My grandmother and I are the same stockpiler—we misplace our trauma in the crannies of junk and like to leave it there.
I am the future caretaker of over one hundred buddhas. They wait for me in my grandmother’s storage unit until I decide what to do with them, smirking from round faces like squat, secretive babies, half-moon eyes crinkled in laughter. The population is distributed into disproportionate thirds: the most abundant third, the miniatures, range from the size of my fist to my forearm. They don’t compromise in detail—some sit crossed-legged with palm to swollen belly, others lounge sensually on their sides like nineteenth century European portraits if the muse wasn’t a nude woman with perfectly symmetrical breasts but rather the Enlightened One. I don’t really remember the mid-sized ones in the shadow of the few towering giants. When I last visited the unit at age twelve, there were carvings as tall as I was, their long fingers curled in various poses, beads draped from their swan-like necks, fluid bodies cast in wood and stone. I had arrived on another planet on which I was outnumbered by menacingly friendly aliens. I remember thinking vaguely of terracotta warriors and the wide grin of the Cheshire Cat, of Alice downing a shot of Swallow me! juice laced with incense oil and being teleported here.
A strange mirroring effect occurs when you’re surrounded by smiles—I felt the corners of my mouth twitch and twist into a sort of sympathy grimace full of teeth. As we wove through their ranks, my grandmother relayed their origins to me. You, she said, and laughed at the impossibility, will decide what to do with allllll them. I think she interpreted my smile as approval, and so she smiled, too; then we were all smiling, all one-hundred-and-two of us.
My grandmother shuffles among her antiques as a member of their species. The buddhas are only one of her remaining collections—her now-deceased ex-husband, my grandfather, was freakishly into Oriental items, which is probably why he married her. She was in her mid-twenties with long, straight black hair down to her tailbone; he was in his early fifties and balding profusely. Many of the buddhas were originally his, but my grandmother made her own additions to the menagerie. Besides the buddhas, the storage unit has endless vases and decorative bowls and incredible free-standing columns of stacked lacquered furniture, all of it overlapping and precariously tilting, a Roman Forum of white elephants. I’m not sure whether I’m the expected guardian of these, too.
Despite the collection, my grandmother is not particularly Buddhist. She is Buddhist in the way that most families in Japan are Buddhist, Shinto, or both, and hers happened to be the latter. I’ve never heard her meditate or mention the real Buddha, or God, or some philosophy on symbiotic nature that would indicate any belief in a higher power. The pilgrimage she makes most often is to Nijiya Market, the only local Asian grocery store that sells the superior variety of mapo tofu.
As the eldest granddaughter deemed responsible enough for the task, I’m the most natural adoptive buddha parent. My grandmother and I grew closer through my years of Japanese study, which I did in large part to please her. Her own daughter—my mother—severed herself from Japan when she experienced East Asia’s particular brand of misogyny. She followed the reverse trajectory of my grandmother, moving to Japan from the U.S. to work at a Tokyo branch of an American banking firm. She was fluent in the language and had a Japanese name to match, but quickly learned to use only her English name when answering the phone. She was otherwise mistaken as a secretary. Now, Mom speaks Japanese only when absolutely necessary, and though she celebrates cultural aspects of being Japanese-American, more than geography isolates her from the country itself. The romance of the ancestral homeland was tainted by the sexism.
My grandmother doesn’t speak about her other possible heirs. She was dramatically excommunicated from her family when she returned to Japan from America for a funeral. Her own mother, 81, in the hospital and in poor health, found the strength to swing a bed sheet over the rafters and hang herself. The day of the event was dry and cold, and my grandmother, a magpie for beautiful objects, donned a thick fur coat she had no usual excuse to wear. She and two of her brothers performed the passing rites and chanted as the body of their mother lay on ice, open, like a fish. Their father looked on. When the rituals were complete, the body was transferred to a wooden coffin. In Buddhism, the dead are mostly cremated, but the heat of the crematorium can cause the muscles and ligaments of the corpse to contract and pop and buckle so that the dead body sits bolt upright like an Oriental Frankenstein. The top of the coffin must be nailed down excessively for several minutes. It was a deafening process that occurred in silence. Still, as the body burned, there were dull thuds against the lid that at times sounded both like polite knocking and a desperate attempt at escape.
