). Sometimes I’ll think about what we have on hand already, and should use up soon (French toast for dinner, or Greek salad because of that stack of pitas in the fridge). Some days I’ll think that we need to have a vegetarian meal (spinach-feta lasagna), because we’ve had a lot of meat lately (kalbi) or that we need something warm because it’s been cold outside (minestrone) or something soothing because one of us has been sick (sinigang). Or something very quick that’s both savory and comforting (adobo).
It’s funny that you mention diet restrictions because we do have them, but I haven’t thought about them in a long time. Josh and C and M are lactose-sensitive, so nothing with cream or cow milk. We try to eat things that taste good to us, and are good for us. We’re not always successful with that balance, but we try to balance it out over a week.
But most of the time, it is about craving. And time: what can I make in a half hour, an hour, sometimes two hours, that will fit my mood and the contents of our refrigerator and the constraints of bathtime for our little girls and our workload for the evening?
I’ve been thinking about your questions, for other reasons, as well. Like you, I have experienced a difficult event recently, though I hope you understand that I am not trying to equate them. I have thought about why you would ask your questions: how do you eat? what enables you to eat? What kind of control do you exert over this part of your life, and why? And I think you might be asking, at some level, how do you find the appetite? In the churning wake of trauma, how do we reach for the hunger that is, by definition, an urge towards life?
And I can tell you about weeks when I ate purely for fuel: a handful of almonds behind my closed office door, a circle of leftover crust from the girls’ morning toast, a few pieces of cold pasta at dinner. I know that I am lucky that I had eating options. But most of my energy went towards getting out of bed, walking down certain hallways, stubbornly clutching the cool mask of a normality that I hope I never have to forge again. How the hell to reach for anything else?
Miraculously, appetite returned: at first as tentative as the signs of spring, then inexorable as the tide, luminous as the full moon, seductive as the inside of a peach. If we ever get to spend more time together, I hope I can tell you how. Maybe I’ll have figured it out by then.
See, my mind keeps circling back to your very first question. You asked how I eat. I’ve talked about how I prepare to eat, and what I eat. All of that pales compared to the family that shares my table nearly every night. With them, I eat gratefully.
And I think you know something about this. Where and how and why I eat are actually the same…with love, with love, with love.
Readers: how do you eat? (See my previous post for more of E’s questions to get you going.) E and I would love to hear from you.
When I am dreaming, it’s usually my body’s emotional response that wakes me up. Dreams have shaken me awake out of joy, out of fear, out of desire.
But last night an image woke me up: Hokusai’s “Great Wave at Kanagawa.”
You probably know Hokusai’s “Great Wave,” or have seen a version of it, somewhere. It’s one of the most famous Japanese woodblock prints in the world, and it’s nearly two hundred years old. I think there’s even a copy of it in my favorite local Japanese restaurant. I loved this painting for a long time, just being attracted to the vibrant blues, the serene curve of Mount Fuji in the distance, the perfect arc of the wave.
But for an embarrassingly long time, I never saw the boats—perhaps because I only saw reproductions of the print from far off, or in small-scale reproductions. A lifelong reader, I’m used to seeing things so clearly in my mind’s eye, but I’m appalled at how often I must train my physical eyes over and over again. How could I overlook the fishing boats, the rows of bodies straining in unison against that wave?
Once I saw the boats—and there are three of them!— the entire painting changed. The wave, like Stevens’s jar, “took dominion everywhere.” The foam at the crest of the waves started to reach like claws, or thorns, or teeth. Terrifying.
It’s been hard not to think about this image lately. As far as I know, none of my family members have been directly affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, or their aftereffects. Yet I have been stunned and overwhelmed, like so many others, since Friday. After seeing this footage, or this footage, it is hard to write anything or even read very much. A picture of a mother carrying her toddler on her back can undo me. It feels disrespectful to write about anything else, and even for me (but not for the Japanese) to want to return to anything like normality.
And yet, as a literary critic, I have to admire the narrative tension of the woodblock print itself. Literary critics call this “in media res,” beginning in the middle of the action. A wave itself is narrative: with calmer waters moving into larger waves, then breaking, and receding. The boats and the humans in Hokusai’s painting add a patina of fear to the entire scene, and become story: what will happen to the people? Adding all three elements together, the wave, the mountain, and the boats, we wonder: when will the waves break, and where, and how? When the waves recede, what will they leave behind?
There are two steps in my usual response to tragedy and grief: first, to picture the worst-case scenario; and second, to detach. I don’t say this with pride. Recently, because I’ve been writing this book, and because I want to be more available for people in my life who might need help, I have tried to deal with grief differently. I have tried to stay available for them.
None of it is easy. But at the center of this impulse, I hope, is my urge to connect humanity: the reason why I read, the reason why I write. What will happen to us? When will the waves break, and where, and how?
Perhaps most importantly, Hokusai’s Great Wave forces us to ask: what should we do with the nearly unbearable tension of such a terrible moment? While our impulse might be to resolve that tension, Hokusai instead asks us to stay there for as long as we can bear it. As the Japanese people know, and as my Issei and Nisei ancestors knew, grace and knowledge and strength can arise from that space.
Please consider making a donation to Japan earthquake relief efforts, if you have not already done so.
Around 10AM on every New Year’s Day of my life, I have had breakfast with my extended family: all five of my dad’s siblings, plus my cousins and their families. We all eat. Then we go home and cook. We return for dinner: more eating. Unlike other family reunions I’ve heard about, we don’t have T-shirts, we don’t travel anywhere exotic, and we don’t rent out a restaurant.
Longevity is part of the miracle. As far as I know, New Year’s has never been cancelled in over five decades; one year, my grandfather sold his wedding ring to make New Year’s happen. Maybe it’s because my father died over twenty-five years ago, and in some families that would mean that my link to his family died, too. Maybe I’m more aware of longevity now that I have two daughters to bring to the table.
Part of the miracle is also what I get to eat. At breakfast we’ll sip ozoni and eat its mochi, along with its shiitake mushroom, nori and shungiku. We’ll eat my uncle’s sabazushi with pickled mackerel. I can’t wait for my cousins’ carefully timed barbequed teriyaki chicken. At dinnertime we always start by lining up for Auntie Nesan’s chow mein. Another auntie brings arroz con gandules from her husband’s Puerto Rico. My Filipina mom will make lumpia; I’ll make sukiyaki using my dad’s recipe. My cousins and aunties will stuff the inari zushi and roll the maki zushi. There will be teriyaki Spam musubi, oden, crab legs, hijiki, tai, char siu, and umani. Dessert has its own table: fruit salad, pies, finger jello, multiple flavors of leche flans.
As well as we eat, I don’t want this piece to be a “savor the ethnic traditions” one. I’m also resisting the predictable family potluck cliché, about every contribution being valuable.
Yet New Year’s is miraculous: an annual family table. It is my touchstone, and what I think of first when I think of family. The meals are a staggering amount of work, the day has evolved over decades, and it will not always stay the same. Nevertheless, I’m a fairly sane and grounded person…and if anyone asks, New Year’s is where I start to tell the story of my sanity.
(I submitted this piece to a publication–they asked for a 400-word piece about “family” or “holidays.” It wasn’t published, so I get to publish it here! Happy holidays to everyone, and thanks for reading. Back in the New Year, if not before.)
This morning I found a car rental receipt for May, 2007. I had to do a double take—the date was May 17, and I had one car seat so your older sister was with me, and I flew in and out of Sacramento…but the year was 2007. Were you born yet? I had to ask myself. No: that was one year before you were born in May 2008. About five months before we knew about you.
When I realized this, I was stunned. I can’t believe that it has only been two and a half years since you were born. Since that day, I have felt so protective of you, my second child, second daughter. Your dad and I are oldest kids, and now your big sister’s an oldest kid. You’re a youngest kid in a household of oldest kids. So I have felt protective of you in different ways. Maybe you don’t always want to play what your big sister is playing (although this is rare, it’s true); maybe you don’t want to watch that movie that she chose; maybe, gasp, you have your own choices and preferences. I want to protect yours, if I can. I understand big sister urges all too well: we want to express our love through teaching, protecting, guiding. But I want to honor you, too.
When I knew I was pregnant with you, I remember being worried. How could I love you like I love your sister? And of course, the answer was that I can’t. And I don’t. Loving your sister taught me that I could love someone differently than your dad—but just as equally, just as helplessly, just as deeply. You taught me that of course I can love a daughter differently from your sister. And yes, just as equally, just as helplessly, just as deeply.
Now, I know there are older and younger sibling gripes. Your dad and I try to manage these as best as we can. Older siblings gripe about how younger siblings get more attention for being “the baby.” But younger siblings gripe about being treated permanently like children. Older siblings gripe about having to go first, or “breaking parents in” to the first sleepover, the first driving lesson, the first time away from home. And younger siblings gripe about how little documentation there is for them, compared to the oldest child.
And oh, this last one is so true. I’ve talked to a number of parent-friends who have two or more kids, and it’s not just you. I wrote down daily, weekly, monthly things about what your sister was doing at this age. Milestones: first steps, first words, first meals. She had her own web page. We do take pictures of you, but not as many; we update your shared web site every three months, rather than every week or every month. I have felt, keenly, the lack of documentation that we have had for you, compared to what we had for your sister. It happened with me, too—there are so many picture albums of just me, the oldest and for four years, an only child—and not as many picture albums of your auntie, my younger sister. So this is something like an apology for not having enough pictures of you, or equal documentation of you.
But it is also a letter to tell you this: if the older sibling is about the magic of the milestones, the younger sibling is about the magic of the middles.
When your dad and I held your sister as a baby, we were terrified most of the time. We didn’t really know what or whom or how to trust, as parents. Good students and lifelong readers to the core, we consulted What To Expect (both before and after her birth) every week. We loved it, but we were also gut-scared.
And you? By the time you were born, we had learned better how to trust ourselves. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of my very favorite pictures in the world was taken on the day you were born. It’s a picture of you, burritoed up in the white flannel hospital blanket, and your big sister C, with the biggest look of surprise, looking up and laughing. I asked my sister, your auntie, to take these pictures, as many as she could. I knew that I’d still be in surgery for a little while after you were born. And I couldn’t be there when you met your sister for the first time. It broke my heart a little, to tell you the truth. So first you should know this: the urge to document was there the day you were born, even though I couldn’t be with you, and the urge is still there.
And second, you should know this, immediately: very early, you taught me how to enjoy the in-between. As a baby, you were a world-class champion cuddler. Even now, your body melts into my lap, pours itself onto my shoulder. Your head still snuggles into my neck, that sweet spot that babies seem to seek and find, automatically. What will I do when you no longer want to sit on my lap in the morning during breakfast, or lounge against my legs as you eat your snack? You crave physical contact, lots of it. I’ve never been that way, but I love that hunger in you.
For the first three and half months of your life, you were colicky at around the same time, around 4-6PM. It was usually dinnertime, which meant that we had to take turns, or eat later. I never thought that I would have been mostly all right with holding a screaming, seemingly inconsolable baby, but there were also times when I was so happy that I got to hold you. I wasn’t so scared. I didn’t take it as a personal insult or parenting comment that you were screaming every day. And every once in a while, when I held you, pacing, swaying, singing, breathing deep… you’d calm down. I like to think that it was because you knew me, knew my smell, in the most mama-baby animal primal way. I wasn’t looking for your first smile, your first anything. I just knew that I loved holding you, breathing you.
Now you are making new leaps and bounds with your language, it seems almost every day. You’ve gone from naming, to demanding, to describing, to pretending, and even to analyzing (“Can I sit down to put my pants on?” you asked this morning. “It’s easier.”). You love wearing the same clothes as your older sister: “We have twins!” you like to say to her. You’re catching your balance more, and you can now trot sturdily after your sister, chirping “OK! C!” Your Japanese-manga-size eyes stare up at us from under your blowsy, curly bangs, and all three of us, we who live with you, are at their mercy. Your sister even runs to get a tissue when you sneeze.
Your moods are usually sunny or stormy, and most of the time you like to be sunny, silly and funny. I don’t remember the first time you said your first word, but I do remember when you said to me, without any kind of prompting, “I yahv yoo.” You still want to be carried a lot (“uppy!”) and you still love your “chocky milk” from the store. You love to pretend to put your baby doll to sleep, and you want us to pretend along with you. Tonight I was a crocodile. A couple of weeks ago I was the Cookie Monster. Who knows what I’ll be next? I can barely measure, much less document, when and where and how all of this is happening.
