‘The Shape of her Absence’ by Daisy Moriyama15 min read

4 May, 2018 0 comment

It’s been almost ten years now since my grandmother died. My grandfather came to live with us later that year, and spent the whole time fighting with my dad. I didn’t speak to him while he was there – I had to avoid the questions I didn’t know how to respond to. Where’s Yosh? He would ask angrily, not remembering she had died months before. Do you like it here? He was frustrated. He thought we were in South Carolina on vacation. He thought he had just seen her.

After they both died my dad didn’t speak about them, or about any part of his childhood. He refused to. Now, he’s finally beginning to talk and ask questions after years of silence. He tells me he sees my grandmother in me. I wonder what that means. I see him in you, I tell him jokingly, speaking about my grandfather.

‘Don’t say that,’ he responds.

My grandmother had two C-sections because her hips were too narrow for her to give birth. That’s probably not the real reason, but that’s what I was told, or at least what I remember being told. The first baby, a girl, came out fine. The second, a boy, came out with a cut across his face where the doctor had gone in too deep with the knife. I wonder now if she was happy in birth. If she was one of those women who would say that it was some sort of euphoric experience, or if she hated it – having a strange group of men cut open her stomach, digging blue rubber-gloved hands right into her uterus, her womb. Her premature six-pound baby boy with a cut across his cheek. Instead of seeing him right away she probably had to wait until her stomach was stitched back up, and his face too.

We only found my grandmother’s notebooks and designs when we were packing up her stuff after she died. She was good at hiding things.

I have the same shaped hips as my grandmother, the same basic bodily structure. We have the same round face. I know from pictures that her forced smile looks similar to mine – where the mouth widens and the teeth show, but our eyes just look flat. Her hugs were meek like mine, a delicate tap on the back and a lean in, but never quite an embrace. There were no gross wet kisses on the lips like my mother’s parents, and not even the polite waspy peck on the cheek. I never saw her dance; our hips aren’t really made for it. I don’t believe that anyone ever heard her sing although I do imagine that she enjoyed it. Maybe she sang on her walks to and from her job at Dominion, when the streets of her Don Mills neighbourhood were cleared of children and fathers. Maybe during her lunch breaks with the apartment to herself, she’d hum her favourite songs as she soaked the rice for her family’s return – whatever those songs may have been. Maybe not, but I do have an image that I’m sure is true, of her as a child, singing and picking flowers or fruit wherever she lived before. I imagine this because she loved it when I played the piano. She used to sit on the chair beside my bench and listen – her eyes closed and wearing the closest thing I ever saw to a real smile. Sometimes she would hum along.

I do know that my grandmother liked to design dresses. Her family owned a little dress shop in Vancouver before the war. My grandmother would work in the studio at the back of the store, where she would carefully cut the patterns her mom drew, and patiently sew along the lines set out for her. Maybe one day she would have created her own patterns, but when the store windows were smashed in and the family was scattered across Canada, none of them got to bring any fabrics, needles or machines. She found herself in Toronto working as a house cleaner. When Brian Mulroney apologized and offered compensation for her lost drawings, she was already a wife and mother. We only found my grandmother’s notebooks and designs when we were packing up her stuff after she died. She was good at hiding things. She even kept them hidden while we were moving her out of her family home and into her senior home. I guess she didn’t want us to share in her disappointment.

She was very quiet for all of her life, and when she had a stroke in her old age that took control of her facial muscles she got stuck that way. In her silence, she was somehow both there but not quite, looking on and thinking, but not engaging. My mom says that it reflected a deep sense of shame . Maybe it was Japanese shame, caused by the internment and the racism experienced before and after – creating a quiet desire to assimilate and deny the visible self. It could have been a woman’s shame – the kind that makes us apologize more and take up less space. Or maybe a culmination – a feeling that results from the experience of being trapped in a body shaped by unknown hands and stuck in a world shaped by unkind builders. My grandmother’s shame deterred me, and seemingly everybody else, from knowing her. It created an overwhelming presence of her absence. Sometimes I worry that I’ve caught it too.

She had a mother and sisters who loved her and a daughter who never visited. I never heard her say a word.

I see it in family. My dad looks down when he talks, always avoiding contact. My brother is sometimes quiet for so long that his face gets red if he speaks, as if something huge and awful is about to crawl its way out. I find them silent at the dinner table, as if their voices have simultaneously become unusable, like a fist when it’s been clenched for too long and the nerves no longer know how to activate the muscles. My dad didn’t speak out loud to anybody except his mother and sister until he was six. Sometimes people think that they’re rude and disinterested, but I don’t. I understand it.

