On the eve before my 21st birthday, I made a trip to visit my grandmother in Santa Monica. She had requested that I visit her before my official party the next day to discuss "something important". For many people of my generation, visiting family members is considered such a chore, but for me, it's an enjoyable experience. I've always been close to my family, especially Grandmother, who never ceased to spoil me rotten even when my parents begged her not to. Her arms - and her kitchen - are always open to her grandchildren, and I take full advantage any chance that I can.
Her spacious condominium by the sea shore had been a favorite destination of mine since childhood, simply because I found the traditional lifestyle of my grandparents to be so fascinating. You see, I am mostly Japanese, and despite the cultural assimilation my parents accepted, Grandmother and Grandfather always refused to change their ways. I have early memories of Grandmother in beautifully decorated kimono; her auburn hair and hazel eyes were muted enough to make the fabric's colors seem even more brilliant. In actuality, she is only 1/2 Japanese; my maternal great-grandfather was Irish.
I knew very little about my great-grandparents. My great-grandfather, Joseph Donahue, had died several years before I was born. Apparently he had been a corporal in the US army during World War II, and played a vital role in Japan's reconstruction thereafter. He had met my great-grandmother, Hoshi, in a hospital that some of his men were stationed at. After dating for about a year, they moved back to the United States and settled into a very typical Eisenhower-era domestic lifestyle. Hoshi worked at a dance studio and had actually been an instructor to several well-known stars in Hollywood. Sadly, by the time I was born, she had resorted to living out the remainder of her life in a tiny room of Grandmother's condo.
What few memories I have of Hoshi are very vivid ones. Even in her late '80s, she was a strong woman who had no trouble corralling all her descendents into one room to tell stories of her youth in Japan. "At one time, I was one of the most famous dancers in Kyoto", she would tell us, "Dancing has always been my passion. Nothing in this world sets your spirit free in quite the same way". Often she would take to showing us children some of her signature moves that had been perfected over the decades. My little brother, my cousins, and I would watch in amazement - this wrinkled little old lady could move with more grace and precision than someone a fraction of her age.
For some reason I was her favorite, and she often summoned me to her room to observe her gift of performance. It wasn't long before she began to give me many tips on how to become a great performer myself. "Mandy-chan, I want you to stand up straight", she'd tell me, "You have the body of a dancer, but you won't keep it if you continue to slouch". Then she would take a large folding fan, larger than any I had seen sold in department stores, and turn it into whatever she saw fit for it to be. Sometimes she would perform a dance called "forbidden sight", in which a young maiden playfully hides behind her fan in hopes that the man of her affection will fall in love from only catching a glimpse of her eyes. Just two years before her death, when I was five years old, she taught me how to perform this routine step by step. Even to this day, I can recite it perfectly.
All of these thoughts were running through my head as I knocked on Grandmother's door. Her phone call to me had been vague, which was completely out of her nature. "It's a family matter", she had told me, "Something that your great-grandmother wanted you to know". Her words reminded me of Hoshi's funeral. It was a Protestant ceremony, since she had converted to Christianity after marrying Joseph. A pastor was found who could speak both English and Japanese, and while the ceremony was beautiful, it was also bittersweet. She had lived such a long, rich life, but being a selfish girl, I couldn't let her go. Despite only knowing Hoshi for seven years, I felt like our souls were bound together in a strange way. This is something that Grandfather described as an "en" - a karmatic bond one shares with another person. Undoubtedly there was an en between Hoshi and myself. Everything that she had been, I wanted to be as well.
"Come right in", Grandmother said upon opening the door, "I have some tea ready for you".
I removed my sandals before entering the den, where the comforting scent of tea and cookies greeted my nose as they always had. Grandmother returned to the room with a rather plain-looking box and knelt across from me at the little table.
"I won't keep you long," she told me, "I know how busy you are with planning the party tomorrow"
"It's okay. You know how much I enjoy my time with you!"
"Don't humor me. You're young! You shouldn't be weighed down by an old woman like myself"
I didn't want to answer her, so instead I sipped my tea in silence. Grandmother opened the box before me, revealing three notebooks, much like the ones I use for taking notes in college. The first notebook, which was bright yellow, was completely filled with Japanese characters from the first page to the very last. Admittedly I don't know Japanese at all (bar a few phrases); my parents raised me to speak English, and other family members were forced to adopt English as their primary language.
"Your great-grandmother told me to give this to you," Grandmother said, "These pages will reveal more about our family than you could ever fathom knowing"
"But Grandmother, I don't understand Japanese!"
"Don't worry about that - over the years I've translated some of it for you. Still I thought it would be best to show you her original manuscript first"
Manuscript? Isn't that what the draft of a published literary work was called?, I thought to myself.
