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Phil Kaye, performing at Gray Area in San Francisco, CA.
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Transcript provided by YouTube (unedited)
– Ojichama is what I call my Japanese grandfather.
In 1945, his Tokyo home was burned to the ground.
Grampy is what I call my American grandfather.
In 1945 he was serving on the USS Shangri-La,
sending off American planes
to burn down Japanese houses.
Our jaws have not yet healed.
Grampy’s father is hiding in an oven.
He doesn’t know the irony of that yet.
He has heard men singing on the streets below.
Hyenas, my family calls them.
After celebration drinks and song,
the outside townspeople come in to the Jewish ghetto
for a celebration beating,
molar fireworks and eyelid explosions.
Even when Grampy’s father grows up,
the sound of sudden song breaks his body into a sweat.
Fear of joy is the darkest of captivities.
My father, a long-haired student
with a penchant for sexual innuendo,
meets Reiko Hori, a well-dressed banker
who forgets the choruses to her favorite songs.
12 years later, they give birth to a lanky light bulb.
1999. My mother speaks to me in Japanese.
Most days, I don’t have the strength
to ask her to translate the big words.
We burned that house down, Mother.
Don’t you remember?
In the heart of the city,
there’s a Jewish cemetery, the only plot of land
where Grampy’s ancestors were allowed to be buried.
When they ran out of room, they had no choice
but to stack dead bodies, one on top of another.
Now there are hills
made from graves piled 12 deep,
individual tombstones jutting out crooked,
like valiant teeth emerging from a jaw left to rot.
1985, my parents’ wedding.
The two families sit together,
smiling wider than they need to.
Montague must be so happy.
We can Capulet this all go.
1999, I sit with Grampy’s cousin,
91 years old and dressed in full military uniform.
He says, “Hate is a strong word,
but it is the only strength that I have left.
How am I to forgive the men
that severed the trunk of my family tree
and used its timber to warm the faces
of their own children?”
2010, Grampy and I sit together
watching his favorite: baseball.
Grampy sits on his wheelchair,
teeth gasping out of his gums like valiant tombstones
emerging from a cemetery left to rot.
The teeth sit staring, and I can read them:
Louie Bergman, killed at Auschwitz.
Sarah Liz, killed at Dachau.
William Kaye, killed at the coast of Okinawa.
“I will never forget what has happened
to our family, Grampy.”
And he looks at me with the surprised innocence
of a child struck for the first time.
“Phillip, forgetting is the only gift I wish to give you.
I have given away my only son,
trying to bury my hate in a cemetery
that is already overflowing.
There are nights I am kept awake
by the birthday songs of children
I chose not to let live.
They all look like you.
A plague on both your houses.
They have made worms’ meat of me.”
This post was previously published on YouTube.
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