I once saw a butterfly caught in a spiderweb.
The memory is crisp and beautiful in my mind, etched into a time of transition in my childhood. I was sitting on the floor intently gazing through the sliding glass doors toward the vivid patterns of the butterfly at rest against the backdrop of thick Virginia trees.
A while later I returned to check on the butterfly, and for a moment I thought it had set itself free. I then looked down and noticed, to my horror, two dismembered butterfly wings on the wooden balcony deck. The body had been consumed in its entirety.
I thought of this moment years later when I looked out onto the same balcony, through the glass door of your bedroom where you lay in a coma.
At what point is a butterfly no longer a butterfly?
We inventoried all of your possessions that week, throughout the expansive maze of your home: Turkish rugs and Egyptian marble busts, a velvet chaise longue and an heirloom bureau, a hammered dulcimer and the Steinway grand piano. There were boxes upon boxes of fine and semi-fine jewelry, and multiple walk-in closets brimming with dry-cleaned dresses, pantsuits, and silk chemises. The boudoir of the master bedroom boasted your organized collection of hundreds of pairs of polished leather shoes.
Moments after we watched you take your last breath, several men entered the bedroom with a stretcher and took your body away for immediate cremation. Your remains were laid to rest at the Arlington National Cemetery.
Diana loved her family, her country, and above all, God, I remember Grandpa saying at your memorial service.
For months, the cancer had consumed you. You carried on with renovations to your lakeside property, unfazed. We spent our last summer together fishing on the boats and swimming in the lake.
I didn’t see you as often after we moved to California, but I remember snapshots into your effortless glamor. You were always taking work calls on your Blackberry and driving around in your sleek silver Lexus, but I knew I was your star. You would bring me souvenirs from your travels and Chanel perfume samples from the department store. You taught me to brush the ends of my hair first to avoid catching on tangles. Wrapped in a towel on your bathtub ledge with a bottle of oil, you taught me to moisturize after a bath.
Grandpa eventually sold the lakeside property and the house with the balcony. The clothes and the shoes were packed into boxes, loaded into cars, and dropped off at the local charity shop.
You know, every now and then, when I brush the ends of my hair, moisturize after a bath, or adorn my body with your jewelry, I think of you.
Do you want this? I’m going to die at some point anyways.
You’ve said this to me every time I’ve come to visit you, as you rummage around your small closet of possessions and fish out your pearls and your corals, your white gold and tortoise shell, your Swarovski crystals, and hand them to me. You’re always lightheartedly talking about how you’re going to die, and yet here you are, healthy as ever and well into the ninth decade of your life.
I cried when I first heard you sold your house in Tokyo. That summer I biked through Hamadayama to your ancient wooden home, only to see it had already been demolished for a new development. You gave away your prized kimonos and tea ceremony sets, and moved to Fukuoka, a city in the southern island of Kyushu, to an apartment in an assisted living facility. Your apartment is small, but the sliding glass doors of your balcony face a lush green mountain. It’s better here than Tokyo, you always say, what beautiful nature.
Your new apartment would be bare if not for the dozens of framed photos on display, mostly of me in various stages of childhood and adolescence. You claimed I was famous in the facility. You always sang the Japanese folk song “Akai Kutsu,” or “Red Shoes,” at the monthly karaoke, and dedicated it to me:
A young girl with red shoes
was taken away by a foreigner
She rode on a ship from Yokohama pier
taken away by a foreigner
I imagine right now she has become blue-eyed
living in that foreigner’s land
Every time I see red shoes, I think of her
and every time I meet a foreigner, I think of her
When she misses Japan where she was born
I imagine she stares at the blue sea
and asks the foreigner if she can go home
Your memory is fading fast, but I know you still remember when you too were a foreigner. Born into the aristocratic Machida lineage, your family owned a beer factory in Taipei during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan. When the war ended, your family was ordered to evacuate the colony with just a few essential possessions, one album of photos, and one lump of salt per person due to rationing shortages in Japan. Now here you are again with so little evidence of your former life.
Every time I have visited you, the garden at the facility is in full bloom. You look up at the sun and say, thank you for shining today. You look at the flowers and say, thank you for blooming today. One morning, dragonflies were hovering over the garden. Dragonflies are spirits coming to visit us, you told me, say hello to them. We stood in the garden for a few minutes in silence, admiring the dragonflies. I thought of my father.
