Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Laying My Grandmother to Rest

This morning, I learned that my grandmother passed away.

She died June 10, 2011.

I last saw her in the late 1990s, I don't remember exactly when.

The only thing that Fujiko did well was survive.  She didn't know how to love.  She didn't know to comfort.  She only knew how to lie, cheat, and play you along for a fool.  Everyone thought she was just a sweet old Japanese lady who was lost in a complicated Western society, but she was much more smart than that. She survived growing up with the Japanese incarnation of Satan.  She survived the Allied Bombing of Tokyo.  She survived sex slavery and domestic slavery for 50 years.  And dying at age 93 is a testament to her skills.

"Stee-vuh" she would cry into my telephone answering machine.  "E-muh-gen-cee!!  E-muh-gen-cee!  I need-a help!!"

Her Japanese accent was still so thick even in her 80s.

I never answered the phone in those days, electing to let the answering machine answer it.  My grandmother knew that of me, and did her best get me to pick up the phone.

And it's always same thing.  

"I got a letter from Cleveland."

Cleveland, Ohio was where the Defense Department administered its retirees.  It was so important for her to know what was going on with Cleveland because her husband's Air Force retirement was largely all that supported her.  

Donald Lee Plato wasn't my grandfather, but her second husband.  It was in the late 1940s in post-war Japan that Fujiko met Donald.  Donald was in the Air Force, stationed in Tokyo.  In the early 1940s, Fujiko had run a beauty salon in Tokyo.  It was actually her father's beauty salon, he bought it so that she could have a job to do.  He collected the money and gave her a stipend to support herself and her two daughters.

The father of her two daughters, my real grandfather, was fighting in the Japanese Army, somewhere out in Manchuria.

But in 1945, the Allies rendered her beauty salon into rubble.

So without a job, Fujiko turned back to her father, who was actually very wealthy from a successful career as an architect.  So, he turned her into a prostitute and pimped her out to American soldiers in Tokyo.  He collected the money, and gave her a stipend to support herself and her two daughters.

When his brother found out about this, he intervened.  He was a high ranking official in the Tokyo Police Department.  He gave her a job as an informant, spying on illegal drug activity.  He told her where to go, who to watch, and what to report.  

Around 1949, about four years after the end of WWII, her husband came back from Manchuria.  But he was badly injured, suffering some kind of sickness, and afflicted with PTSD.  He slept all day, and was unable to do anything for himself.  But by then, Fujiko had already divorced him.  Because he never sent a word back all the years he was away, she assumed he was killed in action, and convinced the Court to annul the marriage.  But she took him back in and supported him with the money she earned as an informant.

Eventually, a gang of thugs caught on to her spying activities, and beat the hell out of her.  They wrapped her body in a bamboo rug, and tossed her into the Arakawa River to die.

When she freed herself from the rug, and reported back to her Uncle (the one who gave her the job), he told her that she could no longer stay in Japan, or else risk being caught by the gang and being killed for certain.

So, she looked up Donald, whom she had sold herself for sex numerous times in her prostitution days.  He agreed to marry her and take her back to the States.  The caveat was that she had to serve him as a domestic slave, which she agreed to.

Fujiko took her two daughters to her father, and left them with him, and then left Japan with Donald.

My mother grew up with her grandfather, who was perhaps the Japanese incarnation of Satan.  The man had already beaten Fujiko her entire life, then pimped her out.  And now he had his hands on my mother and her younger sister.  Despite his wealth, he never provided my mother and her sister with food and clothing.  They tended his little farm, grew their own food, and sewed their own clothes.  My mother never forgave her mother her leaving her with him.

My grandmother's first marriage. Her father standing above-right with the bow-tie. He arranged this marriage to ensure his surname would carry on.  Fujiko was his first-born, and he didn't have any sons.  Fujiko's husband (seated to her right) was required to take her surname.
At 16, my mother ran away from home and survived on the streets of Yokohama. It wasn't until she was 24 that she married my father, a sailor in the US Navy.

In 1972, my mother took citizenship classes in San Diego.  I was six years old then.  By some strange twist of fate, her mother was attending the same citizenship class.  The instructor called out role, and she heard him say, "Fujiko".  She turned to look, and saw an older Japanese woman, who looked something like the photo of her mother.

I remember when Fujiko, Donald, and their four-year old daughter Susan, came to visit us for the first time.

Susan and I were playing in my bedroom, and I don't know why, but as a six year old, I felt a sudden urge to kiss her, and planted one.  She jumped up from the bed, ran into the living room to tell everyone that I had kissed her.  I was so embarrassed.

When I was seven, my mom and her mom had the biggest fight ever.  It was my birthday party.  Fujiko was drunk as could be, cussing and swearing in front of the other kids.  My mom bitched her out and then kicked her out.  It was just the opportunity my mom needed to really get all the anger out.  Another couple of years went by before we saw my grandmother again.

In the 1990s, Donald suffered a stroke that left him a quadriplegic.  He lay in a rolling bed in their living room.  He was now at Fujiko's mercy.  And Fujiko showed no mercy.  Yelling at him, hitting him, ignoring him, humiliating him, she gave back everything she owed him after decades of domestic slavery.

One day, at my mother's request, I visited them.  She only wanted me to help her get her finances in order.  Fujiko brought out a cardboard box filled Donald's sex paraphernalia.  There were photos of him and his girlfriends.  There were sex toys.  She picked up a sex toy and held it in the air so that Donald could see it, and he shook his head in anger, but was incapable of moving or saying anything.

