Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents

January 5, 2015 at 12:09 am

Forgiveness by Mark Sakamotoby Mark Sakamoto.
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
245 pages

by David Fujino.

Mark Sakamoto begins his vivid memoir by telling the separate World War 2 stories of his grandparents — his Canadian grandfather Ralph MacLean, and his Japanese Canadian grandmother, Mitsue Sakamoto.

Ralph’s story: During World War 2, a young Ralph MacLean chose to escape his troubled life in the Magdalene Islands in eastern Canada, so he enlisted in the army and was sent to Asia, where he was captured in Hong Kong and survived the hellish Japanese prisoner of war camps.

Mitsue’s story: Meanwhile, back in Vancouver, Canada, Mitsue saw her family and her beloved Japanese Canadian community torn apart and traumatized and was then sent to a work camp in Alberta.

But just how Ralph and Mitsue eventually met, and how their grandchild and author, Mark Sakamoto, came to be born, is well depicted in over three-quarters of the pages of this book. I say depicted because this memoir reads like a novel and many of its scenes are vivid and immediate and painful. (I understand that Sakamoto interviewed his beloved grandparents for ‘countless’ hours about their lives.)

While most reviews have focused on the book’s title, Forgiveness, and the life lessons that are learned — and this is entirely understandable — when Sakamoto writes about his heroes, his grandparents, he is doing more than exploring and honouring the roots (DNA?) of his family tree.

It’s when he writes down his own story — the grim life that he and his brother Daniel led with their alcoholic and unstable mother, Diane, that Sakamoto learns, in what now seems like a true ‘Eureka moment’, that if he can forgive his mother for all her frailties, he can — like his grandparents — go forward freely in life with an open heart.

How Ralph and Mitsue met: More than a generation after World War 2, in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Ralph and Mitsue meet for dinner at Mitsue’s on the occasion of their children’s impending marriage. Mitsue’s son, Stan Sakamoto, is formally proposing to marry Diane MacLean, Ralph’s daughter.

“Mitsue and Ralph became instant friends. There was an unspoken understanding between them.They were both far too polite to state it, to address it. But they felt they knew each other. They had both discarded the past, leaving the rest behind. They did not compare hardships or measure injustices. They knew there was no merit to that …  They sat down at the dinner table. Hideo [Mitsue’s husband] gave a toast. Ralph offered a prayer. They laughed. They could do that now.” (p: 182)

And here’s our author — Mark Sakamoto, the son of Stan Sakamoto and Diane MacLean — writing about his father as seen through the eyes of Ralph MacLean, the father-in-law to be: “The young man [Stan] who was frequently sitting at his dining table, looked exactly like his tormentors of over twenty years ago … Ralph watched Stan closely. He made sure he was polite. But remarkably, he never raised the issue of my father’s race. Not once. He deemed my father very suitable. He even thought Diane lucky for finding such an honourable and upstanding young man. He approved mightily.” (page 181)

Here’s the author Sakamoto again in a slightly ironic but wiser moment.

“ … The act of coming together again is what makes a hero. Moving on, with an open heart, seems, at times, impossible. But it’s not. (page 182) I would not be born for another ten years, but that was the most important dinner of my life. Every story has two sides. My life depended on my two sides coming together.” (page 183) – Mark Sakamoto

Sakamoto’s talking here about the two sides of his self — Ralph and Mitsue — both are his heroes; both are examples of people coming together and escaping the clutches of their past lives by learning to forgive.

Critical reaction to this book has been positive and almost unanimous in seeing forgiveness as the great lesson to be learned — forgiveness, as in ‘forgive and forget’; but in this case, I interpret forgiveness to mean, ‘forgive, but do not forget’.

Mark Sakamoto has not forgotten where he comes from, nor is he unaware of what he’s made of, and by writing their stories down, he has honoured the lives of his grandparents. By writing his own story down, he has saved himself from harbouring bitterness, perhaps hatred, and certainly deep resentment towards his mother.

For Sakamoto has learned the power of forgiveness. And he has written this memoir and transformed his life.