Grandfather

Grandfather

I’ve heard it said that people experience true love only once in their lives. Maybe that’s true, I can’t say for sure. All the same, there was this one girl …

I had come into San Francisco’s City Lights looking for something by a Japanese author to carry along on my next trip to Tokyo. During an earlier trip Mishima’s Spring Snow had given me an intimate glimpse of Japan’s people; so much so I promised myself never to travel to Japan or anywhere else without a book featuring that country’s people. If you know City Lights then you know there’s a raised area on the street level in the back, next to where the stairs leading up to the poetry section are located. It’s on this raised area where you’ll find the novels written by foreign authors; those that are translated into English.

It was cold in the City. I draped my scarf over my jacket on the back of a chair and turned toward the section where two years earlier I had found Spring Snow. I didn’t see her when I entered; the area was empty. But there she was standing in front of where I wanted to look, gazing at a book she held, apparently spellbound. I knew she was Japanese. I’d spent far too much time in the Land of the Rising Sun to miss that.

Quietly, I moved next to her, browsing the titles. My thinking was, like with Spring Snow, something would jump out at me, and I’d have my book. Still, it was kind of funny standing next to a person in an otherwise empty room, nearly touching and, at least on my part, pretending she wasn’t there. Whenever I saw something that looked interesting and when I reached for it, the girl was inevitably in the way, staring at her book, as if oblivious to my presence. This went on unchanged for some time; she staring at her book, me trying to reach past, looking for something, not sure what.

Then, without warning, she returned the book to the shelf and walked away, leaving the shop through the front door. My eyes stayed with her as she moved passed on the sidewalk outside. Never did she look in my direction or even acknowledge my presence. I pondered this for a moment then turned back to the shelf where the book she had been holding was placed. Her book was slightly askew, like it was meant to be noticed, and my hand automatically retrieved it. Immediately I felt the warmth from where her hands had been placed and the thought excited me. I glanced at the titleWind-Up Bird Chronicle

I could see a tiny-white feather protruding from the pages, and I opened to it …

Between the end of that strange summer and the approach of winter, my life went on without change. Each day would dawn without incident and end as it had begun. It rained a lot in September. October had several warm, sweaty days. Aside from the weather, there was hardly anything to distinguish one day from the next. I worked at concentrating my attention on the real and useful. I would go to the pool almost every day for a long swim, take walks, make myself three meals.

But even so, every now and then I would feel a violent stab of loneliness. The very water I drank, the very air I breathed, would feel like long, sharp needles. The pages of a book in my hands would take on the threatening metallic gleam of razor blades. I could hear the roots of loneliness creeping through me when the world was hushed at four o’clock in the morning.”

I looked over at the window, hoping she’d be there, staring in. But other than a couple wrapped close, the sidewalk was empty. Words from what I just read flashed into my thoughts … a violent stab of loneliness. I ran my fingers over the cover of the book, stopping at the writer’s name Haruki Murakami. I immediately gathered my things, moved to the front desk and paid for the book, departing through the same door as the girl. For a moment I considered walking up Columbus Avenue in the direction she had gone, but I didn’t. Instead, I walked down the hill, heading toward the St. Francis Hotel where I was scheduled to meet a business associate from Tokyo. He was on a stopover on his way to New York and had suggested in an email we meet for a drink at his hotel. As I walked along I remembered his mentioning that he was traveling with someone who was looking forward to meeting me.


An hour later, Mr. Yamaguchi and I were seated in the hotel’s lobby discussing a project we were engaged with when I noticed an exceptionally attractive woman heading our way. She moved with a confidence reminiscent of dancers I had known and I couldn’t take my eyes from her. When she neared, Mr. Yamaguchi stood.

“I wish to introduce my daughter, Kazumi.”

She was the girl from City Lights!

“I am honored to meet you,” she said with a bow.

“As I am with you,” I replied, attempting to return her bow. My eyes, however, were locked with hers, causing me to stumble slightly. Instantly her smile came to my rescue, and we shared our second intimate moment.

Her beauty was startling.

She sat directly across from me. We exchanged a few words about San Francisco before her father and I resumed the conversation. Though I endeavored to be as engaging as possible, Kazumi’s presence was distracting and it took a super-human effort to avoid staring at her. When we finished, Kazumi leaned to her father and whispered in his ear.

Mr. Yamaguchi looked at me and smiled. “This is my daughter’s first visit to San Francisco. She has asked, if it would not be too much trouble, if you could show her a few of the sites of your beautiful city.”

It would be my honor.

True to my word, I showed Kazumi San Francisco. The following day we rode the cable car to the wharf where we ate cracked crab with the tourists, then walked to the Buena Vista Cafe for Irish coffee.

