A More Complete Truth
Kiyoko ReidyEssays / Number 101
I can see my grandfather most clearly in the hours before his death, though I was hundreds of miles away. He had been dying for a while—it was slow and nonspecific, his heart beating less often and with less force. My obaasan had taken him to the doctor, who confirmed yes, you’re dying. You’ll die either way but it might delay things if you stop smoking or eat better.
The afternoon before he died, he sat on the porch, blind eyes pointed out toward the yard full of flowers stiff with first frost. He sucked on a cigar, as he did every afternoon, the smoke trickling from the glowing nub, small plumes releasing from his nose like a tired engine. Each breath filtered through the smoke. A two liter of Mountain Dew sat by his foot, where he knew to reach for it. He might have eaten a thick slab of chocolate cake or a bowl of noodles for a late breakfast, or he might not have eaten at all, knowing he wouldn’t need the energy.
In the early evening, my obaasan brought him in from his spot on the porch, positioned him in the big chair facing the television he couldn’t see. He was so thin she could arrange his limbs like a doll. She did it all gently, kindly. She was behind him in the small house, wilting spinach and crisping tofu, when he gasped.
She squatted beside his chair. He turned toward her—something he hadn’t done in years—his eyes peeled wide in fear or glory. I can see you. I can see. Her face floated before him like a lantern, or a mirage. She could feel his gaze sweeping over her, taking in the signs of age he had been unable to witness—tissue-skin at the cusp of her jaw, lips thinned by her smile. He must have been certain, then, that he was dying.
He died undramatically that night in his bedroom, returned to blindness, on the opposite side of the house from my obasaan’s own room. She could feel him leaving—the air was thin, smelled faintly of smoke and sugar. In the morning, she called 911: Sometime last night. His hands are cold. Over the phone, the responder struggled to understand her accent, forcing repetition: he’s dead. no, dead. dead.
My dad called me to report the news. I could hear my mom talking on the phone with my obasaan in the background—her tone as flat as if she were purchasing a new desk chair. No funeral. Cremation. Bury him in the veteran’s cemetery in Fort Riley. She had forgiven him, in a way—a kind of detachment adjacent to forgiveness—the closest to reconciliation a girl raped by her father could ever be expected to reach.
But I had not forgiven him. For years—since my mom told me what he did—I had imagined myself a vigilante, dreaming up the punishments I would inflict. Sometimes I scared myself with the things I imagined, the anger mounting in my chest like a storm front. In my imaginings, I was crueler than I thought possible.
And now he was dead. The clouds were heavy with rain but could not break. I was so angry at his body for failing before I could do whatever justice, or revenge, demanded. Meeting the same dull end as everyone else was not enough. Who granted him that final miracle of sight? I repeated the words to myself, wondering what had clicked behind his eyes to bestow vision again; what kind of god would grant him that mercy, and whether it was, in the end, mercy at all.
I can see you. I can see.
My obaasan says all her friends are dead, and it’s true. They’ve gone one by one into air, back into their shadows, into the last bowl of soba my obaasan made using Yoshi’s broth. She mentions it every time we talk, though says it flat, like a disappointing fact. She doesn’t mention my grandfather’s absence, even after more than fifty years of marriage. It was never him that sustained her. It was the other women, all of them with their combined desires, stubbornness, will—lifting each other like buoys in a foreign sea. Immigrants from Korea, Japan, Okinawa who ate together at Pusan, Junction City’s best hole-in-the-wall bulgogi and Korean fried chicken, every week for decades.
Yoshi’s death was the hardest for her—they were both from the same small island; my obaasan from the village in the hills, Yoshi from the one by the ocean. She was also my mom’s godmother. Her glasses were so thick my child-mind remembers her as a bug with arthritic, human hands, blinking down at me, touching my light hair, offering me snacks wrapped in rice paper. In her final years, she claimed not to sleep at all—said she passed from day to day like a ghost, the long nights unraveled across her lap.
I knew so little of these women when they were alive, which makes me wonder how much I really know of my obaasan. I hoard what I can—her voice in my voicemail, photo of her holding her garden’s biggest tomato, a card she wrote me when I graduated college that says I love you. I am proud of you. There are so many things I want to say but when I try don’t know how to start.
