- The Veterans Project Number Two
It’s Christmas Eve, two days after my husband and I have arrived in England to visit my family, when my mother, Hiroko Inoue Sherwin, comes down to the kitchen to tell me she’s just finished the first chapter of her latest book-in-progress. I want to embrace her, but my husband is laid up with the flu and Hiroko, in her midseventies, is frail; even though I have no symptoms, I can’t take the risk. So instead I beam and wave my cereal spoon at her and ask, gesturing at the sheaf of papers she’s holding, if that’s it, and is she ready for me to read it? [End Page 66]
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[End Page 67]
She nods. Then she says she’s hoping that I—“my daughter, the professor” is the phrase she uses—will not only read it but edit it, too.
I hesitate for barely an instant before saying I’d love to.
She says she’s lucky to have my help. She’s smiling, almost lit up—is that a trace of color on her cheeks?—at once tranquil and happy. If she’s worried about how I’ll judge the chapter or if she remembers the fights we had sixteen years earlier, when I as a thirty-year-old fledgling novelist helped revise the one other work in English that she’s written, there’s no sign.
My mother has eyes that turn down at the corners and the small, upturned nose of a child. She favors elegant, feminine clothes, velvet and lace and skirts that whisper against the floor; her manners, the legacy of her highborn parents, are impeccable. Throughout my life, people have told me how Japanese she seems—a reference to her accent but also to her air of reserve, which results from shyness more than anything else—and how tiny, how perfect. Like a China doll. Now in her old age, she’s still beautiful, but wispy as a smoke tendril. Since her late thirties she’s suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and it’s swollen her joints, ground down her cartilage and sapped her energy. Walking is an ordeal, typing a hit-or-miss affair; because her medication suppresses her immune system, every passing germ poses a threat. Five feet tall, she’s 91 pounds on a good day.
When I was a teenager, we clashed often, and she was stern and sometimes severe. But in the decades since, she has rarely been anything but gentle, and as she hands the pages over, I realize even I can be lulled into forgetting that beneath her fragility, refinement and self-effacing ways lies a core of steel and grit.
Hiroko was born in Japan in 1936, part of a generation whose earliest memories were shaped by the war. My two sisters and I were born and raised in Princeton but grew up hearing her stories: the B-29s that roared over her hometown of Nagoya, dropping bombs that leveled buildings and blew up bridges; the countryside, with its wide, swift river and brilliant rice paddies, where her mother took her, her sister and younger brother for safekeeping while Hiroko’s father and older brothers stayed in Nagoya to work in a munitions factory; and the hunger Hiroko and her siblings endured, and the diarrhea, hair loss and skin rashes they suffered because of malnutrition. [End Page 68]
When the war ended she was nine, and by the time she hit her teens, Japan had more or less recovered, and she was too preoccupied with schoolwork to dwell upon her childhood. Smart as well as driven, Hiroko wanted to go to a good university so she could study medicine, but her conservative parents refused. A woman’s job is to take care of her husband and children. She gave in, attending the women’s college they’d chosen for her and studying literature, but five years later she defied them: dismissing their protests that America was uncivilized, she moved to Boston to join her fiancé, a Tokyo native and promising young physicist, while he...