When the moment seemed right, I asked her about City Lights.

An embarrassed smile spread across Kazumi’s face, causing her to look down before answering. “I wanted to share a passage from the book, and you were next to me. I am sorry. I did not know you worked with my father.”

“But you acted like you didn’t even know I was there.”

“I knew.”

Later, we caught a cab that took us up to and then down Lombard Street, arriving at Coit Tower in time to see the setting sun silhouette the Golden Gate Bridge. That night we dined in a restaurant out on Clement. The maître d’ led us to a table in the back beneath a painting of the Golden Gate Bridge with a sun setting across its mid-span. It was as if the maître d’ knew we had just witnessed the same event.

For the next few hours we ate, sipped red wine, laughed, and shared more stories. It was a pleasure listening to her voice, particularly when she spoke of Japan. Her accent gave her words great depth, as if she were doing the voice over in a sensational movie. After we finished dinner, I glanced at the painting on the wall, commenting on how fantastic it was to think that sunsets in America were sunrises for her and her family in Asia. Spurred-on by the thought, I asked if she would tell me the story of her family. Her hesitation before answering hinted that my request had surprised her and she needed a moment to gather herself. She then reminded me that the world she grew up in was very different from the western world and I may not find it interesting. I laughed, saying I could not imagine that possible. She smiled and told me I would be the first person outside of her country to know about her family. I said it would be my honor. Before she could respond, however, a siren caught our attention and we both looked toward the street. An ambulance flashed passed and we listened as the wailing sound made its way across the City. When I looked back at Kazumi, her eyes told me we were about to depart on a journey of our own.

“In my country, it is common for children to be raised by their grandparents. When I was a little girl my grandfather was my best friend. We were together every day and he is forever in my heart.”

“Grandfather, will rain come tomorrow?”

My grandfather’s eyes wandered the horizon before settling on a flock of low flying birds. “Yes Granddaughter, tomorrow will bring rain.”

“How do you know Grandfather?”

“Birds fly low Granddaughter because moisture in the sky brings worms to Earth’s surface.”

“Grandfather, can I touch a dragonfly?”

“Extend your arm Granddaughter when you see a dragonfly. It will land on your finger.”

“Grandfather, were you in the war?”

“Yes Granddaughter, I was in the war.”

Before the war, my grandfather was a mailman, making his deliveries on horseback. As was his custom he rode bareback and barefoot, even in the cold of winter.

“Grandfather, why didn’t you wear shoes?”

“Granddaughter, a horse is more easily controlled with the touch of a foot than a kick from a boot.”

As was their custom, people would wait for my grandfather and his horse in front of their homes. In Japan, receiving a letter is an honor worthy of high respect. Once war came to their land, however, the people would hide from my grandfather and his horse in fear he would deliver a red envelope. A red envelope meant a father or son was called to serve the Imperial Japanese Army and the people were afraid. One day, another man rode a horse along my grandfather’s route delivering the mail. My grandfather had received a red envelope of his own and he was home, preparing to leave my grandmother and their three small children. After training, he was sent to China where he joined many thousands of other Japanese soldiers.

That was all my grandfather told me about the war.

After his death, my grandmother refused to violate her husband’s privacy by speaking of his experiences in the war. Then, when she too was near death and I was next to her, she suddenly sat up, looked me straight in the eye, and finished my grandfather’s war story.

My grandfather’s unit fought many battles with the Chinese. After each, he was so overcome with emotion that he would lie on the ground shaking while his mind raced home to his wife and their three small children. One day, his unit was overrun by Chinese horse cavalry and, with the exception of himself and an officer named Lieutenant Uchikawa, everyone in his unit was killed. My grandfather survived by pretending he was dead, lying motionless on top of the severely wounded lieutenant. Victorious Chinese soldiers moved through the fallen Japanese troops firing bullets into the heads to insure there would be no survivors. Hearing the approaching Chinese soldiers my grandfather thought of my grandmother and their three small children. Then he prepared to receive a bullet in his brain. That was his last thought before he passed out.

After dark, he awoke, staggered to his feet, and looked around. In the moonlight, the dead soldiers lay in clusters, as if they were holding and comforting one another. My grandfather bent down and lifted the severely wounded Lieutenant Uchikawa over his shoulder, then looked to the North Star. He knew Japan was just to the star’s right and so he walked in that direction, carrying his wounded officer.

