My grandmother is beckoning a smile from my daughter by tapping her arm and meowing while holding her lifelike orange toy tabby cat.
My mom says something to her in Japanese, and my grandmother momentarily breaks her focus on Lily to respond in a curt tone. Her facial expression shifts again as she turns back to Lily and the higher pitch cat noises. Lily breaks a smile.
Mom and grandma continue their back and forth that sounds like a blend of catching up about the day’s happenings and commenting on the many wonderful attributes in the lineage’s latest addition. Neither would likely ever say those same things about themselves. It’s not Japanese.
Often amidst conversations about how far women need to go to reach parity or about how much racism still exists in the US, I am struck today by the awe of how much can happen in 4 generations.
After having a premonition, my grandmother’s mother moved her family from Hiroshima months before the country of my citizenship dropped a bomb that incinerated an entire city that had been home to my family and many of their friends – men, women, children and animals – who perished.
My grandmother was taken out of middle school to work for the Japanese government. Later, she became a successful model and actress and married my grandfather. She stopped working and raised her family under a hard-line of Japanese honor at all costs. Prayer and devotion have been a part of her daily practice. She never learned to drive or speak English.
Because my grandfather, who had been interned during WWII here in the US, became an architect in the American army based in Japan, my mother went to American schools. People frequently comment on how, “she doesn’t have an accent.”
She also became a very successful model and actress in Tokyo before moving to the United States where she met my caucasian dad. They were married on the anniversary of the day the atomic bomb dropped. That coincidence was an accident.
The richness and tradition of the Japanese culture has steeped out through each of our matrilineal generations into our American melting pot.
I am half Japanese. My daughter a quarter. She and I have opportunities available to us that my grandmother could never imagine. And we will likely only imagine what life was like for her because true to her culture, she remains tight-lipped about her past…and of course, we don’t speak her language.