Kiyomi Kishaba is a junior with a double major in English and Communication, and a minor in Hispanic Studies. She also edits for the Mast newspaper and writes for the athletics department. When she’s not writing and editing, she’s probably swimming, dancing, or eating chocolate.
We arrived at the church, a portrait of my grandpa greeting us as we entered. Wire-framed glasses rested on a wide nose, reaching back and curling around the tops of his ears. His remaining hair was accented with gray, and he wore a dark suit with a brown tie. Sun spots freckled his skin, and a soft smile creased wrinkles alongside brown eyes. My dad has those brown eyes, and so do I.
“Let’s go inside, sweetie,” my mom said, pulling me away from the picture.
I stuck close to her as she led me past unrecognizable faces to our seats in the first pew. My grandma mingled with the guests: an assortment of church friends, karaoke friends, bowling friends, and relatives. I sat between my mom and cousin, waiting patiently for the service to start.
“Who even are these people?” my cousin whispered, gesturing to the congregation gathered in the small church.
“Apparently our grandpa had a lot of admirers,” I replied. We glanced back at the crowd as people began filing into their seats. Nerves began to sink in as I realized we had to speak in front of all these people, so I distracted myself by observing the building.
The church was plain, lacking those great sculptures and stained glass of Jesus and his deeds, but it welcomed our modest gathering. The simplicity reflected the humble personality of my grandpa and the church’s large Japanese community.
A Nisei (second generation) Okinawan whose social life is more lively than mine, my 83-year-old grandma is an active member of the church. It is here the Japanese community held their yearly Mochitsuki right before New Year’s, an event I have attended since I was a small child, where mochi is made traditionally through pounding and shaping by hand. She also volunteers at Daily Bread where she helps make sandwiches for the homeless, going as often as she can to offer her time and blessings.
Although my grandma’s Christianity was present throughout my life, the draw of religion confused me. I felt like I was on the outside trying to catch a glimpse of a lifestyle I couldn’t understand, but I was awed and humbled as I witnessed it. I didn’t know if I believed in God. After fourteen years of acting like God didn’t exist, even the consideration of praying felt wrong; all I knew was to start with “dear God” and end with “amen.”
Despite my aversion to practiced religion, I love being in ornate churches and taking in all the detailed acts of worship. Singing gospel in churches gives me chills. The open harmonies reflect off the stained glass windows, enveloping the audience in welcoming chords. Choir is why I end up in churches so often; the acoustics attract conductors and ministers are usually enthusiastic about supporting youth chorales. My grandpa’s funeral was the first time I entered a church to truly participate in a religious service.
The funeral was in Livingston, a rural town thirty minutes south of Turlock, a place my mom likes to call “the middle of nowhere, California.” The growing suburbia is surrounded by farmlands and the fragrance of cow manure, which infiltrates through doors and windows. My grandparents moved to Turlock from Sebastopol about twenty years ago. Their daughter, Annie, had passed away from a brain tumor, leaving behind a three-month-old baby girl and a grieving husband. My grandma helped raise the baby, my first cousin, in this small town that became their home.
Throughout the fourteen years I’d visited my grandma’s tidy house, hardly anything had changed. Paintings and pictures I could describe from memory decorated the white walls which led into the living room and kitchen. On the walk from the sewing room, where I normally sleep, to the kitchen, I’m greeted by the smiling faces of my grandma’s children: Annie, my dad, and my other aunt. Sometimes I stopped to inspect the younger version of my father and wonder why he used to have shoulder length hair, and then my eyes would drift to Annie. My middle name, Ann, is in honor of her. She died before I was born, but my cousin has the same smile.
I remember watching my dad read a story he wrote about the first family reunion shortly after she died. He wrote of holding his baby niece overlooking the open beach, hearing the chatter of family cooking and laughing. She smiled as he played peekaboo in time to the swells of the waves, eyes wide open against the blazing sun. The two-year-old knew nothing of Annie’s fatal tumor, that mass of abnormal cells pressing against his sister’s brain with no regard for the loved ones she’d left behind. But Annie was still there now, he reminded himself, within her perfect little daughter who looked up at him expectantly with Annie’s brown eyes. He glanced back at the gathering of family as they found joy in a time of sadness. A baby girl had joined the family, and her chubby cheeks left no room for tears.
Five years later, my grandpa was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The disease acted slowly, deteriorating his memories as old age deteriorated his body. He did Sudoku puzzles religiously, and I recall days of fishing with him and my dad, or playing poker in my grandparent’s dining room late into the night. I have memories, but I don’t remember who he was before Alzheimer’s.
