By Susan Ito
“During this time of COVID-19, I miss my aunt more than ever. I know she would be telling Alexa to give her the latest updates. We’d be on the phone daily. I’m relieved not to worry about her health, but sad not to tell her about her new grand-niece, my daughter’s child, born at our family home on day three of sheltering in place.”—Susan Ito
My aunt’s first words to me, 10 seconds into our phone call, were “Welcome to the family.”
Of course, she had always been my aunt. But I didn’t know her, and she didn’t know that I existed. Neither of us knew that her brother, presumed childless, had fathered me. It wasn’t until a plastic test tube of saliva revealed a “close DNA relative” that the family tree burst out of a decades-long fog, and her branch, laden with relatives, came into focus.
I had been adopted by Japanese American parents, raised as an only child. Half-white, half-Japanese, a hapa girl, or as my parents called me, hambun-hambun. Half and half. People asked, “What’s your other half?” and all I could respond with was “white people.” I didn’t know who and what they were. I knew nothing of my Japanese birth mother, either, until I tracked her down when I was 18. None too pleased to be found, she insisted on a two-way secrecy for decades until she stopped speaking to me, cutting off the thin branch of her family I had clung to. I asked too many questions, wanted too much. Nobody was allowed to know that I was her daughter. And I was not allowed to know about the man who fathered me. “My children,” she called the daughter and son she had with the man she eventually married. “A friend of the family,” I was called. I remained a “friend” for decades, until I was no longer even that.
I drove up to my aunt’s house for the first time and she was standing on the front porch, her arms extended wide, in the universal sign of welcome. And there it was, the nose I had always disliked on me, on my aunt’s face. It wasn’t like any nose I’d ever seen. A short-term boyfriend had once compared it to an acorn. But when I saw her acorn nose, I fell in love with it. It had popped out of a mold, and it was the same as mine.
“Who is the mother?” Her first question to me. Who was this person who had borne a child by her brother? How could she not have known? But how could she have known, if her own brother didn’t know? It’s doubtful my mother ever told him. “Do you think I might know her?” As it turns out, my aunt did know my birth mother. They had worked together in the same building. They were pregnant at the exact same time. My cousin, her son, was born two weeks after me.
Now, my aunt was living in the same small, Midwestern town, in a pretty house with a front porch with rocking chairs. She directed me to the second floor and told me to put my suitcase in the room with blue wallpaper. “That was your great-grandmother’s bed, you know,” she casually called up the stairs. “Your grandmother was born in that bed.” I stroked the wooden footboard of the antique four-poster bed. My grandmother. My great-grandmother. How openly she shared this. I was going to sleep in the bed where my father’s mother had been born.
I slept at my birth mother’s home just once. She’d shown me to the TV room with a fold-out couch, and made it up with a puffy Japanese quilt, a pink and yellow cloud. I’d later learn, from my half-sister, that this quilt had come from her mother, my maternal grandmother, purchased in Little Tokyo. But she never told me. I saw framed sepia photographs of Japanese people on the high shelves above the sofa bed, but I was reluctant to ask who they were. Relatives, certainly. Grandparents, probably. She would never tell me their names. But decades later, at the Japanese American Museum, I pored through a roster of the hundred thousand war internees. My finger found her name, and then theirs. I whispered their names to myself, this forbidden knowledge.
Later that first night at my aunt’s house, she gave me a spiral bound book of family history dating back to the Civil War. Letters and diaries, and a many-branched family tree unfolding over a dozen pages. Their names spilled over and I absorbed them hungrily: the Cranes, the Hawks. . .so many others.
No pictures of my mother, of course. But she had been right there in that little town in 1959, an unmarried, pregnant Japanese woman, hiding her growing belly from her colleagues. The second day of my visit, my newfound cousin drove us to the building where she had worked with my aunt. My shoes echoed on the marble floor. I gazed at the ornate ceiling and imagined floating as a fetus within her, within these walls. I had been there before. The click of shoes on the marble. I had known this sound from before I entered the world.
Perhaps I had known other sounds, too. The sound of my aunt’s voice, her unmistakable laugh. My father’s voice. My aunt gifted me his old microscope, one of the few physical belongings he left behind. He had once been a biology professor. I had studied biology and science as an undergraduate, and my younger daughter was a biology major. I stroked the dark patina of the solid metal, imagining him peering through the scope at invisible worlds.
