We need big change to provoke consideration in our lives. My grandmother, my mom’s mom, died 5 July, and the other week I was in Calgary for the funeral, to deliver the eulogy and, though I didn’t know it, take some kind of stock of my life.
The whole thing had a very strange Grosse Point Blank-ish feel to it. I arrived on the coast, more or less fully formed, and that was that; the majority of my friends went years before they ever met anyone else from my family, and my day-to-day life is made up more or less entirely of people that I have chosen; no one is in it simply because they “need” to be, or because they “should” be. Coupland once said that families were God’s way of making you hang out with people you hated, but felt guilty about hating; this is a good approximation of how I feel about them in general, and it would seem that I managed my life so as to minimize the guilt.
I’d been back to Calgary before, of course. But this was the first time things felt manifestly different. I was acutely aware, for the first time, that I don’t live there anymore – “well, doy,” you say, “of course you don’t live there.” That’s not what I mean. I mean that it’s very clearly not my city anymore. It’s not my parents’ house anymore, either – sure, they still live there and stuff, but the landscaping has been redone, the windows have changed, and I spent three nights sleeping on a couch in the same room where S. first told me she loved me. And all around this house were things that I knew, fragments of my childhood, and it was all I could do to remind myself that these were a part of my past – because they didn’t feel like they were a part of it. It’s not a past I conceptually think of on a day-to-day basis.
And we’re not even talking about the deep dark past, either; my degrees and professional awards and all that fun stuff are hanging in my parents’ living room, not mine – because when I got them, they were more important to my mom than to me. I think most people go through this, and that it’s normal for it to feel weird as hell. It doesn’t make it easier to accept, though.
We always think we can go home again. We can. I am not sure, however, that I’ve ever been so jarringly reminded that “home” is actually somewhere else, that it’s somewhere else that you’ve constructed for yourself.
There were two other moments of high weirdness. The first involved going down to the family farm. I hadn’t been there in four years or so, and I hadn’t spent a night there in maybe six or seven. It was all very familiar – few things change, save for new paint and siding on the barns, and the new tenants on the property – and yet I found myself looking at my grandparents’ things – the John Deere model tractors my grandfather loved so much, the spoons they both collected, the Hummel figurines my grandmother kept in the glass cabinet behind the kitchen table – thinking about what will happen to them now. My uncle is in the process of clearing the place out, of trying to make it into his space, but everywhere you turn it is unassailably their home, even though they haven’t lived in it for years. There is a large part of me that thinks perhaps the whole place should just be hermetically sealed then lit on fire, the better to preserve it in our memories exactly as it was on the day they left for the nursing home. To see it any other way seems wrong.
The other weirdness happened, of all places, in the Glenbow museum.
A few years back, the Buddhist temples in Southern Alberta realized that their declining membership and prohibitive operating costs meant that they were facing a slow and agonizing death. Two temples in Lethbridge, one in Picture Butte, Coaldale, and Raymond – it was a bit much. So they consolidated, and moved into a new facility that my surviving grandmother says is very nice (but very tall, and, uncharacteristically for a building primarily built and designed by Japanese people, with a bad sound system). But that meant that a lot of the temple material from the other sites was unneeded. And so it went with the shrine from the temple in Raymond – the temple that, incidentally, my great-grandfather helped to build, and the shrine at which my grandparents worshipped – it was all going to go away. (Our roots in that place go deep: my grandmother ran the general store in the church.)
Except it didn’t. Les Kawamura, from a family with their own deep roots in the Raymond Buddhist community, and a giant of Canadian Buddhism in his own right (this might be understating it slightly), saved the shrine – all 64,000 or so pieces (I exaggerate, but only slightly) – and eventually donated it to the Glenbow museum on the condition they build some kind of exhibit space for it. And, as of April, my grandparents’ shrine sits in a prominent place on the second floor of the Glenbow museum in Calgary. How strange is that? So I went up there to see it – the first time I’d seen it in over a quarter of a century – and spent a good half hour sitting on the padded bench in front of the thing, biting my lip and fighting back tears.
I don’t consider myself a deeply religious person – or even a religious person at all, come to that. I do think of myself as a somewhat spiritual one, and I do try fairly hard to be a good Buddhist. When I go to temple, most often what I’m thinking of is not so much the dharma but of the sangha, the community – the sense of connection I get with my grandparents and extended family, the understanding of the history that came with Jodo Shinshu in Canada, and what the church has meant to the Japanese community in this country. (I am unsure as to the, er, doctrinal correctness of this particular understanding of the sangha, but I’m not going to go running to the Hongwanji for clarification, if you get my drift.) That sense of belonging is something that I don’t have in my day to day life; sure, the professional belonging is there, and I have my own family now and I obviously belong to that, but this is different somehow, and it annoys and frustrates me that I can’t explain it well. This is a visceral connection. I feel it in my bones. And it doesn’t matter where I go to temple – I go more often in Hawaii than I do here in Canada, and it’s the same kind of thing.
Wait, I know how to describe it. The first time I went to the Steveston temple, in 2005, I walked in and didn’t say a word to anyone while I was there (though I made my requisite dana and did oshoko and all the other stuff). But after the service was over, I was suddenly surrounded by people who either (a) had a pretty good idea who I was or (b) knew exactly who I was, and how was my grandmother anyway? Probably I’d met these people a quarter century ago, but how often is it that you walk into a room full of strangers, and have all of them know who you are? It must be what being a celebrity is like – the difference being, of course, that I have a shared familial history with most of them.
What I can’t describe is how it feels to have a direct connection to a museum exhibit. I realized, walking out of the Glenbow, that a part of my history is going to be in that building basically forever (or at least until someone decides to get rid of all the Asian art, anyway). I can’t decide whether I find that frightening or immensely comforting.
I’m saddened that the shrine has come to rest in a museum. Its life, as a shrine, as an object of worship, is over — and its story has come to an end. But, comfortingly, it now begins a new chapter as a kind of permanent marker in the world, a piece of my family’s history that isn’t dependent on the vagaries of biology and the transitory nature of human memory, that — unlike my grandparents’ homestead — will not change with new ownership and new direction. I’m grateful that someone had the foresight to make this happen.