You keep a photo of my father alongside a photo of your late husband on the Shinto altar above your dresser. Every day, you change out the water in the offering cup, and speak to your husband and son as if they were there. When you and your husband could not conceive, you adopted your sister’s son in line with Japanese custom. You always called my father a precious gift from your sister, and from kamisama – the sacred spirits of interconnected energy immanent in nature. When he died young, you knew that the limited time he had in this world was itself the gift from kamisama. When I was born you taught this to my mother too: Rieko is not yours, she is a gift on loan from kamisama.
The last time I slept in my futon next to you, I was awakened in the middle of the night to a finger jabbing into my arm. Who are you? You asked me. I had to remind you again who I was, Rieko, your grandchild, I’m here to visit you, and you threw your head back and laughed as we fell back asleep.
You are blissfully shrouded in only the present – one day you may not remember where you came from at all. The next time I return will I be a ghost, a face you can no longer recall in a room full of photos of me?
But forget where you’ve been or where you are going, thank you for blooming today.
Your house stands in the valley of mountains, amid open fields and endless rice paddies. Summers are sticky and winters are frigid. When it rains, you can hear a chorus of croaking frogs.
I was there with you one summer when I found a tiny heart-shaped locket your daughter must have worn when she was young. In it was a delicately cut-and-pasted photo of you. I said, look Baba, and your eyes welled up as you examined the locket. Across your smile flickered a rare kind of sadness as you handed the locket back to me. You told me you prefer to think about the present.
I think you buried a difficult past, and with it the desire to cling to memories. In your home you didn’t have a lot, though it’s true my mother helped organize your house over the years. Toward the end of your life you had relatively few possessions.
Your house is where I lived the earliest fragments of my childhood, and the only home I’ve returned to over and over again. Every time I’d visit, I would go to the upstairs room where my father, my mother, and I used to sleep, and to the small closet where my father’s only remaining possessions are stored – a bricolage of memories that were never quite mine.
There were albums of old photos and stacks of old magazines. There were drawers full of supplies from his art school days, and wetsuits from his windsurfing days. There were boxes full of small trinkets he collected across Europe, dreaming of opening his own antique store someday. I ran my fingers over his navy blue Giorgio Armani tuxedo and the now moth-eaten Yves Saint Laurent coat he once convinced my mother she needed. The whole ritual felt strangely voyeuristic, as if the imprint of my father left on these objects could somehow sense my gaze. Upstairs, my eyes would swell with dust and seasonal allergies.
In the back of the closet I even found the blueprints from when the house was first built. This was the house you and your siblings pooled together money to build, where you could raise my mother and uncle after your husband’s suicide, care for your aging parents, and eventually live out the rest of your life. The house was small and the main hallway was narrow, but I know how proud you were of your home. I hope you use the house as a holiday home when I’m gone, you would tell me.
I wish I called you sooner when I received the apples you sent me. At the time I was working myself sick in Tokyo, and coming home every night to an overpriced shoebox apartment. I bought packaged bento dinners on the way home from the office and ate alone while waiting to call my boyfriend in New York. I wore silk blouses and designer pant suits to match my performative corporate hustle. One day I came home to find a box of apples shipped from Ueda, the last of the fall harvest.
I imagined you packing those apples, frail from chemotherapy in the last weeks of your life, and carrying the heavy box to the post office to send to me. Nothing tastes sweeter than apples grown in the Japanese countryside.
My family in California couldn’t make it to your funeral, so I went alone. As per Japanese funerary tradition, I picked through your cremated bones with long metal chopsticks and placed them piece by piece into your urn.
Scatter my remains in the ocean in California, you had instructed my mother. You didn’t want to be immortalized in your family lot on temple grounds where no one would visit. You loved the ocean in California, but I think you wanted to be closer to us. I tucked the urn of bones and ashes into the overhead compartment of the plane as I flew you back to California.
My mother returned months later to sort out the rest of your possessions. You know what she told me? The whole house smelled inexplicably sweet, like apples.
I once saw a butterfly caught in a spiderweb.
A spider spins her web across the balcony, expanding outward and traversing back to the center to feel for the vibrations of her sustenance. She dances the ritual of spinning and catching until the web no longer performs its function. She abandons her web, and like a ghost, the memory is left to disintegrate. A spider doesn’t think about her legacy.
The day we let go is the day we will know:
We are not the web, but the weaving.
Rieko Whitfield is a London-based, Japanese-American multidisciplinary artist, working across interactive installation, video, performance, sound, and text. Her interests center on speculative mythologies through lived experience, and rituals of radical collective care. She is currently an MA student at the Royal College of Art.