When Obachan meets me at the train station, she brings with her a newspaper clipping that advertises the museum exhibit she wants to see. Something to do with The Louvre. We board the train and on the way she talks about how she and mom don't get along because their personalities are similar. We walk to Ueno Park, where there are many museums and a zoo. She tells me that she and Yoshi took me to this zoo once when I was two or three, when Mom was sick and couldn't take care of me. She said I loved it.
I think, yes, that is right. Take the two year old granddaughter to the zoo. Take the twenty year old granddaughter to the art museum. It seems right.
I look at the entrance to the zoo and try to remember it, but I don't especially. We pass a park and I try to remember that too but I don't especially. The swings with the hard wooden planks for seats seem familiar, and the iron dome jungle gym, but there could have been many of those all over Tokyo.
The museum exhibit is disappointing. The advertisement had made it seem as though there would be paintings from the Louvre in Paris , but instead there are random artifacts such as Marie Antoinette's toilet kit and a bunch of silver plates and forks that French kings used. What I am more intrigued and excited by are the plaques that explain what all of the artifacts are, because none of them are in English. They are written in Japanese and French, the two languages I can almost read. I am trying so hard to understand them. It's like reading an encrypted code where you recognize every third symbol and all of the others are vaguely familiar.
Suddenly I remember watching a little Japanese boy I used to teach struggling to read his English books in exactly the same way I am struggling now. I remember watching him and feeling his exhaustion after a page, even a few paragraphs. It is the same exhaustion I am feeling now—your brain begins to sizzle, your eyes ache with strain after a few intense minutes of trying to read something you can almost read. It's like when you are working a math problem and you are certain you are so close to finding the solution, but you can't quite solve the final step of the proof.
I get the general gist of each plaque, or I will clue in on one or two key words that reveal something critical about its meaning. I am trying to read the sentences aloud in my head, but because there are so many words I can't read, I feel as though I have my ear pressed against a wall, straining to hear a muffled conversation between two people in which I snatch a few words here and there, but mostly their dialogue is grayed and blurry. The unknown words are like the skips on a record—you can still hear the melody, or your brain tries to fill in the parts of the song that you know but don't hear.
After we make our way through the exhibit, we sit down for a while on some chairs near the entrance because she is tired. She asks what I will do after I graduate and assumes that I will go home for a while before I find a job. She is surprised when I tell her that I probably will not.
I tell her that it's hot and the people there are kind of conservative, and also that in the States it is weird to live with your parents as an adult. She agrees and talks about how there are so many people in Japan who are well into their forties and beyond and still live with their parents—sleeping and eating there for free, and thus pocketing all of their income to spend at their own discretion, and of this she does not approve, and is glad that I don't want to become like that. I agree, and say that I think it is better not to depend on other people in general. She says that she is glad we got the chance to talk about this, because we normally don't get the chance to talk about things like this. I agree. She realizes she doesn't have her scarf, and we go back to look for it. Someone has returned it to the guards, and she claims it and apologizes profusely while laughing at herself.
As we leave the museum, I realize that, while she does a fair amount of talking, she also listens if you have something to say and you speak up about it. I also realize that I never worry about being judged by her, because although she complains about almost everything, she also never holds back when it comes to expressing her opinion. And so, if she disapproves of something about me, I know she will tell me. There is no guessing or wondering. She is blaringly honest.
She doesn't know that this particular quality undeniably makes her an artist: she can't hold the truth back. It just leaks out. Somehow, it fights its way to the surface, no matter what it takes or what else it destroys in the process. She doesn't think she is a "real artist" because she draws and paints from other examples rather than directly from nature, but I disagree. As I am walking behind her through the thicket of people in Akihabara Station, as I follow the bob of her black hair, her slightly hunched back, her steady gait carrying her always straight ahead, I am struck by the strength that permeates her presence.
She has lived four of my lifetimes. She has lived through wars. She has survived on flour and water for days at a time. She has borne two children, suffered the loss of her husband, her only companion. She is the second to youngest of ten siblings, and also the healthiest of those remaining. She has passed a decade alone and passed through many continents.
There is dignity in the mere fact of remaining, of living, of surviving. Perhaps she has not contributed much to the happiness of those around her, perhaps she has given them more grief and criticism than they deserved, and perhaps she has not left the world a much better place than she found it. But she passed through it, swallowed her share of misfortunes and kept walking with pride, no matter what happened.
And she never puts up with flimsy people. You have to stand your ground to talk to her. She demands a lot in the simple exchange of words. She has high expectations, and I can sense them because I project the same standards onto other people too. We are alike that way—we test out people in our minds, poke and prod them to see if they will break easily. We want to see if they will stand tall in the wind the way we have.
words: Lisa Reade, Boston (more)
image: Natalie Abadzis, London (byebyeballoon)
another blueprintreview museum visit
(this time mother and daughter):