Over the crackling body, the family disintegrated word by word. In her excessive coat and appearing less Japanese than ever before, my grandmother fell victim to a verbal assault. She had become a symbol of Western gluttony! She had abandoned the family line, and as the eldest daughter, was responsible for their mother’s misery! It was ridiculous—my grandmother could hardly be responsible. She wasn’t even raised by their biological mother, but by her father’s mistress.
After the war, her father got rich off a booming printing factory which specialized in cigarette packaging. Addiction was wonderfully profitable. He liked to oversee operations, meticulously turned out in tailored silk suits and a large, glinting sapphire ring. He traded in his car every year for the hippest, shiniest model. His attraction to beauty is what repelled him away from his wife, whose long work hours in the factory cafeteria had caused her face to prematurely crumple. He had a decades-long affair. His mistress had no wrinkles and no job except to maintain her good looks. My great-grandfather coveted her, and my grandmother, under his mistress’s wing, internalized the lesson that feminine power lay not in practical ability, but in being attractive.
My great-grandmother was aware of her husband’s vices, and in terribly satisfying revenge, sank her clutches into him and never let him go. He was trapped in the wretched marriage until the day she died. It is speculated that the endless hatred he spewed at her, even when she was hospitalized, is what energized her enough to reach for the bed sheet and enact her final punishment.
My grandmother’s own marriage imitated her parents’—before her divorce, explosive arguments drove her to threaten to kill herself too. My grandfather responded with a broad grin and handed her the kitchen knife. Only my mom remembers the episode. It was the day of her eleventh birthday.
My grandmother raised her two children, my mother and a younger son, largely on her own. Besides the kids, she also became the warden of my grandfather’s extensive and ever-expanding collection of antiques, which he would send back to her in huge crates as he traveled in the Orient. They were kind of like apology gifts. She worshipped them. She paid the same attention to the antiques that her father had given his jewelry and that his mistress had given her abnormally pale complexion. And my grandmother began to take care of herself the same way. She got Botox injections the minute her cheeks and forehead sagged, tattooed her eyebrows when they became too thin to see, and regularly dyed her hair an unnatural shade of auburn. She tried to do the same manicuring to her daughter, which seriously damaged Mom’s psyche. Mom managed to get through it with her natural hair intact. She is now fifty-six and letting it go grey in rebellion.
When I enrolled in Japanese school, I revived my grandmother’s hopes that there may still be a female in her family to maintain both the bloodline and its corresponding objects. Mom had wrenched herself out of my grandmother’s grasp and the other cousins—my grandmother’s nieces and nephews—refused to speak to her after the funeral day. Any slim remaining chance of reconciliation with those conservative Japanese relatives was lost when her email account was hacked and her entire list of contacts received a detailed NSFW essay about Barack Obama. The damage might have been worsened by the email’s favorable (and sexual) opinion of Obama in addition to the porn. She has very little idea of what the email actually said, but she knows it was vulgar enough to permanently scar its recipients. She hasn’t made contact since.
* * *
My grandmother’s junk collecting includes even gross, insignificant things like rotting food—the fridge is stuffed with tiny Tupperware of week-old lettuce or fish eggs. Some of the leftovers are old enough that they begin to cultivate their own ecosystems. I used to poke fun at her in exasperation, and her dry response was always Mottainai: “Do Not Waste.” If pressed, she brought up the war, her lips sprouting a tremor as she described the sound of B-52s buzzing overhead. That, and the pangs of food scarcity—drying and pickling and saving half for later, few onigiri for the children, one persimmon spiraled on a stick for them to share, her own mother foregoing rations to fill the many smaller hungry mouths and then being empty of milk for the baby.
