500 Years to Ashes: The Death of a Family Line

After cremation bone fragments are transferred by family members into an urn.

After cremation bone fragments are transferred into an urn by family members

Toyo was his idol.  Barely able to speak since the onset of something resembling dementia, her grandson relied on the old woman’s expressive eyes to understand.  With telepathic abilities he knew when she needed a softer floor cushion and dialed the TV to her favorite sport sumo.

“Right Man,” the justified but unjustifiable name given to the heir apparent of the Jinzo House, doted on his grandmother.  He put “Ba-chan” ahead of anyone else; before his parents and his young wife. Toyo, Right said, had raised him while his own mother worked as a school teacher across the valley and had given him everything he’d wanted. In fact he had slept in her futon until 1965 when at the age of seven his parents abruptly ripped him from Ba-chan’s side and took him to the mainland to live.

“More porridge grandma?”  he’d ask holding a spoon of soupy rice sprinkled with salmon flakes and a bit of seaweed up to her thin pursed lips.  Gumming away, the sides of her mouth hitting her high Mongolian cheekbones! Ba-chan simply stared at her mago’s face as if looking into the eyes of a stranger.

One could only imagine what old Toyo was thinking at this twilight stage. The matriarch of Jinzo, the tiny woman who had built the sprawling farmhouse by her inheritance and pocket money she earned packaging medicinal powders as a pharmacy tech in town, was waiting to die but Right Man would not let her.  He pushed her to eat tasteless meals prepared without salt for her own good and sit up when all she wanted was to sleep.

As all of this nursing was occurring, the long-time bride of the home, Right Man’s mother, was waiting in the wings. Resentful of the attention her mother-in-law received from her son, she was hopeful that with Ba-chan’s passing her spoiled child would return to her bosom and shower her with the love she had been denied.  “Surely he will pity me,” Satoko thought, “recalling the times he pushed me around and cursed my existence, he will feel regret.”

But Satoko could never be what Ba-chan was in Right’s eyes. The pedestal he had erected for his grandmother was a monument. Raised by a philandering widower father, dressed in kimono pants and given boyish cuts, Toyo was a spitfire that overcame and raised three children without the help of a man.  Divorce was unheard of back in pre-war days, but with the neighborhood gossip about her shiftless husband already going round what did it matter?  Willing to suffer the penetrating scorn of Odawa Burraku, Toyo did the unthinkable and had her husband stricken from all records. Right normally scorned this type of woman but Toyo was a dragon slayer . . .mythical, because she made his wishes come true when his parents denied him.

No one knew what would become of Toyo’s precious grandson when she passed one hot August day in 1987– four years after everyone expected. During the funeral, the week-long event involving three priests, chanting sessions, and several feasts, Right was sullen but not for their loss as he never prayed to Buddha for her or anyone.  Instead he shuffled around the grounds muttering about the expense of the whole affair.

As the ashes settled into the corner of the formal dining room where the ornate altar for ancestor worship stood, the young man upon which so much hope was placed became withdrawn.  The power he had wielded in putting his grandmother’s needs ahead of everyone else’s was gone. Diminished, the little boy whose grandmother bought him anything he wanted, could not bring himself to forgive anyone he felt had done him wrong. There was never any grey . . .an unintended outcome, a mistake . . .or accident. A wrong to Right was a wrong forever.  And without any family he would care enough to claim, Right Man left the 500-year old estate of Jinzo to rot on the Island of Sado.


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