Green Hills Literary Lantern



The Things I Didn't Know


The year I turned twelve, my mother took us out of school in November to take my baby sister’s ashes from Chicago to Tokyo. It was my mother, my nine-year-old brother, my six-year-old sister, and me who went. My father did not come. A tenure-track professor could not take time off in the middle of the semester.

At the Tokyo airport was my aunt. Outside was a car. In the driver’s seat of the car was a man with hair full of pomade.

“This is my friend Hamada-san,” she said, once we were all squeezed into the car.

I looked at Hamada-san out of the corner of my lazy right eye. “Is he your boyfriend?”

I had just entered middle school, and my mind was full of sex. I woke, ate, slept to thoughts of it, consumed by the curiosity of it. And I knew without a doubt that all adults were having it all the time every minute they were out of the sight of children; in cars, closets, showers, offices, under the table, even in sandboxes at night.

My aunt snorted.

“Boyfriend? No. Call him my old friend.”

Then she looked at my mother and they laughed. Hamada-san laughed too, softly. I didn’t understand their laughter. Nor did I understand the emphasis on old—especially since my aunt had used the English word. Hamada-san looked much older than my aunt; it was true. But something in all that grown-up laughter implied an intimacy beyond my comprehension. This, of course, just confirmed what I knew. My aunt may as well have said, “Yes, I fuck him.”

“He’s just a drinking buddy from the bar,” she continued instead, “who has a car and time to kill.”

I did not take my drifting eye off Hamada-san.

“It’s going to take a long time to get to the house because it’s raining,” my aunt said as she faced forward again. “But Grandma has dinner waiting for you at home."

“I’m hungry now!” said my brother Satoshi. He looked like a few strands of udon noodles knotted together. He was always hungry.

“You’ll survive.” My mother’s voice floated in the dark, tired. Twelve hours was a long time to be on a plane with three live children and one dead one.

Nami started tugging at my mother’s hair, something she did just before she fell asleep. I wondered how we would have fit in this car if Sachi had still been alive. And then I realized that we would not be in this car at all if she were alive. It was only because Sachi was in a metal box tucked into my mother’s big purse that we were here.

Not long after that, the darkness and the sound of the rain lulled me to sleep. Satoshi had beaten me to it.

I woke up when the car stopped. Hamada-san left without coming in.

“Did you ask him to come in and have dinner with us?” my mother asked.

“No. He’s got places to be.”

I opened the gate; my brother followed close behind. I walked on the narrow stone path to the front door, opened that too, and stepped into the entrance. Every Japanese house has a gate, and every Japanese house has an entrance area that is lower than the rest of the house. In this way, the interior is protected with metaphor.

From the entrance, my brother and I called, “Konbanwa!” Good evening!

My grandmother hurried from the kitchen to usher us in. Her short hair was grayer, and her back was more rounded than I remembered. “Come up, come up! Dinner is ready!” She spoke in Japanese. Once we stepped up into my grandmother’s house, my brother and I knew to wash our hands—to shed another layer of outside.

When I was done washing my hands, I walked into the room with tatami, paper walls, and a Buddhist altar. I sat on a zabuton at the low table where my grandmother would serve dinner. In an American house, this room would be considered a bedroom because it was the room my grandmother slept in. But it wasn’t a bedroom because there was no bed, and we also ate, watched TV, and visited in this room. At night, we would put the table away, and my grandmother would bring out the futon mat from the futon closet to sleep on.

As I began to eat rice and miso soup, my mother came into the room. I watched her take the box of ashes from her purse and place it on the altar. She hit the brass bowl three times, put her hands together, and bowed her head. Her thick, shoulder-length hair curtained her face. She kept her head down for a long time, long after the singing of the bowl had stopped.


*  *  *

Fall starts later in Tokyo than it does in Chicago, and it lingers longer. In Chicago, fall is one short day between summer and snowstorms, but Tokyo luxuriates in color and abundance. Despite the somber reason for the trip, I couldn’t help but be thrilled at the richness of the season. Before this, our visits had happened only in summer. Summer in Japan is wonderful, with shaved ice, white peaches, fireworks, wind chimes, cicadas, watermelon cooling in the sea, and Bon festivals full of drums. But the pleasures of fall are deeper, more lush. There are singing chestnut vendors, hot stones roasting sweet potatoes, persimmons dripping off branches, and air scented with leaves.

