Friday, July 4, 2014

Free Thinking on July 4th

The skies are blue this morning, Hurricane Arthur having just grazed us yesterday afternoon and evening. On this July 4th holiday, the sky is not the deep sharp blue of the American flag, but a light Carolina blue - a gentler, less bold blue.  I like this color.

And I like the Carolina blue side of America, if you know what I mean.  I like the kinder, gentler face of our country and culture.  I like it when we are the helper and not the aggressor, the hugger and not the shover, the dreamer and not the "no"-sayer.

It doesn't mean I'm not proud of my country, and it doesn't mean I don't like the color of our flag.  It just means I think America is strongest, at its best, when we're not pushy...when we're not too bold.

Now that I've said my piece, I think I will go change in to my red, white, and blue and enjoy the rest of my day, thankful that the storm didn't cause too much damange, and eterally grateful that I'm free to think and speak my thoughts.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Making a Whirlpool

In Japanese school, the beginning of summer in June did not usher in a three month hiatus from school work. Although we did get Natsuyasumi (Summer Vacation) in August, we attended school through the hot months of June and July, sweating in sweltering classrooms where an empty cast iron stove had held hot coal nuggests only a few months earlier.   Now, in the oppressive heat, windows were opened as wide as they could like gaping mouths, as if the classroom itself was gasping for air to breathe.

Our school, Takayama Elementary, was a lucky one.  We had a pool that we shared with neighboring elementary schools whose students walked some distances to get to our school for the experience.  A couple times a week in June and July, we walked ourselves, but only down the hallway in our uniform bathing suits. We descended the metal staircases outside the building to the glorious sparkling swimming pool that called out to us each and every day.  It was all we could do to stay silent as we walked past the classrooms of other jealous schoolmates when it was our turn to enjoy the pool.  Then, for two wonderful hours of refreshing fun, we were divided into groups according to ability, and we were taught how to swim.

I remember lying on my belly on the rough cement deck with my classmates, as we made our legs into little frog kicks and practiced the breast stroke.  But the best part of all came toward the very end of the two hours when we had free swim and when we made the whirlpool.

Try to imagine 120 children (all three classes of 5th or 6th grades) lining the sides of a pool facing the same direction.  All of us, swimmers and non-swimmers alike participated, since this was basically a walk in the water.  We put one hand on the side of the pool and waited anxiously for the whistle to send us on our way. One of the teachers stood on the starting block and blew the whislte loud, the squeal of the whistle drowned out immediately by our own jubilent voices.

On cue, we started moving forward, all of us in the same direction on the periphery of the pool, and we began to churn the water.  Within seconds, our movements became less labored, as the current we made in the pool carried us along, all the while pushing, pushing the water forward as we began to run along the bottom making the current stronger and faster.  Soon our bodies flew, one step taking us dozens of feet, our bodies crashing in to one another, and we laughed uncontrollably.  It was almost time for the next whistle.

The next whistle meant it was time to change direction.  When we heard the shrill sound, we turned around and tried to move in the opposite direction.  The current wouldn't allow it, and bodies struggled to change the tide, as some smaller friends floated past me in vain.  Once again, after moments of struggling against water that crashed against us, we were able to create a strong current, this time in another direction.

The saddest current was the one which led us back to the classroom where we changed back in to our regular school clothes, boys first, then the girls, and we settled once again in to writing our kanji characters or doing long division.  Memories of being carried by the current in my school's pool on those hot days of June and July still bring up the corners of my lips.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Missing New Year's Omochi

New Year's Day is the quietest day of the year in Japan.  Nothing moves.  Buses and trains come to a stand still, no stores are open, and women even stop cooking for the day.  They have precooked meals for the three to four days ahead, and have stored these different foods beautifully presented in square lacquer boxes that stack up.  All the women need to do for the first few days of each new year, a rare well-deserved break, is to measure rice into the rice cooker and hit the "on" button so there will be rice to eat with the dishes in the boxes.

In the nine years we lived in Japan, I can only remember a handful of Japanese homes we were actually invited inside.  It is a real honor to be invited inside - not just for foreigners, but for anyone. There was one family, the Nakamuras, (the same family of the babysitter who knocked over our Christmas tree,) who welcomed the two gaijin (foreign) children into their home on New Year's Day every year.  Mom made us wait until after Noon so they would have at least a morning of peace.  We skipped around the corner of our silent street, past the big Japanese flag one of our neighbors hung outside their wall to the Nakamura's house and climbed the stairs to their gate.