My grandfather’s movements were methodical, counting each step as one less in the total required to reach my grandmother and their three small children. Approaching a river, a silhouetted movement caught his attention and he slowly lowered Lieutenant Uchikawa to the ground. Automatically his hand retrieved the bayonet hanging from his belt and he crawled toward the riverbank. As he moved, he resisted thinking of my grandmother and their three small children for he knew he could not afford the distraction. Now much closer, he saw movement again and prepared to pounce. Then a familiar sound entered his ears and he relaxed. It was that of a horse hoof stomping the soft dirt, bringing a smile to his face. Draping Lieutenant Uchikawa’s unconscious body over the horse’s back, my grandfather mounted and rode north, just to the right of the North Star.

During daylight, out of fear of being seen by Chinese soldiers, he hid Lieutenant Uchikawa, the horse, and himself in groves of trees they came upon. He traveled only at night when he could see the North Star. As a boy, my grandfather learned from his grandfather how to live off the land and every day and every night in China he put those skills to use. When he approached a farm, he would hide and wait until he was certain the people were sleeping before raiding their vegetable garden. On more than one occasion he thought of the stories he had heard of Chinese eating their dogs and he was thankful he never encountered barking.

One night, while stealing from a farm, a young girl interrupted him. Another soldier might have killed the young girl to keep her from alerting Chinese soldiers. My grandfather, however, was incapable of such an act. Instead, he bowed to the young girl, and fled. The following morning, Chinese bandits captured him and the wounded Lieutenant Uchikawa. When the bandits realized my grandfather and the wounded officer had no possessions of value, they left the unconscious Lieutenant Uchikawa lying face down in the dirt, tied my grandfather to a tree, and ran the horse off.

Three days later, the young girl climbed onto the back of a horse that had suddenly appeared in the open area before her family’s house and, with her father trailing close behind, hung tightly to its mane as the horse galloped toward Lieutenant Uchikawa and my grandfather, who was now on the verge of death himself. Over the next several days, my grandfather was nursed back to health. Though Lieutenant Uchikawa did not regain consciousness, the young girl’s mother managed to get food and water down his throat.

Late one night, the young girl’s father stirred my grandfather from sleep. After thanking the mother and the young girl, who pointed to herself and said her name was Han Shu Ting, my grandfather draped the unconscious Lieutenant Uchikawa over the horse and rode off with the father. Early the following morning, the father stopped and gestured for my grandfather to ride to the top of a nearby hill. The father said something in Chinese that my grandfather interpreted as good luck and then rode off in the direction from which they had come. My grandfather watched until he could no longer see Han Shu Ting’s father, then turned and rode the horse with Lieutenant Uchikawa draped over it up the hill. At the top, he could see a bay with a war ship anchored in the middle. At the ship’s stern, rippling in the breeze, was a Japanese flag.

One month later, my grandfather joined a unit of the Imperial Japanese Army defending the island of Okinawa. For several weeks, he and other Japanese soldiers waited in snake-infested hills for the Americans to arrive in ships on the East China Sea. One morning, an hour before sunrise, he was jarred from sleep by exploding artillery shells. Afraid, he lowered himself deep into his foxhole. All through the day the barrage continued. Then, an hour before sunset, the shells stopped. Slowly my grandfather rose from his foxhole to a scene he would never forget. Hundreds of American ships covered the ocean before him. At that moment, he knew Japan would lose the battle for Okinawa and he began preparing for surrender. Soon, however, the artillery barrage resumed and my grandfather slid back to the bottom of his foxhole.

For the next three days, American shells fell on Okinawa.

When the bombardment finally stopped, my grandfather again rose from his foxhole. He decided it was time to surrender and, wearing only a loincloth and waving a strip of white cloth, he slowly moved down the hill toward the beach. Halfway across an open area that just days before was covered in thick jungle, he stopped, dropped to his knees, and closed his eyes. He was reminiscing the intricacies of his wife’s face when a strong hand grabbed his arm, raised him up, and prodded him down the hill to an area enclosed in barbed wire, where he was ordered to squat with other captured Japanese soldiers.

For the next several days, fighting roared all around and many more Japanese soldiers were deposited into the compound. Finally, late one afternoon, the sound of war ceased. That night, American soldiers carrying large pots of rice entered the compound. Automatically the prisoners, who now numbered in the thousands, formed lines leading to the pots of rice. It took more than an hour for my grandfather to reach the pot at the head of his line. There a soldier handed him a bowl of rice and spoke the only word an American ever said to him.

“Eat.”

When the war ended, the Americans set my grandfather and other prisoners free on the southern island of Kyushu. For three months, he moved through his destroyed country in the direction of the house he shared with my grandmother and their three small children.