The day we took my sister’s ashes to the temple, the chrysanthemums bloomed and the maple leaves fell. We walked under a golden canopy of ginkgo trees. The baked-clay shingles of the temple roof shone blue through all that yellow. Satoshi and Nami—both younger than me in age and even more so in spirit—skipped through the leaves and played tag. I followed slowly, however, because my mother had allowed me to carry my sister’s ashes across the campus of the temple. I could simultaneously be very serious about the responsibility of the moment without remembering the loss too fully of the baby girl who gleefully splashed toilet water. I couldn’t, though, reconcile the happiness I felt at the beautiful day with the slight weight I felt in my hands. In that moment, I was simply soaked in all the colors and was filled with good feelings.

Once we arrived at the temple, a lady greeted us at the entranceway.

We followed her down the stairs.

In the basement, all good feelings seeped out of my shoes, for all I could see were small lockers with keys. “This one is yours,” the woman said in front of #1439.

And I don’t know and won’t know, ever, I’m sure—if it was mine or my mother’s wailing I won’t, can’t forget, and it doesn’t matter if it was mine or my mother’s, for the fact remains that on that day drenched in color and scent, I was the one who handed my sister over. I was the one who let her go in a locker. I was the one who left her in a room with no sun. I was the one, I will always have been the one, and I was eleven, and I wasn’t her mother.


*  *  *

That was thirty years ago.  

Since then, I have buried a child of my own, stillborn, a boy, my one and only child. I hadn’t wanted a child. I didn’t want the life my mother had, a life weary with children. I hadn’t wanted a child until one day I woke up—almost too old—and I did. So, we decided to have a child, my husband and I—thinking that was our decision to make. We were given a child and then that child was withheld. Our son was perfect in every way except for the umbilical cord that wrapped around his neck. Three times around and knotted.

My husband and I held him once, passed him to the nurse, and then begged to hold him again. I didn’t know that after the once, no number of times would ever be enough. I didn’t know. We used the name we had already chosen to write on the paperwork and carved it on the stone. Simon, we had them engrave. Simon.

Simon was buried on a spring day, on a hill warmed by sun, on a plot given to us by a compassionate soul. My son’s father and I each read the letters we had written to him. We laid him to rest and we kissed the earth. None of this changed the facts of the matter; our son was no less dead, our loss no less great. So it shouldn’t have mattered how we laid our dead child to rest, but it mattered, and I was surprised that it did.

Now I understand why it was not right, all the ways in which my mother left behind the ashes of the baby she lost. It was wrong that it happened with no father there, that it happened in a basement where no sun would shine, in a room floored with laminate, beige, a room walled with lockers metal and gray. It was wrong that it was not my mother who handed her child over, that she gave that responsibility to an eleven-year-old girl who was not up to that task.

I am now older than my mother was then. When my sister died, I thought certain things—because my mother had been my mother forever, I thought she was old, as old as need be, and because she was old, I thought her old enough, and I thought that age prepared you for sorrow and loss.

And even though my mother and I are talking about my aunt’s twenty-six-year-long affair with a man who was married, I know I won’t tell my mother about my own transgression, years ago, when I fell in love so easily with a married man—a man with young children, even—and did nothing to stop him from falling in love with me. I will never tell her about sitting on a couch in a coffee shop next to this man, a stack of books between us, every cell of mine desperate for the moment to continue. And I especially will never, ever tell her how this memory remains within me still—long after the loving had stopped—this memory like a tethered buoy: unwanted, unneeded, but enduring no less.




Mika Yamamoto’s work has been previously published in Foliate Oak, Fourth River, Nimrod International Journal, Bluestem and Noon. Yamamoto received her MA in creative writing from Central Michigan University. A certified hypnotist, she swears she has never used her hypnotic skills while working as a first grade teacher or a Starbucks barista. Yamamoto is currently a writer for, an online resource for single mothers.