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The framed photograph of my mother, happy and dressed for my brother’s wedding, sits on a Korean chest in my living room, where I can see it many times every day. Hanging above it on the wall is a fine print of Hokusai’s The Great Wave, given my father by one of his Japanese colleagues decades ago, and passed on to me by my mother after his passing. Now she too is gone, and the photograph and the print and the chest share a synergy of my parents, a couple who traveled and loved Japan, and especially my mother, whose artistry in bonsai was renowned and who, even on her worst days, strove to create beauty in her world.

How many thousands of times have I looked at The Great Wave? It is perhaps the best known work of Japanese art, and it is reproduced everywhere, place mats and posters and handkerchiefs, on the wall of many a sushi restaurant. We think we know it – it is a tsunami, or a giant wave about to crash. You have to look carefully to notice the fishing boats and desperate men, huddled down and hanging on. Knowing they are there changes the narrative, the wave is threatening and dangerous; lives are at stake.

But the wave is only a part of the story, because in the distant background, silent, strong, quiet, is Mt. Fuji, watching all. Mt. Fuji, the Buddha of mountains, sacred and revered in Japan. Its serenity and permanence provide a strong counterpoint to the chaos in the foreground. I overwhelm, says the wave. I am here, says the mountain. I terrify, says the wave. I am here, says the mountain. I murder, says the wave. I am here, says the mountain.

Grief itself is a wave, or many waves, oceanic in size and like Hokusai’s, powerful, crushing, vast. I often feel like those fishermen, wretched, just hanging on until the untrustworthy seas return to calm, dreading the next wave that I know will come. But the blessed mountain summons a love that has, somehow, survived my mother’s death. There is bedrock in the mother-child relationship that remains, solid, enduring, still there after each cataclysm. In Japan, Mt. Fuji is often termed Fuji-san out of respect. My brothers- and sisters-in-law all called my mother Mama-san, for the same reason. In my living room and in my mind, the mountain and my mother speak to each other and reach across the abyss to me, saying always, we go on. We are here.

©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2017. Reuse with permission.

Great Wave