I don't know if the Nakamura Family was happy to see us on New Year's Day, but they sure acted like they were glad when we showed up.   Mrs. Nakamura still wore a kimono every day.  When we arrived, their family was usually gathered around their low table, sitting on square zabuton pillows, and David and I joined them after climbing up into their house after removing our shoes.  We went right to the table without being asked, showing the real purpose of why we had come.  We came for the omochi.

Omochi is rice that has been pounded and pounded and pounded into a sticky gooey dense cake. The Nakamuras kept a little grill on top of their small table at New Years, and Mrs. Nakamura offered David and me a piece or two.  Of course we agreed, since that was why we had come.  She placed a couple of pieces on the grill, and we waited with anticipation, just like the rest of the Nakamuras, for the pieces to puff up, turning from a hard brick to the gooey, chewy treat.  As it cooked, Mrs. Nakamura warned us about eating it too fast, telling us about the number of Japanese people who had died the previous New Year holiday choking on omochi.

When the omochi was ready, puffing up to double its size, a round air bubble poofing in the middle and the bottom turning a crispy brown, she used her chopsticks to place the hot piece on top of a piece of nori (seaweed) on a plate for each of us, and gave us some shoyu (soy sauce) to dip it in.  Then they watched us eat it, all the Nakamuras, smiling at our pleasure.  What a show we must have provided.

I am missing omochi today.  I can buy it at Saigon Market, the oriental food store, but I can't make it like Mrs. Nakamura did, kneeling next to us in her gray kimono, her hair pulled back in a bun.

Saturday, December 28, 2013


For those of you who have asked to read "Kurisumasu," my short essay selected for WHQR's Holiday Shorts Contest, here it is.  Enjoy.  Rachel Lewis Hilburn's reading of my story on the air with Alan snickering, leaning his head on my shoulder and my parents laughing in the same row of seats (along with several good friends in attendance) was the highlight of my Christmas.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone!

When our favorite babysitter, Nakamura san, slid open the door that led from the garden to the living room, she did not notice our Christmas tree placed in the spot where she usually stepped up into the house. Nakamura san walked right in to it as she removed her shoes to come inside, knocking it over with a big crash. My brother David and I heard the sound and came running down the stairs into the living room. When we saw the catastrophe of the turned over tree, the glass ornaments shattered across our floor, we let out blood curdling screams of horror.

“Nakamurasan!” we shouted. “Nani o shitan da?!”  (“What have you done?!”)

She hurriedly stood the tree back up, and tried to put things back together as well as she could. Several ornaments, however, had been crushed into hundreds of pieces of shining glitter and there was no way they could be repaired. No way at all. 

In our home in Mitaka, Japan, a Christmas tree was a big splurge, purchased from a florist near the train station. Cut and shipped from the West Coast of the U.S. in early September, by the time it reached Tokyo it was dry and brittle, barely green. It wasn’t even that big – maybe five feet tall at best.  But we thought it was exquisite.

Since we were the only gaijin (foreigners) in our part of the city, the florist probably ordered it just for us, hoping we’d show up to buy.  There may have been a few others in Mitaka who bought a Christmas tree, but I know for a fact that we were the only family in our neighborhood with one. Dad lugged it home two miles balanced on his shoulder since he couldn’t get on the bus with it, and no taxi driver in his right mind would pick up a gaijin hauling a tree.

The trimming did not take long. During our first couple of years in Japan, we didn’t even have lights on the tree.  Later, we did have one string of lights with multi-colored bulbs the size of a lemon. David and I stood back, wringing our hands in excitement as we watched Mom and Dad attach the lights.  They started at the bottom circling around the tree, handing the string off to each other like a dance as they worked their way up, ending with the one white bulb at the top for the star. It was a special moment when Dad squeaked the last bulb through the hole in the middle of the glittery cardboard star. We craned our necks up to see that shining star far out of our reach.

Mom ceremoniously plugged the lights in, and we all, almost by instinct, backed up slowly across the tatami floor in our sock feet, squinting our eyes so the lights spread out into tiny little beams, blending the colors of the rainbow that filled the room.

Then we moved on to ornaments. We had one set each of large and small glass balls which were stored in a box with round cut out circle slots to keep them from banging into each other and breaking. David and I hung the less fragile pine cones Mom had spray painted gold and tied with red cord ribbon.

