I got the news this week that my Uncle Yo had passed away. He was the youngest of the three Ito brothers, of whom my dad was the middle. My Dad died in 2000, and my Uncle Ichi a few years after that. Uncle Yo had been hanging in there, the last of his generation and family, and even though I hadn’t seen him in many years, it gave me great comfort to know he was still there.
Both of my father’s parents died before I was born, so I never knew my paternal grandparents. But I’d heard stories about them – about my blind grandfather, once a carpenter and woodcrafter, who re-shaped a miniature leaning tower of Pisa that my uncle had brought back from Italy during World War II. He could feel it, and he knew that something was wrong, so he fixed it so that it stood straight.
I asked my father once, during one of the ubiquitous and dreaded family tree assignments, the names of his grandparents back in Japan. He admitted with great remorse that he really didn’t know, that his parents never spoke of them and that there was really no record.
We had a small family. My uncle Ichi had had kids way before I was born, so they were adults when I came on the scene. Uncle Yo and Aunt Mary never had kids. We always had Thanksgiving at Uncle Ichi’s and Aunt Florence’s house, and pre-Christmas dinner at Aunt Mary and Uncle Yo’s. Their house was always immaculate (this is what happens when you have no kids!) and elegant.
My Uncle Yo was a quiet guy and I can’t say we were “close” but I was glad we were related anyway. He and my aunt owned a little jewelry store in the Pan Am building in New York City, and it always gave me an enormous thrill to visit them there. I remember my uncle sitting on a stool, wearing a special jeweler’s monocle, and he would be setting a diamond into a ring or tinkering with the insides of a watch. They always gave me a little piece of jewelry for my birthday – a heart shaped locked or a delicate little watch or a bracelet with my name engraved into it. Visiting them made me feel grownup and special, and the fact that it was in the famous PAN AM building (is this why I am such a sucker for the not so good TV series?) just heightened it all. They worked in the big city, in an important building, in a JEWELRY store. I mean, come on. I was enraptured.
My aunt Mary was the closest I had to a “buddy aunt.” She sat with me at family gatherings and colored or drew with me, shading each apple with three or four crayon colors, bringing them to life. I heard she’s thinking of going up to her family in Canada, where she came from when she met my uncle after the war.
I guess this is what it feels like when people in your family, who were once larger than life, the grownups, start peeling away and then guess what? We’re the grownups now. Our kids are even turning into grownups. It’s sobering and strange and just one of those huge doses of reality that just hit you. Now I’m the grownup making the stuffing for the turkey and cooking the gravy and just, you know, doing it all, the way the grownups did for so long when I was growing up. So many of them are gone now.
The Ito brothers. Are they “together” now? I don’t know what I believe about that. I kind of hope they are, and with their younger sister Kiyo, who died as a college student before I was born, and whom I was named after (middle name).