Friday, July 1, 2011

the taste of summer

I think of summer, and I think of sweet white stickiness in my mouth.

When I was little, my family would visit my mother's family in Yamagata every summer during the obon period. Obon is a week in mid-August that I liked to compare to Dia de Los Muertos when explaining to my American friends. In this week the dead are supposed to come visit us, and, though we don't commonly play music or dance, we do different things to welcome the spirits depending on where in Japan we live.

In my mother's hometown, they make "vehicles," which are horses and cows, by attaching sticks to cucumbers and eggplants as their legs, and provide a feast to welcome the spirits after the long journey back home.

I really wanted to participate in the making of vegetable animals, but because my parents both worked, our family usually arrived just in time for the visit to the graveyard. Upon arrival, we would see the cucumber horses and eggplant cows proudly lining up on the table, waiting to bring the dead people on their backs, and a pile of dango (mochi dumplings) on a huge plate.

Someone, usually my aunt, would open cans of fruit and pour them out into a big glass bowl. She then threw in the pile of dango, all of it, so the white balls would float in the sweet syrup like people in a very crowded pool on a scorching day. We all hopped into cars, my grandparents, my two aunts and uncles, my three cousins, my parents and me, all of us, and drove up to the graveyard. When we got there, my aunt would pull out white rectangular plates and, with a ladle, serve some dango and fruit in each. That was the "feast" for the dead family members, and because there were so many of them, only a little of the sweet dessert remained after filling up every plate. But my aunt always fed the remaining few dango balls to me. Or maybe not. Maybe it was shared among my cousins and me. All I remember is how I loved playing with the tender sweetness on my tongue, and how I wished I would get to eat more than three or four.

When I told my mother this is what I think of when I think about my summer memory, she said, her eyes slightly wide, "Grave dango? Is that the only thing you remember?"

Of course, that's not the only thing I remember.

I remember playing school with my cousin, who was like my big sister, eating grapes on the porch. I remember her saying, "Teacher, don't spit the seeds around, please," and both of us cracking up. I remember the bbq in the yard, a bunch of grown-ups drinking beer while we kids ran around chasing each other. I remember driving into the mountains with the uncles and meeting monkeys that came so close to our car it sort of scared me. I remember that pond in the yard where I found water striders. I remember those tiny creatures making me think I could walk on the water, too. I stepped on one of the lotus leaves that covered half of the pond and fell into the water.

That was the summer in Yamagata, but I didn't have many like that. By the time I was seven or eight, we would stop our regular visits because my parents were too busy arguing to travel together. That would distance me from my cousins so when we met again years later, we were more of polite strangers than the sibling-like pals who used to laugh and scream together. For a long time, as the memories seemingly faded, I wouldn't even realize I valued the time I had spent in that small countryside town.

But I did. I cherished and looked forward to it, because it had everything we didn't in the one-bedroom apartment in Kanagawa my parents and I lived in--the constant buzz of chattering and laughing and scolding, footsteps running around everywhere in the house, the smell of the hole-in-the-floor toilet and other kids who would find as much joy in spitting around grape seeds as me. I just never really acknowledged it, let alone saying it aloud, because a child was powerless and it wouldn't change things, and, because of that, it would make me sad to say it.

My cousin taking me to a walk on a field

After over twenty years, I still feel a bit sad when I think about the fact that the summers I loved were lost and that I didn't even consciously admit I loved them when I had them. But they were there, and I feel more lucky than sad when I think of the taste of the syrupped dango and waves of sentiment and nostalgia come over me, along with the memory of the suffocatingly hot and humid air of Japanese summer that left the skinny legs and arms of my cousins and me uncomfortably sticky.

 I wrote this to participate in the Summer Matsuri hosted by Loco at Loco in Yokohama.
Thanks a lot for the opportunity, Loco!