Mother's Day, 1980
A memoir excerpt
By Susan Ito
“Masaji! You going to collect the lunch money today?” Fred Yuzawa corners my father in the church stairwell, the gray metal cashbox in his hands. Dad is usually Mr. Dependable, Mr. Good-with-Money. He takes the peoples’ two dollars, trading the money for a plastic chip they pass through the kitchen window. A chip buys udon in a cardboard bowl, a banana and their choice from the cookie tray. And unlimited green tea poured by pre-teen girls swinging brass kettles.
“Not today, Fred. Mother’s Day, you know. I’m taking Kiku and the family out.” My father holds his black overcoat in the crook of his elbow to avoid crushing the white carnation on the lapel. Everyone is wearing a carnation today: red for people with living mothers, white for dead ones. Mr. Fujii, a florist, brings them every year. He stands in the church vestibule with boxes of carnations, and a little tin container of long pins with fake pearls. Red or white? he says. What he really means is dead or alive? This morning I almost said, I’ll take two. Two red ones. Two mothers.
“That’s nice of you, Mas.” He doesn’t want his wife Emi to hear; then she won’t be happy with the Mens’ Fellowship lunch. “Well, have a good time.”
I’m staring at the back of my father’s nearly-bald head. The tips of his ears are bright red, the way they get when he drinks alcohol. I wonder if they also blush when he lies. Or when he omits the truth. He didn’t tell it all just now. When he said he was taking us to lunch, he left out the part about meeting my birthmother, Fumie Shimizu Scott, for the first time.
He turns to me, with his all-business face on. “Go ahead, Sus, go get Mommy and Nana’s coats. I’ll fetch the car.”
Yes sir. The basement is packed, and it takes me a while to maneuver through the sea of short little bodies to get to the coat rack. Part of me is saying hurry hurry. Rush so you can see her. The quicker you move, the quicker you will see her again. And part of me is holding my shoes hostage to the floor, dragging my feet as if over wet sand. That is the part that wants to say wait. Let’s wait. A long time. The part of me that can’t imagine them in the same room together, doesn’t want to imagine it.
I grab my mother’s plain tan raincoat and several metal hangers clatter to the floor. I bunch it up angrily underneath my arm. Why did she have to bring this old coat? Why couldn’t she wear something modern, something flattering? I don’t know what Fumie is going to be wearing, but I know for certain it won’t look anything like this. I find my grandmother’s old wool button-down, and rush back up the stairs.
Nobody speaks in the car. My father drives up Seventh Avenue until we get to Osaka-ya. Our normal Mother’s Day tradition is to head down to Chinatown for dim sum, but this year is different. Fumie has been in New York all week, working at the Gift And Housewares Show. It has been long years since my father worked this show in Manhattan, but he knows it well. “I can’t believe she’s a rep!” he’s exclaimed, over and over. “Small, small world.”
We pull up alongside the narrow restaurant, its simple painted sign, the window display filled with plastic models of sushi, udon bowls, donburi and little black cauldrons of shabu-shabu. Fumie is standing outside in a beige trenchcoat, her black hair lifting a little in the wind.
My heart skitters against my ribcage. “There she is.”
She’s got a dead serious expression on her face, stern almost, her hands in her pockets, her purse on a long strap over her shoulder. I push the button on the car door and the window buzzes open.
She turns toward my voice and her face breaks open; her smile dazzles. She clips over to the curb and beams into the car. “Why, hello! Hello! Mrs. Ito! Mr. Ito!” They are all bowing, from the neck up, saying hello, hello. I feel like I’m smiling the weirdest, fakest smile as their voices swirl together. The car doors swing open and Fumie rushes to take my grandmother’s arm and help her out of the car.
“Obasan, komban-wah, ah, genki-desu!” My grandmother’s jaw drops and her brown eyes go liquid.
“Ah! Nihongo!” She speaks Japanese! I think in my head, ten points. Ten big ones.
My father has driven off, headed for the underground parking garage. We stand there, the four of us, watching him dissolve into the mosaic of city traffic.
“Well,” Fumie says, her voice chipper, “It seems they have a table inside all ready for us!” She sounds like a camp counselor, or a cheerleader.
My mother’s brow furrows. “I hope you haven’t been waiting a long time.”
