Hidemi’s Rambling by Hidemi Woods

Singer, Songwriter and Author from Kyoto, Japan.

A Ribbon with A Bell hr626

One day in my childhood, a family of stray cats appeared in the front yard of our house in Kyoto, Japan where I was born and grew up.
I was raised by my grandparents and my grandfather had cherished several hundreds of chrysanthemum pots in the yard in those days. The yard was practically a sea of chrysanthemums. For that reason, the apparent house rule existed, which was not to keep a dog. I had never had a pet.
The cats family stood in the middle of the ragged path between the front door and the gate. There were four cats, one was big and others were very small kittens. I was about six years old and standing probably ten feet away from them when I found them that day. While I had constantly talked with my staffed animals, I was quite foreign to live animals. I walked toward them slowly and carefully with full of curiosity and a twinkle in my eye. As I got closer, a mother cat and two kittens quickly ran away. But one kitten didn’t move. He stayed where he was and just stared at me. I reached right in front of him and crouched before him. He was a tortoiseshell cat with gray and brown marks on his fur. He fixed his gaze upon me and never left. We looked into each others eyes for a while. I tentatively stretched my arm and touched him. He didn’t so much as flinch and kept looking at my eyes. I sensed that I was chosen as a friend by this kitten since I had no human friends back then. I held him with my both hands and felt surprising warmth of his body. I brought him inside the house.
I showed him to my grandmother and she promptly prepared a small dish of dried bonito. As I saw him nibbling it, I asked my grandmother if I could keep him with absolute certainty of no. Her unexpected reply was, “As long as it’s not a dog, your grandfather will allow if it’s kept inside.”

eyes cat coach sofa

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I got my first pet. I named him ‘Joe’ because he looked nothing else but ‘Joe’. I asked my grandmother for something like a collar now that he’s my pet. She scrambled and got me a bell and a red ribbon. I put them together and proudly presented to Joe’s neck. His quarters were decided at the entrance of the house, right behind the front door. I gave him some milk in the evening that day and talked to him into the night although I had been sometimes regarded as mute by others to whom I rarely spoke.
I thought Joe was as happy as I was. But after I went to bed, he began to cry. He didn’t call me though because he cried toward outside. Soon, I heard a cat meow outside too. It seemed his mother came to him. They meowed to each other with the front door between them. His fragile meows to the door continued till late at night. My grandmother suggested that I should release him because she couldn’t bear to see him miss his mother so much. I agreed that it was cruel to separate them. He wanted to be outside with his mother. I opened the front door and took him out. He swiftly scurried away. The time I had a pet lasted for less than 12 hours. The time I thought was liked by someone was laughably short.
A few days later, I felt I heard a bell ring. I went outside hurriedly and saw the yard. It was Joe. He huddled together with his family in the middle of the path, at the same spot where we first met. I called out, “Joe!” His mother and siblings ran away on my call, but Joe responded and turned to me. I was amazed that he had learned his name was Joe although our time together was so short. He remained there alone and gazed at me. This time, it looked to me as if he was smiling. At that moment I understood. He came back to see me. I felt an undoubtedly sure connection between us. I walked to him and held him in my arms. I took him into the house and told my grandmother that Joe came back. As she fixed a dish of dried bonito again, she told me not to repeat what we had done to him previously. While I was so happy to be reunited with him, I also knew I shouldn’t keep him. My happiness wasn’t the same as his. After I watched him eating his meal and talked with him briefly, I said goodbye to him. He left again.
In the next few weeks, I heard Joe’s bell on and off. I rushed outside every time, but didn’t see him. Since at least I was informed that he was around, I assumed that I could see him again sooner or later. Then, I made a finding one day at the foot of the bush beside the path in the yard. A red ribbon with a bell was laid on the ground. Joe had come to return it to me. The moment I saw it, I realized I would never see him again. And that was to be proved right. That was precisely how it ended.