As she did every day, my grandmother was tending her vegetable garden the morning my grandfather entered the path leading to their house. Though it had been nearly four years since my grandmother had received word of my grandfather, she was not surprised to see his familiar form. Quietly, she brushed the dirt from her hands and moved in his direction. When she was a few feet from him, she stopped and bowed deeply, saying simply…

“Thank you my darling.”

Unfortunately, not everyone was happy my grandfather survived the war. The village near their house had been decimated by men who did not return and the elders issued an edict ordering my grandfather to honor those who died by committing ritual suicide. My grandfather, however, refused, calling the edict the act of madmen. Outraged by his insolence, the village shunned him, preventing his return to his job with the post office. With three children to feed my grandfather and grandmother wasted no time in turning their land into rice fields. My grandparent’s fortune was their love, their three children, and the land upon which they lived.

When Kazumi finished, all I could say was, “That’s an amazing story.”

“It is my honor to share it with you.”

“You must be very proud to come from such a family.”

Kazumi looked away, revealing her shyness. We sat in silence, allowing my mind to revisit her story. Then a question hit me.

“Kazumi, what about Lieutenant Uchikawa? What happened to Lieutenant Uchikawa?”

Kazumi bowed her head. “Bluesan, again you honor me.”

After the ship left my grandfather on Okinawa, it sailed northward with the unconscious Lieutenant Uchikawa still on board. Eventually it docked near Hiroshima and Lieutenant Uchikawa was transported to a military hospital on the city’s river. For weeks he teetered between life and death. Then, on the morning of June 29th, Lieutenant Uchikawa, without opening his eyes, regained consciousness. His mind was full of swarms of Chinese soldiers charging on horseback and he convinced himself he was dead. It wasn’t long, however, before those thoughts were replaced by love for the person who bathed him while softly singing the same song his mother had sang when he was a child. When he finally opened his eyes, Lieutenant Uchikawa was disappointed at first. The person who sang was not his mother. Rather, she was a hospital nurse dressed in white.

It took a few weeks for Lieutenant Uchikawa to learn to walk again. During this time, the hospital nurse related the story of a Japanese soldier carrying him draped over a horse across China to an anchored war ship.

“What was the soldier’s name?” inquired Lieutenant Uchikawa.

“No one knows,” replied the hospital nurse. “The sailors who brought you here said the soldier was left on Okinawa to fight the invading Americans. While he was on board he spoke only of his wife and their three small children.”

“Nothing else?” insisted Lieutenant Uchikawa.

“Nothing, except something about a horse.”

“Why did they say that?”

“Apparently, as the ship steamed from the bay, the soldier moved to the railing and bowed to a horse standing alone on the shore.”

A few weeks later, on the morning of August 6th, the hospital nurse was assisting Lieutenant Uchikawa on his walk along the river when they stopped in a grove of cherry trees to admire the flittering of a dragonfly. Suddenly, a powerful force ripped through the trees knocking them both to the ground, where they lay stunned and shocked for several minutes. Still weak from his own battle with death, Lieutenant Uchikawa managed to regain his footing then lifted the semi-conscious hospital nurse into his arms, holding her until she regained full consciousness. Together they moved slowly toward the hospital from which they had exited only minutes before. It was unimaginable – the entire structure had been reduced to rubble; there was nothing left. Unaware of what could cause such devastation, they soon joined a stream of people heading north. Two months later, Lieutenant Uchikawa and the hospital nurse reached the spiritual capital of Japan, Kyoto. By then they were completely dependent upon one another, and very much in love.

They married the following day.

Twelve years later …

Lieutenant Uchikawa was reading the newspaper in the house in Kyoto he shared with the hospital nurse from Hiroshima and their two daughters, when an article on the last page caught his attention. A high school student from Tohoku, a region in northeastern Japan, had been awarded the Emperor’s Medal for a story he had written about his father in the war. A picture next to the article showed the student, Shintaro Yamaguchi, standing with his parents and two sisters on their rice farm near a seaside village called, Ishinomaki.

Entitled Never a Hero, the story told of a father of three small children who was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army in early 1942, sent to China to fight in several battles before escaping to Okinawa where, in May 1945, he was taken prisoner by the invading Americans. As a veteran of the wars in China, Lieutenant Uchikawa found the boy’s story interesting. However, it was common for fathers to have fought in China during the war. Then a line near the end of the article sent what he later described as a lightning bolt through his chest.

“The father escaped China with his unconscious lieutenant draped over his horse.”

“Okusan!” he shouted to the hospital nurse who was now his wife. “Please help with my suitcase. I must catch the next train north.”

