In Memory


oday is my mother’s birthday. She would have been 74. I used to think it was morbid of people to celebrate the birthday of someone who had died. Indeed, there is a proverb in Japanese–and probably came from China–that describes the futility of lamenting over something lost: 死んだ子の歳を数える (Counting the age of a dead child). The sense of the expression is close to “you can’t cry over spilled milk” but with a much more darker edge to it. And yet, on September 9, I can’t help but think of my mother.

My sister laughs, of course. Not because she thinks that it’s wierd, for as much as I miss my mother, she misses her more. But she laughs because she would remind me of how often I had forgotten to send mom something, or even call her on her birthday. As a son, I pretty much sucked. This more or less exposes how much of a spoiled kid I was in many ways. These thoughts remind me of another sad expression: 孝行をしたい時分に親はなし、さればとて石に布団も着せられず (When one wants to be filial, the parents are gone. And of course, one cannot cover the grave stone with a blanket). This suggests that trying to keep your parent warm by covering her grave with a blanket is not an expression of filial piety, that it is too late to show your love with such a meaningless action.

Oh, how this phrase stings.

It rings of Confucianism–you should honor thy parents and we will make you feel guilty trying to convince you–but I’m not sure of it’s source. Like many East Asian expressions, it probably was uttered in China and was transmitted to neighboring lands. But it is an oft used phrase in Japan. When it was spoken in a scene in the film “Tokyo Story” when the mother dies after her kids treated her poorly when she visited them in Tokyo, I said sarcastically, “How dramatic.” My mother, however, told me that this expression was apt, that she had known others who felt this way. I didn’t give much thought to her words back then, but it lingers in my consciousness, dogging me almost daily. As for the movie “Tokyo Story”, I can no longer watch it, as it is the last movie I ever saw together with my mother…

Anyway, I thought I’d post a few senryu by my mother. My father was the senryu teacher, but everyone thought my mother was the wittier poet, something my father grudgingly admitted.

setsujitsu na
tanomi denwa e
ojiki wo shi
With an urgent favor,
I bow humbly
toward the telephone

mado kara no
keshiki mo fukumu
hoteru dai
The scenery
from the window included
— Hotel rates

kousai no
hirosa hanawa no
kazu de shire
the breadth of one’s associations
revealed by the number
of floral wreaths

oshibana mo
aru shiawase na
hi no nikki
Even a pressed flower
becomes a diary entry
of a blissful day

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