Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Memory of Miyagi

Quietness, bamboo forest and lantern, Miyagi Pref.

By now, you have seen footage of the coastal towns of Miyagi Prefecture being swept away by tsunami. There is little I can write to make anyone, including myself, comprehend any better the homes and people utterly lost, or the unmooring heartbreak of the survivors. The beautiful country there, and all the towns that dot the rocky, forested coast are now defined by their destruction.

My mother is from Sendai, a city in Miyagi that was a small town when she left it. In the 90's, she went back with my brother and I for the first time in decades. It looked a little like Northern California, with pines growing on the beach cliffs, lush greenery, and fog. I had visited as a child, and I have a memory of going out into a forest in the drizzling rain to pull baby bamboo shoots--I slipped and fell pulling one, and cried in the mud, to the amusement of all. The bamboo forests this time were tall and lush. And less muddy.

We visited her aunt, who lived alone after the death of her husband a few years earlier. We met her at the train station and she hurried us up the winding, stone walled roads to her house. She had ordered some sushi to be delivered, and was concerned the neighbor's cat might find the big, lacquer tray on the doorstep. We beat the cat to the fish, and had a lovely lunch. She showed us around the house and all the souvenirs she and her husband had collected from around the world. He had been a scientist, and he'd taken her to all his conferences, which was quite unusual. They had a dagger from Turkey that she was very proud of.

Not many Japanese people of her generation drank coffee regularly, but she and her husband had a standing coffee date at home every day of their marriage. They collected cups and saucers in pairs, and every day they would choose a set and sit down for coffee together. She offered us some, and we went to the cupboard and chose our own cups, as well as one for her husband's shrine, which was against the living room wall, like a little mahogany cabinet with his picture inside. The custom was not new to us, but her affection for her late husband was so strong--not her grief, but her love of him, something the shrine gave her a way to express. She passed away a while ago, and I am still moved when I think of her pouring his afternoon coffee into a green-banded china cup, smiling to herself, and to him. My mother was carrying the cup to his shrine, when her aunt called her back. She had forgotten the sugar.