Happy Birthday, Mom
by Chikako Atsuta
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
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
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."
The text is the property of the estate of Chikako Atsuta and is not to be reproduced without written permission.