A few weeks ago, I was going through old photos at my grandma’s house. Each drawer I opened seemed to be hiding sheafs of memories, like a flock of paper cranes ready to take flight. Even in the middle of boring suburban New Jersey, I could find fifty years plus worth of history and stories and emotions.
It makes me wonder where else old histories might be hiding. What other memories lie forgotten in the drawers of our minds?
summer is the taste of watermelons. i grew up in the warm sepia glow of lamplight at night, the vague sound of distant fire trucks that somehow tell me everything is alright. the air conditioning is too cold, the fan’s face rotates its gaze around the room, protecting me, reminding me that i am where i belong. outside, the cicadas join a sound that is already in my head. (i translate every touch from japanese, i try my best). summer means long, hot nights where i lie flopped on futons with my cousin, my oba-chan and my mama fanning us in the hazy light of a too humid darkness. summer means the sound of a screen door rattling open, telling me morning has begun.
in the summer, we go to graveyards. the rows of rectangular graves stick out of the ground like crooked teeth. i ride in the back of my oba-chan’s bicycle, leaning into the soft red cushion of the seat as she sings a song. I hold the boxes we will use to pick the flowers, the fruits, and the vegetables. we pass the rojinho-mu, or the old people’s home. we sing on the way, my oba-chan waves to the people outside. we pass the yellow and black train crossing sign, i hear the chirin-chirin bells of the train as it wooshes past us, and i feel the ruts of the train track as we cross the road. we turn a corner and come to my oba-chan’s little plot of land across the street from the graveyard.
my oba-chan’s face and hands are soft and brown like paper you have held in your hand for a long time. she wants to paint a wind-garden of her land, where she grows thick satsuma potatoes that you can pull out if you plant both rainboots on the ground and pull. i am small, so i need help. we pick flowers for the graves and little oranges that you can eat whole all in one bite. i smell warm dirt that rubs against my hands like a hand of an old friend.
death is not unhappy. we go to the walled-off graveyard, built around with gray blocks of cement that each tell a different story. inside we are among friends. my oba-chan tells me stories. there is the neighbor’s grandmother. here is our old ancestor, the hihibasan, or great great grandmother. the way she says it makes me think of himawari, sunflowers. i imagine them smiling at me. the graves are shining in the heat, you can see the sun wavering in the air above them. i fill a bucket of cold water, turning the rusted handle of the faucet at the edge of the graveyard and letting it splash over my fingers. i carry it to the graves because i am a strong girl and our ancestors need the water.
here is the grave of the age-old cow. i splash her with water and wash her tombstone. she must be a very happy cow. there is the grave of the other cow who died in a fire, who doesn’t have a cut-stone tombstone like the rest of the graves, but has a single jagged brown rock in a patch of withering grass to commemorate his life. i give him water too. i save the most water for our great great oba-san, make sure i pour water over every crevice of marble, wash out the candle-stick holders, the flower vases. i feel the hot sun baking my back.
my grandmother honors the grave with the flowers we have picked. ashes of incense mingle with the rest of hot Takamatsu air, with the promise of fireworks and watermelon in the evening. we squat on the ground and put our palms together to pray for a moment, and then we leave.
summer can be when i’m older too. in tokyo, all-grown-up (not really). summer can be coming home with my friends on a train that is too cold, that rattles like a screen door about to be opened. summer can be me walking home all alone. summer can be millburn, new jersey, as i open the swing-door and see the green leaves on the trees canopying me and telling me, here is your new life, now go live it.