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Mona Lisa hr618

It was about when I was eight years old and visited my grandparents’ for the first time since their house was rebuilt where their old one in which my mother was born and grew up had stood. I stepped into the living room of their brand-new house and my uncle welcomed me.
The house belonged to my grandparents on my mother’s side. As an old custom of Japan, the first-born child used to live with his or her parents after marriage. That’s why I had lived with my grandparents on my father’s side all the way until I left home. Accordingly, my mother’s elder sister took a husband into the family and had lived with her parents. Her husband was this uncle of mine. He was married to my aunt as an heir-to-be and related to me by marriage not by blood.

woman wearing kimono dress

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He has gotten the best seat in the new living room. It was placed at the top of the table and the closest to the TV. What caught my eyes was the painting hung on the wall behind him. It was a large copy of Mona Lisa.
I don’t think I recognized it as Mona Lisa back then, but I knew it was a Western painting and felt a decisively unsuitable, out-of-place sense. The house was located in a rural area in Kyoto, in typical countryside where Western paintings were hardly spotted. Though it was new, the house was Japanese-style. The living room had no chairs as they sat on the floor around the low table. Yet, above my uncle was a gorgeously framed, dignified Mona Lisa. I’m still not sure if someone gave it as a housewarming gift or he got it himself, but it was certainly the furthest thing from my uncle who was a lean, uncultured, gamble-inclined man. While I gaped at the painting thinking how opposite it was to my uncle, he said to me smiling, cheerfully and proudly, “Isn’t this painting nice? I like this. It’s nice, isn’t it? Nice, hah?”

Until mid-teen, I had often visited the house. Mona Lisa was always there as my uncle’s favorite. In every New Year’s holiday, my uncle acted as a dealer for our annual family gambling card game at the living room. It may sound peaceful, but it was a serious high-stakes battle between my uncle, my cousin, my mother and me. Although my uncle loved gambling and was buried into every bet, he would lose big every year. From above, Mona Lisa watched him losing to his son with tears in his eyes, with her archaic smile.

selective focus photo of group of people taking picture of mona lisa painting

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I went abroad for the first time when I finished high school. I visited France and saw the real Mona Lisa at the Louvre. I wasn’t interested in art so much then, and walked through rather than appreciated. But once I entered the big hall where Mona Lisa was displayed, I noticed something fundamentally different. Although there were quite a few visitors, the hall was almost completely silent. The air was strained and tense. It was as if everybody had been holding their breath. At first, I didn’t know what was happening. I walked forward and found Mona Lisa at the back of the hall. Since it was beyond security guards, tasseled ropes and the reinforced glass, there was still some distance from me when I stood in front. Nevertheless, the real one was surprisingly powerful and captivating. I clearly remember I felt like being gravitated to it and couldn’t help fix my eyes on it.
As for my uncle’s favorite copy of Mona Lisa, when my grandparents’ house was burned to the ground in after years by my grandmother’s carelessness in which she lit a candle too close to a sheet of Buddhism talisman paper on the alter one morning, Mona Lisa was burned away with the house. When the fire broke out, my uncle, who had been even thinner because of terminal cancer, carried in his arms my aunt, who had been fat and suffered from dementia and was asleep in the upstairs bedroom, ran down the stairs holding her, and saved her life. I thought I found out who his favorite lady really was, and who he really was…

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Bruises hr615

The reason I am excessively self-conscious is apparently because my mother hammered in my childhood how I should look and behave.
Appearance is the most essential thing in my mother’s life. She always puts face-saving first among other things. That inevitably leads to her daughter’s reputation. For it, she doesn’t care how her daughter feels or what she wants. People’s opinions are everything to her.
When I was in junior high school, the local public transportation bus I took everyday to school slammed on the brakes suddenly one day and threw me out of the multiple seat at the back. I hit my shin against a metal bar. After I got off the bus at the nearest bus stop from my home, I did my usual 15-minute walk to my house limping. My parents happened to pass by in their car on that particular day. I thought how lucky I was to get a ride when I had a sore leg of all occasions. As soon as I got in the car, my mother bawled me out for limping without asking what had happened to me. “You’re walking like a vagabond. How embarrassing!”, she scolded. She ignored my say that I had a small accident on the bus and my leg hurt as if it wasn’t the point at all. She kept lashing out with her mantra, “What would others think if they saw!?” It must have been so shocking to her that she had grabbed every chance to bring up the way of my walking and nagged at me about that one-time-only limping for years. Now, the sight of my limping has haunted her strongly enough for her to believe I have a slight limp by nature.