The last weeks of his life were spent in hospice. My family and I visited during Christmas break, and I sat at his bedside listening to him snore. I placed my hand in his, then glanced at the cards and flowers sitting at his bedside table. As I began to read the covers, I felt a pressure against my palm. I froze as my grandpa gently squeezed my hand, and I desperately searched his face for any signs of consciousness. His eyes remained closed, but I wanted to believe he recognized my presence. I sat, holding his hand, wondering if I should pray.
The funeral service began with the minister speaking about my grandpa, then moving on to a eulogy by my father. My grandma had asked my cousin and me to prepare something to say at the funeral. We decided to write a humorous poem about our grandpa, reminiscing about his snoring, constant overfeeding of the dog, and champion bowling team. We had been taught to celebrate life, not mourn the loss of it. Although I had been a little worried about the comedic poem my cousin and I were about to read in a rather serious setting, my dad’s speech eased my fears. The audience laughed as my dad joked about my grandpa’s classic response to any question regarding his health or well-being: “Still here, aren’t I?”
I wondered if my grandpa was up in the sky, or wherever heaven is supposed to be, looking down at us and smiling along. Would God be with him, welcoming him to heaven? I’m sure there were many more deaths and funerals on that day. Would God be too busy for our small ceremony in the farmlands?
The minister led us in prayer, and we bowed our heads respectfully. I looked down at my plain black skirt and clasped hands. My eyes shifted down the pew, observing my grandma and father perched on the wooden bench, eyes closed. Concentration threaded across their faces, and a sigh of peace breathed through their bodies as the congregation uttered “Amen.” I remained silent. My grandma cast her gaze on the golden cross on the altar as though in conversation with God himself. She smiled, then stood, locking her arm through my dad’s and walking over to thank the minister. I wondered what she felt in that church, and why I didn’t feel it too.
We returned to my grandma’s house, ready to prepare food for the upcoming dinner reception. My cousin and I helped my grandma in the kitchen chopping vegetables for the salad, while my aunt and dad jostled for room on the stove. Tomo, my grandma’s dog, wandered about expectantly for scraps.
“I don’t think you want this zucchini, buddy,” I said.
He sat down, ears pressed back as his tail wagged expectantly. I shook my head, smiling as his eyes flitted between mine and the green zucchini clutched in my hand. I reached for the ever present jar of dog treats, laughing as Tomo bounced on his hind legs to grab it from my fingers.
“Hey, do you remember that time Grandpa ate a dog treat on accident?” I asked my cousin, chuckling at the memory.
“Oh, of course,” she responded. “He said it tasted like chicken!”
I glanced at the grey armchair sitting in the living room, my grandpa’s designated seat which was now occupied by Tomo. Sudoku books still rested on the coffee table, waiting to be solved.
“Kiyomi-chan, can you get door?” my grandma asked. I nodded, wiping off my hands before heading to relieve the restless doorbell. My relatives entered the home with hugs and kisses, asking where the best place would be to put down the trays of home-cooked food they brought along with them.
As more people arrived, my uncle settled in at the piano, playing songs from memory as my family and I began to gather around him. Copies of lyrics were passed around, and our voices raised in song. I sat perched on my dad’s lap, sharing the words to Moon River and giggling at his dramatic rendition. I joined in, matching the soprano tone of my aunt and grandma. Our sound filled the house, loud enough, I thought, it would’ve drowned out my grandpa’s snoring had he been asleep in his chair.
After a couple more songs, my grandma called us to dinner. As I left the piano room, my gaze met a familiar image of my aunt, Annie, dancing with my grandpa at her wedding. He faced her, showing the profile of a smile reflected on his daughter’s lips as they stood frozen mid-twirl. I imagined them swing dancing to “Brown Eyed Girl,” like my dad and I did at his cousin’s wedding. We spun and stumbled eloquently across the dance floor as I let my dad lead me through various new steps, laughing through my many mistakes. My aunt and grandpa laughed along to their own dance, watching us from their frame perched on the bookshelf surrounded by images of my cousins and family.
We gathered in the dining room, forming a large circle to say grace. I respectfully tilted my head down and grasped hands with my dad and cousin. It was as I stood, linked with my family in a bubble of happiness and good food, feeling my grandpa and aunt still there with us, where I understood the profound feeling I’d witnessed at the church that day.
I’ve heard people say God will make himself known when one truly believes. That faith is unfamiliar to me, but I imagine the connection between a worshipper and God includes love, and my grandma’s home is engulfed by it.
For me, the presence of God is the love I share with my family. God is my grandma volunteering at Daily Bread and cooking with my family in a too small kitchen. God is the harmony of voices as we sang at the piano, empowered by faith in the love that connects all of us. God lives among the smelly cows and dirt roads of Turlock, and my grandma’s house is the holiest place I know.
My grandma began to say grace, and my family joined her:
“God is great, God is good, let us thank him for this food.”
And for the first time, my voice joined with theirs: