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Happy Birthday, Mom
by Chikako Atsuta  (2/26/01)

I called my mother in Osaka. It was her 65th birthday. Anytime she hears my voice on the phone, the first thing she does is to call out my name very slowly: "Chi-i-chan". It always sounds as if she is trying to change gears to drive into my life in America — a life that is so far away from hers.

A few days earlier, my sister had emailed me that my Grandmother was in the hospital with pneumonia. My mother told me that Grandmother was ok. But immediately afterwards she said that if something happened to Grandmother, she did not think I should return to Japan for the funeral. As my mother has aged, it seems as if she thinks less and less highly of herself and Grandmother, or for that matter, of anybody that belongs to her. I was even afraid that she would not let me know if Grandmother passed away. I also imagined that my mother would beg us not to bother with her own funeral after she had left this world.

Last month, after 2 years' absence, I was back in Osaka and visited Grandmother who was living in nursing home. She had become much smaller, and also did not speak much due to loss of her hearing ability. She studied me for a moment and looked at the wall. My mother had brought a book with photographs of Hollywood stars such as Cary Grant and James Stewart, whom Grandmother used to adore. She browsed through the book briefly and stared back at the wall. Then my mother took out an old photograph of the wedding ceremony of Grandmother's younger brother. Grandmother stared at the faded black and white picture, in which most of her relatives (about 50 of them) were lined up. She began calling out their names: her parents, 4 brothers, 2 children...When my mother pointed at Grandmother's husband, though, Grandmother could not recognize him. Looking puzzled, she turned to my mother.

My mother sighed. "You can't recognize your husband? It's a shame." My grandparents were married for about 50 years till my grandfather passed away 18 years ago.

My father did not say anything while he was watching the scene. However, at the dinner table that night, he suddenly said to me that he wanted to have at least one grandchild. He had never made such a request before, so I was surprised. I told him to talk to my sister, who was at least the one already married. He shook his head. I did not ask why. My sister and her husband are close, but they just do not look like the kind of people who would have kids. They do not even look as if they are ever intimate. My father declared solemnly, over the sound of TV in the dining room, that he needed offspring who would visit his grave. My mother did not say anything. From that night on, it was the only thing that my father talked to me about during my stay in Japan.

Ever since I became an adult, my parents had been always easy-going and hardly ever tried to influence my life. So I did not know how to handle my father's sudden requests. When I called Chris, a friend of mine in America, I told him about this issue. Chris replied, in a serious tone, that my father had invaded my privacy. Privacy? But he's my father! Chris's words annoyed me. Asking for a presence of privacy in a Japanese family seemed to me as appropriate as ordering a hotdog at Sushi stands.

My father's last words to me at the airport did not change. He told me to bring a baby next time I came home. His words and an excess of beer and Fugu that I had had the previous night made me sick. I kept vomiting on the plane crossing the Pacific.

Back in Massachusetts, I told Claire, another American friend, about my father. She looked bewildered and said, "If your father wants to have a baby that much, why doesn't he have one of his own?" I reminded her that my parents were both in their mid-60s. Claire smiled and said that there were always solutions. I knew that Claire really cared for me, but her words also annoyed me. What my father wanted was not a baby, but the family line, tied by blood and gene, which he could hold on to. I swung between my father's rather conventional needs and advice of Chris and Claire. Some part of me wanted a total freedom from whatever I was bound to do. And having a child was one of those things. But another part of me craved for the connection with my family — including my ancestors and descendents.

My mother was still there on the other side of the telephone line. She loved to hear about any of my experiences here: severe layoffs at my workplace, a trip to Vermont, and even the software I recently had bought. She read H. D. Thoreau when she was younger and since then she had had been fond of New England, probably more than I was. I asked her if she would like to visit here for a while. "Well, when the whole thing about Grandma is over, " she replied.

She had rarely spoken to me about having a child. She knew that relationships between parents and children were not always ideal, like my father assumed, especially for women. She never openly talked about it, though. I hung up and realized that I forgot to wish her a happy birthday. Outside of the window was the scene of another cold day in New England. In my mind I told her: Happy Birthday, Mom. Please let me go to Grandma's funeral.

Chikako Atsuta was a Japanese freelance writer living in Massachusetts and a regular contributor to Gate 39.  For more information see: her memorial page. More selections from "Ako's East Coast Blues."

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