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The Magical Melon Returns

In Japan, the cantaloupe is much more than a breakfast fruit. God help you if you lose one.

August 29, 2001|SONOKO SAKAI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The first time I ever ate a cantaloupe was at a Bob's Big Boy, where my mother took us to eat an American breakfast.

Having just arrived from Japan, I didn't know what to order. Then I saw the reflection of halved cantaloupes and grapefruit on the mirror by the counter. The grapefruit was decorated with pretty red cherries, but what appealed to me was the cantaloupe.

The waitress served it with a large wedge of lemon and a big spoon. I squeezed the lemon over the orange flesh and scooped up mouthful after mouthful until nothing was left but the green rind.

Being able to splurge on half of a juicy melon was a good enough reason to start a new life in America. In Japan, melons are raised in hothouses and command prices that would shock most Americans--$100 and up. Often sold in velvet-lined wooden boxes, Japanese melons are usually only served in fancy restaurants or presented as a gift for someone who is in the hospital--and only when the person is really sick.

One summer, I went back to Japan to visit my great-aunt, who was in the hospital with an illness serious enough to make someone go out and buy her a melon. At the entrance to her ward was a fancy boxed melon sitting on a table. It had a cork-like white net over its spotless olive skin and exuded a sweet fragrance. We admired the melon as if it were the queen's crown jewels.

I wanted to eat it of course, but my great-aunt had another idea. "Will you take this melon to your grandmother in Kamakura?" she asked.

Grandmother was my aunt's older sister, who was nearly 90. She was too old to visit her 88-year-old sister at the hospital, though otherwise in good health.

"But this melon is yours," I said.

My great-aunt clutched my hand and shook her head: "Your grandmother will appreciate it more."

There was no sense in arguing with my sick great-aunt. I told her I would be happy to deliver the melon to my grandmother. Carefully, I put the box of melon in a paper bag. I was surprised how heavy it was.

"That's the sign of a good melon," my great-aunt said, smiling.

When I was a girl, I used to do sleepovers at her house. She didn't have any daughters of her own, and the sleepovers were my only chance to get away from my brothers and sisters, and to be treated like a princess. She would always dress me up in a cotton kimono, and we would slurp noodles. The hospital visit was the last time I would see my great-aunt.

The train to Kamakura was completely packed with tourists going to the beach or to see Daibutsu--the Great Buddha in the ancient town. There was no place for me to sit down, but I spotted an empty place on the shelf where I could rest the heavy melon. I kept an eye on it so it wouldn't roll off or fall on someone's head. I read the paper, watched the rooftops of houses and temples and listened to children sing familiar nursery songs. Halfway through the trip, I found an empty seat. I sat down and left the melon on the rack where it seemed safe.

I didn't realize that I had dozed off until I heard the station announcement: "Kamakura! Kamakura!" The final bell was ringing. Quickly, I gathered my belongings and slipped through the door just before it slammed shut. I got on the bus to Daibutsu, where my grandmother lived.

It wasn't until the bus left the station that I knew something was missing. I had forgotten the melon on the train. I immediately got off the bus to call the stationmaster. Standing in a hot telephone booth, steaming, I described the bag, the melon and the approximate location where I left it.

"I am writing all this down," said the stationmaster, trying to ease my stress. He said he would alert the ticket operator on the train, but could not promise me anything. People forgot things all the time, he told me. Lost items ended up in the lost and found in Yokosuka or Tokyo, but if it was food, it was usually thrown out or given away.

The thought of going to my grandmother's house without the melon made me sick. Sure enough, when I got there that was the first thing she asked me about. Her body was getting old but her memory was sharp as a needle, especially when it came to food. All I could do was bow in shame and tell her the truth.

Grandmother turned pale. This was the melon that her dying sister had given her. It was a very expensive melon. It was a rare gift that could not be wasted. If my great-aunt were to find out, it would make her sad, maybe send her to her grave sooner than anticipated, and surely my grandmother would follow her.

Grandmother straightened her back and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. "We must find the melon," she said firmly.

I picked up the phone and called the stationmaster again. "Any news about the melon?" I asked him.

"Well, I have talked to the ticket operator on the train heading to Yokosuka, but so far no luck."

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