“Oh, no. Not at all.” Fumie opens the door and ushers us in, my grandmother first. It is as if she owns this restaurant, as if it is she, and not we, who are the New Yorkers, the hosts. Emotions tumble through me like pinballs, ricocheting here and there. She’s so cool. She’s so beautiful. She’s so impressive. Is she showing off? Nana likes her! Mom is nervous. Mom is very, very nervous. I can tell because my mother is slapping herself in jerky rhythm, responding to some unheard song, slapping at her hip through her raincoat, like she’s trying to get a horse to gallop.
The hostess, clad in a flowered kimono, shows us to a booth in a box, the walls made of shoji screen. I’m frozen at the entrance to the little room, staring at the long wooden bench seats with the flat indigo pillows to sit on. Three pillows on each side. How will we arrange ourselves?
Fumie extends her arm. “Obasan. You first.”
My grandmother clambers awkwardly into one of the long seats. A pillow slides off the polished wood and falls underneath the table.
My mother groans. “Mom, careful! For Pete’s sake.”
Fumie’s voice is smooth, soothing. “It’s all right. It’s fine.” She looks at me. “Susan, I’m sure you want to sit next to your grandmother.” I nod, robotic. Whatever you say.
“And Mrs. Ito…”
“Kiku. Please.” My mother’s face is perspiring. She has just emerged from under the table, holding the cushion. She huffs and tosses it into the booth.
“Kiku. Of course. You and Masaji will sit together, yes?”
“Sure, sure.” My mother slides in opposite me, and then Fumie sits next to me. There are three of us on our side of the table, and my mother is alone. I feel seasick, as if our little boat was going to tip, and my mother lifted clear out of the water, not enough weight on her end to even wet the bottom of the boat.
The waitress hands out menus along with a basket of hot towels. We strip off the plastic wrapping and murmur into the heat.
“Oh, this is my favorite part,” says Fumie.
I’m glad, actually, that she is sitting next to me, because it makes it harder to stare at her. I can see her in my periphery though, her perfect haircut, swinging against her chin. She is wearing a pink suit, soft as flower petals, with a black turtleneck underneath. And one of those big art-museum necklaces, the centerpiece a ceramic square with squiggles of deep pink and gold, on a chain of heavy beads like berries.
I look across the table at my mother. Her raincoat is almost the same color as Fumie’s, but she doesn’t look glamorous or stylish in it. She looks like Columbo, rumpled and crooked. I realize that she’s the only one who is still wearing her overcoat, that the waitress has taken the others and hung them on hooks.
“Mom,” I hiss. “Your coat!” Minus ten points. Doesn’t know how to act in restaurant.
“Nah, I’m gonna keep it on. I’ve got a chill.”
She’s being stubborn on me. She’s doing it on purpose. My nostrils flare out for a moment. That’s great. Look like a slob. Just great. I bury my face in the menu and decide that I will not look at my mother for the remainder of the meal.
My father bustles up to the table, pulling off his overcoat. “Hi, hi, sorry I took so long.”
My mother’s eyes squint in annoyance. I know that she is about to say, “What took ya so long?” but then a voice chirps next to me. “No problem!”
He sits down next to my mother and picks up a menu. “So. What looks good?”
I tell him I want chicken teriyaki. He nods and glances around the table. My grandmother has not even opened the menu. She just looks inquiringly at my mother, who says, “They have oyaku donburi, Mom, you like that. Or sukiyaki. Long time since you’ve had that.” It is always like this. My grandmother, after being here since 1920, can still barely read English. She relies on my mother to translate, but it is never a full translation. My mother skims the entire thing and then hands Nana two or three choices. I grit my teeth. I want to say, read the whole thing, tell her all her choices, not just a few things you think she should eat.
“Fumie? What do you like?” My father glances at her over his menu.
“Oh! It’s so hard to choose. We don’t have good sushi out in the Midwest, so when I come here, it’s such a treat. Well, this is one of your favorite spots, right? Why don’t you just order for me. Whatever you pick will be delicious, I’m sure.” She closes the menu with a big, twinkly smile and hands it across the table.
