Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"Ningyo" by Fran Mackenzie Peacock

New Year’s. It’s the biggest holiday in Japan. There was so much preparation for it.

My aunt Kanaii-chan, and my uncle Tomo-chan were busy pounding sweet sticky rice into mochi, a glutinous rice cake that was grilled and served with soy sauce and sugar or with sweet red beans, and was used in soups, too.

I remember watching them. Kanaii would wet her hands, turn the rice, while Tomo Chan would raise and swing the large wooden mallet, barely missing her head. They had some kind of rhythm going, wet, turn, swing, pound, over and over again, until the mochi was what my grandmother considered the right consistency.

My mother and other aunts would divide up the mochi, and smooth it into round mounds of different sizes. My grandmother would talc the mochi to keep it from drying out. The first mochi in the house went to Buddha. Nothing in the house was ever consumed without the first piece going to Buddha.

My grandmother, my Obachan, was always up at 4:30 every morning to start breakfast. Rice was always cooked fresh, and as soon as it was done, she would get the brass cups in her home temple and give Buddha his offering. She would then smooth her kimono under her knees and kneel. Two sticks of incense in the holder and three gongs on the brass bowl, then three claps of her hands, and she bent her head and said her morning prayers.

“Namyo ren se yo,”she would repeat that over and over like a song. All these years later, I still hear her sing-song prayer voice.

Breakfast on the table, she would wake my Ogichan, my grandfather.

I could hear him coming down the hall, his footfalls shaking the tiny house.

After he had sat down, the rest of us could sit and eat. Breakfast consisted of hot rice and a raw egg, which was cooked by the rice.

Once everything was cleared away, Obachan turned to me.

“This is Shogatsu, New Year’s. Time to fit you into your kimono.”

I had never worn one. I was six and we had just returned to Japan from the States a month before.

My mother made me sit down. She combed my hair, pulling and brushing with such vigor that I thought my scalp was going to come off.

“Ow, ow, ow!” I cried. She was pulling so hard that I had to struggle not to get pulled off the chair.

“The hair needs to be smooth,” my mother said as she pulled and twisted my hair into an acceptable bun, weaving a colorful scarf through it.

Next, I was stripped down to my underwear. It was cold in the house. Japanese homes have no central heating, just kerosene heaters warming particular rooms, and the rooms not used very often generally don’t get a heater. At night, our futons were piled high with heavy quilts. Before we went to bed, my grandmother would run a bed warmer filled with burning charcoal to take away the chill.

First thing to go on was a thin silk under jacket. Not that it gave much protection, but it was something against the cold.

Next, I was told to sit down and put on the tabi, which were socks, but they separated the big toe from the others on the foot. The tabi had little hooks that had to be pushed in to give it a smooth look.

I stood up and was instructed to stand still with my arms straight out.

The under slip went on, tied with a silk belt. At least I had something else on.

My mother looked at me. “If you need to go to the bathroom, go now, because you won’t be able to later.”

I think there was a look of pure panic on my face. Not be able to go to the bathroom? What if I really had to go? I took off and did my business.

When I came back, my aunt Katsumi brought in a large box. She knelt down on the floor and, with great ceremony, opened the box.

Inside was the most beautiful garment I had ever seen. It had a white background, but the explosion of flowers in pink, blue, gold silver and green were painted onto the silk kimono.

“Kimonos are hand-painted and handmade,” my mother said. Did I detect a hitch in her voice? I think she was trying hard not to cry.

Obachan lifted the kimono out of the box and placed it on me. The sleeves were long and elegant, longer than the adult kimonos I had seen my aunts and grandmother wear.

I felt like one of the maiko-sans that I had seen when we had gone into downtown Kyoto. Maiko-sans were the apprentice geishas. They wore long flowing kimonos with long sleeves, and long obis. When they walked, they wore platform getas, the wooden shoes that were carved so make the forward motion a little easier. Maiko-sans were so beautiful, I wanted to be like them, but my mother said that the training to be a geisha was long and hard. Usually, the training started at age six. Besides, I was gaijin, not full Japanese, a foreigner, and an outsider.

Obachan started doing the wrapping and tying of the kimono. My aunt Teruchan brought out another box. Inside, a long gold and silver obi, with flecks of red splashed through it. My grandmother lifted it out, and my mother said, “Now, don’t breathe. We need this to fit as tight as possible.”

I took a deep breath, and my grandmother tied the obi around my waist, almost crushing my rib cage.

“Mommy,” I gasped. “I can’t breathe, Mommy.”

“I told you. Keep your arms out.”

Obachan put the decorative bow on the back, and secured it with ties. My aunts started putting the kanzashi into my hair. These are the combs with flowers or little metallic bits that hang down over the side of the forehead that shine and sparkle.

My mother put touch of lipstick on my mouth. Pink, the color of innocence.

The women pushed me out to see my grandfather. Walking was an effort because the kimono was so restrictive, so I shuffled over to stand in front of my Ogichan. He looked down at me, not cracking a smile.

“Bow,” my mother whispered.

He was the patriarch of our family. I was being presented. I bowed from the waist.

Ogichan bowed back, but not deeply. More of a nod, really. He turned, picked up two boxes, a small thin one and then a larger one.

I opened the smaller one first. He had gotten me a fan to put into my obi. The second box contained a wooden paddle, but the top was decorated like a Japanese doll. I gave him a puzzled look.

“It is New Year,” he explained. “This is your hagoyta. You play with it.”

I bowed to him again. Japanese people don’t hug or kiss. It isn’t proper. That much I had learned in my month here.

After I had left my grandfather, my mother explained the game to me. “You play it like badminton,” she said.

“In this? Mommy, I can’t move.”

“I know. It’s only for a couple of days.” Mom gave me a smile.

My grandfather came out with his camera. He called to me, motioning me over.

My mother told me to go outside. We did, and for the first time, I wore my zoris, a formal shoe for kimonos. I shuffled my way to the front of the house, where my grandfather positioned me so he could take my picture.

He rambled off something, and I looked to my mother for translation.

“He said you look like a little Japanese doll. He called you a ningyo.”

I looked at my Ogichan. He rarely smiled, and he was very stern. But I could see at that moment, he was very proud. I was his ningyo.
Fran MacKenzie Peacock was born in Japan and grew up in Kyoto, in the American south, and in upstate New York. She’s now settled in Ancaster, Ontario, with her son, husband and two dogs. Her other son decided to be nice to her. He moved out and created his own family, giving her the little girl she never had with her grand-daughter Morgan. Fran has won the title of National Fleet Manager eleven times for Chrysler Canada and been a master member for 15 years. Sounds dirty, doesn't it? Now, she has gone back to her first love: writing.

Note: For information about Brian Henry’s upcoming writing workshops and classes see here.

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