The New World

I was seven years old when mom took me to Japan. It was 1967, and she had been living in Los Angeles since marrying my father in ’58.

Hiroshima looked like any city to me. When I asked why she was crying, she said she was just happy to be home. We drove out to a small hillside town. Dirt lanes, limited electricity, no street lamps. The night sky sagged like a starry cloth between the rooftops. Rice paper door panels floated ahead of us like radioactive moths.

We found my aunt’s house, left our shoes and suitcases by the door, and followed my uncle to a room in back. The room was empty, except for a table-top shrine shaped like a clay temple: bowl of rice, stone, candles, strips of paper folded into zigzag patterns like lightning bolts, and a photo of my grandfather. He stared at me, a stout Japanese man in a black shirt, black tie, short black hair, thick black glasses and somber black eyes, all offset by a hint of a smile, as if life had been hard but death didn’t mean a thing.

My uncle left us, sliding the door shut. The other three walls were bare planks, with a second door leading to the backyard. Cold air breathed through a large knot hole near the shrine. A dog barked outside.

My mother knelt. I knelt beside her. The tatami mat pressed like concrete into my knees. I tried to pray but I had never met my grandfather. I tried to force tears out of my eyes but all I could think about was the dog outside.

I blinked and slumped sideways, my cheek resting against the warmth of my mother’s arm. The candles smelled like the cooking oil Nana used back in California. The flame brightened and we were sitting around the dining room table, manicotti and lasagne, Coca Cola and homemade wine, mom so quiet, startled by the cultural shock waves, dad’s arm around her, Papa saying Here, have a sip, tilting a glass until the bitter liquid made me gag and everyone laughed and my face flushed so bright Nana offered me the first spoonful of tiramisu, the sweetness ballooning in my mouth—

My mother shook me awake, but when I looked up I saw she hadn’t meant to wake me. She was crying, body trembling, hands folded like complex origami over her face. I tried to pull her hands down, to look into the mystery of her tears. She shook her head.

The dog barked again. I slid the backdoor open, squeezed outside, slid the door shut. In the dark, the dog looked big as a bear. I held out a hand. He tapped his wet nose to my palm, then walked round and round me like a herd of soft animals. I clawed my fingers through his fur.

The golden knot hole floated in the night. I walked along the wall and craned up on tip toes. My mother looked smaller, kneeling there by the shrine, head bowed, hands folded in her lap, eyes closed and wet. The view swayed like a spyglass, like I was standing on the deck of a ship, gazing across the ocean to a new world where mothers became children again and cried for their fathers.

Something terrible began to open in my heart, but the dog nudged my hand. We chased each other around the small yard, laughing and barking.

Photo used under CC.