Because I never got to ask my grandmother directly, I question my almost equally quiet family members about her whenever I have the opportunity. This is what I’ve gathered: she was the second of nine children, one of three from her mother’s first marriage. She married my grandfather shortly after the war, and was a good wife and mother. She made good sushi and put money in Easter eggs with notes for my brothers and me every year, even as her writing became less and less legible. She continued to ‘read’ even as she lost her eyesight. She spoke Japanese fluently, which none of us knew until late in her life. People called her Yosh, and I’m still unsure whether her full name is Yoshiko or Yoshiye. She had a mother and sisters who loved her and a daughter who never visited. I never heard her say a word.

‘What did she say before she lost her speech?’

‘She didn’t say much,’ my dad answers. The cut from the botched C-section is no longer noticeable under his wrinkles.

‘I was looking for a little bit more than that, dad.’

She looks beautiful there, like a ceramic Japanese doll with white skin and black hair, blushed round cheeks, and a Japanese silk dress.

But I don’t expect more. He doesn’t say much either. Not about her at least. We don’t speak about our lives and our stories. We never talk about race. Why would we? He never did experience racism, although my mom tells me that they were the Japanese family in Don Mills in the 1960s. If pushed, he will laughingly admit that people liked to call him frying pan face. When he does speak, his regrets and resentments are conjured as advice – you should get into science, math, or computer programming – and I nod along.

When we have a few glasses of wine, he smokes a joint and relaxes, and expresses his worry that he ruined my middle brother’s hockey career by cheaping out and giving him my eldest brother’s hand-me-down skates. If only he invested in skates, my brother could be so much better off, more active, more motivated, and maybe even happier. He could have even been a Maple Leaf. Maybe not, but he definitely wouldn’t have skated on his ankles with his knees together, always falling behind the play. At our best and most intimate, my dad likes to talk about the book he’s reading and the latest guru’s articulation of the power of now.

‘Well Dai, I don’t know what else to tell you. She was quiet.’

‘What was grandpa like?’

‘He was a good man. He had a hard life. You know, he was only nine when his mother died?’

‘I know. She killed herself, didn’t she?’

‘Who told you that?’

‘Mom.’

‘Oh… yeah, I guess she killed herself.’

My grandfather’s mother was a mail-ordered bride, shipped to Canada in her teens to marry a much older man, who was also often described as ‘rough.’ In the language of polite reservation taken up by all of my dad’s family, I can only imagine that ‘rough’ means awful, if not violent and abusive. She bore him nine children, left to visit her family in Japan, and never came back. I was told that they found her hanging on the boat. It seemed like a suicide, but nobody knew the details. As a child, from the bits of words and lots of silences I imagined a story. In it, her life ended with her hanging off the bow of a  ship, floating over the Pacific. She looks beautiful there, like a ceramic Japanese doll with white skin and black hair, blushed round cheeks, and a Japanese silk dress. This is all I know of her. We don’t know her name, and we don’t speak about her. When she died her husband went back to Japan, and my grandfather, the second oldest of nine siblings, was orphaned in Ocean Falls, BC.

‘He was a hard worker.’

He was. He was always building things and doing favours for people. When he was young saved up to go to UBC. He wanted to become an entomologist. He was fascinated by bugs. He wanted to dissect their squishable little worlds. Why dad? I don’t know. His passion for bugs was revoked by the War Measures Act 1941. We don’t if he’d been locked in the barns of the Vancouver exhibition place or for how long. We don’t know if he lost his brothers and friends, or if he was interned as a worker or a prisoner of war. He kept it in the past.

By the time my grandfather got his honorary degree from UBC, he had already started and retired a painting business, got married, provided for a boy and a girl, got Alzheimer’s, and died. His daughter didn’t come to his funeral. Why not?

‘I don’t know Dai, I guess she didn’t like him much.’

‘Was he okay to you guys?’

‘Yeah, he was fine. Kind of rough, but fine.’

