Monday, April 16, 2012

My Grandmother's One Hundredth Birthday

The past couple weeks have been eventful.  I finished writing my novel and delivered it to my agent, who is currently reading it to provide feedback.  So now, I've been feeling kind of on pins and needles, with no project to keep my mind company when I wake up at four in the morning, unable to fall back to sleep ...  To distract myself, I've started reading a hodgepodge of books, not so much novels as much as history books on China, since I'll be travelling to Shanghai and Hong Kong at the end of the week on a long awaited trip to visit my boyfriend's family.  It's my first trip to China - very excited!  More on this later ...

And speaking of family, yesterday we celebrated my grandmother Esther Kayaco Kuwabara's one hundredth birthday at a luncheon for one hundred of our relatives from across Canada at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.  "I have no idea why I am still alive ...  I was the weakest one in my family - why am I the last one living?" my grandmother kept saying, her eyes filled with wonder and amazement.  I have fond memories of my grandmother who has always been a great storyteller and, as the stories told by her children about her at the birthday party attest, has succeeded in creating something of a mythology about herself.  Named after Kayaks River, a tributary of the Skeena in northern BC, close to where she was born, my grandmother Kayaco has often struck me as very much a child of the Canadian wilderness, despite her surface appearance, in some of the black and white photos I've seen, as a Japanese doll with large eyes and a too serious smile.  When she was a young child, a wild cat crept into their house and jumped on her face while she was sleeping, clawing her cheeks, barely missing her eye, leaving her so scarred that she became convinced she would never marry.  Of course, over time, the scars did heal, but her self-image had been forever shaped, not, strangely enough, in terms of a loss of self-esteem, but just the opposite.  Among her six sisters, she would be The Capable One, the one who would be entrusted to run her father's businesses, the logging camp in Prince Rupert and later the two pie shops and restaurant in Vancouver.  In short, she would become the son he never had (though it later turned out that he did have a son, who had been raised in Japan ...)

During the Second World War, when the Japanese-Canadians were interned, my grandmother says that the first thing that went through her mind was, "I have only fifteen dollars in my purse."  In the camp, which was situated in the ghost town Sandon, Kayaco used her prodigious cooking skills to earn money, cooking for (as she tells it) lines of people who went on for as far as the eye could see ...  At the birthday luncheon, the stories that my mother told chronicling their childhood with Kayaco in the 1950s, when she spent a summer as the cook at another kind of camp, a children's overnight camp, brought tears of nostalgia to my eyes because I had been hearing these stories about her chopping wood and killing bats and scaring away drunken old priests who stumbled into the camp kitchen late at night for as long as I could remember.  As my uncle Bruce said in his speech, she is a woman who exemplifies the word "gumption."  In addition to listening to these reminiscences, we had musical entertainment provided by several musicians in the family, one of whom is renowned flutist and composer Ron Korb, who performed some stunning pieces from his new compositions.

I was asked to read a poem.  I chose one that may, in retrospect, have been overly symbolic for the occasion, but it is a serious poem about life, death, art and solitude that in some strange way seems to suit my grandmother perfectly.  The poem is called "On Looking into Henry Moore" by Canadian modernist poet, Dorothy Livesay.  Here is the middle verse, which is my favourite:

The message of the tree is this:
Aloneness is the only bliss

Self-adoration is not in it
(Narcissus tried, but could not win it)
Rather, to extend the root
Tombwards, be at home with death

But in the upper branches know
A green eternity of fire and snow. 

2 comments:

Fay St. Lawrence said...

Beautiful poem and so true since who knows when the end will come. Your grandmother must be a uniquely strong centenarian! You come from great roots.....

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Thanks, Fay! Very true that you never know when the end may come ... Recently one of my cousins, who was only in her early forties, passed away suddenly after suffering from pneumonia. She had been at my book launch only a few weeks before and looked very healthy and vibrant.

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Last year, Leslie was selected as an Emerging Writer in Diaspora Dialogues and read at The Word On The Street. Her writing has been published in TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.