He never wanted me to be afraid of anything. Turtles, water moccasin snakes, half-inch long black ants. Nothing.
My first memories of him being sick was when I was around seven years old. I think he was around forty-nine. While living in a small Alabama town most likely taught him firsthand about racism in these United States, I think he already learned about it personally when he saw his uncle swinging from a tree, lynched by White Alabamans. At the age of twelve, he learned even more as he faced the death of his parents. With two younger sisters in tow because he didn’t want them to be farmed out separately to distant family members, my father moved to Brooklyn and began working as a driver for a wealthy White woman. Because of this, the stuff of “Driving Miss Daisy” was known to me long before Alfred Uhry’s theatrical exploration.
I was eleven years old when my father died. His short presence in my life gave me certain gifts and diminished other aspects of my life. His long absence in my life is not something that I think about on a day-to-day basis, but at intervals and deeply. I wish I had known him better. I wish he had lived longer so that I could ask him questions about the roads that he had traveled. In any event, his long absence taught me that people can grow up without their fathers, but not without strong, loving mothers. I had and have that.
Neither are my parents the Ozzie and Harriett/Norman Rockwell variety nor the comfortable, color-coded couples that one sees in monoracial narratives in plays, on television, in films, and in commercials. No, not only did my parents look different, but they also were different ethnically and culturally. One was an internal immigrant – that is a Black/Brown person in a White European American country – and the other was an external immigrant – someone from a country other than the U.S. My earliest memories are of gazing at my parents and wondering why they looked different, spoke different languages, liked different foods, and practiced different customs. They wanted me to be aware of all these distinctions; it was a lot to learn, but, the older I grew, the more fortunate I felt to be exposed to so much. My parents’ differences piqued my curiosity persistently, not only about them, but also about me. When I was five, I asked my father why he was chocolate and why my mother was vanilla. From the looks on my parents’ faces, I don’t think that they were ready for that question quite yet. My father purchased a carton of Neapolitan ice cream, which contained vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry stripes. He pointed out the stripes to me in a metaphoric way, as if they represented the different colors of cultures of which I was comprised. Then he blended the stripes into a brown cream. That, he said, was me. Then he asked if I could separate the mixture into distinct colors. Of course, I could not. It tasted better to me anyway, that blend and the smoothness of differences having become one. He said that’s how I should live my life. And I do – an edge-less, borderless blend. Yes.
My father liked to go to Lake Kahola, a lake near Emporia, Kansas. Part of it was a deep recess full of water moccasin snakes. Another part consisted of shallow waters rushing over limestone and shale, spilling into a waterfall. The water was so low that I could lie down and have it wash over me. I’ve never been able to duplicate that feeling in my life. At first, I was afraid to swim in the lake because of the snakes, but my father assured me that they did not want to eat me and that the joy of swimming in a fresh water lake would be the only thing on my mind. He was right. I loved swimming in Lake Kahola. Those were the years when I still loved to swim, before my first stepfather rubbed my face in the sand and destroyed my desire to swim.
When my cat Mimi had kittens, I was playing with a friend down the street. I was six. My father came to retrieve me. We sat side by side as Mimi, a beautiful orange tabby cat, delivered her tiny babies. As this miraculous event occurred, my father explained to me what was happening. He held my hand as we watched Mimi clean each kitten. The kittens blindly scrambled to drink milk from Mimi. The witnessing of Mother Nature at work and my father’s careful pleasure in sharing the experience with me was a gift.
