by Shizue Seigel
A Well-Made Life
Not long after we found Jiichan, Grandpa, on the roof, he decided he was ready for a rest home. He was ninety, after all, and had a bad hip, and fading eyesight. Lately his heart had been acting up. Twice, Uncle Tak had had to drive out in the middle of the night to take him to the hospital.
Jiichan loved his little ten-acre farm. Even though he hadn’t planted crops for years, he still kept up his vegetable garden. Fruit trees grown from cuttings traded with long-dead friends continued to bear fruit, and roses and fuchsias bloomed in the front yard. And he had plenty to do – fixing water pumps, tightening door hinges, or simply walking the muddy fields amid the ghosts of long-gone strawberry fields and prune orchards.
He had always something to offer us when we visited – ripe tomatoes, corn, bell peppers, persimmons, loquats, Mission figs... After growing season was over, he plied us with Cool Whip containers filled with sugared and frozen raspberries, or plastic miso tubs packed with umeboshi (pickled plums). His umeboshi were extraordinarily firm, plump and sweet; his secret was to substitute green apricots for plums. In the rainy season, when he spent more time indoors, he fed us new dishes learned from Japanese TV or magazines, elaborately fussy concoctions better suited to Tokyo housewives than to a callous-palmed old man in mud-caked workboots.
I’ll never forget the day my mother, Auntie Sumi and I drove into the gravel yard behind the house for our monthly visit and went to the back door, as usual. (The front door of a farmhouse is reserved for the occasional minister or insurance agent.) The back door gaped open, but Jiichan was not inside. We peeked into the garage and sheds, calling, “Jiiiichan! Where aaare you?” Just as we began to get really worried, he strode like a god over the peak of the roof.
“I’m up here,” he called as he strolled casually down the sloping roof and slung himself down onto the porch.
“Jiichan!” Mom cried, “We were getting worried! What are you doing!”
“I didn’t hear you” (his hearing was failing, too). “The roof’s been leaking, so I thought I’d better take a look.”
Auntie Sumi clucked under her breath, “It’s lucky he didn’t break his neck. My goodness, at his age!”
They fussed over him like two grumpy hens, while I stood silent, marveling that a ninety-year-old man with serious health problems could still handle his own affairs with such casual aplomb.
But that was his last hurrah. Within a few months, Jiichan declared it was time he went to a rest home. He wanted one run by Japanese, with Japanese clients and Japanese food. Mom made over fifty phone calls before she found the right situation, in a ranch-style house in town. It was run by a Japanese American man. His Filipina wife was eager to learn Japanese cooking. Jiichan would enjoy sharing his recipes.
He made his preparations in good grace, winnowing the accumulations of a lifetime down to a couple of suitcases, but we could see that he had mixed feelings about trading the spacious farm for a shared bedroom and a tiny fenced yard. “Shikata ga nai, there’s no alternative. It’s all for the best,” he said. “It’s my heart. Inaka de (in the country-side) I could die out here and nobody would know for days...”
After a few weeks, I noticed that he seemed a little depressed. He was losing interest in personal hygiene. He even stopped shaving. As the stubble in his chin grew longer, Auntie Sumi shook her head. “My goodness, he’s really letting himself go.”
On our next visit, instead of work shirt and boots, Jiichan sported a padded Japanese vest and slippers. A wispy little ojisan’s beard sprouted from the end of his chin.
Auntie Sumi laughed. “So that’s why you stopped shaving!”
His eyes twinkled. “Well, I decided that now that I’m an old man, I should look like one.”
I was momentarily relieved, but as the months passed, I noticed that in quiet moments, his eyes dulled like a trapped dog’s. He missed the farm, and his remaining friends were too feeble to visit him.
After a year or so, he was moved to a skilled nursing facility. Jiichan missed the Japanese food at the home care facility, but shikata ga nai, he needed oxygen now. We visited him there just before Christmas. Despite the twinkling trees and tasteful furniture groupings, the spacious sitting room felt as impersonal and transitory as a hotel lobby.
Mom asked how he was. “Fine,” Jiichan said, but he was subdued and laconic, speaking only when we asked a question. “The place is fine. Not much to do but watch TV. There’s only one other Japanese here, and he’s too deaf to talk with. The food’s okay, but too much meat and potatoes. No rice.” He avoided our eyes without seeming to. When I looked carefully, I saw a deep, quiet sadness.
“I love you, Jiichan,” I said as we left.
“Hai, hai , so desu ne. Yes, so you do.” He nodded distantly, as if saluting the memory of the long-gone times when we used to walk together in the strawberry fields, as if he were looking down a long tunnel towards a place he’d never see again.