In my youngest years, she took weekend flights on her hairdresser’s salary to be with me, her only grandchild as often as she could. I remember our house in Bloomington, Indiana only because I remember her in it, and her leaving almost every Sunday afternoon. The big window that faced the front yard and the couch that rested in front of it. My small hands grabbing at the sill, watching her wave at me as she walked to the car. Both of us crying.
She taught me to count in her language, used Okinawan to cuss and sing and refer to my little white butt. Now, when we talk, she tells me the names of everything in all the ways she knows—the green onions she salvages from a neighbor’s yard, which she names in Okinawan, Japanese, and Korean. The old man who lives there just thinks it’s a weed, she says, but all of us know. Those are good greens!
As I got older, I wanted to incorporate as much of her into my life as I could. When I got a hamster, I called her to ask how to say hamster in Okinawan. She didn’t know, so I settled for “rat”: nezumi. I think the small animal resented his unfair naming and communicated the only way he could—teeth and claws. I cleaned his cage, let him run on all night on the crashing wheel, wore leather gloves to stroke his soft back. Most things you name because you love; nezumi I loved because of his name.
In college, I took intensive Japanese—eight hours of class a week. I wrote my obaasan letters in ugly hiragana, struggled to remember the difference between the kanji for verse and season. I felt the distance in myself. When I did badly on a test, the failure compounded: a fourth of me belonged to this language I couldn’t master. My name—which is my obaasan’s name, too—buzzed in my chest, a reminder that I am and also am not.
I turned, this morning, to the internet, searching for an answer in the form of a completed question. Do my fractions justify this reaching? The suggested searches: What percent of marriages end in divorce? (What percentage should?) What percent of violent crimes are reported? (Who names justice?) What percent of your body is water? (How much of the sea do you carry inside you? How many bowls of soba?)
The printed poems were stacked on the table—white sheets still hot from the printer, crisp enough to be a pile of legal documents. It was my senior creative thesis in its entirety. Several years of effort, avoidance, then discipline. Each poem was a confessional, the curtain pulled shut and both of us, the reader and I, there in the dark. I was proud of those claustrophobic, lightless rooms.
I printed one set of copies for my mom and one for her to take to my obaasan. The poems about my obaasan, my mom, and my grandfather grounded the thesis, ran through it like a spine. I wanted to present it to the two women, say look. I know you couldn’t write this, so I had to—it is not justice but it’s something. I can help carry this, too.
My mom was visiting me at school in Madison, Wisconsin when I gave her the poems to read. She read them in one night, in her hotel room, alone. At breakfast the next morning, tears dripped off her chin into the plate of eggs. I loved them, she said, but I can’t give them to obaasan.
In the poems, I was angry, so angry—I imagined hooking my fingers into the corner of my grandfather’s gummy mouth, tearing his face open like a sack of flour. I stood over him like a wrathful god, him snoring in his big chair, as I waited for the courage it would take to push a pillow down over his face, hold it there until his legs gave up their feeble kicking. When he died, I dreamed we had all made a mistake, that somehow he was still alive in the Kansas dirt; the coffin pressing down on him the way he pushed down on my mother, so that he could know, finally, one fraction of her fear.
You have an incredible imagination, a poetry advisor told me after reading one of these poems, in a way that suggested I was imagining both the possibility of these vicious acts and the ability to follow through. My mind needed to work only half as hard as he imagined.
My grandfather sexually abused my mother from the time she was eight until she was fifteen. My mom couldn’t tell anyone—how could she? He was her father. He loved her. Surely this must be some painful way of proving that.
My mom couldn’t pass on the poems because she didn’t want to overwhelm my obaasan with the guilt she is still, decades later, barely able to hold.
When my mom was a child, my obaasan worked at a beauty salon in what passed as downtown Junction City, Kansas until she had enough money to open her own hair studio, where she snipped and curled white ladies’ hair, painted their long nails elegant shades of nude. She never discovered what was happening, never walked in on my grandfather at a revealing moment, never saw the way his eyes trailed my mom’s skinny, girl-body as she slunk away from the kitchen table. She was working. Or she was curved over the stove, flecks of sesame oil glimmering in her hair, garlic smashed and peeled by her quick hands. Or she was weeding and planting, slicing cucumbers from the vine and rolling a cherry tomato in her mouth. She was trying to construct an American life.
