My mother, sister and I left for New York City in April 2001, when I was nine years old. We got rid of just about everything before we left, because shipping things to America was more expensive than buying it there. We said goodbye to the couch, to the table, to the chairs, to the car, to the shelves, to the books, to our clothes, to our shoes, to our toys, to the silverware, to the dishes, to the pots and pans, to the TV, to the rugs, to the house, to the everything except for very important but very tiny things that could fit into suitcases.
“But I want to take all of my pinecones!”
My sister is standing as tall as she could in her small, six-year-old frame, the edges of her toes turning white from her firmly planted feet on the tatami-floor. She is wearing a blue dress dotted with white flowers, a hand-me-down from me, which was a hand-me-down from my cousins. She wore dresses exclusively when she was five and six years old because she’d found pants too restricting. “I can’t run as fast in pants!” she’d complained, when my mother tried to put her in a pair of shorts for her preschool 運動会 1. “でもスカートだとパンツ丸見えだよ。いいの？2” But my sister couldn’t care less. My mother looks down at her daughter, wondering how so much could be contained in such a small body. This second daughter of hers is a storm—there is no fighting back, just sheltering for impact. “だからぜんぶは無理だから一つか二つ選びなさい 3。”
Rage is filling my sister’s small frame now. Burning tears roll down her cheeks and make dark spots on her blue dress. My mother braces herself. “ヤダヤダヤダ！！ぜんぶもってくもん！！4”
I don’t know the reason my sister started collecting pinecones. She’s always loved being outside, and she would often run around the neighborhood catching bugs or pulling flowers or making 泥団子 5 with her friend Yuto.
She probably didn’t know much about pinecones. Just that they’re shaped funny and they’re exciting to collect in the front basket of her bicycle. She probably didn’t know that pinecones actually have a very important function: to keep pine tree seeds safe. That they close their scales to protect the seeds from cold temperatures, wind, and animals that might try to eat them. That some pinecones even need a fire to open up. Or that throughout the span of recorded human history, they have served as a symbolic representation of Human Enlightenment, the Third Eye and the Pineal Gland. That the pinecone is at the top of the Egyptian Staff of Osiris, in the hand of a sculpted Hindu god, in the hand of a statue of Chicomecoatl the ancient Mexican god, and a giant bronze sculpture made by the ancient Romans. That even in modern religion, a pinecone sits atop the sacred staff carried by the Pope himself.
She didn’t know any of that, of course. She probably just liked how it felt when she ran her finger across its bumpy surface.
My sister is stamping her feet as she screams, creating small vibrations on the floor that travels to where I am sitting. I feel a tiny earthquake.
My mother lays out the pinecones that once occupied my sister’s bicycle basket on the floor between them. Ignoring my sister, she starts sorting them, as though each of them had a unique feature. They all look the same, except maybe their size.
My mother glances up at me, seeking help. It’s been like this since my sister became old enough to utter the word, “no.” I had a duty as neutralizer whenever they came into conflict, and usually, I succeeded in getting my sister to calm down. The two of them were too similar: their conflict would rise and rise until it became unbearable, and I would step in to dissolve it. “ジューちゃん一緒に選ぼ！持ってけないやつはゆうとくんにあずければいいじゃん。ゆうとくんなら絶対面倒見てくれるから。6”
My sister pauses. She looks at me and sniffles. She nods deeply and crouches on the floor to examine the pinecones.
The three of us are now on the floor, gathered around the pinecones, helping my sister select the two that will join us on our trip to America. My sister inspects each pinecone very carefully. She picks one up, twists it around to get a view from every angle, puts it back down, picks up another. I don’t know what she is looking for, and I don’t ask. It’s probably not something she can explain with words, anyway.
Finally, she selects the two that she will be packed up in her suitcase along with some clothes that still fit her and shoes that will touch the concrete of New York City when we arrive. My mother gently puts away the rest of the pinecones in a plastic bag and tells my sister to put on her shoes so they could walk over next door to Yuto’s house. My mother is probably thinking of how she needs to apologize to his mother, for cluttering her home with a random assortment of pinecones.
When they leave, I examine the pinecones my sister has hand selected. The ones that will fly across the Pacific with us. I twist it around like my sister had, looking at it from every angle, but I can’t find anything special about either of them. They’re just pinecones.
