Graduation, but through my grandmother’s eyes

Rediscovering my family’s life story at the Top of the Rock

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Jason Ono is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

Riley Walsh | Cavalier Daily

In many ways, high school graduation was a key moment in my life. As an international student, finally receiving a diploma from an American high school gave me a sense of accomplishment I hadn’t felt since I began my studies in the States in ninth grade. My graduation was also the first time my family visited the school I attended. Both of my parents, my paternal grandfather and my maternal grandmother flew all the way from Japan to celebrate my graduation. However, this opportunity carried a particularly special meaning for my grandmother. To tell you why, let me take you back 70 years.

In 1942, my grandmother was born in a suburb of Tokyo. Although her father — like many young men in the country at the time — had been drafted for World War II, she was too young to remember him in uniform. She grew up in the period of post-war reconstruction — when my country was recovering from the burnt-out ruins. In her working-class household where both of her parents had jobs, she also had to take care of her young siblings.

As a mother of three, my grandmother worked all her life and didn’t retire until her 60s. She says that her proudest accomplishment was being able to send all of her children to college — something her own parents couldn’t do for her for economic reasons.

Back in the present day, the day of my graduation was blessed with nice weather. As my name was called and I received the diploma, my grandmother stood up in her kimono and cheered my name. As I was getting pictures with my friends after the ceremony, she approached me to express how happy she was for me. To my surprise, she then — in her limited knowledge of English — greeted my friends. 

Seeing this interaction between my grandmother and friends evoked a unique sentimental feeling. She was standing on the very soil of the country her father had been ordered to fight against 75 years ago and was currently surrounded by American young adults with whom her grandson had become best friends. In that moment, I realized that this was an interaction transcending oceans and generations.

After the commencement, I took my family around New York City for a few days. Among the many sites we visited — such as Central Park, the 9/11 memorial, MoMA and The Met — I decided to save something special for the last evening of the trip. I imagined that a sunset view of all the skyscrapers in Midtown from the Top of the Rock would make for a perfect finale.

Around sunset, I led my family up to the 70th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, excited to show them a view they had never witnessed before. We soon reached the top floor, and my family was thoroughly impressed by the view. After going around the city for a few days, they were able to recognize the sites they had visited, as I pointed out. But it also turned out that we still had some time until sunset, so I thought I might have brought my family there a little too early.

Unexpectedly, my grandmother insisted on waiting outside to continue enjoying the view. On the windy outdoor observation deck, my mother, grandmother and I waited until the sun set. With the most spectacular view in the world in front of us, we waited for sunset.

My grandmother eventually spoke. 

“I’ve never been this happy in my life. I never knew a magnificent view like this existed in the world. Thank you for everything.”

The setting sunlight shone on her face, but she continued to look out into the distance as she spoke, as if reminiscing about something.

It was then that I realized how much of a journey it has been for my grandmother to see this view. It was a manifestation of both her childhood — when she had to care for her younger siblings — and the time she spent working various jobs to provide for her children’s education.

As I wrote before, studying here does allow me to have only a limited amount of time with my family. But I’m glad that I’ve been able to show my family — especially my grandparents — things that other people wouldn’t have the chance to see in their home country. The privilege I have to learn at the University is a byproduct spanning multiple generations of my family’s hard work — it’s an effort I hope to reciprocate through my efforts here at U.Va.

My next dream is that both of my grandparents can come to my college graduation. To my grandparents — until the day I walk in front of the Rotunda and receive my diploma — take good care of your health, and I love you so much!

Jason Ono is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.  He can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com.

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