When I was a 20-year old adoptee, searching for my roots, I received a paltry accounting of “non-identifying information” from a social worker at my adoption agency. One tidbit they offered was that my paternal grandfather had been a mortician and had run a funeral home. When I first made contact with my aunt, she confirmed this fact and told me her family had lived on the third floor of the funeral home, much like Veda in the 1990s movie My Girl. For decades before I met her, I’d dreamt of a big old house with stairwells that led up and up. It was still standing blocks from her home. We drove by in my rental car and I gasped: this was the house from my dreams. I recognized it instantly.
My aunt said, “If only I’d known. I would have raised you.” Of course she would have. She was a collector of people, a person who held her arms out to many. To a young man from Liberia that she met in a chat room and then convinced her church to sponsor. She brought him to the States where he studied nursing, married, and gained American citizenship. Or a Guatemalan teenager whose father was deported by ICE and needed a home. He found in my aunt a loving grandmother figure, and a kitchen table on which to do his homework. Those words, “I would have raised you” warmed and terrified me simultaneously. She was saying I was family, unquestioningly. But if she had raised me, then what of my adoptive parents? They had taken me home, loved me, had showed me what it meant to be Japanese, to be an Ito. My family. I was both moved and stunned to imagine what it would have been like to grow up in this tiny Midwestern town, this European descended family.
I had aunts in my adoptive Japanese family, too. They were all aunts by marriage, married to my parents’ brothers. One of them I thought of as my Thanksgiving aunt—we only saw her once a year, when she bustled around our kitchen layering small marshmallows onto sweet potatoes or hefting the giant turkey. She raised generations of silky-eared English Springer Spaniels. That aunt and I never had a conversation alone, just the two of us, only hugs at the door to say hello and goodbye. The other two, married to my mother’s brothers, became bitterly estranged from my mother, and by extension, from me, for decades. The last aunt, the wife of my father’s kid brother, is my favorite. When I was young, the only child, she sat and colored with me expertly, sharing a giant box of Crayolas, blending and shading like an artist. Now, I send her fancy adult coloring books in her retirement home across the country. She tells me about her singing group and the hula dances she performs, even now in her nineties. When I traverse the distance to see her, she orders in chirashi sushi and chicken.
I won’t be traveling to see my biological aunt again. I won’t be talking with her about who she might vote for in the Democratic primary or sharing a simple meal of eggs and toast. She died a few months ago. We had known each other for three years. Three years, three visits. When I learned that she had cancer, I was shattered. It felt grossly unfair that we would have so little time, so soon after finding her. I wept and screamed and broke things. I raged at my birth mother who had kept my father’s family hidden from me for decades. Who cut off communication with me the moment I told her about the DNA results that had led me to my paternal roots.
Before her death, my aunt and I spoke at least once a week. We talked about the presidential candidates, about our favorite shows on Netflix and Hulu, about our heartaches and worries, our bodies and favorite foods and family. We were in sync. I loved her boisterous laugh coming out of my phone. “Hey, honeybunch!”
Her bedroom served as a grand receiving room. She would hold court from her bed, while loved ones sprawled on pillows next to her, or in a loveseat nearby. She ordered Alexa around from her bed. She was such a boss of Alexa. “Alexa, what time is it?” “Alexa, when is Cory Booker coming to town?” “Alexa, play me some Frank Sinatra.”
Four months before she died, I met my aunt’s son, who had at first been so wary of me, who thought I might be scamming his mom. We had been born less than a month apart. Our parents were siblings, but nobody knew this except my birth mother. Her pregnant belly had been disguised by girdles and loose clothing, while my aunt waddled openly, her hand cupping her roundness. My mother knew that these two growing wombs were related, that she and my aunt were growing cousins. This cousin, a long-distance athlete, rode his bicycle 30 miles to meet me, and we finally came together in a sweaty hug, 6 decades later. He told me that he’d been concerned about his mother’s instant openness, her willingness to take me in, no questions asked, but as soon as he saw my face, he knew. “You’re one of us.”
This cousin and I sat in my aunt’s bedroom while she directed us in the details of her funeral. She asked me to hand-letter the memorial program. She sang a selection of songs she wanted: “Born in the night, Mary’s child. . .” She pointed to herself. “That’s me. Mary’s child.” Then at me. “Your grandmother. Mary. She was the sweetest human.”