I appreciate these things about my father. Despite the fact he had served in the U.S. Army, something that he did because there wasn’t a lot of choice for a poor African American in the 1930s, and despite the fact he was a fisherman and hunter, my father had a poetic nature that enlarged my view of life and living. I wasn’t an attractive child – not Japanese enough and not Black enough, I guess – and my multiethnic hair frightened my father (he cut it off when my mother went into the hospital when I was five), but he often said to me, “Don’t worry, Pumpkin, you’ll be interesting.” That was my childhood hope, at least to be interesting. In order to be interesting, I wanted to know as much as I could about everybody and everything that crossed my path or that came near enough that I sought it out. That included asking my father a lot of questions, even though I wish I could have asked him more – perhaps more telling, intelligent, and in-depth ones. Nevertheless, my father had brilliant responses for my many questions. For example, I was curious about why the sunset often was ablaze with orange. He had a ready answer for that, “The angels are baking cookies.” Now, even though I know the scientific explanation for orange sunsets, when I see them today I think of one thing: my father baking cookies with the angels, the ovens burning and bright. Today, he is joined by Eugene, the beloved father of my friend, June. Yes, yes, reality has its explanations, but I can’t help thinking of those two men, both of whom married Japanese women, up in the skies making cookies. Probably chocolate chip. The good kind that you can drink with Sencha.
Another memory I have of my father’s poetic nature was the music that he played. He had Spanish music, the soundtrack to “My Fair Lady,” jazz, and classical music. On our spinet piano, he played songs such as “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” or “It Had to Be You.” When he played them, he sang. He had a clear, strong tenor voice. Engaging me to sing with him, I learned to love the combination of piano and song. From an early age, I studied piano and voice, inspired by my father’s love for both. Many years later, it fascinated me that my son, Kiyoshi, gravitated toward concert choir and jazz choir vocals in high school (he remains friends with his choir director) and that my daughter, Leilani, was drawn to a children’s choir at an early age, too (in fact, that interest led her to meet someone who remains a good friend of hers to this day).
My memories of the hospital where my father was admitted when his PTSD worsened are gray. I remember that, if you were under the age of fourteen, which I was, you could not go to the upper floors. That’s where my father was, a fifty-two-year-old man lying in a bed on an upper floor, knowing that he was dying, knowing that he was leaving behind an immigrant Japanese wife and three multiethnic, multicultural children. He must have been frightened and sad, but also, I hope, hopeful. I desperately wanted to see him. I thought the rule for those of us under fourteen was cruel when one’s parent was dying. However, there were no exceptions. So, my mother went upstairs while I sat in a waiting room with my sister. Unlike most waiting rooms, it seemed designed for younger children to wait in while their mothers went upstairs to watch their fathers fighting for their lives. It was not a happy place. The curtains were drawn and I could see dust particles in the beams of light that peeked through curtain splits. At the time, PTSD was not a bonafide illness, so the men suffering on the upper floors were simply considered failures who had not been able to handle the rigors of combat. The large waiting room contained several circular sofas made out of carmine Naugahyde and a television at the front. I don’t even remember what was on that television; I just remember sitting on those circular sofas waiting for news, news that I believed would be bad. Death seemed bad at that time. It seemed unthinkable. However, I knew that it was coming. I knew that my father would not be around long. He seemed so old then, but, of course, he was young.
As my father’s condition worsened, he was sent to another military hospital in Topeka, about an hour away. Even though my mother had no knowledge of driving in the U.S., much less on a highway, she and I drove to Topeka to visit my father for his birthday. I had become eleven years old and a week later he had become fifty-three years old. The day before our trip, I came home from school to find my mother sitting on the piano bench. She looked stunned and very tired. When I asked her what was wrong, she said that the hospital had called her to tell her that my father had passed away. Since then, the month of May has been quite reflective for me. First, there is my birthday, then a week later my father’s, then a week later the day of his death. Even though I felt that something bad was looming, the actual fact of his passing away made me feel as if a knife had been stuck in my gut and turned. At the hospital, my mother grew dizzy and fainted. There was some formality of acknowledging my father’s identity, of looking at his body and nodding. That was left to eleven-year-old me.
In the week that followed, I helped my mother talk with insurance companies, county and city officials, and the funeral home. I helped her make sense of U.S. society. Because my mother was unable to face the task of a deluge of information coming her way and needing contextualization in her cultural view of the world, I went to the funeral home to select a casket for my father. I looked at many caskets, and learned the difference between a casket and a coffin. Remembering that he liked the color lavender, I chose a lilac-colored casket. Would he like it? I wondered. Does it matter? I thought. While the mortician seemed to like my choice, he looked at me as if he thought that our family couldn’t afford it.
