By Alexa Hatanaka
My Gramma (Mary), or Obachan (Mariko), has a small window display outside her room at the old age home, as each resident does, housing bits and bobs that identify her. She has some Japanese dolls; another lady across the hall has some tiny pictures of sailboats. I walk towards her space and past the shared TV room, where pale wrinkly men lie in reclined high-tech chairs, drooling. My Gramma’s bathroom wall blocks the view of her chair, so I first see her feet crossed and propped on the ottoman, very still. Every time I walk up to her room, I have this split second of lofted heaviness in my chest: I hope she is alive.
She inevitably is asleep and I smile thinking of her reaction when I wake her up, the same every time: her eyes so sweet and excited.
“My hands never used to be so twisted,” she explains, showing me her arthritic bulgy knuckles and spindly fingers. I can see her getting skinnier and skinner, hardly eating anything. She scrunches up her face and purses her lips, shaking her head in response to the food at the old age home. She was never a picky eater before. Hanging out with her downtown for the day as a kid, the only food I ever remember her eating was Arby’s. She always preferred hakujin food over Japanese food.
It’s harder and harder to keep a conversation going because of her hearing. Somehow the hearing aids have zero effect, so she often just takes them out. I bring small linoleum blocks to draw her on. This way, we can sit and smile at each other as I draw, instead of always straining to carry a conversation via jot note.
When I guiltily pack my backpack to go, she fusses over me being safe on my bike. I hate the thought of her sitting alone all day. She has always been so generous with her time, and she gifts her unabated smile to every person she engages with. How could it be that she fills the rest of her days drifting in and out of a nap, in a lonely chamber, with iron-on name tags on all of her socks?
“Udlaakut.” I say hello to each person I see entering the stone-cut shop at Kinngait Studios in Cape Dorset, Nunavut. I fold my leg underneath myself and sit on a stool, carving my linoleum block.
Minutes to coffee break, artists from the etching and lithography studio across the road start to filter over. I love that the studios aren’t connected. Every trip to the other side is met with freezing cold that is just bearable for the five seconds without a coat or mitts, provided you don’t fumble with the door knob.
The ladies gather around my table, the qallunaat linocutter, and remark that the old woman I am carving into my block looks like an Inuk. It’s a drawing of my Gramma sleeping. I like the vague sense of connection through my Gramma, to this place I love.
My Gramma was adopted, and she never had that struggle over who her biological parents were. Likewise, adoption is so common in Inuit culture that it generally doesn’t seem to come with the identity angst which is presumed to be commonplace for adopted kids. It’s beautiful to see adoptive family units live and breathe without question.
I like talking with the other artists about my Anaanatsiaq, but it makes me miss her. Every time I get busy or leave town I worry she will die.
When my parents email me to ask me to call, I know she is gone. My chest is tight thinking about what that moment was, what I was doing, when unknowingly, she left. I walk to the high school to use the phone and my upper lip stings with cold snot.
On the day of my Gramma’s funeral I walk out to the town’s snow-covered graveyard.
Meanwhile down south in Toronto, a white priest recites something in fluent Japanese to my family and Gramma’s many friends. Up north, white crosses made of two-by-fours nailed together, make disjointed fences along the tundra. Colourful plastic flower bouquets rest and are dusted with snow. The wind blows fast without obstacle. It picks up into a tornado and runs down the hill, pirouetting in a blur between the crosses and dispersing into the white landscape that seems to defy any vanishing point.
“Obachan” is “grandmother” in Japanese
“hakujin” is “white person” in Japanese
“qallunaat” is “non-Inuit” (typically white person) in Inuktitut
“Anaanatsiaq” is “grandmother” in Inuktitut (South Qikiqtaaluk)
Words and images by Alexa Hatanaka. Images are original linocut relief prints, 2015-2016. Alexa would like to acknowledge the funding support of the Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, and West Baffin Eskimo Co-op in the creation of the first three images above, at Kinngait Studios in Cape Dorset.
Alexa is ½ of artist collective PA System and the youth arts initiative Embassy of Imagination, with Patrick Thompson:
www.pasystem.org / @thepasystem / www.embassyofimagination.com