An incredibly personal project, "Obaachan" ("Grandma" in Japanese) seeks to unravel the complexities and the changes within my Japanese grandma. Diagnosed with Alzheimer's last year after losing her husband in 2020, living in isolation through the pandemic, dealing with the financial aftermath of her husband's passing, not on speaking terms with her sisters, and living 5,000 miles from her kids and grandkids who reside in the US, she was bound to change after seeing her last in 2018. I hadn't seen her face in 2 or so years - she forgot her Skype password that she's had for the last 10 years - and she was on a mental downslide. Call after call to my dad and his uncle, she was convinced that someone had stolen items in her apartment, they had stolen money from her, or someone had broken in. It was obvious that the Obaachan I once knew was slowly fading away. When my family and I were able to visit Japan in the summer of 2022, we visited her. The first time I saw her I broke down crying.
She didn't spend time with us like any other time; she asked us the same question every 10 minutes, forgot she had planned excursions with us, looked tired and frail. Her hairline had receded farther back, her body looked small. She shuffled along her floor, ate too much junk food. She sat on her chair, watching TV with the sound blasting, the lights green and dim. Every night she'd ask me if I wanted dessert and let's go to the convenience store across the street, until I said yes or my dad got annoyed and said I didn't need it.
She bailed on trips we had planned together; trips to the hot springs, to Nara, to a restaurant a few towns over. We managed to bring her with us to a sushi restaurant one night. She cut her hand on the glass she had broken when she knocked it over, and after dinner wondered how she got cut.
She brought me and my dad to Osaka. She wanted to show us around because she had grown up and worked there for 20 years. We had already been numerous times. My dad brought us to the top of some kind of tower, where you could see over the city, and walk in a full circle outside. We individually watched the sun set. We lost track of her at some point, and she wasn't up where we were anymore. I felt so scared, like I'd lost a child unable to fend for themself. Would she remember she came with us? Would she try to go home? We ran down the escalators, searching on every floor. I happened to look out a window, and I saw her strolling across the quad. We raced outside, and my dad started scolding her, his voice frustrated, worried, and exhausted. Relief and concern seeped out both of us as we headed back home.
She was known as the infamous chef in our family. She could cook 10 course meals, and stuff us full of sushi, tempura, curry, and rice balls. She made us strawberry shortcake on our birthdays, and tried to teach us how to cook. She packed me bento boxes when I went to school, and when I returned home I'd have onigiri and warabimochi waiting for me on a plate in the kitchen. When I was too young to have too much spice, she'd customize her long labored curry, and make me a portion that was mild. She'd never eat too much of her own cooking, but knew the excellence of her foods.
This time, my dad warned me of her dishes. He told me most of the ingredients in her kitchen were expired, and I should refuse whenever she asked me if I wanted something. It felt so surreal that I was avoiding her cooking.
She was the most independent woman I know, but she was also traditional. She had her ideas of how women and men should act, but knew that the woman didn't need to rely on her husband in order to live. She held resentment towards her late husband, who was mean and grumpy when he was younger, but as he aged, he grew happier and peaceful. The grandkids didn't know anything besides Sweet Grandpa. She'd complain about how he never did anything, and when they moved back to Japan from New York, she took the first chance she could to live in a separate home from him. She had an immense amount of pressure from her dad when she was growing up, and being the first born, she got the most attention. She told us how her father would tell her younger brother "Being a man is good. Never forget that men are best."
She laughed at the dinner table when my dad was pretending to be sexist, as she tried to argue and ended in laughter. She laughed as she tried to get the plate of sushi from the kaiten-zushi, and failed for the first few times. She chuckled each time she told me a story of myself when I was 3 and too scared to go into the onsen naked.
She stared into the sunset sky as she and I talked about something on her terrace, looking out onto the rest of her suburban town, the moment defining peace and solace.
When we went to visit her again in January of 2023, the mood seemed lighter. She was still asking us the same questions at somehow an even more repetitive pace, but this time my mom was with us, so she and Obaachan would spend some time talking; my dad and sister had gotten tired of talking with her. She would back out of planned trips at the last second, despite our persistent efforts to get her out of the house. Her reason was that she had too much to take care of, saying in her own iconic way, "These days I'm not just a housewife. I'm the boss of this family."
She looked healthier than she did in the summer, but she'd forget to bring a jacket when it was 30 degrees outside, all bunched up in her one fleece that she was wearing inside.
She'd still laugh and recite the story of me at 3 years old at the onsen, and she told us some new ones I hadn't heard before. My friend from home came to stay overnight once, and she was fascinated with everything Obaachan had to say. She'd ask questions and Obaachan would delve into family history neither me nor my sister had ever heard before.
We would cross the street, and sometimes she seemed like she was going to walk straight into traffic. She'd rarely wait on the sidewalk, no crosswalk in sight, and start to enter the street until someone grabbed her arm or made her wait.
She made meat gyoza for me and my sister one time before the rest of us were leaving for the day, and I let her because she was persistent. My dad was rightfully wary, even grossed out, as he said that those gyoza were probably thawed and put back into the freezer multiple times. I ate 5 because I felt bad. I didn't get food poisoning, though my stomach did feel a little weird later that day. I left the rest for her because I knew she wasn't eating enough non-junk food, and she wouldn't eat it unless it was the discarded food because she hates wasting food.
I felt bad for not spending enough time with her, and I also wanted to take portraits of her, but my camera was broken and I ultimately thought I was going to regret taking photos over such a short time over genuinely spending time with her. My favorite moment from the whole trip there was towards the end, when it was after dinner, around 9pm.
I see her in her usual chair, eyes slightly closed, and ask "ねむい？” (are you sleepy?). She opens her eyes, looks at me and smiles, and says something I can't remember. We start talking about something we've never talked about before: my major. I didn't know how she'd feel about me being a photography major, but tears fill my eyes unprovoked when she tells me I picked a good major. She talks about how both women and men do it, so it's a good choice. We talk about where I got my photography genes from, as no one else in our family does it, and I talk about my inspirations and my career interests. She talks about old age, and spending money, and how even though she's doing fine with money, the money barely has any use for her anymore. She says she goes to the store, calls her friends up occasionally, and is too old and tired to go on trips. She says being old is a lonely thing, and that I shouldn't waste my youth now, because very soon I'll be that same age. She tells me not to be lazy. Tears roll down my cheek, I sniffle, and I wipe my face with my sleeve every five seconds, hoping she can't see. I pray to myself that I remember this conversation; I wish I recorded it. I have many regrets when it comes to Obaachan and me, but this conversation seemed to have canceled a lot of that guilt. I hope I can go visit her soon, and take proper portraits of her so I can cement her face in my history book.