1 Undoukai: annual Sports Day held at all schools in Japan, where students compete in various athletic competitions and the parents watch
and cheer them on. It’s usually a day-long event, though in preschool it was probably just a few hours.
2 Demo sukato dato pantsu marumie dayo. Iino?: But if you wear a skirt everyone would see your underwear. You’re ok with that?
3 Dakara zenbu wa muri dakara hitotsu ka futatsu erabinasai: I’m telling you, you can’t bring them all, so you have to choose one or two.
4 Yada yada yada!! Zenbu mottekumon!!: No no no!! I want to bring them all!!
5 Doro dango: mud cakes
6 Juu-chan isshoni erabo! Mottekenai yatsu wa Yuto-kun ni azukereba iijan. Yuto-kun nara zettai mendou mitekureru kara: Juu-chan (nickname for Judith) let’s choose them together! The ones you can’t take, you can ask Yuto-kun to look after. I’m sure he’ll take great care of them.
seeing in the dark
“Well, this got dark.”
This is the reaction my sister has upon reading my writing for the first time.
I am upset and hurt by her reaction. I’ve covered the walls of my bedroom with my writing, and she has chosen to read just a few sentences and call them “dark.”
A part of the reason I am upset is because her words are true. My writing does “get dark.” It’s filled with sadness, which catches people who know me by surprise, because in person, I am bright and smiling and always trying to make people laugh.
Darkness is not a language we spoke growing up. Our mother, whose life was filled to the rim with sadness, refused to expose her darkness to us. Still refuses. She sat with it for so long that she closed it up, built a gate around it, and stopped engaging with it at all. It was an act to protect herself and her children, but for me, it has often felt stifling and so, so lonely.
The denial, the suppression of sadness wears me down. Rust has grown around my heart. I need to learn how to see in the darkness, instead of flying thoughtlessly towards the light like a moth, only to be zapped into an unconsciousness. I need to train my eyes to navigate through a world that is without light half of the time.
I write about darkness because I do not know how to speak about it.
I confront my sister about her comment. The way it stung, the way it made me feel completely alone. I ask her, “But can’t you also see the beauty? It’s not just about the darkness, I was hoping to create beauty out of all of the sadness I’ve—we’ve experienced.”
Judith stays silent for a while. The room is swallowed in darkness, with the light-blocking shades pulled down over my window. It’s 2 am and we are sharing a bed because the new apartment is not big enough to hold an extra guest bed, and she doesn’t visit frequently enough to warrant a pullout. My body is warming hers; hers is warming mine, and it feels like we are kids again, when we slept in the same bed with a nightlight always, because Judith was afraid of the dark.
“Yeah. I get that.” Behind her voice are thoughts traveling across her vast mind. I am relieved that she has stopped giving me thoughtless and avoidant statements.
“I just… I don’t know. I think we need to acknowledge that our lives were not easy. But that out of whatever darkness we lived through, so much good came out of it, too.”
We lay there for a while, in silence, both of us trying to see in the dark.
The next day, after our talk about darkness, my sister and I sit on the couch with a hot cup of coffee in our hands. It’s 3 PM, and she is going back to North Carolina tomorrow.
For whatever reason, during our conversation, Judith brings up the pinecone collection she had in Japan. I tell her, “I wrote a piece about that.”
She looks a little flattered, and I ask her, “Why do you think you started collecting pinecones?”
“I don’t really know. But I do remember thinking there aren’t going to be any pinecones in America, and that’s why I wanted to bring them here so badly.”
I feel as though I am looking through the window of a stranger’s home.
“But then we moved here and we went to the park and I saw pinecones everywhere. And there were different kinds of pinecones, even. Some were big, some were small, some had spikes… I remember feeling so happy.”
She had already found beauty in the darkness. She knew how to do it without thinking about it. She could do it without writing about it. For a brief moment, I feel jealous. I have to write pages and pages of darkness to find the beauty. Sometimes, I have to write about the same moment over and over again. But the jealousy turns into admiration. Judith is able to see beauty everywhere. She already knows how to see in the dark. She has always slept with a nightlight.
Rebecca Suzuki was born and raised in a small town outside of Nagoya, Japan until she immigrated with her mother and sister to NYC at the age of nine. She recently graduated from CUNY Queens College with an MFA in literary translation and creative writing, and currently teaches English there.