By ELIZABETH FARRIS
(Editor’s note: Following is the 2017 winner in the English language/adult category of the Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest, held annually by the Little Tokyo Historical Society.)
Mama needed eggs. I was happy to walk down First Street to buy a dozen from Golden Nest Market. I picked up a carton and checked to make sure none were broken and then I looked at some of the magazines. There was a new one called Ms. Magazine. The cover had a drawing of a woman with eight arms. With one arm she was using a feather duster. With other arms, she ironed, held the steering wheel of a car, fried an egg in a frying pan, and wrote on a typewriter.
Mr. Takahashi cleared his throat. Loudly. He was staring at me again. And he kept it up until I put the issue of Ms. Magazine back on the display rack. At the checkout, I dug deep in the pocket of my skirt for the dollar bill Mama had given me. He punched the numbers into the cash register and the drawer popped open. He gathered up my change, but kept the coins hidden in his hand, hovered a few inches above mine.
I explained that I was saving up my allowance so I could buy the magazine. And in the meantime, it wasn’t right that he should charge me just for looking at it.
They were beautiful. “How many can I afford?”
He opened his hand and looked at the coins. “Two.”
Most mothers would just grab one of their glass vases, fill it up with tap water from the sink, plop their Mother’s Day flowers in it, and put it in the middle of the dining room table.
But not Mama.
Instead she gets down on the floor on her hands and knees and her top half disappears into one of the bottom cabinets in the kitchen. That’s where she stores her collection. She finally takes out one of her best ceramic bowls and lifts it to check it in the afternoon light coming through the window. She decides that it’s adequate and opens one of the drawers to find her favorite spiky frog. She gently sets it in the bowl and moves it around with one tiny finger until it’s off center, yet in the perfect spot. I start to say something and she puts up her hand. According to Mama, ikebana requires silence.
This utsuwa is perfect. It is the color of somen noodles, glazed to a sensible shine that will enhance but not overwhelm. It is shallow enough for a good viewing and suitable to the proportions. I place my mother’s kenzan on the bottom and slide it into the correct position. I lay the two carnations Akemi has given me onto the kitchen counter. I use my scissors to carefully remove the plastic covering. The stems of the flowers are firm yet pliable. The petals are ruffled and they are the gentle pink of a daughter’s first kimono. I lift one to encounter its scent. It is just-picked fresh.
They are pleasing. But I must first start with Shin.
Mama gets out her garden shears and I plod along behind into the back yard to watch as she silently wanders from bush to tree and back again. She touches each leaf and runs her palms over the trunks of every single tree. I want her to hurry up, make a decision, and just grab something. One of the morning glory vines has come loose in the wind and she carefully weaves it in and out of the holes in the trellis without allowing it to kink and break. She runs her fingers along the feathery stems of the fennel plants. She stands next to the lemon tree and gazes at it. Finally, she reaches over and grabs a branch, cuts it, and takes it inside.
When I was a young girl, I rose early on Mother’s Day to pick two yellow roses from our garden. Over the previous days I had patiently examined each bud while they swelled and revealed a speck of color at the tip. In the early morning light, I looked at the ones that had just opened. I chose the two that would become the most ample and pure. I wrapped the bottom of the stems in a piece of wet cloth. I waited on the bottom step of the stairs for Okaasan to rise. When she came downstairs, I said Haha-no-hi! I handed her the flowers. There was always love shining from her eyes.
Together we chose the perfect vessel. And then quiet rested on our shoulders. She and I went into the garden to collect material. The long stems of liatris for Shin. Some cuttings from the verbena bush for Soe. Hikae was the two yellow roses. Okaasan measured and cut with her hasami. Cut and trimmed again. She pushed each stem into her kenzan and with tender hands, positioned them into the correct angles. She adjusted the plant material until the form revealed itself. The form had always been there, in the nature. It had been her joyous task to display it.
Mama slowly pours some water into her bowl and removes all the leaves until the branch looks as if it’s dead. She twists it around to see every side and then with two fingers, she turns it upside down to see how it falls.
When I was the age Akemi is now, my family lived at Manzanar War Relocation Center. Almost four years. Many of our neighbors were there. The guards told us Little Tokyo residents would be safe behind the barbed wire. That the men in the watch towers would protect us from harm with their guns. We were allowed to bring only one small suitcase apiece. Okaasan’s ikebana vessels had been left behind. The quarters were small and we were given too little food. My father worked long days at a factory inside the camp where he made camouflage nets for the war. We had very little, but we still had each other.
Mama separates the branch into smaller pieces. She picks up the longest piece and trims off most of the side branches. She bends the soft wood to see if it will accept a curve, if it can take on a shape that pleases her. Yes. She lays it against the white bowl to measure it.
The wind never stopped. We huddled together to keep from freezing in the winter. The summer heat made being inside the barracks unbearable. Outside, the dust would work its way into our eyes. One day, Okaasan gathered twigs for me. She collected a handful of stones. She led me behind the barracks where the wind was absent and I could practice without disturbance. We sat on the ground in the bare dirt. Without words, we rested the stones as close together as possible. Okaasan chose the longest twig and handed it to me. I stuck it into the cluster of stones as if it was Shin in a kenzan. I slowly adjusted it until it was in the proper angle and I looked up at her. She was nodding. Yes.
