This week I learned my last grandparent, Obaachan, mother of my mother, long time tough cookie, talented maker of kimonos and Western clothes, wrinkled face and petite of stature, curly grey hair, lover of plants and flowers, early riser and ever active, cleaning clothes almost by hand well into her eighties, wearer of dark and brown clothes, who could never use the shawl I knit for her in my 20's because it was mottanai - a shame to waste it on every day wear - Obaachan no longer recognizes her children, her grandchildren, her caregivers.
I had been hoping to go back to Japan while she still knew me. I wanted her to meet my husband, to see her face again and hear her stories. Last time I saw her, 4 years ago for her 90th birthday, she pulled me aside, conspiratorially repeated the same 5-7 stories in 20 minute loops, each story leading seamlessly to the next, and the last bringing her back to the first and beginning the next cycle. Paranoia, fear; but also, childhood memories, pride in completing Jogakko (girl's school, maybe the equivalent of middle school), occasionally working at her brother's bar and beating the customers at pool, learning to become a maker of kimonos, surviving the war.
When I visited, I wanted to pick her up and give her a bear hug, hear her laugh at how ridiculous I was yet see her enjoyment of physical affection, something she could never give through most of her life yet she craved in old age. She was strict, never said "I love you", was often brusque and practical; yet I knew she loved me, knew she cared. When I was 12 she took me to the eye doctor, paid for my first pair of glasses. She sewed me shorts, a summer kimono I wore to see tented fireflies in Tokyo. She took me to my other grandmother's funeral when I was 12, held my hand.
I remember sitting in the upstairs room, sitting on the tatami and folding laundry with her. I don't know why I bothered, why she wanted help; everything I folded she would pick up and refold. She liked things just so.
I remember her exasperation at my inability to wake early, my sleepyhead ways. She was always scolding me when I was a child, we were so very un-Japanese, loud English and laughing, sarcastic humor, unsocialized, oblivious. And when I was in my 20's, still sleeping in, still mostly oblivious but with several years of college Japanese helping me, I remember her exasperation melting to shoganai, what can you do? Half hearted scolding with an edge of laughter and amusement.
Inside my heart cries Obaaaachaaaaaan! She doesn't hear, doesn't see, doesn't recognize. Obaachan, I thought I didn't know you. I thought you were a mystery. I didn't know. All this time, all these memories. All this time, you have been a part of me. Obaachan. I love you.