My mom never told my obaasan. Eventually old enough to escape him, the assaults slowly stopped. My mom finished high school, then college. She worked in a restaurant for a few years, eating bad Mexican and inventing reasons not to visit home and ignoring the way she disappeared into herself, sometimes for days at a time, unable to do anything but smoke and stare at the pocked ceiling of her trailer. Finally, tired of smelling like beans and burnt oil, she took the LSATs, applied for law school, accepted a good offer, moved to a new state.
It is hard to believe that my obaasan didn’t know—that not once in eight years did she have an uneasy feeling, or see a shadow cross my mom’s young face. In an essay titled Mothers Who Fail to Protect their Children from Sexual Abuse: Addressing the Problem of Denial, Christine Adams details the extent to which denial as a psychological state can impact the mother. “Denial is a psychologically incapacitating state that some mothers experience when faced with the possibility that their children are being sexually abused by their partners. Denial can hinder a mother’s capacity to acknowledge, or even consciously know, that such abuse is occurring, thereby preventing her from intervening to protect her child or children.”1
When my mother was in law school, my obaasan decided to do a deep cleaning of the house she still shared with my grandfather. The rooms were finally empty of children. There were cobwebs to brush off, toys to give away. Maybe she saved her bedroom for last, anticipating the small tokens she might find, evidence of a life.
Beneath the bed, she found a stack of polaroids choked by rubber bands, shoved into an old pair of work boots. My grandfather had taken them. They were of my mother.
My obaasan split her home in half. She banished my grandfather into the basement, where he slept, ate, did whatever he did. By the time I was born, he had been living in the basement for years. Many of my memories of visiting their house involve adventures down into the basement to see grandpa, to say good morning or bring him a piece of cake. Maybe I thought it was strange, but probably I didn’t. I had only one grandfather, so maybe all grandfathers lived in the basement. It was just how things were.
My obaasan must have hated him, hated him for hurting her daughter, the reason she gave up her life in Okinawa, the reason she left her family and moved thousands of miles away to be with a man she hardly knew. Still, my obaasan never filed for divorce. She cooked him food and let him sulk in exile beneath her.
When she moved to the U.S., she became Catholic. It was 1958. The war with Japan had been over for 13 years, but the Korean War was still fresh in the American consciousness, and no one had the patience to learn that she was Okinawan, not Korean. Recently, she told me about a man on the street who screamed in her face fucking dirty Korean, go home her first week in the U.S. She did everything she could to Americanize herself. She cooked hamburgers and ate McDonalds, wore high-waters and curled her hair, named her daughter Kathy and sent her to Catholic school, prayed to a single god.
The Catholic Church does not allow divorce. As she’s gotten older, her faith has returned in many ways to what she was taught as a child in Okinawa. Now, she dreams about her ancestors and skips Christmas mass. But she used to hold the Catholic Church as a pillar of her Americanness, a necessary quality of belonging. Maybe that is one reason she never got divorced. Perhaps another is her resilient sense of duty. Her husband had failed in his duty as a father but that did not permit her to fail in her duty as a wife. Duty and honor are held in the same part of the heart.
I don’t know how she didn’t kill him; or at least leave him. I can rationalize, but I can’t really understand. It is easy to resent my obaasan in this story, an accomplice through negligence. I wish desperately that she had acted, that she could have saved all those wrecked years of my mother’s childhood.
But I have been the vessel her joy has poured into all my life. I cannot believe she knew what was happening, that she denied it—no matter how powerful denial may be—so I don’t. Maybe this compounds whatever wrong she has done, but I cannot do otherwise. This is my complicity. I turn away. I turn toward this: because she stayed, because she encouraged my mom to go to countless hours of counseling, because she did not make a wound of my grandfather—I am here. As a child, I was able to love my one living grandfather. One of the kanji for duty also means body, or face. Another means gratitude.
I want to love the world the way my obaasan loves rocks—with the confidence that everything beautiful has a place in her garden. In every state, she fills her pockets with stones. Her purse is ragged and suspiciously lumpy, so heavy it tilts her to one side when she walks, a struggling teetertotter.
The summer I turned twenty-three, my mom and I took her on a road trip from Kansas to Utah. We hiked through Canyonlands, Arches, Mesa Verde, the Rocky Mountains. We hiked most days, my obaasan undeterred by distance or difficulty—she crawled up steep inclines when she didn’t trust her legs to balance her, scooting down them on her butt on the return journey.
