Today is the Isshuuki, Japanese for the first anniversary of my grandmother’s passing at 111, or 113, as the Buddhist priest declared her. She was one of the oldest people in the world, and few of us get to live that long. As I reflect on her life, I am struck at the injustice in how much she was held back from doing what she was capable of doing because she was a girl. She excelled not only in academics but also impressed the boys by how far she could kick a ball. Her dream to be a doctor was thwarted not by lack of intellect but by discrimination. When she boldly confronted her father about his gambling, drinking, and philandering, he scolded her for her impudence but later revealed his true feelings, that she was the child who was most endowed with the qualities he desired in an heir. “You should have been born a boy,” he told her as he was denying her the rights that would have been hers had she been male.
Grandma was also a forgiving soul. When my mother told her she wanted to marry a former enemy, an American, obaachan reassured that his country or race didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he respected my mother and Japanese people. To obaachan, people were to be judged by their character, not by things like their skin color. Even though they couldn’t legalize the marriage, obaachan let my father move in and live there, and embraced the three half-breed grandchildren that followed with open arms and open heart. She loved us so madly that when they told her we were all going to leave Japan, she begged my parents to please leave one of us for her. They refused, saying that life would be too hard for us mixed blood kids, but obaachan reassured them that she would protect us.
When I returned many years later to live with her, she welcomed me as a native son, nurtured my troubled spirit and allowed me to absorb a little of her tremendous seimeiryoku, life energy like no one I have ever met. This was the turning point in my life, the time that I discovered a sense of purpose and became more authentic, compassionate, and responsible. I became inspired to give of myself to others in the same way that she gave of herself to me.
Her decision to live her last years in old age home in Japan was motivated by a desire to do what would cause the least trouble for her loved ones. Her loyalty to family and sense of responsibility was embedded in what Japanese call Giri and Ninjo. Her last years, and perhaps her whole life was an expression of a way of being that was hers till the end—finding meaning in giving, in sacrificing her own individual desires, for the greater good of all in the family. Avoiding Meiwaku, burdening others, gave her life meaning as she was contributing to the happiness of those she loved and who loved her.
On what was to be their final visit, Obaachan parted graciously with my wife and older sister. They had emotionally apologized for not visiting more often, but Obaachan just waved her hand as if to say, “No need to worry,” then putting her hands together in gassho and bowing, said simply, “Arigatou.” This simple expression of thanks is the way I remember her and the way she taught me to live with acceptance and gratitude.