“Honourable Grandmother is coming—coming!

Honourable Grandmother is coming to-day!”

happily sang Chiyo as her little foot mittens came pattering over the white mats, following me as I went through the rooms giving touches here and there to complete arrangements for our expected guest.

Foot mittens took the place of stockings now, and the free American dress had given way to a gay-flowered kimono with scarlet lining and graceful swinging sleeves.

“Japanese fashions are the prettiest for Japanese people,” I thought as I looked at Chiyo’s black hair, short in the back and cut square across the forehead. She had not been a pretty child in American dress. Japanese clothes were much more becoming, but oh, the opportunities for comfortable and healthful bodies the untrammelled children of America have! I sighed, yet I was so bound by outside influences that I could not regret having changed the children into Japanese dress before their grandmother saw them.

We had been very busy after the arrival of Mother’s letter saying that she was ready to come. The children and I moved in together, and I arranged a cosy little room for her, which I knew she would find more convenient and comfortable than any other in the house. I wanted everything to look homelike to her; so I had the swinging electric lights changed to three-foot-high floor lamps shaded by black lacquer frames with paper panels, like the candle-stands at the Nagaoka home. Our gas heaters were already in bronze braziers so ingeniously set up that they looked like charcoal burners. Mother would have accepted everything new with the smiling philosophy of a lifetime, but I did not want her to “accept” things; I wanted everything to look homelike so she could fit in happily without effort.

The empty shrine I had been using for books and the children’s hats. Even Taki had not objected to “high objects,” as she called them, being placed there; for Japanese people are taught to respect books as “intellectual results,” and hats as pertaining to the revered “crown of the body.” But, nevertheless, she was unreservedly pleased when I removed the things and began to prepare the carved wooden alcove for the small belongings that Mother would bring with her from the large shrine at home.

“Where shall we put the shrine that Honourable Grandmother will bring?” asked Hanano, thinking of the elaborate gilded and lacquered cabinet in Uncle Otani’s home.

“It’s as easy for Honourable Grandmother to wrap up all the really necessary things for her shrine as it would be for a Christian to carry a Bible and a prayer book,” I answered; “and we will have this little alcove all fresh and clean for them. Honourable Grandmother loves the things that have been sacred to her through all the sorrows and joys of her life.”

“Do Honourable Grandmother’s God and our God know each other up in heaven?” asked Chiyo.

I was leaning in the alcove to brush a bit of dust off the carving, and Hanano replied.

“Of course they do, Chiyo,” she said. “Jesus had just as hard a time as the August Buddha did to teach people that God wants them to be good and kind and splendid. Mamma always says that Honourable Grandmother and our dear American Grandma are good, just alike.”

While we were talking, there had been sounding a constant pata-pata-pata from the next room, where Sudzu, with her sleeves looped back and a blue-and-white towel folded over her freshly dressed hair, was vigorously cleaning the paper doors with a shoji duster—a bunch of cut papers tied on the end of a short stick. The sound stopped abruptly and Sudzu appeared in the doorway.

Quickly removing the towel and pulling off the cord that held back her sleeves, she bowed to the floor.

“Taki San thinks that the bath water heated by gas will be too harsh for the delicate body of Honourable Retired Mistress,” she said. “Shall I go for a carpenter?”

I had forgotten the belief of country people that only charred wood must be used for bath fuel when one is frail or old. I hurried Sudzu out on her errand, and within two hours the gas coil had been exchanged for a small charcoal furnace, and our arrangements were complete.

That evening was a memorable one for the children. We all went to the station to meet Mother, except Taki. She remained behind so that the welcoming red rice and the fish, baked head and all, would be in hot readiness; and after we reached home, even before the bustle of welcome was over, she had the shrine belongings in place and the candles lighted. Then, with the gilded doors wide open and the pungent odour of incense filling the air, she brought in the little shrine table laden with food. Our own tables came next, and once again I was sitting down to a meal with my mother beside me and the kindly spirits of the ancestors welcoming me and mine into cheerful companionship. Afterward we retired to the parlour and spent an hour in what Hanano called “getting-acquainted talk,” before Mother would confess to the weariness which her pale face already betrayed. Then we all gathered before the shrine, Taki and Sudzu sitting just within the doorway.

How familiar, and yet how strange! The chanting, the soft sound of the little bronze gong, Mother’s voice reading the sacred Buddhist scriptures that so often I had heard from the lips of the dear one who long ago had passed away—oh, how quiet and safe it all seemed! The anxious loneliness of months was gone, and there crept into my heart a peace that had not been mine since the protected days when my little family were all together in the dear, dear home of our kind, beloved American mother.

“How alike are the two sides of the world!” I thought. “Both have many gods of little worth, but with one wise, loving, understanding Power over all, the time must surely come when we shall all understand.”

