Obaasan and her garden

Japanese GardenObaasan is the polite way of saying “grandmother” in Japanese, and it is used when referring to someone else’s grandmother. I am not referring to any of my grandmothers (both have gone to their ultimate destination, peacefully at rest) but to an old lady in my neighborhood.

Anyone passing through the road to my apartment will certainly not miss this old lady’s house, a traditional Japanese dwelling with a front yard wide enough to accommodate two, if not three more houses, and a beautifully landscaped garden. Day after day, her garden bursts into dainty colorful spring flowers. And each time I pass by, I couldn’t help but press the brakes of my bicycle to get a glimpse of the various floral species that blossomed. They’re like tiny little voices that beckon me to stop and stare.  Rainer Maria Rilke’s quote “Everything is blooming most recklessly. If it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night” aptly describes this. Watching them transition from buds to blooms is nothing but pure delight.

One day, on my way home after a long day’s work, I saw an old bent woman in the garden harvesting crops. Instinctively, I hurried home, dropped my school stuff and grabbed my camera bag. Without second thoughts, I headed for the big white-fenced house and started to take shots from outside. The sun was still up and it was a nice cool day to practice my skills. Not content with the view from afar, I decided to inch closer to the stony edge of the garden and started calling for the old woman’s attention. A few times I tried, almost bellowing, but in vain. My voice fell on deaf ears. I went out, walked around and positioned myself at a spot where I was directly facing her from outside the low fence. With much vigor, I cried out repeatedly as I definitely didn’t want to leave without my close-up shots of the flowers.

Got lucky this time. She did hear me, but mouthed a few Japanese words I didn’t understand at all. So I just went on with what I had to say in my own broken Japanese. The old woman spoke in unfamiliar words again, and gestured pointing to her left ear. I assumed she had hearing difficulty, so I voiced out my wish in a much louder tone. She seemed to have understood and allowed me entrance to her castle-like place. I took advantage of the opportunity and set my gadgets in motion.

Minutes later, she came out of the vegetable garden pulling a cart of freshly picked lettuce and stopped in front of me. My mind was quick to analyze: could it be she had realized I have taken more than enough shots and should be dismissed right then? No way! Japanese people, especially women generally don’t say to your face what they actually think; more so if it is something negative. On the other hand, I relished the idea of having fresh vegetable salad for dinner and was  tempted to ask for a piece of lettuce… but decided against it for propriety. Come on, I just met the woman and I can’t risk being labeled as taking advantage this soon, can I? I was jolted back to reality when she directed me towards a separate garden of tulips and daffodils just beside the house.

She was now talking much, more accommodating, which was nice. But  in my mind, I wished she would give me some moments of silence so I could concentrate on what I was doing. But on second thought, I was grateful and privileged. Hence, I gazed up at her and simply said “Yes, I will. Thank you” which only started an engaging conversation, as if we completely understood each other. Then I realized that communication goes beyond words. I learned to read between the spoken and the unspoken, and there was a wealth of it.

I learned that she was 88 years old, and that she herself planted every little shrub, herb, tree and flower there ever was in that garden. Looking at her hazy eyes and the teary secretion that welled up involuntarily as she spoke (due to old age, perhaps), I fully understood. I imagined her bent figure laboriously tilling the land, not minding the back pains, faithfully watering the garden soil when rain didn’t fall, patiently waiting for the first signs of life, and joyously celebrating another spectacle of nature, like a birthing miracle. Indeed, whoever has experienced this is naturally pumped up with ardent desire to share, and share generously for that matter.

I went home not only with my memory card full, but my heart as well.

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miSyel’s quotes

"The beauty of the truth is that it need not be proclaimed or believed. It skips from soul to soul, changing form each time it touches, but it is what it is."— Mark Helprin

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