Kisaburo Yamakawa

Before I knew much Japanese, my image of Grandfather Y was that he was a gruff, grumpy and scary old man. After a few months in his home, when I returned from a summer weekend camp for exchange students, he was home alone as the family had taken a short trip and been delayed by a big typhoon. He was very surprised when I arrived, not knowing that I hadn't gone with the family and then understanding that I'd managed to get all the way from the camp on the other side of already far away Tokyo on the delayed trains all by myself with the little Japanese that I'd picked up by then. He told me I should have the first bath (which he had cleaned and run for himself) and made himself busy in the kitchen, having decided that it was his duty to feed the hungry host grand-daughter. He made some lovely tempura out of some mountain ferns he had gone hiking to gather the day before the typhoon. I complimented him as much as I could and he leaned over the table and asked me, in a loud voice (to be sure I understood), not to tell the rest of the family that he could cook or they would abandon him and move to Tokyo where life was more exciting for his daughter and her family. He also told me a little about his time in Siberia as a POW, which was the last time he'd had any close contact with "foreigners" like me. It was the first time he ever really said more than a word or two at a time with me and it was a turning point for me in terms of getting used to living in a new family and country.

At the end of my year in his house, I spoke to him of how much I'd miss his family after returning to the U.S. and he looked completely shocked. He asked me why I wasn't staying for another year or two to finish high school at my host-school. Apparently he had gotten used to having me around and rather expected I'd be around longer. Then he told me he wanted to do something special for me and he got all the ingredients together to make a batch of fresh udon (thick white noodles in broth) from flour and water, kneading them by putting them in a big plastic bag and stepping on them with his bare feet (I was grateful for the plastic bag at the time). He rolled the dough out on the table and cut it into noodles for Mrs. Y to boil. They were sooooo goood! I think he was a little proud that I gained about 25 pounds living in his house...

Mrs. Yamakawa called last night with the news that her father, my former host-grandfather, had died. He was 82 years old and strong enough to drive himself to his regular medical check-up last week, where his doctor checked him out and told him he should be in the hospital because of bad lungs. She went back to the town where he lives and was able to spend some time with him during his two remaining days in the hospital. I haven't seen him in years, but felt comforted knowing he was getting on with life capably, out and around his town in Tochigi and sent and received the usual annual New Year's postcards. Sadly, this year, I can't send him a card.