She struggled the most with the hike to Delicate Arch—a thin path carved into a sheer stone face, with no barrier between us and a deadly fall. She’s scared of heights, she says, because of her childhood. She was tasked with guiding her father home after a night of drinking. Reckless and unsteady with sake, her father stumbled along the cliff paths of Kume-jima, singing carelessly into the night while she tried to keep them both from tumbling into the ocean below. The weight of her father’s life bore down on her. On our hike, I want to encourage her closer to the ledge, to show her she didn’t fall then and will not fall now—but I know I can’t understand this part of her. My life is the only one I have ever been made to carry. She clutches at my arm, willing her feet forward, and eventually we make it.
Back on safer ground, she squats and digs at the red dirt, arthritic fingers making canyons around every rock that catches her eye, struggling treasure from the tenacious earth. It’s her reward for making it through that hike, she says. She’s smiling, but the echoes of fear still flicker across her face. She holds open a canvas tote, squats on her heels and shines each stone with a handkerchief—holding it up to the sky’s hard glare, then dropping it in the bag as though she is strong enough to carry the whole desert home. These bags are smuggling vessels out of all the national parks we visit, trunk weighed down with our illegal cargo.
At the beach, her love for rock collecting extends to shells. The Christmas I was twenty-four, my obaasan spent the week with my immediate family in Litchfield, South Carolina. I inherited her inability to sleep late, even on vacation, so in the early mornings she and I would walk the beach in search of the finest shells. The sunrise over the water was blinding; the winter wind whipped sand into our faces and chilled our bare hands numb.
Still, she bent or squatted until her knees ached, the plastic grocery bags dangling from her wrists growing full and heavy. When a bag filled up or threatened to rip, I carried it for her. The thin handles carved indentions into my arms. I also carried my own bag, slowly filling it with calico scallops, chunks of shattered conch. When she found an especially big or beautiful specimen, she mumbled about where she’d place it in her garden—beside the old tires filled with herbs, below trellises wound with Japanese cucumber, between sunflowers stretching skyward.
In my desire to know her in the ways she keeps quiet, I imagine what fuels her desire to collect these pieces of the places she visits. Her yard is a fragmented travel diary, a scrapbook of calcium and marble. Alone in the garden, as she often is, maybe she picks up a hunk of rough granite peppered with translucent quartz. Maybe she touches it to her lips; sets it back down next to a tulip cone I found for her when we visited Kumejima together, the splotched shell stretching the length of her palm. Sometimes, I think she collects these small treasures, lugging them across every kind of border, to surround herself with things that are also both displaced and enduring. In the grocery bags, canvas totes, suitcases and car trunks—the shells and rocks clatter together like the shattering of fine ceramics, the unforgiving clank of glass. It’s the sound of potential fracture, of migration. When her collection rattles loudly, I worry about her opening a bag full of shards. Back in Kansas, everything is always, somehow, intact: shells strong enough to protect a small, soft creature from the ocean’s angry belly, stones that have weathered a thousand desert years.
Standing amid Utah’s red expanse, all of the rocks are beautiful. There is every hue of brown, gold, ochre, clay—the arches, fins, heaped boulders are surreal and lovely. At my feet, a pile of sandstone pebbles, streaked as metal gone to rust. For a moment, I think of taking them—scooping the small pile into my pockets and carrying them home to arrange neatly in the poor soil of my houseplants. Here, the pebbles almost glow with color—the rusted gold pulsing in the waning afternoon. In my small city apartment, the sun would set differently, would never fill each pebble with light. I have lived my whole damn life in the same place, and so do not trust beauty’s persistence, even in stone and shell. I want to love the way my obaasan loves rocks—with the belief that every beautiful thing will carry its beauty anywhere.
When I write about my grandfather I write about our fishing trips. Each year for my birthday we would drive an hour into the country to the Cross-Eyed Cricket—the name for a complex that included a rusted-out RV park, a playground that belonged in a post-apocalyptic nightmare, a shack that sold packaged ice cream and nightcrawlers, and two stocked fish ponds. One pond was overflowing with trout—they bit as fast as my small arms could cast the line, their glimmering bodies cooling on mounds of ice.
I want to go on. I want to keep telling the story of the fishing trips: my unfulfilled desire to catch the elusive catfish, my unwillingness to touch the slippery creatures and my grandfather’s patience—puncturing the worm, extracting the hook from flapping gills, untangling my knotted line. The details rise to the top of the mind like cream: here is what you want to say.
