Reporter's Notebook

In Memory of Grandma Tats

In death, she remains the tie that binds together a sprawling diaspora of loved ones

By Myers Reece

After my 93-year-old grandmother, Tatsuko “Tats” Ogata, was diagnosed with cancer in March, our family quickly planned a Mother’s Day weekend gathering in my hometown of Livingston. Three generations descended on my mother’s house, crowding around grandma, who took up residence in a comfy chair by the window. Bathed in morning sun, she radiated matriarchal elegance, as always.

Three weeks later, on June 1, that light flickered out, but its afterglow endures in the lives of those lucky enough to be touched by her grace: a luminosity of love undimmed in death; a legacy of influence unbroken in life. In a proudly Japanese family, my grandmother was the nexus from which our collective Asian identity emanated, which is to say she taught us who we are. My own cultural pride is rooted in hers.

In death, she remains the tie that binds together a sprawling diaspora of loved ones, the connective tissue that makes all of our lives fuller, forever.

My grandparents moved to Livingston from Minnesota when I was in second grade, and their house became my second home. It was there, on the banks of the Yellowstone River, where I learned to eat sōmen and sticky rice with proper ohashi technique, where I studied the curious Japanese figurines populating the living room, where I watched two tiny women — my grandmother and mother — roll sushi for hours with the precision of neurosurgeons. I soaked in my heritage without understanding it. The process of self-conceptualization and identity would be slow, and is still ongoing, but it builds from that sturdy foundation of my youth.

Portions of this piece are taken from the obituary I wrote for my grandmother, which was published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Grandma spent much of her adult life in Minnesota, where she moved after her three-year imprisonment in an internment camp, along with 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. She was 14 years old when her family of farmers was forcibly relocated from their home in Compton, California to a barracks in Arizona.

Writing an obituary both clarifies and complicates loss. It at once keeps her memory alive and formalizes the finality of her absence. But she deserved a tribute, and I’m privileged to provide it, as difficult as it was to write.

Like many fellow members of my Yonsei generation, I’m hapa, a commonly used term meaning half, or part, Asian. We’re the first in the family to not be full Japanese. Each generation adds further degrees of separation from our ancestral roots, but we find our own ways to keep the family legacy alive, often through food. 

My boys’ “First Book of Sushi” is in regular rotation at our house and serves as their handbook for sushi dinners. I will teach them the Japanese words for foods and certain phrases, as my forebears did for me, and create our own traditions. I will also be forever grateful for the time the boys spent with “great-grandma Tats.”

Fisher and Gus may only be one-quarter Japanese, but blood transcends fractions. I am my grandma, she was me, and my children are us. That truth survives even the fires of cremation. In this fickle world, it’s the closest we get to eternity.