I’m on a plane right now as I write this. My uncle passed away, so I’m flying back home to San Francisco for a few days to attend his memorial service.

When I was little, my family always hosted Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. The Mizunos would drive up from San Diego, the Awamuras would make the brief commute from Daly City, and sometimes the Tobases would fly from New York to our San Francisco home.

My father, the chef, along with my mother, often prepared huge spreads of traditional American dishes like turkey and ham alongside the necessary Japanese accompaniments like sashimi and sekihan. Every year, we came together to break bread, to begin every meal with my Auntie Katsue’s awesome salads, and to end the evening with pumpkin and apple pies topped with Cool Whip.

We have a big family. Three generations sat at that table every year for as long as I could remember. Jiichan, Grandpa, always sat at the head of the table, framed by the curtains in the window behind him. As a little girl, I never thought anything would change. I just thought Jiichan would always be there, I thought Dad would always cook, and I thought our home would always be the gathering place.

Over the years, our family dynamic changed. Jiichan, my dad and others passed and people like myself moved away. As a family, we had to learn how to adjust to loss and new gains. We had to learn how to replace and revamp. Our family gatherings changed and while some of our family members departed to a higher place, others began to grow up and fill in those gaps.

Cousins who were once just playmates were now the ones married and hosting the rest of us. We started practicing new roles. We started to become our aunts and uncles. We started to move closer to the head of the table. Although we had lost our first generation, a fourth generation started to sprout, a fourth generation that was once who we were. We were and are doing what was only natural, carrying on traditions and gatherings the best way we knew how.

I often reminisce about how things were when I was little. There is so much nostalgia in the little things — the silver-rimmed plates we used to serve the food, the embroidered tablecloth, the brown fuzzy carpet, the white oven, the linoleum kitchen floor, the blue, white and red poker chips…. It’s all very different now, and as much as my childhood was such a favored time, I also have come to understand that family is an ever-changing concept, a cycle that, with every rotation, produces new renditions of our past.

We have old memories to hold on to and new ones to create. We have a new generation to live for and to teach. We have connections to maintain.

I’m really sad that my uncle is gone. He was considered one of the heads of the family for many years. Now that he is gone, we all have to go through adjustments once again. While no one is forcing us to do anything or become anything, the love of family has always guided each of us to continue tradition in such a natural and innate way.

As I return home this weekend to give one last goodbye to my uncle, I’ll think about the shifting sands and where I can place myself in all of this. No longer am I the little girl who could simply sit and observe her elders and older cousins.

Mari Nakano can be reached by e-mail at The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

Our family gathering. My uncle, Tamaru Tobase, is seated on the couch in the center.
Our family gathering. My uncle, Tamaru Tobase, is seated on the couch in the center.

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