I don’t know what it’s like to be truly starving. Her inability to adapt to the twenty-first century in which fast food can be delivered to your door for $3.99 is understandable. She casts out her arms to gather as much as she possibly can. But she’s less concerned than her father with the quality of the items she possesses—she can’t resist the American excessive quantity factor. The abundance of goods, money, and calories stand in stark contrast with the shortages of her childhood. Sometimes she makes awed noises, Wahhhhh, like she still can’t believe her eyes.
Another effect of the war is that she doesn’t believe in paper money—it doesn’t help you survive. She converts every cent she has access to into material items she could one day sell if her livelihood depended on it. This is why Mom controls her finances. To my grandmother, a cart full of used china from Ross or a down-payment on yet another random apartment has more value than a bank account. All of this makes the accumulation of worthless junk inevitable.
* * *
My grandmother moved in with us this March because her weak lungs make her mask-adverse and she pretends not to understand the stay-at-home orders. Mom kept a close eye on her. While she was here, linguistic barriers overshadowed cultural ones. Though Mom and I speak Japanese (mine is merely passable), my sister and father don’t. My sister, who’s younger than I am, didn’t have the same unspoken pressure of cultural propagation. In some ways, I envy that she can avoid disappointing my grandmother as much as I could, but she probably views my status as first-born with a similar twinge of jealousy.
Dad knowingly married into foreign culture. My grandmother idolizes him—like she does most white men, especially Sean Connery—and repeatedly urged Mom to put on lipstick after I was born because she was convinced he would leave Mom for a younger girl. She may have been disheartened that my sister did not study Japanese like I did, but she wouldn’t dare accuse Dad of shirking any cultural marital duty. Regardless, for their sake, dinner table conversations are in English. How was your day? I’ll ask her, and she’ll respond in patient Japanese, then repeat herself in English for the monolingual audience. This is all with fierce, unwavering eye contact, like if she stares hard enough, subtitles will appear floating below her. Her answers exist in two parallel fields, my father and sister in one (oblivious) and she in the other (lonely), with space unfolding between them, an oblivion of misunderstanding. Mom and I attempt to straddle both planes, one foot in each. Our bilingual tongues are like halfway points. It’s an unsettling 3D graph.
My grandmother speaks proficient English, but her vocabulary is limited and the sentences are jagged, pushed together using wrong tenses and emphases with the friction of tectonics. Our language’s Germanic roots rub unnaturally against each other in her mouth like rocks. She always sits at the head of the table while the four of us face each other, as if one day the linguistic earthquake will cause a deep enough rumbling that she’ll break off like an iceberg and drift away. It’s a wonder to me that the build-up of so many complex unuttered thoughts doesn’t drive her to smash her plate on the floor in frustration. Or repurpose her favorite chopsticks into daggers. She’s mostly silent and shovels extraordinary amounts of food down her throat.
In the storage unit, the buddhas speak a language only she can understand. Her stilted English may prevent her from fully integrating into our nuclear family, but in the buddhas she gains one hundred eager friends. They don’t make audible sound, but to her, each one has a soul. She cares for them like children, polishing and checking up on them regularly, tending to their injuries. She knows their home countries and their immigration dates—she identifies with them as a fellow export of my grandfather’s. Together, they are enveloped in a cocoon of foreign words, a little less alone in each other’s company. When she’s with them, they seem to gossip to her about the past. In that way, she’s a trilingual master, listening carefully to their stories and rearranging them into simple Japanese for my sake. It’s ironic that the language I learned to communicate with her will be rendered useless when she dies and all that remains of her, the stories of her many objects, are not in Japanese, but in unintelligible buddha-speak. It will probably make it easier for me to get rid of the buddhas if I choose to. I won’t hear any cries of SOS if I send them off in the back of a garbage truck. I won’t see their slender-fingered hands reaching for help or waving goodbye.