"He like sucka" she said.  "He want me to do sucka.  But I no do sucka.  That's soooo bad.  So, he have girlfriend who do sucka."

She shook her head, and pointed the sex toy at him with an angry look.

I felt sorry for her.  This was a woman who never had anyone love her.  Even her daughters hated her for abandoning them in Japan.  Her husband treated her like trash.  The daughter they had together, Susan, hated her too.  As a result, she didn't know how to love.  

The only thing that could make her cry was the memory of her own mother.  Four-year old Fujiko had innocently remarked to her father that "I have two daddy's!"  It turns out her mother was having sex with another man.  Immediately, her father divorced her mother, and took her and her younger sister away, never to see her mother again.  She didn't even have a photo of her mother.  Fujiko spent the rest of her life blaming herself for that divorce.

I remember her crying on my shoulder when she told me about her mom.  And I, with my loneliness and emptiness of growing up, didn't have ability to comfort her.

Fujiko ended up using me too.  She wanted me to review paperwork from Cleveland, and advise how to proceed.  I gave her advice, but she wouldn't take it.  She'd only compare it to advice given to her by several other people, and then take a consensus.  It made me feel insignificant.

And I never felt close to her anyway.  My mother largely kept me away from her because of her inability to forgive her.  I wish I could find something positive to say about my grandmother, but all that I can come up with is that she was a product of her environment.

On the highways I travel through the United States and see old decaying buildings covered with vines, and find her memory.  Rusted signs of obsolete soft drinks remind me of times when I was a kid that she'd offer me a can of Bubble-Up or a Nesbitt Grape Soda.  I pass by and wonder if my grandmother is hiding inside the musty, dusty chambers of abandoned gas stations.  She never seemed like the type to spread her wings and soar into the clouds.  She'd only hide behind a facade and make you feel sorry for her.

I stopped visiting my grandmother somewhere in the late 1990s and subsequently lost contact with her.

It was a couple years ago that my mom and I were talking about her.

"She's probably dead by now", I told her.

It turns out I was right.



  1. Such a sad story! My heart goes out to you, your mom and your grandmother. Not because your grandmother is dead but because of all she suffered, and how she passed that on to you and your mother.

    It seems that in order to survive, your grandmother had to lie, cheat and steal. She could not afford to love nor did she know how. I suspect she walled herself off at a very early age.

    I think one other positive thing you could say, other than she was a product of her environment, is that she was one helluva strong lady. And like it or not, you have her DNA - and that is probably a part of your own strength and independent thinking.

    Thank you for sharing your story and the beautiful photo of your grandparents' wedding day. It points out that we never know what people are experiencing in their lives, all we see in a photo is one brief moment captured - and a moment that is easily camouflaged to disguise inner despair.

  2. Wow Steve, what a sad but interesting story. Thanks for sharing it. Hope you're ride is going well and you continue to find things in yourself that need to be said.

  3. Thank you for sharing such a personal story. I hope writing it helped you to work through some of your feelings toward your grandmother. She had to be a strong person to endure the things she did. I imagine that both you and your mom are also very strong people. I admire your courage.

    My mother-in-law was from Okinawa and she told my wife and I horrific stories of the war and the things she had to endure as a young girl. It was a different world to be sure. It's sad that human beings can inflict so much emotional and physical pain on one another, especially on those we call "family".

    Thank you for your honesty. ~Curt

  4. Thanks for sharing the story and sad for you that the relationship was not better. She was thrown in to the wolves and the survival instinct became a normalcy. I'm guessing that whenever she tried to love it always wound up the same so she just made up her mind to survive and she was strong for that.

  5. That is an amazing story. I'm sorry for your loss... not so much for your grandmother's passing, but that you didn't have a loving relationship with her. Thank you for sharing such a personal story.

    1. Came here to say what Kathy said. I'm sorry for your loss.

  6. Wow! That's pretty powerful. One could make a movie of that. She did not have a good life. Sad she did not know how to love. My dad from a broken home too did not know how to love. Sad I don't really miss him. At times I feel guilty about it for what ever reason.

  7. The hardest lesson of life may be to learn that most cold, hard people weren't born that way... life, beyond their control, turned them into what they were. Though they seem to be raging directly at us, in truth they scream at the world, and their fears that what they love now, or would, will also turn on them... so they scream it away to protect themselves from any more.

    Some, for unknown reasons are taken by the "dark" side, and seem evil from a very young age... but most, are only the combination of scars inflicted by a ruthless world.

    It's taken me a long time to find much, if any, forgiveness in my own world.

    Steve and Tina... you're finding a clear road. Enjoy it.

  8. They say that which does not kill us makes us stronger, but I don't think that is necessarily true. Those that have had an inexplicably hard life can become hardened as a means of survival and it sounds as though that is what your grandmother did. Doesn't make it right or wrong, it just was.

    Thank you for taking the time to share the story, it couldn't have been an easy one to type out.

  9. Steve:

    it took guts to write what you wrote. Sometimes it's better to let it out and to relieve the stress building up inside. I thought my life was bad coming from an unloving home. It took many years for me to realize that it wasn't me and even now I often show lack of emotion even though I am happy inside.

    none of us can change what has happened. we can only move forward. You have a good life now and that's all that matters.

    Riding the Wet Coast


About Steve

A vagabond who hauls a motorcycle around the country in a toy hauler, earning a living as a website developer. Can often be found where there's free Wi-Fi, craft beer, and/or public nudity. (Read more...)