Next, Grandmother removed a small envelope, which had been placed underneath the notebooks. She pulled out three photographs which I had certainly never seen before. One photo was of a young geisha dancing on the stage of a grand theatre.
"This was your great-grandmother when she was just a teenager", Grandmother said, "She landed a very important role in Dances of the Old Capital that year. After this performance, everyone in Kyoto knew her name"
"Everyone knew of Hoshi?" I asked.
"Well, no one called her Hoshi in those days", Grandmother replied with a little smile.
Over the years I wondered if Hoshi had once been a geisha, but no one had ever mentioned such a thing. Now I knew that not only had she been a geisha, but she was really quite famous in her day.
I hoped that Grandmother would explain the other two photos, and that's exactly what she did. The next photo was of the same geisha, my Hoshi, standing next to a very strange looking man.
"This was the great Kabuki actor Bando Sojiro VI", Grandmother explained, "They were close friends. He even mimicked her dance moves in his own performances"
The last photo was the one that struck me the most peculiar. There stood my grandmother in front of a very traditional looking Japanese building, but I wasn't sure what sort. A woman was sparking a flint behind her back, while another older woman stood nearby. Also in the photo were two young girls, one another geisha and another who looked rather plain. The back of the photo contained more Japanese characters.
"It reads, 'Adopting my younger sister, March 1935. Leaving the Nitta Okiya'", Grandmother said.
I felt as though someone had jabbed a knife in the base of my spine. Was this the same Nitta Okiya mentioned by the legendary geisha Sayuri?
"Amanda, you were too little to know the truth when your great-grandmother passed. It is true that she was known as a great dancer, but she also had another sort of reputation that the great Sayuri detailed in her memoirs"
My eyes grew wide and I gasped aloud, spilling tea onto the carpet.
"Grandmother! Do you mean to say that…"
"This girl right here," Grandmother said, pointing to the younger geisha in the picture, "Is Pumpkin. The little maid here is Chiyo, who became Sayuri. And your great-grandmother…well, they called her Hatsumomo"
By the time those words left Grandmother's lips, I was in complete shock. How could my great-grandmother, Hoshi Donahue, who had always exuded a stern form of compassion, be the same woman who did so many horrible things to the great Sayuri and many of her other peers?
"You've got to be kidding!" I blurted.
"Would I really kid about such a thing? She didn't even tell me the truth about her past until I was a grown woman myself! She held a great deal of guilt about the woman she was before meeting your great-grandfather Joseph, and with good reason. If anyone had known her true identity, she could have never led a normal life"
As the conversation progressed, everything began to make more sense. As my mother's life radically changed from that of a disgraced geisha to one of a Hollywood choreographer, she wanted to bury the past completely. Then in the mid-1980's, when Joseph was diagnosed with stomach cancer, she came to realize that making peace with the past was mandatory. One of Joseph's last wishes was for her to write her memoirs, since very few geisha had ever openly discussed their lives. For the next decade or so she quietly detailed her whole life in Japanese, intending for only Grandmother to read her manuscript before the final publication would be produced.
Then in 1996, Japanese historian Jakob Haarhuis published Sayuri's memoirs, simply titled Memoirs of a Geisha. To no one's surprise, the book was a tremendous success. My generation's obsession with all things Japanese extended to more traditional art forms as well, so Sayuri's detailed accounts of being a geisha overwhelmed many who took the time to learn. Hoshi was so distraught over Sayuri's memoirs that she abandoned the dream of publishing her own. Hatsumomo was a great villain in the eyes of readers, and to keep from bringing shame upon her family, Hoshi decided that her story would be left untold. However, she had specified in her will that the memoirs would be given to me as a special present upon turning 21 years of age.
"But why me?" I asked Grandmother, "Why did she want me to have all of this?"
"She held very high hopes for you. One of her dreams was to have a daughter who was a great dancer as she had been. Unfortunately, I made some foolish decisions in my youth and broke her heart. Your mother was much too clumsy to ever take the stage, so she had almost given up entirely until you were born. Amanda, her dream is for you to become a dancer. I know you have your heart set on journalism, but please re-consider. It would be the best way to honor the memory of a woman who was so painfully misunderstood"
Now here I am, seven months later, ready to tell the real story of Hatsumomo. Aside from college, I've spent a tremendous amount of time preparing her memoirs to be suitable enough to publish. Who cares if the public still sees her as a monster? In reality, she had suffered through many ordeals that were much worse than Sayuri could have even comprehended. Hoshi had to become bitter and tough to survive in Gion, because no one besides her late father had ever shown her how to love. Perhaps now people will get to know Hoshi Takeda-Donahue, once the great (or wicked) Hatsumomo, as a real flesh-and-blood woman who hoped and dreamed for the good life like so many before her. Thanks to my great-grandfather teaching her how to believe in herself, her dreams finally came true.
Current UCLA student and proud descendent of Hatsumomo