* * *
Like my grandmother, my own junk is pervasive. She anticipated this compulsive-gatherer aspect of my inheritance. When deriving the kanji characters for my Western name, we sat down at my desk, above which thirty ticket stubs are neatly pinned. She pointed to the phonetics E-LI-A-NA, though in her voice it’s E-RI-A-nnA. I forget that my full name is difficult for her because she rarely ever says it (she prefers pointing and using the pronoun You). We worked through the last three syllables first: she showed me the stroke order in even handwriting, beautifully curved, decaying across the page. Then E, she said, Ehhh, like Emiko, and forever tied me to her. I didn’t live with my grandmother in the early years of my life, so when I evolved to have the same behaviors, it must have been the hidden influence of the bloodline. As a kid, my rock collection was so massive that it spanned multiple boxes, which then spurred a box collection so massive that it barely fits in a bin at the bottom of my closet. Adjacent is a bin filled with two hundred birthday cards I don’t have the heart to send to the incinerator. In another bin ominously titled MISCELLANEOUS, there are broken toys and an assortment of Dave & Buster’s prizes, like those sticky hands that amass repulsive amounts of lint. I enjoyed trinkets like those, particularly ones I felt I had “earned.” As if ramming the button on the disturbing kiddie Wheel-of-Fortune and pulling at the spat-out tickets was the epitome of hard work.
My grandmother loves gambling. It aligns with her immoderate spending habits and makes her hopeful to boot. She was the one most likely to take me to arcades because of her own frequent trips to Las Vegas. Gambling seems like the exception to her saving pattern, but it’s still the trading of paper money for possible tangible winnings, so she’s always happy to try her luck.
I can’t pinpoint a singular moment in my early childhood when the collecting gene began to take effect, but there might’ve been one. Part of me imagines my chubby infant body climbing out of my mother’s womb with greedy, grabby hands and demanding STUFF. I was fascinated with all objects like most kids, but particularly with objects next to one another in comparison. I spent hours lining things up, putting them into perfect triangles and Vs like cheap, lifeless geese. Or like army ranks—my small terracotta warriors. They slept in the barracks of my nightstand drawer so I could rise them early the next morning to practice formations. The order and space between each eraser-top or smooth round stone was intensely gratifying. My junk does not have that order now. Entropy has won out.
As I moved through a turbulent beginning of adolescence and the stomach-churning thought of becoming a teenager overwhelmed me, I latched onto objects with renewed fervor. Purchasing and reevaluating and rearranging was religious. The objects of my collection were no longer the size of matchboxes, but were now vintage cameras and old photographs, art supplies complete with pastels and two different types of watercolors, and a weird assortment of holiday-themed clip-on earrings since I was too terrified to get my ears pierced.
MISCELLANEOUS became an identity marker—I could not define myself without my top ten CDs and a stack of dog-eared books in the corner. The evening before I turned thirteen, I had a meltdown at the prospect of losing a childhood I had never really thought about. Surrounded by objects that were the only real reflection of myself, it felt like I had to say goodbye to someone I didn’t really know. I cried myself to sleep with a pillow gripped between my hands, clutching at something that was giving way.
I ended up having the gag-reflex-inducing experiences of many teenage girls—flashes of self-loathing, competitive friendships, the fear that something I was currently doing wrong would dramatically ruin my future. I felt overall very undesirable and constantly embarrassed. As someone who sought control, it was frightening to suddenly not know my body. I began wearing training bras from the very day my nipples began to peak, 24 hours a day, hoping it would flatten them back down again. I panicked that my period would erupt when I least expected it and avoided all white pants for years. I was an annoying little perfectionist, high-strung, tense to the point that my neck cramped with the way my shoulders were up to my ears. And to distract from the pressure, I continued to collect objects, especially ones I assumed I would look back on fondly—the ticket stubs, stacks and stacks of film. I was preserving myself for posterity; it was like pressing a flower. Movies and TV glorified high school as The Best Years of Your Life and told me I would want to remember it forever. But I was also frantically searching through my junk to find the cohesive identity I was supposed to have.
