We had a very different Christmas this year and I haven’t been able to post anything, despite having read many books. I’ll try to post on those later. The reason is that my mother’s mother, my Grandma Sugiyama, passed away on Christmas Eve. She had a fall on the 20th of December that fractured her pelvis and back, and she was in hospital. During the night on the 23rd of December she suffered a stroke that left her non-responsive on the 24th, and that afternoon she died. We were all saddened by her departure, yet relieved that she would not suffer. I’ve been in a bit of a shocked state because I think I believed she was eternal, even though she was 94 and getting frailer each time I saw her. She had dementia and wasn’t really enjoying life. She couldn’t read, couldn’t even enjoy a TV show because her short-term memory didn’t allow her to retain a plot line. My grief for her – really for myself – is making me so tired. We held the funeral yesterday and I gave the eulogy. I thought I’d share it here for those friends whom I haven’t managed to tell. I couldn’t tell anyone – not at Christmas. But this is my news, and my eulogy for my Grandma. I’ve edited it a bit because I wrote it to read out:
My grandmother, Susan Sugiyama, was a woman I would like to honor today with my memories of her. I was lucky enough to be the only grandchild with whom she had a close relationship. I was the eldest, born at least 7 years before the next grandchild, so I commanded her attention, plus she was a fairly young grandmother with lots of energy for a young child. By the time my sister Erin and our cousins Christa and Michael came along, she was older and had suffered the loss of my gentle grandfather, Hideo Sugiyama. She looked after me a lot when I was young and my mother was establishing her career; I have very fond memories of the time I spent with her. With me, she was always kind and patient. She had a sense of the ridiculous and was always ready to laugh over anything silly.
A lot of the Japanese culture that I retain, as a fourth-generation Japanese Canadian, came from her. She taught me a Japanese children’s song; although I couldn’t understand the words, I loved singing with her. She kept ikura, which is salmon roe, in Imperial margarine tubs and made me special meals. She also boiled shiitake mushrooms which doesn’t smell good to kids and to this day I can’t eat shiitake. (You take the good, you take the bad.) She took me to church with her, to the Japanese United Church on Victoria Drive, where I met other children with similar backgrounds, and ate homemade udon noodles at the church bazaars. On New Year’s Day she would make a special meal for everyone, with futomaki and the inevitable chow mein that is de rigeur at every Japanese Canadian family meal.
When I was 9 our family took a trip to Hawaii and Grandma came along. We shared a hotel room, and as we both got up early, we walked the beach at Waikiki every morning and then Grandma took me to a cafe for breakfast, a different one every day. To this day, coconut syrup and guava juice means Waikiki Breakfast with Grandma. I was reading Anne of Green Gables for the first time, and Grandma allowed me to chatter to her nonstop about this landmark book which she hadn’t read. She fixed my hair with gentle hands. Even though she was not physically demonstrative, we shared hugs and held hands when we walked around Honolulu. I believe that I enjoyed a tenderness from her that her own daughters perhaps did not get; she was dedicated to protecting them, and her war experiences made her fierce in her protectiveness.
My grandmother was shaped by her historical context. In 1915, her mother came to Canada as a picture bride. Grandma was born in 1919, in Steveston. She grew up in Deep Bay, on Vancouver Island, where her father was a fisherman, ranging as far as the Alaskan Panhandle on his small boat. There was no high school in Deep Bay, so Grandma finished school at 13 and began to help her family on the fishing boat, in the cannery, and also working berry picking and farming. As a young woman, she came to Vancouver, to attend sewing school.
Then the war. With the outbreak of war with Japan, like others in the Japanese Canadian community she was sent with her father, her mother and her younger brother Sid, to a prison camp for the duration of the war. In Grandma’s case, this was Lillooet. They did manage to avoid the holding pens of the Exhibition grounds where so many were forced to live in horse stalls; on arrival they lost themselves in the crowds and fled to Steveston where they took refuge with their friends the Arakis before the inevitable removal by train to the interior.