Mama takes two steps away from the table. The first branch is sticking out of the frog. She tilts her head to one side and creeps around the table. She reaches out to force it into a curve. She makes one more adjustment and she stops to stare as if she is listening to the lifeless branch speak. But I want her to listen to me. I want to point out to her that it is 1971 and I will be a woman soon. And women have voices that need to be heard.
The longest stem represents Heaven. I adjust the angle and gently allow it to point towards my left shoulder. I push it as far as it will go into the kenzan to make sure it won’t be disturbed by the wind. I see that yes, it is filled with tranquility. The second longest branch will represent Earth. I choose carefully because I wish to use the piece that possesses the most vibrant life-force. There are several from which I can select.
Mama runs her fingers around each of the other lemon tree branches and finds one that has an unopened bud. She holds it against the first stem and measures its length before making her cut.
Okaasan allowed me to pick the next longest stem from her collection of twigs. I stuck it into the stones and tried to twist it into a pleasing shape. But it was dried and unyielding. She noticed my attempt. She cast her eyes downward for a moment. I understood. No matter how much we loved the Earth and it loved us in return, we had little power.
She finds the proper place and sticks the branch into the frog. She moves it into the correct angle but it’s too lopsided and it flops over. She takes it out, removes one of the side branches, snips a tiny piece off the end, and tries again. It’s still too heavy and she motions for me to come near. I hold it upright while she opens the kitchen drawer to find another frog.
I find the kenzan I was given as a bridal gift. I place it upside down onto one of the outer edges of my mother’s kenzan. Their spines interlock and combine to stabilize the heavy Earth stem. It is now in balance. Its angle is now in agreement with Heaven. Behind the barracks out of sight of the others, it was necessary for me to reposition the stones. They were all different sizes and I tried to stand some on their ends. I asked them to lean against the others for support. It was difficult and I grew frustrated. When the group of stones was strong enough, Okaasan allowed me to reposition both twigs until they attained a graceful connection.
Mama will need different plant material for Soe. I go alone into the garden and see that the sun and trees have together made patches of dark shadows on the grass. I look for something that is alive and lush and find that the leaves of my favorite tree are long and feathery. I reach up to pull and twist until one of the newest branches gives way.
Daughters learn from their mothers. But the mothers must have patience. There are many details a student of ikebana must remember. I have placed the third branch of Shin in place. Humanity. It is infused with compassion. Free from burdens. It is in harmony with Heaven and Earth.
A guard discovered us behind the barracks. He yelled at us and we lowered our heads in shame. He demanded that Okaasan and I go back inside. But the third stem was not in place. I clutched the rest of the twigs and tried to hide them in the folds of my dress. I planned to return after dark to complete the Shin. But he saw and snatched them from my hands and threw them to the ground.
A few hours later we lined up outside the mess hall for our meal. I could see the place behind the barracks where Okaasan and I had practiced. The twigs were broken into little pieces and the stones had been scattered. The memory still resides within me.
I lay the branch down on the table next to Mama’s two pink carnations. Her concentration is broken and she looks over at me.
Akemi has brought me a young branch from my silk tree. She has not used the pruning shears. The end of the stem is torn and frayed. She is still learning. I honor the effort she makes.
Mama nods at me.
Akemi watches while I trim the ragged end with my hasami. I separate the stems of the branch and cut to divide them. I choose the five pieces that have the most interesting shapes. I push them into the two kenzans. They fill the empty spaces. They provide fertility and vitality. I turn the utsuwa around so my daughter can see what I have done. I return it to the original position and consider the two kenzans. They have shifted.
Mama slides the interconnected frogs with the attached plant material back into the spot where it belongs. She lifts both carnations up to her nose and takes a long sniff, then gives them to me, inviting me to do the same. There is sweetness in the cool scent and a darker pink center is almost hidden among the innermost petals. I start to hand them back to her and she stops me. She holds out her clippers.
The final element, Hikae.
I hesitate. For as long as I can remember, Mama has silently taught me all I know. The rules of ikebana pass through my mind. I visualize the correct angles, the orderliness of Shin, Soe, and Hikae. There are rules, yes. But art is created out of the spirit. I think about the pink carnations and how I should use them to complete the arrangement. Mama places a bowl of water in front of me. She has formed the triangle of Shin and she has put in the Soe. But the two flowers of Hikae will be the most important part.
I examine both flowers and see that they are the same but different.
I sense composure in the silence of the slightly larger carnation and I decide to position it first. I hold it against the arrangement to measure it, dip the stem into the bowl to cut it under water, and find a home for it by pushing the end into my grandmother’s kenzan. I step back. The carnation stands with dignity and humility.
I measure and cut the smaller carnation to make it shorter. I will place it close to the larger one, but I remember the importance of space between the individual materials. There must be a gap, yet not be such a large distance that they cannot communicate with each other. I look at the flower from all sides to find its face and I position it so that it looks up at the larger carnation.
I place the clippers on the table and take a few steps back. Mama, my Okaasan, stands next to me to share the moment. My thoughts are no longer hidden in the silence.