But we are learning how to express ourselves in newer and better ways, you and I. Though I can remember what life was before you were born, I am amazed by how richly you and your sister have textured my life, how thoroughly you ask me to live my life every single day. Stitches that outline a shape? Pretty, sure. But intricate embroidery in lush, multiple colors, unfurling designs: now, there’s something like my life now. A century of stitches.
That’s why I can’t believe that you’ve only been alive two and a half years. And that’s why I’m not writing this letter to celebrate any developmental milestone. You, the younger sibling, have taught me that the journey of parenting is not only the direction of the road, the distance to the next rest stop, or the relief of the endpoint (and really, how to envision an end to parenting now?).
Thank you for teaching me to see the beauty of the landscape next to the road. You are the long tall grasses waving in the wind, the green hills relaxing in the distance, the white lace dancing on the waves. You taught me that parenting’s also holding you, breathing you. These are the journey of parenting, as much as anything else.
I could tell you that it smelled yellow. Not in a diseased, Charlotte-Perkins-Gilman way. Not in an inscrutable, exotic, “Oriental” way. It smelled like Northern California summer sunlight coming through shoji screen paper.
I could tell you that it smelled, predictably, like aging paper. But that might only tell you so much. If you haunt used bookstores like I do, you’d probably recognize the smell. You’d also know it if you’ve done a lot of research in the archives, or shelving in the library stacks. This week we took a family walk down the spiral stacks at the Seattle Central Public Library, and as we rounded a corner, something like that smell greeted me.
The envelope smelled, as my husband Josh pointed out to me, like my childhood house. When I was growing up, we had touches of Japanese décor around the house: a few kokeshi dolls, a noren that fluttered in the main entrance to the hallway, even a tokonoma with a bright red painting. But for me it’s the shoji screens over our windows and glass doors that quietly say home. That’s the smell: the yellow, the paper, the light.
Since I love paper with a cocooning fervor that would make a silkworm blush (another post, another time), you’d think that the feel of the paper would be my first sensory hit. I’ve had this envelope for years now, and it’s been at my mom’s house for a couple of decades before that, probably unopened.
But at first, I was too tentative to rub the paper between my fingers. I even did some writing before I opened the envelope; I wrote down the questions that I wanted to ask. During internment, how did you and our family deal with loss? How did you deal with the loss of your possessions, of your house, of your family papers and baby pictures? And the difficult, near-impossible questions: How have I dealt, or not dealt, with your loss? How do we endure?
It took me a week to think about those questions. I haven’t read the manuscript since I was eight or nine years old: almost twenty-five years ago. Then a week later, I wrote down why I was so afraid of opening the envelope. I’m scared that it’s going to make me cry and realize his loss all over again. I hate crying. I hate having lost him.
On my computer desktop, I opened up and looked at an old photo of my father. I wanted to say something like a prayer, but I didn’t know what to ask for. I don’t really pray, if we’re being very honest here.
I couldn’t think, didn’t say, probably felt: please.
Then I opened the envelope. Lately I’ve been worried that the manuscript inside the envelope has been deteriorating. But I noticed that though the first and last pages are a bit tattered, the bond paper’s doing its very best to stand up to the manual typewriter. In an age of slick laser printouts, there’s something engraved, almost letterpressed, about these typewritten pages.
And at the bottom of the very first page, he left me an unexpected gift.
Taku Frank Nimura
Out of the two-hundred plus manuscript pages, it’s this one that I just might cherish the most. He wrote this book—or at least this page—during the month and year that I was born. He died eleven years later.
In the wake of a recent loss, private for now, I am beginning to write my own book. It’s a book that speaks to my father, that will interweave his voice with the voice and artwork of my sister. I don’t know where this project will take us, but I know it’s about memory, family, technology, loss, and home. And it’s about the precariously shifting aftermath of history, or what I’ve come to think of as the wake.
The wake? Stand near the back of a ferry boat, and watch the waters below. As the boat engine starts, the waters will seem to hum. All that unseen energy will churn itself into a thick, gorgeous procession of rippling upheaval. We know the procession will eventually disappear. And so we treasure the wake because we are always leaving it behind.