Falcons learn to fly
Before our family moved to Singapore in the spring of 1980, we lived in a cluster of apartment buildings called danchi, in suburban Chiba. The complex, which was completed in 1972, housed approximately 2000 families, and although this sounds like one of those terrible soulless mass housing projects of the 20th century (they were almost identical to the Soviet style Khurushchyovka), it was actually wonderful to live there as a young child because there were so many other children to play with. Each building housed 20 families on 5 stories with 4 apartments on each floor, and there were no elevators.
Our family lived on the second floor of a danchi, right above my grandparents who lived on the ground level apartment with a small garden. They were my father’s parents, and would have been around 80 years old when we lived together. Their front door was usually unlocked so, often after school, my sisters and I would simply barge into their apartment like it was our right. They were always happy to see us though, so we spent many hours sitting together sipping tea, watching sumo, and eating rice crackers.
My grandmother was an introvert who mostly stayed home, cooked, did some needlework, and watched TV. She occasionally practiced shamisen that she wasn’t particularly good at and made delicious home-made pickles that she shared with my family. She was also a constant guardian to my younger sister, who spent a lot of time at home because she was often sick.
My grandfather was a very tall man for someone born in the Meiji period, and he was active in the community as the president of the senior citizens club of our danchi. I often spotted him cycling around the neighborhood and chatting with people in the community park. He also had a myriad of hobbies that he practiced seriously, including oil painting, poetry writing, singing, and gardening, all of which he picked up after retiring from running a soba restaurant across the street from Komazawa park in Tokyo.
“Grandpa used to be very strict, but he is so gentle with you grandkids,” my father once said, “my friends never wanted to come to my house because they thought grandpa was too scary.” I remember feeling thankful that my grandfather had mellowed before I arrived in this world because it was terrifying to imagine someone who could intimidate my father, who frightened us with his thunderous temper from time to time.
My grandfather sometimes allowed me to sit and watch him paint in the dark tatami room that smelled of turpentine, mixed with the smell of incense from the modest wooden buddhist alter he had in the same room. Many of the paintings that he made were of some distant mountains or fields. He said they were paintings of Nagano, where he grew up before moving to Tokyo.
Once, when my grandfather was painting, I told him that I wanted to learn to draw, and this made him very happy. He immediately flipped a piece of advertisement paper and used its blank back to show me how to draw a mug that was sitting on the table. “Cups are three-dimensional,” he said, as he started to pencil the outline of the mug. “And to depict that, you draw shadows.” I was about 6 years old and couldn’t even write Japanese alphabets properly, so ‘three-dimensional’ and ‘depict’ were big words for me. I remember I paid as much attention as I could because I understood that he was sharing his passion with me wholeheartedly.
My grandfather was never cynical about my ability, and I loved that about him. If I live to be 80 years old, I hope that I’d still be the person that can share my own passion with anyone without contempt, just like my grandfather.
My grandfather died in the spring of 1990 when I was a senior in high school. I was studying abroad and only found out about his death after I returned that summer. My parents said that they didn’t call me back because he wouldn’t have wished to interrupt my study.
In the corner of my messy workroom in San Diego, I still have the square paper board with a tanka poem that my grandfather wrote for me before I went abroad. It reads: –
Off to a school in distant Canada
The old hide their tears, and send her away
Many years have passed since he left us, but I think of my grandfather often. There are many things I would have liked to tell him and many questions that I wish I had asked. I never wrote to him when he was alive, but I want to write a letter to him now. There is no question that he would send me a reply, if only he could.