two woman wearing kimono dress walking beside sidewalk

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Walk while eating used to be regarded as bad manners in Japanese society. My mother made me go to the cram school to prepare for an entrance exam of a renowned junior high when I was an elementary school pupil. The classes were three days a week after regular school hours and the cram school was far from home, which it took 40 minutes by train. It was usually close to 7 p.m. when the class was over, and we were all hungry. My fellow students would buy chocolate and eat at the platform while waiting for the train home. I had never done that as I didn’t have extra money and was forbidden to eat standing in public by my mother. One of them gave me a piece one evening. I stashed it to have it back home. But I became very hungry in that particular evening when I transferred to another train at the terminal station. I had put a piece of chocolate in my mouth when I arrived at the nearest station from my house. My mother happened to be there to pick me up for once. She almost screamed, “You’re chewing gum in public!” She ignored my say that I had never done this before and the thing was chocolate not gum. She kept wailing, “You chew gum in public! How embarrassing! What would others think if they saw!?” To this day, when she meets me, she still nags at me about how disappointed she was when she saw me chewing gum that evening.
Those instances could go on endlessly. She didn’t allow me to go to the school nurse’s room no matter how sick I felt at school because it looked bad in front of other kids. When we had our house robbed, she stopped me from calling the police because it looked bad to our neighbors. She made me wear the class president pin wherever I went during my term for show. I was raised by a lump of vanity like my mother and have become a vain person myself who cares too much about looks and behavior unconsciously.

two people walking in a alley

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My family took a trip by train early in my teens and I missed a step of the stairs at the station with my new unaccustomed high-heeled boots. I fell and rolled down the stairs over a dozen steps. I stood up at the bottom of the stairs despite pain. My mother walked down the stairs calmly and indifferently instead of rushing over to help me, and said, “I didn’t think it was you. I thought it was a stranger.” Not one ‘Are you all right?’ came out of her mouth that day. After we checked in a hotel, I saw my body in the bathroom. The half side of my body was covered with dark bruises. I imagine how wonderful it would be that someday the bruises on my mind finally healed and disappeared along with my massive self-consciousness…

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Hidemi Woods, Author hr602

Over the various obstructs, I finally passed through the ticket gate and saw my former high school teacher at the train station. I recognized her right away and she did the same to me among the crowd of passengers getting on and off the train although we hadn’t seen each other in decades. Even before we exchanged greetings, our hands were squeezed in one another’s. We settled in a cafe in front of the station. The long gap dissipated instantly and we were talking as we had been in a high school classroom. We talked about what we had been doing all these years to catch up. As I listened to her, I realized why she was a rare teacher with whom I got along oddly well in my high school days and why I had kept in touch with her by Christmas cards. She was a person who was similar to me. When I talked about how I had turned my back on Japanese music industry and moved my business to US, she easily understood. She also once looked for a way to get out of Japan and live abroad. It didn’t happen because her work, teaching Japanese classic literature, wasn’t so global-oriented. Just as I’ve felt, she felt her way of thinking and living didn’t fit well into Japanese intolerant society. One example was that she wanted to keep and use her last name instead of her husband’s when she got married, but the Japanese law didn’t allow it. She had patiently waited for the new bill to be enacted, only to see it revoked every time. She wearied of Japanese inclination to disregard differences and couldn’t agree with implicit pressure to be the same as a Japanese. I wasn’t sure if it was the reason but she said most of her past students with whom she still got in touch lived abroad at one time or other like myself. Now I knew we were alike, and we had suffered from the same thing in the different field. She listened to me so joyfully while I was talking about myself, but that grave fact lingered on in my mind – I haven’t achieved anything. I had nothing to show off, and didn’t have audacity to forge stories. What I was telling her was all true in which there was no success. I couldn’t wipe off the thought that I might be disappointing her, in this very moment. I had brought my first physical book, ‘An Old Tree in Kyoto’ as a gift for her since she was my literature teacher. I only could do that much. When I handed it to her, she was very pleased. Actually, she was pleased so much that she asked me to inscribe the book for her. Up until the point to meet her, there were too many incidents I panicked at, but none of those was in this magnitude. I seriously panicked. I had never inscribed a book before, let alone I had never imagined that would happen to me. The day came without any warning, out of the utter blue. I couldn’t think of anything, and absolutely had no idea what to write. She said gleefully, “Write something.” I froze. I just couldn’t figure out how to do it. I tried to remember the scenes of a book signing in the movies and TV dramas. An autograph, that was what I came up with. Sadly, I didn’t have mine as I’m too obscure. In conclusion, I had nothing worthy to write. I said to her apologetically, “I don’t have an autograph because I’m not famous.” In contrast to my grave note, she replied frankly, “Oh, no, no, I’m not asking for your autograph. That’s okay.” I was cornered. An inscription is supposed to be meaningful because of someone’s achievements. In my concept, it’s not what an unimportant person gives. I noticed sweat slowly came down to my brow. I held a pen in my hand, my book before me, still as a stone. There was no escape. It was time to throw away all the remaining pride I had clung to and confess. “Teacher, neither my music nor my book sells. I’ve never inscribed a book. I’m completely nobody.” Although I uttered it on the verge of crying for embarrassment, she gave me a vacant look as if she didn’t get what I was talking about. “I don’t care,” she said. “I just want you to write something on your book to commemorate this incredibly happy day of mine.” Her eyes were twinkling with sheer joy. I made an inscription with my trembling hand. I was too tense and nervous to remember what I wrote. I can’t recall to date while I have a vague memory of scribbling her name, something about remembrance of a happy reunion, the date, and signing Hidemi Woods. What I remember vividly is the sensation I had when I finished writing. I felt as if I had officially become an author and that book signing was its ceremony. I handed back my book to my teacher, weirdly confident like a different person. We said goodbye at the ticket gate of the train station. When I was leaving, she said, “If I were your parent, I would be very proud of my daughter.” After the decades’ gap, she taught me something again…