The weeks following were filled with new and unexpected lessons. I had had no thought but that family loyalty and natural affection were the only requisites necessary to draw together my mother and my children. But I soon discovered that, though neither loyalty nor affection was lacking, mutual interests were only possibilities of the future.

My attempts to combine the old and the new frequently resulted in my having to give up the combination and decide wholly in favour of one or the other. With material things this was only an inconvenience; but a puzzling problem, indeed, when it came to Mother’s old-fashioned ideas clashing with the advanced training of modern schools. Mother never criticized. She met all situations with a smile or some pleasant remark about the “new ways of the world”; but it was evident that she greatly distrusted the wisdom of spending so much time on boys’ studies and so little on flower-arranging, tea-serving, koto music, and other womanly accomplishments. And the gymnastic exercises which the children enthusiastically described, where whole classes of girls drilled on the school grounds, marching and singing with vigorous energy, were wholly contrary to her ideas of dignity.

I tried to explain that these exercises were believed to be good for health and growth. I told her it was no longer considered bold and mannish for girls to sit straight and to carry the head upright when they walked; and that even Hanano’s habit of chatting happily about school matters while we were eating, which seemed to Mother the manners of a coolie, was in accordance with her training at school.

Chiyo’s gentle ways had appealed to Mother at once, but her sister’s quick, busy, energetic manner was a constant surprise and puzzle. Hanano was so active, so apt to speak without being spoken to, and so constantly doing what, according to strict etiquette, were abrupt and discourteous things, that I was continually on the alert to watch for and check her unexpected acts. It was not long before I became unhappily conscious that my only hours of freedom from anxiety lay between the time when Hanano tied up her school books and, jumping into her clogs at the door, ran off, gaily waving a good-bye, and the afternoon hour when the door would slide open and a cheery, “I have come back!” come echoing through the hall.

But this did not last. Gradually, I scarcely know when or how, the silent strain lessened. Hanano was growing more quiet in her talk, more gentle in her manners. Frequently I would see her settle herself beside Chiyo at Mother’s fire-box to listen to stories or to receive help as she read aloud, and one day I found both children snuggled up close, one on each side, while Mother showed Hanano how to write the characters for “American Grandma.”

Chiyo had loved Mother from the beginning. The child’s affectionate advances were somewhat of a shock at first, but very soon the two were congenial companions. It was odd that religion should be one of the binding cords. The kindergarten was just beyond the temple, so Chiyo was familiar with the road, and as I did not like to have Mother go alone, Chiyo often went with her when Sudzu was busy. The child liked to sit in the great solemn place and listen to the chanting, and she liked to be given rice-cakes by the mild-faced priestess who served tea to Mother after the service. One day Mother said: “Chiyo, you are very kind to come with me to the temple. Next time I will go with you to your church.” So Chiyo took her to hear our minister, a good man who preached in Japanese. After that they often went together, sometimes to the temple, where Chiyo stood with bowed head while her grandmother softly rubbed her rosary between her hands and murmured, “Namu Amida Butsu!” and sometimes to the Christian church, where Mother listened attentively to the sermon and bowed in reverence when the Minister prayed. Then hand in hand they would come home together, talking of what they had heard at one place or the other. One day as they entered the gate, I heard Mother say gently: “It may be that he said true things, Chiyo, but I must not go to a better place than where my honourable husband is. Even if he is in the dreadful Hell of Cold, it is my duty to be with him. The Christian faith is for the new generation, like you, little Chiyo, but I must follow the path of my ancestors.”

One afternoon, when I was sewing in my room, I heard Chiyo’s voice beyond the closed doors.

“Honourable Grandmother,” she said, “when are you going to die?”

I pushed back the sliding door. There was Mother with Chiyo snuggled up beside her on the same cushion. I was astonished, for in my day no child would have dared to be so familiar with an elder, but there she was, and both were looking down gravely at an array of tiny lacquer boxes spread out on the floor. A large box, into which the smaller ones fitted closely, was near by. How well I remembered that box! All through my childhood it was kept in a drawer of my mother’s toilet cabinet, and every once in a while she would take out the little boxes and sprinkle powdered incense into each one. This was what she was doing now.

“I wish I had those pretty boxes for my dolly,” said Chiyo.

“Oh, no, little Granddaughter,” Mother said, lifting one of the tiny boxes and shaking gently the curved bits that looked like shavings of pale shell. “These are my nail clippings that have been saved all my life.”

“Your finger-nails—and your toe-nails!” cried the child. “Oh, my! How funny!”

“Hush, little Granddaughter. I am afraid you have not been trained to respect the traditions of your ancestors. We have to save our nails and cut-off baby hair so that our bodies may be perfect when we start on the long journey. The time cannot be far away,” she said, gazing thoughtfully out into the garden.

Chiyo had been peering curiously into the boxes, but now her face suddenly sobered and she drew a little closer to her grandmother.