There were about sixty people at my father’s funeral. It was open casket – a U.S. ritual that I find rather peculiar – so there he was, propped up in a suit and made up by the White mortician who clearly knew very little about how to manage the pigment of a person of color. My father’s skin had a strange orange hue to it and his lips looked as if there were wads of cotton stuffed behind them. His chin jutted out and his head was at an awkward angle, as if he was trying to see what was behind him. Filled with a gritty sadness, I wanted to rub off the make-up and adjust his head. The feeling that it was all over rushed through me. “It” was a fairly all-encompassing thing. It seemed to include our lives in the small Kansas town in which we lived, our link to any and all things U.S. American, and our nuclear family. That’s when the aforementioned regret began: I began to feel sadness about not having more conversations with my father about the roads he had traveled in the first half of the twentieth century.
I have been without a father for many years. When he died, my mother decided that we would return to live in Japan, but then chose not to because she feared the racism that we might face as a multiethnic Japanese family that includes African lineage. She also thought about moving to California, where she thought that multiethnicity would be more acceptable. However, we did not move there either because she felt that, despite the state’s racial diversity, anti-Blackness was still a problem. She decided to remain in the small Kansas town where we existed because it was familiar and at least geographically manageable, never mind its lack of political, cultural, and ethnic diversity or its lack of tolerance for those things. There were just enough good people – genuine friends and true teachers – who made it possible to exist, if not live. It was 1969. My mother was a non-White immigrant. How resilient she was. I knew it then, but I truly know it now.
Even though I didn’t have a name for what I witnessed in my mother during that time period, I yearned to have it, too. Resilience? Strength? Fortitude? Years later as she began to age, I saw those things giving way to a fear and sadness that deeply pained me, too. However, there was no remedy. She was aging in a society that had never welcomed her or her multiethnic family; aging is hard enough without all that extra friction. It, however, wasn’t going anywhere, so she continued to sludge through the quick sand. I knew this stage of her life had come after an incredible immigrant resilience, and I was determined – and still am – to pave the way for her. It isn’t always easy. Being so much my mother, so much that Japanese woman from Matsuyama internally, but looking phenotypically different than your average Japan-Airlines Japanese face, I constantly find it challenging to pave the way for her (or for myself, for that matter), but that does not and will not stop me. My mother’s resilience galvanized my entry into adulthood: I didn’t need to get married. I could have children on my own. I could grow old alone. I could pursue my art without compromising my personal artistic vision, which is by no means commercial or mainstream. Thankfully, I have managed to be successful on many of those fronts. I did fail on the marriage matter, but I didn’t marry until later in life. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I married another immigrant.
I loved my father. He was a good man. However, I grew up without his presence. I didn’t have a choice, but, nevertheless, I grew up guided by one parent, by my mother, an immigrant from Matsuyama, Japan. That inspired me and continues to do so. In my heart, however, my father remains. Living near the California coast, I view a lot of beautiful, tangerine-colored sunsets. They bring to mind one thing: the angels are baking cookies. Is my father wearing an apron? Does he taste the cookies the moment he takes them out of the ovens? Does warm chocolate ever get on an angel’s wings? Are there oven mitts? Who eats the cookies? I know he’s smiling, smiling with his eyes as he always did. Save a cookie for me.
1-“North American water moccasin.” Web. www.snipview.com. Retrieved on March 8, 2018 @ http://www.snipview.com/q/North_American_water_moccasin?alt=North_american_water_moccasin.
2-Family photograph, to be used with permission only from Dr. H. Rika Houston or The Velina Avisa Hasu Houston Family Trust.
3-Family photograph, to be used with permission only from Dr. H. Rika Houston or The Velina Avisa Hasu Houston Family Trust.
4-“Hobbling Like An Old Woman (Recipe: Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies – Take 1),” Oven Lovin’ Runnin’, Web. www.kcapogrossi.wordpress.com, Mar 21, 2013. Retrieved on March 7, 2018 @