And so I’ve said it. I’ve written the two of us at the water’s edge in every way I can—sometimes he stalks through these memories, his huge hands fumbling in the fishes’ mouths, the barbed hook tearing their slick skin. Sometimes he is helping me practice the maneuverings of my cheap rod, the perfect time to release the plastic button, his hands guiding mine in a clean arc. Sometimes he’s sitting on the white cooler, purple baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, the erratic thunk of fish flopping against the cooler’s walls beneath him.
When my mom told me what her father did to her, I had to insert this new knowledge into every memory I had of him. The task felt impossible—how to reconsider sixteen years of life as his granddaughter? What did it mean that I was one quarter him? I mined the cave of my body for the evil I knew must be hidden there—evil that was no fault of mine but surely growing all the same.
If I feared what hid inside me, remnants of the unforgiveable, I wonder if my mom feared the darkest rooms of her own mind. I haven’t asked her—I can’t. To ask would be to admit I wondered, even for a moment, if she has ever wanted what she should not want. Knowing and not knowing are both unbearable. But without knowing, I can exist in the memories of the kind of mother she has always been to me—unconditionally loving, relentlessly supportive—and so I choose this haunted freedom. In the end we are only what we do or do not.
For years, my mom thought about what she would say about her father at his funeral. I don’t know if she wanted to say something good or if she felt she had to—he was a hard worker. He worked two jobs. He helped support our family. When he finally did die, there was no funeral, and so she didn’t say anything.
I write about our fishing trips because it is the only memory I have been able to reconcile with what I now know of him. In the fishing memories, he is big enough to hold it all: he is violent and kind, patient and threatening. In truth, I remember so much more: counting the remaining hairs on his balding head; him riding his lawnmower to the diner when his eyesight became too bad to drive; him sitting on the couch in our living room on Christmas morning, smiling as I unwrapped a new tacklebox. I have searched these memories again and again for a hint of wrongness, a way I could, or should, have known, and still I come up empty. They are sweet memories. I was a child. I felt safe, loved, and happy.
It is a lie to write the story of my childhood without my grandfather’s evils. But eventually it becomes a lie to write his evils into every story. When I first began to reckon with this knowledge, I imagined my grandfather dying and us hosting a big funeral—I would give a eulogy and destroy what reputation remained. I would tell everyone what kind of man he was. Even if I would never have the courage for revenge when he was alive, I would enact my revenge on his memory. Now, I think, I can write with a new kind of honesty—I have hated him. I will never forgive him. But he was kind to me, and I have also loved him. This is a more complete truth.
I have only been to Okinawa once, when I was sixteen. My mom, brother, best friend, obaasan, and I spent a month between Okinawa (the chain’s largest island), Miyako, and Kumejima.
On the main island, we stayed in my great aunt Sumiko’s apartment on the sixth floor of a building that was just beginning to fall into disrepair. On the inside, though, everything was pristine—kitchen scrubbed gleaming, framed photos of her children wiped clear of dust, muumuu’s in vibrant prints hanging neatly in the closet. Her balcony looked out over an unkept courtyard, overrun with huge-leafed plants in the richest greens, and an identical building on the far side. A rooster lived on the balcony of one of those apartments—it woke me every morning we were there, and I could see it pacing the concrete length of its world in the blurry afternoon heat.
I met dozens of relatives over the course of the month. Some of them already knew the facts of my life, many of them didn’t. When they asked where I lived, and I told them Tennessee, I quickly learned that what they knew of my home state was Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey. I don’t know what part of Tennessee I expected would be notable enough to traverse the entire width of the Pacific Ocean, but it wasn’t Jack Daniels.
The images in my mind from Okinawa are scattered: glass jars of sake in Heiwa-dori with snakes coiled in the bottom, their jaws fastened wide, fangs bared in the amber liquor; my obaasan sucking the head of a beautiful red snapper, its dull eye pointed at me; sea turtles alone with us in a quiet cove on Miyako, their incredible speed through the water; the abandoned oyster shell the size of a small child off the coast of Hate-no-hama. My memories of it now have the sheen of a dream-state, though I know it is all true.
In the evenings, we would sit on the floor of Sumiko’s dining room, eating fried rice or downing bowls of soba as fast as we could with chopsticks, the broth cooking our throats. You must slurp to keep from burning, Sumiko said when we made ah ah ah sounds through our burnt mouths, and it also tells that you like my noodles! I slurped with all the gusto I had, but the insides of my cheeks were raw for weeks.
