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Lions Roar : March 2008
72 SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2008 When she called me in New York to give me the news of my grandmother’s death, my mom told me that she couldn’t go to Japan to attend the funeral. It would be a Buddhist ceremony, she said, and she had a bad leg—arthritis or something—so she wouldn’t be able to squat on the floor during the service. She was afraid she would be an embarrassment to the family if she were forced to use a chair, and she asked me if I would go to the funeral in her stead. So I went to Tokyo, to my aunt’s house. My grandmother had already been cremated by the time I got there, but I arrived in time for her funeral ceremony at the family temple and her in- terment in the family grave. Before we left for the temple, my aunt took me into the parlor, where she was keeping my grand- mother’s remains. She showed me the urn, which I dutifully ad- mired, then she went to the kitchen and brought back a small Tupperware container and a pair of wooden chopsticks, the disposable kind that you get with take-out sushi. I watched as she lined the Tupperware with one of my grandmother’s fancy handkerchiefs, opened the urn, and started poking around in- side with the tips of her chopsticks like she was trying to fish a pickle from a jar. I was surprised to see that the remains were bones instead of ashes and to watch my aunt, picking them out and packing them in Tupperware. But most of all, I was surprised to hear her name each bone as she moved it. “This is a piece of your grandmoth- er’s skull. This is a bit of her rib...” When she had transferred several bones, she snapped the top onto the container, burped it to remove the extra air, and handed it to me, instructing me to take the bones home and give them to my mother. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a custom—not the Tupperware part, but the rest of it—called honewake, or divid- ing the bones, which is often practiced when a person’s family lives in different places. It’s also practiced when a women dies, so that her parents can have some of her remains, as a consola- tion, while the rest are buried with her husband. To make a long story short, I came back from Japan with the bones and a large box of my grandmother’s belongings, but for one reason or another, I didn’t get around to bringing them to my mom for several years. She and I had grown apart, much as she had grown apart from her parents. I was busy with my ca- reer, a marriage, a divorce, and talking about death is never easy. She knew I had her mother’s bones. I kept hoping she’d ask me about them, but she never did, and I didn’t want to bring up the subject. So the bones sat on a shelf in my closet, a skeleton that haunted me for years. At the time, I was working as a television producer, but I want- ed to make an independent film of my own. I was interested in ex- ploring my Japanese heritage and had started writing down little snippets of family history, stuff that I’d heard from my mom and from my grandmother over the years, and it quickly became clear to me how much I didn’t know. There were these great, gaping holes of missing information, and I felt a deep sense of loss and regret that I could no longer ask my grandparents anything be- cause they were dead. At the same time, I felt an increasing com- pulsion to make something out of what remained. What remained were my grandmother’s bones, the fragments of stories, and the duty I’d been given by my aunt to discharge— and, as we’ve established, I am nothing if not dutiful. But more powerful than that, I had a mandate from the dead. This might seem strange, but that’s what it felt like. As though I had a mandate from my dead Japanese grandparents to engage with the world creatively. My grandfather, in addition to being a haiku poet, was also the first official photographer for Volcano National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii. I had grown up sur- rounded by his landscapes and his words: his black-and-white photographs, painstakingly hand-colored by my grandmother, and his book of poems with their beautiful calligraphed paint- ings and scrolls. When I was little and just starting to write po- ems and take pictures myself, my mother used to say that I was just like my grandfather. She used to shake her head ruefully and Mom examining Grandmother’s bones. From Ruth Ozeki’s film Halving the Bones. MAR 68-77.indd 72 MAR 68-77.indd 72 12/31/07 12:04:57 PM 12/31/07 12:04:57 PM