One of my favorite childhood pastimes was poring through the family photos stored in my grandfather's weathered old steamer trunk, a treasure chest full of precious memories. Mom inherited Ji-chan's trunk after he passed away at the age of 90. I was 9 years old and very close to my grandfather, having spent time with him nearly every day since toddlerhood. Going through his collection of portraits and snapshots with Mom was therapeutic and comforting.
I was entranced by the portrait of Ji-chan's first son and daughter, who died long before Mom was born. Enlarged and colorized, it looked like a pastel rendition of the original photograph, taken not long before the children drowned together in a punawai. I never tired of hearing Mom tell the tragic story.
The trunk inspired happier recollections too, as Mom filled me in on the subjects of the many wedding and graduation photos. I especially liked hearing about my grandmother, whom I never met. There were only a couple of images of her: a tiny creased snapshot of a woman in a muslin apron and a more formal portrait with Ji-chan. Most captivating was her funeral photo, a 3-foot panoramic record of all who attended the service.
We kept Ji-chan's funeral photo in the trunk too, rolled up like a scroll and stored next to his wife's. I remember posing for that one - and several others - on the lawn outside Nakamura Mortuary. The immediate family was arranged around the casket and everyone else formed a line on either side, three or four deep. When the photographer gave the signal, we'd all try to stand perfectly still while he slowly panned the camera from left to right. Mom once told me about a clever little boy who started out on one side of the line, then ran behind the crowd to the other side so that he appeared twice in the same photo, like identical twin bookends.
There were very few candid photos of my mother and her siblings as children, probably because owning a camera was a luxury back then. We do have dozens of snapshots from Ji-chan's one trip back to Japan, including his send-off at the old Kahului Airport. My favorite is the one in which my lei-bedecked grandfather and I are posed in the center of a gaggle of cousins, Ji-chan with his hands on my shoulders and a bemused smile on his face.
Though he spoke very little English and I knew even less Japanese, we had no problem communicating. When Mom fried fish for dinner, he'd let me have one of the crunchy eyeballs, even though it was his favorite part, because he said it would make me smart. Or did he say it would improve my vision? I'm not sure. Either way, I wish I'd eaten more eyeballs.
Ji-chan and I sometimes bathed together in the furo at my auntie's Hali'imaile home. He'd let me use his Japanese washcloth, softer and lighter than my terry-cloth towel. His wrinkled skin fascinated me; it looked like brown crepe paper and felt as soft as velvet, and I wished I would someday have skin just like his. Of course, I was 4 or 5 at the time. Now that someday is a lot closer, I'd like to rescind that request.
Ji-chan has been on my mind lately because I am enjoying the company of my three granddaughters for a couple of weeks. Lilly, Lotus, and Lula are visiting from Michigan for the first time in seven years, though we last saw each other a year ago. The one good thing about being a long-distance grandparent is that you fully appreciate each precious moment you get to spend with the grandkids. So please forgive me if I'm a bit distracted these days; I'm savoring my grandma time.
My son is hapa and the mother of his children is Caucasian, so the girls are one-quarter Asian (Japanese and Okinawan). One has black hair and blue-gray eyes, one has brown hair and brown eyes, one has blond hair and light blue eyes, but they all have Ji-chan's chin. We all do, all of the descendants of Mitsujiro Shibasaki. I've been told it's an underbite, an overbite, a sign of strong character, evidence of a stubborn nature and, most unnerving of all, a Jay Leno chin.
I prefer to think of it as the Shibasaki chin. As a self-conscious teenager, I hated the way it made me look different from most girls. Now, of course, I've embraced it as one of Ji-chan's gifts. I look at my granddaughters and see my son and myself in them, and I wonder how they feel about their chins.
Maybe I'll fry some fish for dinner tonight.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.