When we finished dinner, my obaasan and Sumiko sat at the low table between the kitchen and dining area, the rest of us scattered on the floor, waving hand-fans at each other or trying to play card games we didn’t know all the rules to. Sumiko and my obaasan talked about their childhoods and drank from tiny cups of wine—I had never seen my obaasan drink before that trip, and I have never seen her drink since.
They talked about their childhood—Sumiko, several years younger, remembered less of the worst times: gnawing bits of flesh from a discarded cow skin, the girls smearing oil and soot on their faces and chests so they wouldn’t be raped by Japanese soldiers. I remember the smell of cow skin—the burning hair, Sumiko said. Sometimes that smell is still in my nose. My obaasan told me later, she is lucky she is young, that she only remembers the smell. I can still taste its charred skin.
Loosened by the wine, they often turned quickly toward lighter, more fun conversation. The two old ladies talked in a mix of English and Okinawan that was dizzying—they paused only when they were giggling too hard to continue, or my obaasan fumbled for a word in Okinawan that had faded to shadow. My obaasan told Sumiko of the strangeness of finding beni-imo, Okinawan sweet potatoes, in the Kroger in Junction City—mounds of the potatoes sitting for weeks in a cardboard box because people were skeptical of their bright purple hue. Sumiko laughed and laughed, imagining white Midwesterners squinting suspiciously at the strange root.
When they laughed, they both brought their hands to their lips in the same way, hiding their teeth, as if pushing the laughter back into their mouths. They ducked their heads, turned away, embarrassed by the ease of their happiness. Even when they fell into a steady stream of Okinawan and I could no longer understand anything, I smiled when they smiled, giggled when they did. I have never seen my obaasan laugh so much, the weight of English falling away from her. It was a freedom she did not have in America.
As I watched them, I remember wishing my obaasan had never left Okinawa. It’s true—she escaped some suffering by leaving. She was never again hungry, or forced to sleep in the elements, or taken captive by soldiers, or offered up as a trade for meat or rice. Her children didn’t starve or die of disease, didn’t fall victim to snakebite or typhoon. When my grandfather, an American solider stationed on Okinawa, got her pregnant, she chose a life here—she picked the unfamiliar suffering over the familiar.
It is easy for me to wish a different life for her, one where her and Sumiko have laughed like this every day for years, because I have never been afraid for my own life. All I can think of is this joy I see in her at the low table, lips dark with wine—and imagine her always feeling at home.
When I think this, I am forced to wonder what it means for me to wish she had stayed there, in Okinawa—for me to wish for a world in which I could not exist? What is living wants to keep it so—which is why I cannot wish myself nonexistent, why she knew she had to leave.
I know she misses it, there—and that she now thinks of her migration as a betrayal. After our trip to Okinawa, she began to tell me about her dreams—the same ones, again and again in rhythm. When she came to the U.S., she changed her name from Kiyoko to Kay, a gesture toward belonging. For years, it seemed as though it didn’t bother her. Now, though, she dreams of her own death—waking in the afterlife before a tribunal of her family, her ancestors.
I am ready to join you, she says. She kneels before them, lowers her head in a bow. They look at each other, whisper. Who are you? They ask. It’s me—Kiyoko Miyahira. They look confused. Her father steps forward, his face illuminated with youth, no longer liquor-worn and sun-chaffed. I once had a daughter named Kiyoko Miyahira. But I have not seen her for years. We don’t know anyone named Kay Saunders.
Today, April 28, is my obaasan’s birthday. She is turning eighty-four. Her yard is still carefully landscaped—trimmed rose bushes line the fence, daffodils open their gold mouths overnight, stalky irises transplanted from a neighbor who was too busy to deal with flowers, fistfuls of sandstone and quartz pebbles marking each weedless bed.
She will be up before the sun today, as all days. She’ll eat some combination of noodles, greens, and fruit for breakfast. Once she’s eaten, she’ll put on her one good sun-shirt, a bright blue button down, and her wide-brimmed hat, though the sun is just barely cresting the fields of corn and alfalfa nearby. She’ll work until it gets too hot, sweat catching on her sparse lashes. Her yard will be a little closer to perfect—the tomatoes refastened to their poles, a few rocks reorganized into different arrangements. She’ll taste her spinach, find it’s already going bitter, but eat it anyway. Unable to change her habits of survival, she still wastes nothing.