I knew my grandfather was ‘rough.’ Nobody ever had to tell me. He enjoyed telling people whatever it was that he found wrong with them. His oft-repeated joke was that my mother’s mother was pregnant when she was in her late 70s. He went so far that she stopped coming to family dinners. He refused to hug my brothers, calling them wussies if they ever so much as gestured their hands towards him in any indication of affection (to be a wussy was the worst possible condition for a man). He had a tank of piranhas and dared children to put their hands in it. He had a warty old dog, whose under-bitten teeth showed when she growled, which was almost constantly. But he was nice to me and I loved him. He always told me that I would make a good wife – I could make good sushi and I was pretty – so long as I didn’t let my belly grow anymore. For him I was always on the verge of becoming fat (probably the worst possible condition for a woman). He constantly called his wife dumb because she was silenced by old age.

‘Yeah, he was funny,’ I respond.

His anger became an ongoing joke. It wasn’t him, but his dementia, or at least that’s how I saw it. He was playfully mean.

The only thing still standing is the urn with his parents’ ashes in a china cabinet filled with my grandmother’s crystals.

As we speak, my dad and I sit in the backyard of our Don Mills family home, a red brick rectangular house covered in slowly-dying ivy vines. A yellowing oak tree hangs over us with the eye-shaped knot that my dad tried so many times to fill. His newest girlfriend goes to bed early because she’s cold, but he and I bundle up in wool socks and fleece jackets and set our kitchen chairs around an old barbecue grate that was recently dug out of our hoarder’s garage. Inside the house the cabinets are taken apart and randomly piled in the kitchen, the appliances are preparing themselves for the garbage, and painting paper and concrete dust coat the ground. The only thing still standing is the urn with his parents’ ashes in a china cabinet filled with my grandmother’s crystals. As he speaks he looks up and sometimes right at me, although usually his eyes are unfocused, looking down and around. His green crocs are propped up on a garden rock, and his hands, folded over his belly, sometimes reach for my shoulder or knee.

‘Yeah, I guess he was…’ he lingers, as if he has something more to say.

I pry, subtly and politely, the way I’ve learned from years of forced communication.

‘You know, when my mom died…’

I do know. I was woken up on early on a Saturday. Sad news. They slipped under the covers with me. Grandma’s dead. She fell, was all they said. She was eighty-three. I imagined her on the white tiled kitchen floor of her senior apartment with blood spreading from her head. She was always falling, and still refused to use her walker. This time it was fatal. Contrary to my imagination, there was no blood, just internal bleeding.

We didn’t speak about it after it happened, but I felt her in our house, watching me doing things I wasn’t supposed to do. I didn’t want to be naked anymore because I wasn’t sure how she felt about nudity. If we had Ichiban for breakfast I could feel her disapproval. I know my dad could feel her too. He lost his business, most of his money, and his father soon after. He retired to his office, watching the stocks go up and down. His silence grew tangible, haunting his marriage and our home. When my mother left he curled into his shame, spending what felt like years enclosed in the red walls of his bedroom. His absence drove a wedge in our world. My brothers and I moved out soon after, leaving him alone with his dog, warty and growly like his father’s.

‘It was strange, where she hit her head,’ he continues slowly, ‘where it was bruised.’

The bruising was on the top of her head, he explains – a part she couldn’t have fallen on. Maybe the cabinet door in the kitchen was open. Maybe she hit her head on the dining room table at an almost impossible angle as she was falling. It seemed, only to my father and the coroner, that his mother’s death was unnatural.

‘Well, what do you think happened?’ I ask.

‘I don’t know. But you know how my dad used to get angry.’

I do. In his old age my grandfather was always angry. He didn’t understand her fragility. He was phasing into dementia and was frustrated.

‘The coroner wanted to look into it…’ my dad tells me’

‘And?’

‘I told him not to. She’s dead either way.’

Our hands grasp each other’s, both scarred from years of nervous picking. I don’t say anything more and neither does he. But when he tilts his head towards the ground, his subtle submission presents something he claims to not exist – that the violence which began long before his birth continues to haunt him after his mother’s death. I want to ask questions and make connections, to find a story in his silence, or a shape in her absence. But I don’t. It’s part of being politely reserved.

Instead we look down and away from each other – something we both learned from her.

It is in the past now, anyway.


Daisy Moriyama is a third generation Japanese Canadian, studying literature and philosophy at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Lingering familial and historical ties continue to exert their influences in Jane Komori’s Afternoon Obituaries, set in the arid spaces of Kamloops, and Hannah Polinski’s Homecoming, in which she traces a journey from Canton to Toronto.

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