Later in high school, I even began to collect people. I was drawn to a strange assortment of individuals that I tended to instead of tending to myself. I could communicate with them using just my eyes; they would sit in the passenger seat of my car and cry until exhaustion. We wallowed together in angst with the radio up. I sometimes offered cliché words of comfort, but often just stared straight ahead and let their feelings absorb into me. They usually didn’t want anything more. I couldn’t feel the destructive toxicity because I was too preoccupied in caring, in patching them up again. In reaction to uncertainty, I had created my very own collection of living buddhas.
My grandmother and I are the same stockpiler—we misplace our trauma in the crannies of junk and like to leave it there. Fragments of experience settle at the bottom of the pile like marbles so we can avoid facing them. By shutting away the unthinkable into storage, physical objects form a wall to obscure the past from view and block impending worries from creeping in. My grandmother has stashed away many memories with her buddhas: bombings and feuds and being a foreigner, single motherhood and suicide and whipping her unruly son with a thick brown belt. The buddha faces are so pleased that you would never guess what lurks among them.
The more I learn about her history and predispositions, the clearer our similarities become. Aspects of the inescapability make my heart seize up—Mom assures me of the balance between nature and nurture when it comes to mental illness, but going by the pattern, my twenties are the ripe time for my depressive episode. I understand why neither Mom nor my grandmother speak readily about the past if it is to keep my sister and me from bearing it ourselves. My grandmother, in entrusting me with her buddhas, did not realize that I sensed what she had hidden with them. Her hope may be that I can pass on the beautiful objects without ever knowing what they disguise. My investigation into our family has ruined any chance of that. I will assume both the objects and the trauma when she’s gone.
I have a small nagging worry that the buddhas and their invisible baggage will overcrowd my own junk. I’m terrified that my closet and mental storage will be depleted before I have the time to fill it with objects, experiences, and trauma of my own. This is why part of me would be deeply relieved if I incinerate the buddhas, but I feel guilty visualizing their baby faces being swallowed by flames. I still have time to make my decision—my grandmother has not died yet, and fewer buddhas may remain if Mom deals with the objects when she does. Mom could take a sledgehammer to the buddhas and I wouldn’t blame her. I can imagine her wild hair whipping as she destroys them in slow-motion, porcelain shattering, glitter in the air, a piece of a smile here, a crinkled eye there. But she and I both know the past will not be obliterated with them. That part is ours to forever know and keep.
I don’t know if I’m brave enough to take inventory of my junk, though I may have to if it’s as extensive as my grandmother’s is by the time I reach my “death-cleaning” phase. I’m nervous that even if I catalogue my objects, that unlike her, I simply won’t be able to tell what holds meaning anymore. When I am her age, it will be easier to give up than to sieve through huge, towering piles of garbage. But there is something almost comforting in the idea that everything I collect in my life will be exploded and dispersed among living people in some kind of identity estate sale. A Big Bang of my self. I will continue to haunt the earth as it all erodes away into plastic sand, circling in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch like the spinning arms of the galaxy.
* * *
In recent months, my grandmother has become more and more paranoid about her death. This summer, unimaginably, she began to sort out her will and determine what to give away. Mom calls it “death-cleaning.” My cousins helped, picking out the broken chairs and wobbly-legged tables, examining each buddha and tagging it either for re-storage or landfill. Because of her frequent additions to the collection, sometimes it’s unclear whether a buddha is an authentic antique or a recent fifteen-buck Goodwill buy. She sometimes does not remember, either. She spent entire afternoons with her stuff as it was being divided. At first, I thought it was to say goodbye to the objects, but really it was to greet the feelings that had resurfaced from the dust and mentally store them again before they were too exposed. Amidst the junk, she sifted out some meaningful things, mostly stories—ones she is extremely reluctant to share with me.
Yesterday, she had a procedure to check for abnormalities in her lungs. She spent the past week coughing up wads of blood big enough to read like tea leaves. When she came home, I told her that I was planning to write a piece about her buddhas, and she asked if I would translate it into Japanese. She thinks I’m writing an ode to their beauty. You should see the ones at Alewa Heights, she said, which is another of her storage sites. Magnificent, wistfully. I did not tell her I never plan to go.