Life in internment camp was very hard; the sense of being shamed, set apart and treated unfairly was, I think, almost worse. The blow to Grandma’s sense of self-worth was hard to recover from. After all, she and her community had been unfairly victimized for nothing more than their ethnicity. It’s difficult today to fully comprehend the pain of this experience, and how it affected our community. In many ways the community was destroyed; we dispersed to all parts of Canada, many reluctant to return to the coast where they felt betrayed by their neighbours. Individually, people suffered immensely. My grandmother spent one winter living on potatoes, taking shelter in a tent. Her family was drastically set back by the confiscation of all their property. The Japanese expression “shoganai” means something like “it can’t be helped”; it’s a verbal shrug and is often invoked to describe a traditional resignation and acceptance of fate, an attitude in Japanese culture which allowed them to move on with their lives.
I didn’t hear my grandmother say “shoganai.” She didn’t speak of the internment at all to me. That tells me the depths of her distress about her experience. I think it was a chapter of her life that she wanted to forget and erase as much as possible.
I think that she became a fighter, for herself and for her family. From Lillooet she moved with her family to Kamloops, where she met my grandfather, and they married in 1944. My aunt Judy was born in Kamloops, my mother in Revelstoke, and my aunt Esther in Vernon, and the family made its way back to Vancouver in 1950, when the Canadian government allowed Japanese Canadians back to the coast, four years after the end of the war. They had to start from scratch; my mother remembers a cabin with dirt floors. Grandma and Grandpa set up a corner store in east Vancouver, which they kept open long hours. They worked hard and their daughters had good educations. They stayed in business until 1973, when Grandpa’s health forced his retirement. He died in 1977 of a respiratory disease, shortly after the birth of my sister Erin. After grandpa died, Grandma began to travel and explore the world. She traveled Europe, South East Asia and Japan, and made many trips to the U.S. also.
Grandma was an expert seamstress and sewed clothing for her family. She loved nice shoes and clothes and was always well turned out. She taught her daughters to dress nicely and I think I can attribute some of my dress sense to my put-together grandmother. She cultivated refinement in her surroundings and her person. She was an expert in Japanese flower arranging and traveled with a bolt cutter and hatchet which she used to glean good specimens for her arrangements. I think that it would have been easy to sink into depression after the internment, or to be consumed with resentment and bitterness. But Grandma, who I never heard say shoganai, nevertheless lived shoganai, working hard to move on with her life and to leave the past behind. Her life was not easy and I think to be a mother fighting for your family’s survival is difficult for your immediate relationships; but even after all that hardship and strife, there was enough softness left inside to give to her granddaughter.
So to me, she was an indulgent and fond grandmother. I never heard a word of bitterness or complaint from her. She showed me much love and kindness. She showed me patience. She taught me how to wash rice for cooking; she told me that every grain lost was a day lost from my life! Well, she lived 94 years so you know Grandma didn’t waste rice.
As Grandma lost her memory these last few years, she often mistook my daughter Mio for me; it took her a while sometimes to connect the adult I am now with the child she used to take care of. These memories of our time together I hope she retained. I certainly will. But if she lost them, then I can only hope that she lost, too, the bitter memories of wartime and the hard years of struggle afterwards.
Our last conversation was about Japan. We visited her in hospital and I showed her pictures of my family’s trip there in October and she reminisced about her last trip. I can’t say for sure what her memory and consciousness were allowing her to experience, but I’d like to think that we made one last connection before she left us. She had developed a tendency to remember and talk in loops of repeating information, but we were kind of on the same track. A few days later, her daughters were with her when she passed; I hope she felt their presence, their love and loyalty to her. I hope we always remember her strength and fortitude, her love of beauty and her keen aesthetic sense, her kindness and love for her family. As a beneficiary of that love and of Grandma’s legacy, I am grateful.
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