Grandmother's Song

It starts with the doorbell, my grandmother’s footsteps rushing into the kitchen. Her older brother is here, visiting from Tokyo. His son, my uncle, talks about being three years old in the countryside, catching bugs, the neighboring boy he was supposed to meet at the river who died in his place after a flooding. He drove my great-uncle the seven hours to my grandmother’s house in Sagae, waking up at 1 A.M. to beat the mid-August traffic of people returning home to their families.

Next, feet padding to the tatami mat room, knees sinking into the cushion in front of the shrine. My grandmother’s brother pays his respect to his ancestors with the lighting of incense in the cup of ash. My grandmother helps him to his feet after.

Peach peels folding over each other, strands slowly hitting newspaper. The weight of watermelon on the cutting board, the thud of the knife as it makes the first cut. My grandmother jokes that this could be the last year my great-uncle will be able to visit, if the traffic keeps up like this.

The next day, a gentle smile on her face as he prepares to leave. In the entryway, she shifts to the ground to help him put on his shoes, gives him his hat, his cane, leads him into his son’s car. She kneels to look at him through the car window and says please come again, come again, and though he looks tired he sits in the car seat a little straighter.

Another day, a distant relative insisting it’s okay, I have to go, I’m not staying though everyone in the room knows he could use the company, drowned out by my grandmother’s small plates hitting the table. A triangle slice of watermelon falls on its side. A smile, a laugh. Hats taken off. Body easing into the familiar couch and pillows.

His granddaughter spent the year in France, is working to become a translator. He sent her five kilograms of cherries this year because they were especially sweet. He works hard on his garden—to keep his mind active, he explains—counting the number of vegetables each plant produces per day. And now he has someone to tell this all to, someone who will gasp with genuine delight. The refrigerator opening and closing. Ice clinking in cold tea. Water pooling around the cups so quickly in this early August heat. My grandmother folding old newspapers to make small boxes for watermelon skins. Once he stands up to leave, mistakenly believing he has overstayed his welcome. A hitch in her voice urges him to stay: higher in pitch, intense, open with the shock of potential sudden departure, the soon-to-be emptiness of a house too large for two people. He stays for another hour, and together they starve away loneliness with tales of their families and the old days.

Feet squeaking in the slippers that walk him to his car. My grandmother always stands in the driveway until everyone has driven away. How many departing headlights have swept over her in the night?

In her body, the sound of visitors and their leaving built up like a pool of still water. We go back up the stairs, take off our shoes. My grandmother eats what is left on the plates, slices of eggplant, salted cucumber, a few grapes, so she can wash everything without waste. We are in the kitchen together: I wash and she dries. She sings the anthem of Yamagata-ken, voice full of pride. I wouldn’t believe how good my grandfather’s voice is, she tells me. Hers isn’t so special. But I have never known anyone so selfless, who picks up small change dropped in the parking lot and gives it to the flower store inside, never falling clink clink clink into her wallet. Who, I wonder, hearing strains of my grandmother’s song from inside an unassuming little house along the road, could help from pulling into the driveway and coming in to listen?

Personal Essay, MusicHana Widerman