My grandfather was finishing the day’s work when he saw a man coming up the path leading to his house. At first, he wondered who he was, and then something familiar caught his eye. He leaned the hoe that he had been sharpening on the whetstone against his workbench and walked over to the path. Ten feet from the man, my grandfather smiled and bowed.

“Ah, Lieutenant Uchikawa, I see you survived.”

“So it was you!”

“Lieutenant Uchikawa, you honor me. You were my officer and now you have come to my home. Welcome.”

For the next several days, Lieutenant Uchikawa was received in my grandparent’s house as an honored guest. Over meals of homegrown vegetables, rice, fish, and sake, they laughed and cried, reliving their time in China. When my grandfather talked of Han Shu Ting and her father and mother, Lieutenant Uchikawa reacted in disbelief.

“How could a Chinese family be so kind? We were their enemy!”

“Not to this family. They lived beyond the influence of the war. To them we were people who needed help and they responded instinctively. Had Han Shu Ting not listened to her instincts when the horse came to their home, we would have died in China.”

“Then we owe our lives to Han Shu Ting and to her father and mother.”

“Yes. They are forever in our thoughts.”

At the train station, on the day Lieutenant Uchikawa departed, he told my grandfather he would return one day with his family who would want to extend their appreciation. Six months later, Lieutenant Uchikawa, the hospital nurse from Hiroshima who was now his wife, and their two daughters, stood in front of my grandparent’s house in Tohoku. When Lieutenant Uchikawa’s oldest daughter, eleven-year-old Yoshiko, first saw Shintaro, the high school boy who wrote the award-winning story, she whispered to her younger sister that one day she would marry him. Six years later, Shintaro and Yoshiko became husband and wife.

Nine months after their wedding, I was born.


At the completion of Kazumi’s story, we were both very emotional and we sat at our table holding hands without saying a word. What she had shared with me was the foundation for the two sides of her family and like a dream, I couldn’t let go.

Then the sound of our waiter clearing his throat caught my attention. I looked around the restaurant and realized we were the only customers still there. I quickly called him over, apologized, and asked for the bill.

“No apology necessary. You two seemed so involved in your conversation, I didn’t want to bother you.”

When he brought the bill I paid, leaving an extra large tip, and led Kazumi outside. On the sidewalk, she stopped me. “You must allow me to give you money. My father left money for that purpose.”

“Granddaughter, I would gladly pay many times over if every meal could be so rewarding. Thank you for sharing the story of your family.”

Kazumi smiled, slipped her arm in mine, and off we went into the foggy San Francisco night.

Of course, saying you’ll be a guide and actually doing it are two different things. As the days wore on, my role as a guide began to blur. I had known a number of sensational women over the course of my life, but Kazumi was different. Every word she spoke carried a kindness and sweetness that was so genuine she was sweeping me off my feet. Although I had places to go, I couldn’t get Kazumi out of my mind. That weekend of site-seeing grew into weeks of exploring the California coastline, and those weeks blossomed into thoughts of spending the rest of our lives together.

Alas, not every story has a happy ending. One evening, when I returned to the room we had been sharing, Kazumi was not there. On the table, next to the bed, was a note saying she would always cherish the time we spent together; however, she must return to her life in Japan.

I was frantic.

I didn’t know what to do. At first I just sat on the bed, hoping she’d return. To pass the time I wrote a long letter, telling her how I felt. By the following day I knew she wasn’t coming back, so I posted the letter to Japan. Two weeks later it came back unopened and stamped, Return to Sender. I tried calling. Usually there was no answer. Once, an older woman picked up. I asked in English if Kazumi was available. The woman said something in Japanese, then abruptly hung up. Finally, I called her father at his office in Tokyo. He told me he had been expecting my call, explaining that Kazumi had returned to a life that had been predestined for her. He said he sincerely hoped I would understand. I told him I loved her. He responded with several seconds of silence, and then the line went dead.

All I knew for certain was that a wall had been constructed around Kazumi; one I could not surmount. I countered by convincing myself it was just another dream and like all dreams it was bound to end. But try as I might, my sleep continued to fill with images of her. Though she never wore a kimono in my presence, in my dreams she was always dressed in one. One dream that repeated regularly had her adorned in a bright kimono clutching a parasol with one hand and the arm of a faceless man with the other. Fixated, I would stare at her, hoping she would look my way. But the moment her head began to turn, the image would fade, then disappear. Clearly, my dream world had accepted Kazumi’s return to Japan, and it was nudging me to get with the program and move on. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months. Eventually, the dreams themselves began to fade. By the time I settled into my apartment in Tokyo, I had made peace with never seeing Kazumi again.

D. B. Guidinger © All Rights Reserved 2009