“My heart is troubled, Honourable Grandmother,” she said. “I thought it would be a long, long time. You said you had always, even when you were a little girl, put perfume in the boxes to keep them nice and all ready for your death.”

Mother lovingly stroked the little black head with her wrinkled hand.

“Yes, but it will not be long now. I have finished my life work, and the merciful Buddha is preparing my platform of lotus blossoms, I am very sure.”

“Does the merciful Buddha want you to take your old clipped nails with you when you go to the lotus platform?”

“No; he does not care about my body. He cares only for me.”

“Then why did you save your nails so carefully?”

Mother glanced toward the closed shrine.

“The holy shrine, little Chiyo, is only a box when it is empty,” she said, “and my body is only a borrowed shrine in which I live. But it is proper courtesy to leave a borrowed article in the best condition.”

Chiyo’s eyes looked very deep and solemn for a moment.

“That’s why we have to take a bath every day and always keep our teeth clean. Dear me! I never thought of that as being polite to God.”

I had been so anxious over the children’s shortcomings in etiquette and so happy over the slow but satisfactory outcome that I had never given a thought to the changes which my years in America must have made in myself. One afternoon, coming back from a hurried errand, I was walking rapidly up the road toward home when I saw Mother standing in the gateway watching me. I knew that she disapproved of my undignified haste, as indeed she should, for nothing is more ungraceful than a hurrying woman in Japanese dress.

She met me with her usual bow, then said with a gentle smile, “Etsu-bo, you are growing to be very like your honourable father.”

I laughed, but my cheeks were hot as I walked up the path beside her, accepting silently the needed reproof, for no Japanese woman likes to be told that her walk suggests that of a man. Occasional hints like this kept my manners from marching with my mind on the road to progress; and under the same quiet influence my two active American children gradually changed into two dignified Japanese girls. Within two years’ time both spoke Japanese without accent and both wore Japanese dress so well that to strangers they appeared to have lived always in Japan.

“Just to be in the same house with Mother is excellent training for a girl,” I thought, congratulating myself that Hanano had adapted herself so well to her grandmother’s standards. Selfishly busy with my daily duties, and content that our home was so harmonious, I had forgotten that, when duty lies between the old and the young, Nature’s law points direct to youth. I was counting the gain only—but what of the loss?

One day in the cherry-blossom season, Hanano was sitting at her desk near mine when a light breeze touched the branches of a cherry tree near the porch and some pale pink petals drifted across her desk. She picked one up and after holding it a moment, pressed it gently between her fingers, then threw it aside, and sat looking at the damp spot on her finger.

“What are you thinking, Hanano?” I asked.

She looked up startled, then slowly turned away.

“One time in America,” she said after a moment, “when many people were at our house—I think it must have been an afternoon tea—I got tired and went out on the lawn. I climbed to my castle, you remember, the seventh limb of the big apple tree. The blossoms were just falling and a petal fell right into my hand. It left a wet spot, just like this cherry petal did. Oh, Mamma, wouldn’t you give just everything to see Grandma again—and the porch, and the trees, and——”

The little black head went down on the desk, but before I could reach her it was up again, held high.

“It’s all right,” she said; “I love Japan—now. But there used to be times when my breast was just full of red-hot fire, and I had to run fast—fast. And once, when you were all away, I climbed the prickly pine by the porch—just once. But I don’t want to any more. It’s all right. I love it here.”

I remembered, then, how sometimes she had scampered around and around the garden, her sleeves flying in the wind and her clogs clattering over the stepping-stones; and I, ignorant and unsympathetic mother that I was, had taken her to my room and talked to her about being gentle and quiet.

But that was a long time before. Gradually she had learned to talk a little lower, to laugh a little less, to walk a bit more noiselessly on the matting, and to sit silent and attentive with bowed head when her elders were speaking. Only the other day Mother had said: “Granddaughter shows great promise. She is growing gentle and graceful.”

As I sat and thought, I wondered if Hanano was ever really happy any more. She never seemed sorrowful, but she had changed. Her eyes were soft, not bright; her mouth drooped slightly and her bright, cheery way of speaking had slowed and softened. Gentle and graceful? Yes. But where was her quick readiness to spring up at my first word? Where her joyous eagerness to see, to learn, to do? My little American girl, so full of vivid interest in life, was gone.

With a feeling of helplessness I looked over at her desk and was comforted; for the touch of homesickness had passed away and she was studying busily.

An hour later, when I went unexpectedly to her room, I saw her kneeling beside an open drawer where her American clothes were kept. She had pulled out her old serge suit, and her face was buried in its folds. I crept away to the garden. I could not see, and I stumbled over a flower pot. It was a dwarf pine. The pushing roots had burst the pot, and my touch had caused it to fall apart, disclosing the roots cramped together in a twisted knot.

“It is just like poor Hanano!” I moaned. “They will bind it again to-morrow, and neither it, nor she, will ever be free!”


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Women's Autobiography Copyright © by dixonk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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