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Forgetting

I know that the last time I said goodbye to my Grandfather, he told me he loved me very much. But when I look back at that moment, I can only see blurry flashes of memories that never existed.

He opens the shoji, walking towards the genkan of a white space. He smiles, looking chubbier than usual—similar to how he looked before dialysis treatments when he could enjoy the poisons of his choice—like soy sauce and sake.

I don’t know why I can’t see what his frail body really looked like, or how, and if, we were standing. I don’t know if we hugged or shook hands; or whether or not I looked at his eyes. My grandfather has been dead only three months, and as I struggle to remember these details I am afraid I am already forgetting him.

I am one of the lucky ones. Many of those who immigrated to America at a young age cannot communicate with their grandparents because of language barriers or lose touch with their relatives because they can’t afford the plane tickets to go back home.

My grandfather paid for my visits to Japan ever since I was a child, and judging from my mother’s piano teacher salary, he floated her expenses too.

Now that he is gone, I’m not sure when I’ll be able to afford to see Japan again.

Losing him makes me wonder if I will also lose a culture my grandfather had so helped me stay in touch with.

Even if it was only once every couple of years, I knew seeing my grandfather was a rare privilege among my demographic. He gave me unique experiences like fishing for eels on his tiny boat and visiting the Goto Islands on the East China Sea. We sang karaoke together and he gave me otoshidama.

Once, while we were watching Oshin with our feet under the kotatsu of his Shimabara home, he turned to me and said, “You’re very tall. And very pretty.”

My grandfather always told me I was an iiko—a good girl. I always found this funny because through the eyes of someone who spent their life following traditional values in the Japanese countryside, I should be a degenerate. Twenty-four and unmarried, I have no plans for children. I drink. Smoke. I’m academically untalented and messy.

While his wife, my grandmother, spent decades of her life nurturing a home, cooking meals and cleaning endlessly for her family, here I sit alone in my dirty kitchen: unsure of my values, eating cookies off of the floor.

I am also a product of two races that fought each other during his prime. I live in the country that disheveled Nagasaki-shi, the prefecture of the island where he was raised. My grandmother’s toes still curl downward like the shaved lemon skin on top of martinis because of the rheumatism caused by radiation.

And yet, after 9/11, he visited me in America and left a thousand origami cranes at Ground Zero.

When people die, you learn to let go of them. There are funerals. There is the process of going through their belongings. There are songs, and there is food. There is remembrance.

I missed the funeral. The night he died, I had a couple of beers.

This March my parents will go to Shimabara to scatter his ashes and gather his belongings to bring home to Kentucky. They will eat a meal with his friends and chant with a monk who will bless his soul.

The best I can do is study photographs. I have to remember that although losing parts of your self is just a part of growing up, the struggle to remember them is worth the work.

I will flip through photo albums and see peace signs.
A trip to Mitsui Greenland.
A smile.
Intense eyes.

And I will imagine, like I always do, that he understands that I am more like him than the both of us ever knew.

I will see moments I missed, and those I can’t forget.

He cradles his great grandson in his arms.
He sings enka with his shirt off, pants crumpled on the floor.
A geisha at his arms on vacation.
Wearing a hat.
Wearing a suit.
Curly hair.
Water and trees.

During my last visit, he asked me to take him back to his home town—away from the city where he was staying to gain treatments for his illness. I absent-mindedly told him I would, despite the protests of my aunt and mother.

He didn’t have the strength to travel so we said we would go in the springtime when he felt better.

Neither of us will be there to see the mountains or the sea.
Instead, I will see signs for the Cherry Blossom Festival opening at the Botanical Gardens, across the street from where I live in Brooklyn.
I will remember how my Grandfather used to say that the falling flower petals look like pink snowflakes.

Every year, I say I will go—and never do. I hope this year I make it.

© 2010 Leah Nanako Winkler

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