Gathered around acrid coffees, Grandpa flips to the obituary section of The Province. Grandma mixes in three creams and honey. A lifetime of thriftiness compels them to split one coffee and top both of their cups up with hot water. Grandma submerges the plastic honey containers in the cups, swirling them around until there is no sticky residue left. They tut at my full-strength coffee, at the way I carelessly spill grains of sugar across the table. This is my grandparent’s coffee ritual: obituaries and A&W at 3 o’clock.
Grandpa’s face is unflinching as he thumbs through the pages. He’s looking for Japanese names…Ueda, Mori, Tanimoto, Takeda. Bingo, he’s caught one.
“They used to own fishing boats down in Steveston.”
“No no, his family worked at the sawmill.”
Grandpa cuts out the significant obituaries and plasters the walls of his workshop with them. A wallpaper of dead friends, family, and acquaintances encircles tools that gather dust. The workshop is quiet now, populated by faces I never knew. They gaze out onto the tools of all of Grandpa’s handiwork. As children, my sister and I would only occasionally brave the dimly lit shelves and drawers in search of tins of candy. Another symptom of a long life: drawers, freezers, and cellars full of food. Trail Mix stashed in Costco volumes in every pocket alongside jams and pickles older than I am lining basement shelves.
This is the workshop where Grandpa cut his thumb off while my sister and I played in the carport. Grandma left us with a neighbor while she took him to the hospital, where Grandpa lost a whole half of his most important appendage. The obituaries were the silent witness to the blood that came spouting out of his thumb.
In A&W, Grandma, Grandpa, and I are abruptly returned to the present. “Is your name in there yet?” one of Grandma and Grandpa’s coffee acquaintances jokes as he slaps Grandpa on the shoulder. We all laugh triumphantly, laughing at the idea of death. We laugh a melancholic laugh too, a laugh to conceal loss. Grandpa is ninety-one. Either the ritual cutting out of the obituaries is his personal rehearsal for his own death, or the dead are very much a part of living. I’m the only one at the table bewildered by the oscillation between past and present, between life and what comes after.
In their home after coffee, Grandma makes dinner. She delivers a tiny bowl of rice, and a mandarin orange if they are in season, to the lacquered shrine. There is an electric candle and a little bell to ring. She bows upon delivery. My whole life, I’ve never been able to read the emotions on her face as she completes this ceremony. She performs with such grace that it’s impossible to tell how she’s feeling. Of all the pictures in the shrine—the Komori patriarch, her two lost sons, her mother—who stands out the most?
Grandma kneels before the shrine in a turtleneck sweater and Levi’s, baseball on the TV, and dill pickles in the canner. “Are you taking care of yourself?” Grandma’s voice lingers in my ears. I put my hand over the receiver to cover up the sound as I inhale cigarette smoke. Guilt laps at my sides as I imagine her arthritic hands on the other end of the line, juggling the telephone while cooking or playing sudoku. Busy, working hands that try to hold mine, that try to stretch across gap of Southern BC that divides us.
When I was little, Grandma used to drive me and my sister to and from school, to appointments, and to A&W for afternoon coffee. She used to tell me, the eldest, that once I started driving she would stop and I could drive her. At eighty, she continues to drive herself. There is another wave of guilt when I think of how I moved away, how I was too busy when I was still in Kamloops, how I can never seem to make enough time. Now, when I drive away from her to go back to school, she walks to the end of her long driveway and waves goodbye. I know she tries not to cry but she does anyways. I usually make it onto the road before I do, too.
Grandma takes my hand in hers, feels my long, calloused fingers, and beams at my “working hands.” My “working hands” are also ungrateful hands, hands that take up the trivial things my grandparents never could. A body with the pigment washed away. My hands come out lighter after a day in the garden with Grandma and Grandpa because of my whiteness or because I haven’t spent as much time in the dirt. I have seasonal working hands that soften every school semester, calluses that fade when I leave home after the summer.
I have the same eczema that Grandma says once put her in the hospital on a cortisone drip. It blooms across my eyelids and behind my knees when I’ve been smoking, when I’ve been up too late, and when I’m missing home. Grandma says her eczema only went away completely during her pregnancies, which started years younger than I am now. I have the same harelip that Grandpa concealed under a moustache until I was born. He told everyone it was from a fishing accident until our shared genes were played out in my phenotype. I had my lip stitched up by experts and now people tell me they hardly notice it. It got even better after an additional surgery at twelve, so that ice cream no longer comes out of my nose when I eat. I wonder if he can breathe from his nose into his mouth, too, but stories only circulate freely around the A&W table, and are packed away with the closing of The Province.