My father couldn’t be happier. This is his element, ordering food for people. He loves showing off like this. He’s always the one to put in the final order. I’ve seen him do this, at a table of twenty of his customers. He asks each person what they want, down to their salad dressing, their side orders and drinks, and then reports it all back to the waiter, pointing with a stubby finger. “The young man in blue will have the filet, done medium rare, with Thousand Island on the salad. Then his wife, here, will take the snapper. It’s fresh today, isn’t it?” It’s one of his best tricks. Amaze and astound your friends! He does, and in the twenty years I’ve been alive, I’ve never seen him make a mistake.
We unsnap our chopsticks and reach across the table for our favorites. I watch Fumie dissolve a dab of wasabi in her little dishful of shoyu. “Oh. I can’t tell you. What a treat this is! Not since I was little, growing up in California…”
“Oh! You’re from California?”
“Originally, yes. But then we were in camp, and after that…” she waves her o-hashii in a swishing movement. “The Midwest.” She puts on a bright face again. “That was the end of good sushi!”
My father puts down his chopsticks. “Ah. You and your family were in camp?” His face is somber.
“Yes. Amache. That’s what we called it. The government name was Granada, though. In Colorado.”
“Must have been rough.” There’s an unfamiliar heaviness in his eyes. My grandmother is leaning across the table to my mother. “What? What say?” and my mother says roughly,
“Camp. She was in camp.” Nana sits back, her hand over her mouth, shaking her head.
Fumie shrugs. “We were just kids. It wasn’t so bad. A lot worse for our parents though. The isei had a hard time.”
My father nods. “A lot of guys in my company, you know, in the 442, had family in camp.”
My eyes blast open. Now my father is going to go off on his war story. Go for broke. Not again! Not the hundred pound radio!
I nudge him with my foot under the table. “Dad.”
But she’s encouraging him. “You were in the 442nd? Oh my.”
“Yeah, yeah, over in Italy. It was something over there…” and he’s off. There he goes. The radio. The hardship. Selling the cigarettes my mother sent to him overseas. I’ve heard it all, a million times.
I glance across the table at my mother and we share an eye-roll. How many times have we heard this? She smirks a little, satisfied that I’m just as bored. We tune out my father’s words, his animated gestures. The only one listening to him is Fumie. Is she just being polite? She punctuates his story with “Is that right!” and “Reaa-lly.” And he’s eating it up.
He finally finishes with a big flourish. “And that was that.” He looks around the table. “Oh! Everyone is all finished eating except me!” He dives into the cast iron bowl of his shabu-shabu, fishing out a limp piece of radish.
Chewing, he says, “Susan tells us you’re a manufacturer’s rep.”
“Yes. Actually I sell promotionals. Mainly Frisbees. Isn’t that silly?”
Of course he doesn’t think it’s silly. This is his business. And they go back and forth, talking about their territories, their merchandise, their lines, the different shows where they represent their wares.
Half an hour has passed since any of the rest of us – my mother, Nana, or myself – have opened our mouths. It’s just Dad and Fumie. They’re sparkling at each other, waving their chopsticks around. They’re old friends. I glance over at my mother. She is staring dully at the table. She has nothing to add. What would she say about her job at my elementary school? “Oh! I specialize in milk money! I’ve just learned to operate a Xerox machine. It’s a wonderful improvement over those messy old mimeographs.”
Finally, the plates are empty but for a few sticky grains of rice. “That was just delicious,” Fumie says. “Susan, could you excuse me? I’ve got to go to the Ladies’ Room.” I stand up to let her out and then take my seat again, biting my lip.
They all lean forward, huddling over the table, and say complementary things. My father: “Smart lady. Seems to have a good head on her shoulders.” My mother: “Very nice. She seems very nice.”
Nana claws me on the sleeve with her arthritic hand. “Your mother,” she mutters, jerking her chin in the direction of the restrooms. “Kirei, neh? Very pretty lady.”
My mother! A huge flush rolls over my skin. I look across the table. My mother—Kiku—is drumming her nails on the table. I don’t respond to Nana. But inside I’m screaming. Don’t call her that. She’s not. Or she was, but she isn’t anymore. I’m so confused. Because wasn’t it just two days ago, when I was visiting Fumie in the Plaza Hotel, that I was chortling those same words to myself: My mother! My mother! Hadn’t I been swooning myself, when she ordered room service and we sat on her bed, eating french fries, looking out the window at Central Park. Didn’t I say to myself, this is the best moment of my life. I’m with my mother.
I stand abruptly. “I have to go obenjo, too.”