“He’s not going to stick around much longer,” I thought. “He’s had enough TV.” I wasn’t surprised that he died a week later.
After the funeral, we visited the farm for the last time. I was overwhelmed by a sense of loss. Jiichan and the farm had been a touchstone for all that was Japanese in me. Some part of me had expected them to stay frozen in time, an ageless haven for my heart.
I had spent quite a bit of time on the farm when I was growing up. Bored and at loose ends, I had spent hours leafing through old photo albums and pawing through drawers full of rhinestone shoe-buckles, strangely shaped Japanese scissors, and old celluloid fountain pens. One day I found a book the size and shape of a high school yearbook entitled Mohaveland. On the cover, a man and a tree stood silhouetted against a dramatic desert sky. On the first spread were photos of rows of shoddy barracks in the searing Arizona desert, with guard towers and barbed wire in the distance. The book was a souvenir of Poston Relocation Center, where my family had been incarcerated, along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans, during World War II. My family had been swept from their sprawling pre-war farm on the California coast, leaving everything behind except what they could carry.
Of course I knew about Camp. The family’s reference point for time was “before Camp”, “during Camp”, and “after Camp”. It must have been a wrenching experience, but they spoke of it matter-of-factly, without bitterness. Shikata ga nai, they said. It couldn’t be helped.
Thumbing through Mohaveland, I found snapshots of residents from each of the barracks... Block 116, Block 117, Block 118... There were photos of the choir, the Young Buddhist Association, odori (Japanese dance) performances... and most striking of all– Japanese gardens with stone bridges and lanterns and carefully pruned pine trees. I remember wondering, What sort of people would respond to being uprooted and stuck in a prison camp by building gardens in the desert and memorializing their internment in a yearbook?
My grandparents lived through the rigors of immigration, discrimination, the Depression, relocation camps, the economic death of family farms, aging and loss. “Shikata ga nai,” they said. The usual translation is “it can’t be helped, there’s no alternative”, but shikata ga nai connotes something vastly more positive than simple resignation – with echoes of “when you’re stuck with a lemon, make lemonade, “living well is the best revenge”, or “life is transitory; make every moment count.”
Roaming the farm for the last time, I marveled at the richness and creativity of Jiichan’s life. After the War, my grandparents worked as migrant laborers until they scraped up enough to buy ten acres, less than a tenth the size of their prewar acreage. Jiichan built the house and outbuildings himself, with the help of his sons. There were a dozen different kinds of cacti growing near the garbage can. They had arrived as 39-cent plants in tiny plastic pots; now they grew on top of each other, squeezing and spilling over themselves, spiny ones, hairy ones, tall skinny ones, flat paddle-leaves and fat fluted domes. A pile of abalone and clam shells lay near the water tap, souvenirs of coastal forages to gather seaweed and eat black sea snails. The front yard was edged with beautiful rocks, gathered on road trips with his friends. In the shed were more rocks, shelves and shelves of them – examples of the art of suiseki – carefully selected for their resemblance to the mountains of Japan, and each set off by a wooden stand precisely carved to fit.
Beneath the apparent dullness and routine of rural life, a self-sufficient and joyful creativity had flowered The walls of the house were lined with calligraphies, painting and plaques crafted by friends in Camp. Baachan’s (Grandma’s) homemade Japanese silk quilts lay on the beds. The drawers of the old, treadle-powered Singer sewing machine were crammed with tatting reels, crochet hooks, bits of lace and fancy-glass buttons cut off of worn clothes to decorate anew. In the home-built curio cabinet were handicrafts created from the most mundane materials – life-like crepe paper flowers and intricately patterned umbrellas and Japanese lanterns painstakingly crafted from dozens of old cigarette packs, folded and glued together.
In the storage room I found three suitcases. They looked like the old pre-Samsonite cardboard ones, complete with leather edges and metal fittings, except that the bodies were made out of wood. “I made them in Camp,” Jiichan had told me. “When the War broke out, the FBI came and got all the men in the middle of the night. I didn’t even have time to pack a suitcase.” (Jiichan had spent most of the War in a high-security camp for “dangerous aliens”, separated from the rest of the family.) He laughed, “After awhile, they made me a Camp policeman. I was a policeman, but in the middle of the night, I turned into a dorobo (thief). I stole some scrap wood and made myself these suitcases.”
The suitcases are now stacked in my front hall, handy storage in an over-stuffed apartment, the top surface a catch-all for magazines and mail. Jiichan is gone, shikata ga nai, but sometimes I catch sight of those suitcases, and I’m grateful that I am one of the things Jiichan made.