When they first got married, Grandma moved into Grandpa’s small apartment above his photography studio and dark room on Tranquille Road. He says he can’t see well enough to take pictures anymore, but the evidence is in an old case he pulled out one night after dinner. I want to digitize and label his photos and cling to them like he clings to his obituaries before they disappear into the clutter and dust of an old home.
I can hear their stories as I fall asleep: Grandma filled up bags of sugar with sand during the war and left them on the road for unsuspecting passers-by to carry all the way home to their disappointment. Grandpa left a job site in the nick of time, just before the electrician, a family friend, died. They took their honeymoon more than ten years after Grandma shivered at the altar on a cold December day and drove to San Francisco in a blizzard, where they danced in a fancy hotel.
“You only have one body,” Grandma loves to remind me. I wonder when the vulnerability of flesh became so central to who my grandparents are as people. When my grandpa’s body travelled back and forth across the Pacific Ocean, only to be interned in a camp called Tin Cup near 100 Mile House in the Caribou, did this gravity creep in? Or was it when my two uncles slipped beneath the ice while fishing one winter? Their pictures are in the shrine and on the walls of the house but I have never seen their obituaries. If we only have one body, then what use does it have for rice on the altar when it is buried in Hillside Cemetery? What will Grandpa do with the rice when he is ash on the wind, like he says he wants to be, one of these days, soon.
Geriatric as Grandpa may be, hobbled by knee surgeries, gout-ridden hands missing digits, he stubbornly drags a stool around his garden, almost an acre large. It is the remnant of Artco Farm, the farm that he may have passed on to one of his sons. I spent this summer digging irrigation ditches and trenches to seed in and marking out the lines of vegetable beds. I started farming in Richmond as a summer job after I moved to Vancouver, enticed by the mandate of an organic non-profit farm. I learned about chard and tomatillos, foods we never had at home, for four months before being called back to Kamloops. Grandpa sits and watches me plant azuki beans for Mrs. Kitazaki, shows me how to trellis his mo qua, lets me seed the kabocha. There is a feistiness in Grandma and Grandpa’s gardening that I missed in Richmond. The tenacity of their food as it springs from the ground they built their house on more than fifty years ago gives us little rest. Afternoon coffee serves as a respite now, along with the ciders Grandpa occasionally sips at lunch.
Over the summer Grandma and I struggled to keep up with the fruits and vegetables in the garden by canning, freezing, pickling, and jamming. Over a pressure cooker on a camping stove in the carport, Grandma recited the method for canning tomatoes without too much water, the dill pickle recipe she learned from a German friend, how to slice lemons to place in the bottom of the jar for canned peaches. I’ve never learned how to make sushi, but the number of perogies we have pinched together have formed a procedural memory that itches in my fingers. By the end of the summer we are shoulder to shoulder over the camp stove, in sync as we pack and process dozens of jars of food that Grandma will distribute to all of her aging friends and family.
By the end of the summer, I have gotten to know a few of the drawers in the workshop. I have traced my feet along the pattern for the flat-bottomed boats Grandpa used to build, which are still drawn out on the floor some thirty years later. I have traced my fingers along the memorial words of some of the yellowing obituaries. I have heard some of the stories while beginning to accept that I will never be able to hear all of them, that some of them will never be told, and that there is often more story in the gestures of a hammer, a rototiller, and a canner than in the words I want so badly to record for myself.
Either I have come home too late to commit it all to memory, or I have arrived at exactly the right time to write an obituary.
On one of the last days of August, I have tilled most of the fields in preparation for fall. Grandpa measures out a bucket full of fall rye in one of his many trailers, and walks it out to the field to meet me. Together, we scatter it across the field in the long, sweeping motions he has taught me, letting the grains slip between our fingers to form arcs. By the next time I’m home, it will have grown into tall stalks. We sit for a moment, side by side on stools at the edge of the small field, admiring our handiwork. The garden feels peaceful and we face the house so that I can almost see Grandma sweating at the stove in the carport.
“Three o’clock!” Grandpa declares with a grin, nudging me with his elbow.
“Time for coffee! I’m getting ice cream today.”
‘Deserted Interiors’ is a two-parter by Jane Aiko Komori, which draws on her experiences living in the BC Interior. Her work has appeared in several publications, including GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine and a forthcoming piece in Matrix Magazine. Originally from Kamloops, BC, Jane is a gender, sexuality, and women’s studies student at Simon Fraser University and currently pursues writing, academics, and activist work in Vancouver. Read the first part of Jane’s story, Japanese Cheese, on our website.
Photo by Jane Komori.