There’s gravel crackling under our car wheels as we drive up my Auntie Nesan’s driveway. After we come to a stop, my husband Josh and I unbuckle our two little girls out of the backseat. We walk up to the house, trailing blankets and stuffed animals, and I tap on the screen door.
“Happy New Year! Come in!” my eighty-something aunt answers cheerily. After hugs and exclamations (“the girls are getting so big!”), we ask if we can bring anything over to Auntie Sadako’s house, about a hundred feet away. We leave carrying a platter of barbecued teriyaki chicken and a bowl of ambrosia fruit salad, walking a path worn smooth by the tread of my aunts and uncles and cousins.
More rocks, another driveway, up a set of stairs and into the kitchen. My cousins Hiroshi and Soji are ladling ozoni soup into orange and black lacquer bowls. I tell the girls to watch out for the stove, where a kettle is heating for green tea and coffee. We start to say hello to our family.
The greetings and hugs are a clockwise journey. We begin in the kitchen with Soji, who’s up from Los Angeles. Turn left into the tiny living room and there’s the butsudan shrine with mochi and fresh mandarin oranges for the ancestors, a special New Year’s offering. There’s Auntie Tomi, who wonders if we can play a game of Scrabble later. We hug cousin Danny, who barbecued the chicken that morning, and Uncle Hiroshi, busy pouring sake into ceramic cups.
Across the living room we peek at the buffet table. Many of the foods are culturally significant, believed to bring good luck, health, and prosperity, but this table’s also the fastest way to tell who’s at the party. Auntie Nesan’s stewed umani is bubbling in a ceramic pot on a portable burner. Auntie Sadako has arranged rows of maguro over thin slices of cucumber. There’s Auntie Shinobu’s rice and peas, which she learned to make in Puerto Rico. I see my Filipina mom’s lumpia, and cousin Hiroshi’s Spam musubi. There are desserts as well: cousin Sue’s apple pie, Auntie Shinobu’s coconut flan, my sister’s carrot cake, made after her arrival from Austin.
My oldest daughter is asking for a piece of fish cake, my youngest wants an orange slice carved into a flower. We ask them to wait a little longer. There are more cousins to greet. Eventually we are twenty-five people, crowded into 240 square feet for a sit-down meal.
New Year’s is my dad’s family: his five siblings, their spouses and children. Long before I was born, my grandfather Junichi used to go from house to house in the Japanese American community, making a sake toast at each stop. Once he was done wishing the neighbors well, he and my grandmother gathered their own family for a celebratory meal. They were sharecroppers, but New Year’s was so precious that one year my grandfather sold his wedding ring to make sure they could gather and feast.
Over the years the dishes and locations have changed. At my Auntie Nesan’s, the cousins used to play outside under the grape arbor. At our house we gathered in the den to watch football. My dad had a long wooden folding table made just for New Year’s. Our china cabinet was filled with Japanese place settings and ceramic vases full of chopsticks.
When my dad died unexpectedly, some twenty-five years ago, his siblings stepped in quietly to help. I remember new coats, new books, contributions to our college funds. Year after year, my aunties kept us at the family table.
My aunts are now in their seventies and eighties, and some New Year’s dishes have been simplified or left out. But at Auntie Sadako’s house we’re still taking the girls outside to play, still checking the football score at halftime, still using many of the same place settings. I look at the faces of my aunties, my uncle, my daughters—and I see my dad. He’s still here.
We are seated at the “kids’ table,” though I am almost forty. At each place there’s a bowl of ozoni, a sake cup, a bottle of water. Josh helps bring more ozoni from the kitchen. Each bowl contains broth, mochi, chicken, a seaweed bundle, and a sprig of shungiku. Later I will make sukiyaki from my dad’s recipe. In this way I’m bringing him to the table, too.
Finally it’s time for the toast. I glance at the black-and-white portrait of my Issei grandparents hanging above the buffet table. It’s been more than sixty years and somehow, from all over the country, we are still gathering. This is how we are family; this is when and where we are home.
We raise our cups. “Happy New Year!”
* This article was originally published on Edible Seattle in 2014.