Trivial Things: Ukiyo-e (Grandma’s Gifts)

Growing up, I never thought of my grandmother as a loving woman. Intimidating ? Yes. Opinionated and critical? Check and check. A force of nature who changed the energy of every room she walked into? Boy howdy. But loving? That’s what other people’s grandmothers were, sweet and coddling, giggly and cute. The only way to get that with Grandma would be to hold up a special mirror that shows the subject’s complete opposite.

It’s not that I saw her as unloving, or even mildly uncaring. On the contrary, she seemed to concern herself greatly with the actions of those around her. Yet that concern came with a veil of negativity, like she was constantly judging the world and finding it lacking. She kind of scared the crap out of me.

As time went on, though, I learned to see behind the surface of her self-directed, willful personae. Underneath her dramatic, diva flair was a person who was exceedingly loving. You just had to be savvy about how she was showing it.

A couple decades ago self-help books were all the rage (I live in a hole so it’s entirely possible they are still all the rage now). One of the more popular ones was The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, by Gary Chapman. Like many armchair psychology books (and coincidentally, blog posts) do, he presented his List of Five: he condensed human beings’ means of expressing love into five general categories, suggesting that while we all speak each language to a certain degree (and should, in a “healthy relationship”) each person has a primary and a secondary “preferred love language” for both showing love and recognizing love in others:

  1. Quality Time
  2. Physical Touch
  3. Words of Affirmation
  4. Acts of Service
  5. Gift Giving

My grandmother’s love language was that last, I think. The giving of gifts.

But not just any gifts. Not just “material things”.

To be clear, she wasn’t a lavish gift-giver. She didn’t have piles and piles of presents for us on holidays, or send us care packages every other Sunday. Her gift-giving wasn’t like that. They were items grandparents typically share with their grandchildren — sewing kits, paper dolls, playing cards, dress-up clothes and makeup, paint brushes and canvas — but what she gave, always came with a story, and often a lot of history. When she gave me something, it always felt like it came with a lot of weight. Of course I was too young to understand where that feeling came from.

I think I get it now.

I think she was giving more than gifts — I think she was giving pieces of herself. Reaching across the barriers between what made her, her and what made me, me, and yearning to bridge a connection, through passing over objects of meaning. I believe Grandma was actually immensely sentimental.

So yes, she gave me a lot of things from Japan, from her attic, from her history. Things she didn’t need anymore but were very much a part of what made her, her. Kimonos which hang in my bedroom closet next to my sweaters and robes. Fans and parasols that did not survive the years, but she knew that as children we would find them fascinating, and were excuses for her to remind us of what her childhood had been like. And of course, the origin of this musing, the Ukiyo-e prints which I can see from where I am writing, the only artwork in this room, and the first thing you see when you walk in.

And perhaps that’s the lesson she wanted to teach me, that I’m finally letting sink in after all these years. That sometimes, what seems like trivial, unimportant things, are not so.

Some days I really miss that complicated, loving, one-of-a-kind woman.

More musings on Grandma:

Trivial Things Series:

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