During our last visit, just as I was leaving for the airport, my aunt remarked, “I love that top you’re wearing. Where did you get it?” It had come from a Japanese boutique in northern California’s wine country, and it would be months before I’d be able to go back. The chances of finding a duplicate garment were slim to none. I stripped it off on the spot and handed it to her.
She and I laughed in our bras, next to her front door. She wriggled into my shirt, loose with abstract indigo ovals like giant amoebas, a crisscrossing of red lines like barbed wire. It looked fabulous on her. “I love it,” she said.
“It’s yours,” I responded. It was one of my favorite pieces of clothing. “Just—if you ever don’t need it. . .” I said. I didn’t want to say if you die. “Please don’t let it go to Goodwill. If you don’t want it or need it, could you send it back? Or tell someone else to?” I unzipped my suitcase and took out another top to wear to the airport. I looked at her, so happy in my clothes. I didn’t want to think that it was the last time. “I’ll come back in January,” I promised. But she died in November.
When I went to her house after the funeral, the top was hanging in her closet in a dry-cleaner bag, along with another outfit I’d gifted her earlier from the same store. She and I loved the same kind of loose, artsy looking tops, unrestricting and flowy. When I wear it now, I feel her body against mine. I love that she inhabited my clothing, that this fabric enveloped us both. I see us laughing in her living room, our shirts off.
I feared that once my aunt was gone, the rest of her family would float away too, and once again I would be unmoored. They had been unfailingly kind and welcoming on each of my visits, quick to say “I’m glad you’re here,” but would they be calling me every week? Would they be stripping off their clothes to share outfits with me? Detailing every moment of their favorite television series? Calling me honeybunch?
They included me, when she died, in all the ways that mattered. Her daughter, my cousin a few years younger than me, called me from the hospital to let me know of her sudden decline, that she had been transferred to the hospice floor and that the end was soon. I crumpled over my phone on the floor of the Las Vegas airport, my heart broken. She died two days later.
My husband came with me to the funeral, but as soon as we landed, he was stricken with the flu. I went alone to the cemetery and sobbed as the minister led prayers over a pitcher filled with flowers made from her colorful quilting scraps. Her pre-engraved headstone was only a few feet away from my birth father’s. She had brought me to his gravesite on my first visit. “Here’s your father,” she said. “I so wish he could have known you.” Later, she pointed out the field of relatives all within a short distance. Great-great-grandparents who had first come before the Civil War. During the church service, I met more cousins I’d never known, second- and third- and twice-removed. Many of them had the acorn nose. All of them embraced me.
Her last words to me, four days before she died, in a voicemail: “Anyway, don’t worry about me. Should I worry about you? Are you okay?” I wasn’t okay. She sensed through my text messages and my voice that I was exhausted and burnt out and hanging on by the most fragile of threads. I was wondering how one went about having a nervous breakdown so that one could be institutionalized. I was googling “sanatorium” and despairing that they didn’t seem to exist anymore. She knew.
The last time I visited, she was starting to dwindle. She slept for many hours during the day and had trouble eating. Every day, she promised we would go to Walmart to get pedicures. I couldn’t imagine such a thing. “It’s nice, it really is,” she said, but in the end she didn’t have enough energy. Instead, we stayed at home. I fixed her soft fried eggs on her favorite kind of toast and she ate it sitting up in bed, watching endless episodes of CSI:SUV. This was my 97-year old adoptive mother’s favorite show, too, and I was used to marathon viewings. My aunt loved my eggs. I was so happy to bring the plate to her bed, and to see her eat with pleasure. They were soft and buttery, easy to swallow through her tender mouth.
She gave me things: a photo album with pictures of my father as a baby. A photo of him as a toddler, crying because he was afraid of chickens. The microscope. A spiral bound book of family history with details like a listing of the 28 trees in the backyard. Locust, cucumber, dogwood, Tree of Heaven, Norway Maple, Kentucky coffee tree, Scotch pine, red cedar.
It feels cliché to say that three years were better than nothing. But it was true. Those years were suffused with love. Every interaction echoed you belong. Knowing my aunt for these three years healed a lifetime of erasure, secrecy and denial. Every time she declared, “This is my niece!” it took away the sting of being my birth mother’s anonymous friend of the family.
I designed the cover of her funeral program, just as she’d asked. It was a watercolor painting of her house, its triangle-on-a-box shape resembling a child’s classic drawing. I drew a tiny figure of her on the front porch, her arms outstretched in the universal position of welcome.