Fumie and I pass each other in the narrow, steaming hallway that smells of rice and salty soy sauce. She puts her hand on my forearm. “Your parents are wonderful. They’re absolutely wonderful. You are so, so lucky.” She beams her twinkly little smile at me and turns back to the dining room.
I sit in the small windowless toilet room, my clothes on, my head in my hands. They like each other. This seems to be going well. It’s going well, isn’t it? Then why do I feel like my chest is burning up? Why do I want to snap half a dozen flimsy chopsticks between my hands? Why do I want to scream, and scream, until my throat bursts into flames?
My father pays the bill, over Fumie’s weak protests, and we walk over to Columbus Circle. My father snaps a photograph of the three of us, me between Fumie and my mother, in front of the stone fountain. Say cheese. A daughter between two mothers. On Mothers’ Day Sunday. The trees are putting out their buds, tenderly, all around Central Park.
We drive Fumie back to the Plaza, and she says she’ll get her luggage from the bellman and wait for the airport limousine.
“Oh, no,” my father says. “We won’t hear of that. We’ll drive you out to LaGuardia.”
“So much trouble!” she says. But she’s smiling.
“Not at all.”
She chatters with my father all the way to the airport. My mother and I slouch against the doors in the back seat, my grandmother between us.
“My children would never forgive me if I didn’t come home for Mother’s Day,” Fumie says. “They didn’t get to do their traditional breakfast in bed, but they say they have something else planned.”
I have never once given my mother breakfast in bed. I slump against Nana and stare out the window at the gray brick apartment buildings, burnt looking from decades of soot and grime. I’m feeling tired, so tired. Her children. My mother. The whole thing is dizzying. Your mother. Very pretty lady.
"Well, Fumie, you have a good flight." My father heaves her suitcase out of the trunk. Everyone is smiling now except for me. They all embrace and exchange niceties. My grandmother bows, over and over, her shy smile. You don’t need to bow, Nana. She isn’t royalty.
“So nice to meet you.”
“So nice to meet you, too.”
And then my father clears his throat, like he’s going to make an announcement. “Well, we really do need to thank you, for turning this little girl over to us. We sure do love her.” He coughs. My mother nods, not saying anything.
Bright tears spring into my eyes. It is the first that anyone has mentioned anything about It, the odd triangle of us.
And then Fumie says, “Oh no, I have to thank you. For taking such good care. She has been very, very lucky.”
She turns to me and says it again. “You’ve been extremely lucky.”
Lucky. They all look at me, their faces shiny with pride and maybe a little bit of envy at my tremendous luck. Luck is when your number gets called at the church carnival and you get to walk home with a stuffed bear that is as tall as your grandmother. This doesn’t feel like luck.
Fumie rummages in her purse and for a split second I wonder if she is looking for something to give me, a present. But she pulls out a long folder that says Northwest Airlines: her flight ticket. She is leaving. Leaving. She is satisfied that I am with good people, nice Japanese people, nisei like her, who eat sushi and drive an expensive car. She is leaving me. To be with her children.
She disappears into the revolving door at the airport entrance, waving and smiling.
“Goodbye” is sitting in my mouth, but it is heavy and thick as a stone. I can’t swallow it, I can’t say it. It just sits on my tongue, growing denser, larger, until it reaches down my throat, up through the back of my nose and I realize I can’t breathe. I rush through the spinning glass doors, crying, gulping, gasping out for air. I blink through thick water at the crowd, the hundreds of people jostling their bags, but she’s disappeared from sight. I crouch behind a large column, my face against the cool concrete, and watch my parents walk by, calling my name.
“Susan? Susan!” Have you seen her? Where is she? Even my grandmother walks slowly down the length of the terminal.
I weep with a grief that bangs my teeth together. I hide from my parents for half an hour, turning my body slowly around the column so that I stay out of their sight. Finally, after the orange disc of the sun sinks beyond the runway, I creep out from behind the pillar, my face puffy with shame. They have been sitting patiently in a row of bolted-down plastic chairs. We go out to the car and drive home without saying anything.
was co-editor of A Ghost At Heart's Edge: Stories & Poems of
Mother's Day, 1980 is an excerpt from her memoir-in-progress. Another excerpt, A Small Crime, is also available on VerbSap.
Photos courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.
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