She remembers the rows of dried persimmons that once hung from the eaves of her mother’s house in Berkeley. They were the most beautiful shade of orange. She remembers that your father loves peaches. She remembers that every Sunday morning, at ten, he takes her for a drive down to the sea in the brown car. She remembers that every evening, right before the eight o’clock news, he sets two fortune cookies on a paper plate and announces to her that they are having a party. She remembers that on Mondays he comes home from the college at four, and if he is even five minutes late she goes out to the gate and begins to wait for him. She remembers which bedroom is hers and which is his. She remembers that the bedroom that is now hers was once yours. She remembers that it wasn’t always like this.
I suppose it’s hard to write a story about dementia that isn’t heartbreaking, but this one has the distinction of being exquisitely beautiful as well. This story was included in the “Horror” issue of Granta, and when you think about it, nothing could be more appropriate.
When I read Otsuka’s The Buddha In The Attic earlier this year, I called it “brilliant and stunning, a wonder to read both on the story and discourse level.” I hate to repeat myself, but this story also qualifies on all counts. And again, as I did with Buddha, I have to acknowledge that some readers will be put off by the style: the repetition of what the woman does and does not remember, the narrative point of view (I don’t even know what to call it; the best I can do is compare it to Rick Moody’s “Boys” and call it third person via second person; does that make it sixth person?), the nontraditional structure. But it’s still a story: just look how much information about this family is conveyed in that paragraph quoted above.
Otsuka’s gift is finding gloriously lyrical ways to tell stories. Here she juxtaposes humor (a little motherly matchmaking in the supermarket) and tragedy (“She remembers that she is forgetting. She remembers less and less every day”), present and past, what is remembered and what is forgotten, while filling in where this family has come from as she moves forward in time, the progression marked most dramatically by such mundane things as the President’s dog, red dust, and the long nose of a baby daughter long dead.
Try reading the story aloud. Each paragraph has a rhythm, a cadence. But it’s still a story, about an unnamed woman – a child at the start of WWII, when her father was taken away by the FBI and her family was interned in the desert – and the living oblivion she now faces, as told by the loving, horrified daughter helplessly witnessing her decline.
She remembers her mother killing all the chickens in the yard the day before they left. She remembers her fifth grade teacher, Mr. Martello, asking her to stand up in front of the class so everyone could tell her goodbye. She remembers being given a silver heart pendant by her next door neighbor, Elaine Crowley, who promised to write but never did. She remembers losing that pendant on the train and being so angry she wanted to cry. It was my first piece of jewelry.
She was in love with one man, but married another when the first jilted her. She had four children, but only three survived –
She remembers another doctor asking her, fifty years ago, minutes after the first girl was born and then died, if she wanted to donate the baby’s body to science. He said she had a very unusual heart. She remembers being in labor for thirty-two hours. She remembers being too tired to think. So I told him yes. She remembers driving home from the hospital in the sky-blue Chevy with your father and neither one of them saying a word. She remembers knowing she’d made a big mistake. She does not remember what happened to the baby’s body and worries that it might be stuck in a jar. She does not remember why they didn’t just bury her. I wish she was under a tree. She remembers wanting to bring her flowers every day.
– one of whom is the daughter, the “you” of the story, who looks in on her periodically, presumably forming the structure of the sections we read here.
One of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s is the loss of recent memory, while distant ones stay intact. So this woman remembers clearly the events of her youth, even the Latin she excelled at in school: Diem Perdidi – “I have lost the day.” But she forgets how to make coffee, how to get up from a chair.
She remembers that the first time she and your father took you to Japan to meet his family you were eighteen months old and just beginning to speak. She remembers leaving you with his mother in the village while she and your father travelled across the island for ten days. I worried about you the whole time. She remembers that when they came back to you, you did not know who she was, and for many days afterward you would not speak to her, you would only whisper in her ear.