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Hidemi’s Rambling No.555

On the answering machine, there was a message from my father that said he needed to be called back immediately. I was chilled to the bone. I have never received a single phone call from him that’s not disturbing. When he calls me, he does it to vent his spleen about his daily life and about my career as a musician. What comes out from the receiver is his lengthy verbal abuse. Nevertheless, I mostly return his call because things get worse if I don’t. This time was no exception and I called him back fearfully with trembling hands. Instead of a spurt of anger, he told me to come home as soon as possible and stay for a few days. I asked him what happened and he didn’t answer that. As his request sounded urgent, I repeatedly asked for the reason. He just dodged and kept saying that he wanted me to come home right away. I hung up and felt alarmed. Something must have happened. Since he had never given me good news, that something was most certainly a bad thing. My parents’ home is located in Kyoto that is 500 miles away from where I live. It takes me over five hours to get there by bullet train. I don’t have so much free time to take that long trip without the reason. Besides, such an unusual request requires extra caution. I called my mother’s cell phone and asked her what was all about. She told me that they had decided to sell their house and move out. They were looking for a condominium to buy and moving in as soon as the house was sold. The house could be sold next month at the fastest, and they wanted me to sort out my stuff and spend time together under this house’s roof for the last time. The house was built when I was nine years old at the place where our old house was torn down because it was too old to live in. That old house was built about 100 years ago. My ancestors lived at exactly the same spot generation after generation for over 1000 years since my family used to be a landlord of the area. We are here for around 65 generations. My father succeeded the family from my grandfather, and I would have been the next successor if I hadn’t left home to be a musician. Because my father failed the family business and didn’t have the next successor for help, he had sold pieces of our ancestor’s land one by one. Now his money has finally dried up and he can’t afford to keep the last land where the house stands. When my grandfather passed away nine years ago, he complained to me again about financial help I wouldn’t lend. I promptly suggested he should sell the house and its land. He got furious at my suggestion. He shouted, “How could you say something like that? Do you really think it’s possible? All ancestors of ours lived here! I live to continue our lineage right here for my entire life! Selling the house means ending our family lineage! It’s impossible!!” He bawled me out like a crazy man while banging the floor repeatedly with a DVD that I had brought for him as a Father’s Day gift. But nine years later, the time inevitably came. Considering his mad fury about selling the house back then, it was easy for me to imagine that he planned to set fire on the house during the night I would stay and kill my mother and me along with himself. That seemed the true reason why he wanted me to come back. Those murder-suicide cases sometimes happen in Japan, especially among families with long history. But the first thing that I felt at the news was not fear but relief. As I had known my father wouldn’t sell the house, I had thought that I would end up reaping the harvest of his mistakes as his daughter even though I didn’t succeed the family. I would have to liquidate everything in the house to pay his debts and sell the house and the land by myself after I would argue with all my relatives in the family’s branches who would most certainly oppose strongly. That picture of my dismal future had been long hanging low in my mind. But now, completely out of the blue, my father was taking up everything and I was discharged! I took an enormous load off but didn’t forget to be cautious. As there was still a possibility to be killed by my father, I decided to make my last homecoming a day trip in order to avoid spending the night there…

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