First published in March 2016, I wrote this post after visiting my aunt in a Malaysian nursing home. Several years earlier, I had interviewed her for my father’s book, and had recorded her recounting her memories of my father’s childhood. By 2016, my aunt no longer recognized me. I realized then that if we don’t make an effort to preserve our history, some memories will be forever lost, personal histories forever unknown to us and subsequent generations. It is this realisation that makes me eager to document the past, and gives me the impetus keep writing and blogging.
The post as it appeared in 2016: My aunt once told me of her older brother, who had loved her dearly. During World War II, he was taken away by the Japanese and never returned. ‘That day,’ she said, ‘I had given him a piece of cake. It was so strange. He was usually the one giving me food.’ She was reluctant to say any more. ‘Surely you don’t need to write of these things?’
I had heard that the Japanese were cruel during the war and truth be told, I had never given much thought to Hiroshima. The atomic bomb did, after all, bring an end to the Japanese military occupation of Malaya.
But then, I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a work of non-fiction that follows the lives of six atomic bomb survivors. The day before the bomb was dropped, for example, Reverend Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Mehodist Church, had just moved the church piano to a home two miles away from the town centre, where he believed it would be safer; the piano didn’t survive. After the explosion, he ran back to the city to check on his church and the twenty families he was responsible for as the head of their Neighbourhood Association. He was held up, however, up by cries of the injured: ‘Mizu, mizu! Water, water!’ For the first time, I started to imagine what it had been like for ordinary Japanese.
When I visited my aunt in December last year, she did recognise me, but said that I was such a pretty girl (Bless her! When was the last time anyone said that?), and who was this? My husband? He is very rich, is he not? My dear aunt has forgotten us. Her memories are slipping away. Many stories are already gone.
Hiroshima ends by referring to Reverend Tanimoto and the proliferation of nuclear weapons: His memory, like the world’s, was getting spotty.
I guess that’s why we must talk about the past, record the faces and voices of our ancestors and write down their stories.