I am not sure she would remember it’s her birthday if we didn’t call to tell her—singing happy birthday over the phone, reminding her that though she is aging at the same rate as always, today we are supposed to make sure she remembers. Birthdays are a strange custom. She’s never been shy about sharing her age—don’t be embarrassed about getting older. When you’re old, you know things! Last year, she mixed and poured her own concrete to make a paved walkway through her yard. My back was a little sore, she admitted, but it looks good! She is still present and strong.
I have a photo of her from the beach this past Christmas—she’s holding an octopus we just finished boiling. It’s red with heat—that’s how you determine done-ness—the color rising in the creature’s limbs like a full-body blush. She’s not just smiling—she’s grinning. She’s radiant. After I took the picture, she instructed me on cutting the octopus—diagonal slices to show off the suckers, the meat’s smooth grain. I couldn’t get it quite right. The knife, too dull for chef’s work, kept slipping toward my fingers.
I am tracing these moments—imagined and real—to try to remember everything. It’s my obaasan’s birthday. She’s turning eighty-four. Sure, people live into their nineties all the time. People persist. She is healthy, strong, present. Eventually, though, she will follow my grandfather. She will die.
In Natasha Tretheway’s poem Elegy, she recalls a day she spent fishing with her father, a day she thought about how those moments might fit into an elegy. “I can tell you now/ that I tried to take it all in, record it / for an elegy I’d write — one day — / when the time came. Your daughter, / I was that ruthless.” I know this ruthlessness. I walk past a cat, water-logged and swollen in the lake, and think of a poem. My mother grows a lump in her neck. My brother is an addict. He dances in and out of his future. I write I write I write a poem.
It’s true—poets must learn a certain coldness. We must learn to approach poems with the kind of clarity that usually requires distance—an ability to see past the emotional muck of living. That can seem cold—how can a daughter collecting moments for her living-father’s eulogy not sound at least a little unforgiving?—but I think this coldness is driven by something pure. At a recent reading, Edward Hirsch said that when writing an elegy the poet is engaged in both a literary problem and a human problem. The coldness often allows us to solve the literary problem—we approach our grief carrying our craft as a shield or an offering.
The human problem exists below the literary problem. The human problem is rooted in the desire to keep everything; to solve it, we must trap our love (our grief) in language, make it still. The human problem is unsolvable because the mind is like a shark—if it stops moving, it dies. We cannot still anything for long.
But to try is the job of the poet. I must admit the relief I felt the first time I read Tretheway’s poem. I needed it. I needed to know that in the early mornings I have spent with my obaasan—collecting bits of marble from the low riverbed, our feet numb in the mountain water—it was alright to think those moments worthy of elegy. There is so much I want to keep—and so much more I would want to keep if only I still remembered it.
When she dies, I will come bearing metaphor, syllabics, slant rhyme. I am ruthless enough to think of her elegy now, as she lives, because I want it to be worthy of her. I cannot think this without wondering what exactly she is worthy of—most loving obaasan, survivor of war, wife of a rapist, perpetual foreigner. I think I will be able to solve the literary problem. I do not know if I can solve the human one.
In Junction City, my obaasan is falling asleep in front of the late-night news. The sun and dirt has exhausted her. The world celebrates her quietly—it is her birthday everywhere: my tomato plant unfurls a small white flower, someone gnaws a Korean-fried-chicken wing, a cairn in Utah shakes in the wind but does not fall.
And I am writing what I can, of her, of us, ankles sloshing through the Laurel River at daybreak: her gnarled thumb scrubs mud and algae as she would rub a streak of dirt from my cheek, the same gritty tenderness. She holds a rock up to the light—a hunk of rough granite peppered with translucent quartz, which holds the sun inside it like a dozen tiny bulbs. I wonder how many rivers and deserts we will search, how many grocery bags brimming with water-worn rock, to find the stone that will mark her grave.
Kiyoko Reidy is a writer from east Tennessee. Her poetry and nonfiction have been published or are forthcoming in the The Cincinnati Review, The Missouri Review’s Poem of the Week, Sugar House Review, Creative Nonfiction’s Sunday Short Reads, RHINO, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Nashville.Image by Dylan Freedom