One year, for some extra drama, Mom and Dad decided to provide an old-fashioned Christmas tree experience. They clipped a dozen tin candle holders mailed to us from America to the very outsides of the tree so flames wouldn’t be under another branch. Dad then filled two metal buckets to the rim with water and placed them by the tree. The small fire extinguisher from the kitchen was retrieved and Dad held it in one hand as Mom lit the candles one by one. We sang Silent Night in the dark, standing around our beautiful tree as the little flames flickered in our kindling house made of paper, straw and wood. I could almost hear Mom and Dad sigh with relief when all twelve candles were blown out, thankful that not only had we not burned down our own house, we had not burned down the entire neighborhood of match stick houses built so close together you could practically touch the neighbor’s house out the window.

As part of our missionary duties, we hosted children’s Christmas parties which included a compulsory activity when my friends were paraded to the nativity scene to learn the Christmas story.   Our creche was displayed on the kazaridana, a decorative piece of furniture for artwork. A small wooden shoji screen with translucent white paper sat behind it, adding a Japanese touch to the manger scene, bringing the characters from the Bible to life with us in Japan.

A few minutes before my friends arrived for the party each year, I summoned up my sweetest voice and courage and asked,
“Mama, at the party, umm,“ I hesitated, knowing the answer before I even asked,
“Do we have to do the part where we tell the Christmas story?”
The answer was always,
“Yes, we do.” No further explanation, no reprimanding, but this was non-negotiable.

I was never led to the butsudan (a Buddhist display shelf) in my friends’ homes and instructed about what the different elements meant, although I was always curious.  I kept my distance from that lacquered black stand with photos, incense, flowers, food and shiny objects, not wanting to offend or do something I shouldn’t.   I wanted to get up close to touch and breathe its perfume.

Everyone who entered our house during the Christmas season was drawn to our Christmas tree like a magnet through sight, smell, and the pure novelty of it all. Our guests crept up to the tree as if it might break, closely admiring the glass balls, gently tapping them with their fingernails to hear the clink and make them sway back and forth as they looked at their own distorted reflection in them. Children from the neighborhood came to the house to see the tree on December afternoons. Church members of all ages came to admire the tree on Sundays after church. Mom’s English students and neighborhood women ogled the tree when she invited them for Christmas cookies and tea, and even my mother’s Jewish friend asked to come see the tree with her three children for a taste of the American holiday season she missed.

So it was that when Nakamura san knocked over the tree and broke our irreplaceable glass ornaments, we felt our Christmas was ruined, and we told her so. We cried. She cried. As much as we loved Nakamura san, we could not believe she had done this to us. We feared this tradition that connected us to our family in America could not be completed in its entirety without every last piece of ritual in place.

Not knowing what else to do, I slipped on my shoes and tearfully ran out the front door to the church bell tower down the street. 

There I knelt down upon the painful gravel, folding my hands together into the traditional prayer shape like the paintings I had seen of Jesus praying.  I went for every bit of extra effort and drama, pancaking my hands flat together and placing my elbows on the cement base of the tower.  The church bells didn’t ring from the brown metal tower that afternoon, but I got a good look up inside as I knelt on the ground asking for God to please, oh please help fix this impossible situation, and let me know it was going to be okay.  

After a few moments of the most desperate prayer a ten year old girl could utter, I felt something warm nuzzle up against my leg.  Our dog, Tutsi, had found me.  He sat still right next to me, wagging his tail as if to reassure me that all was not lost.   I don’t know how Tutsi knew he needed to find me and rescue me in that moment, but it was what I needed to stand up and go home again, into the house where Nakamura san was finishing vacuuming up the flinders of what remained of the glass ornaments.

That miserable evening, Nakamura san fed us dinner and put us to bed, and fearfully awaited my parents’ return. Dad got home first, and was greeted by Nakamura san’s red swollen eyes.  After listening to her tearful explanation of the calamity, he reassured her that all was fine. The next day, with both Mom and Dad’s promise that Christmas was not ruined and ornaments could be replaced next year, David and I walked together to Nakamura san’s house with a plate of Mom’s Christmas cookies and apologized to her. She remained our very favorite babysitter, who loved us despite our terrible treatment of her resulting from what could only have been an accident.  

Just as Mom and Dad promised, Christmas did come to Mitaka that year.  Dad read us The Night Before Christmas, sitting on the floor between David’s futon and mine.  After he kissed us and tiptoed down the stairs, I strained my ears, listening for reindeer bells as they flew above Tokyo, picking out our home from among the millions of Japanese houses. I thought I heard their soft hoofs land gently on our flat metal roof, making a special delivery to two American children who wouldn’t be forgotten by Santa on the far side of the world.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Christmas Rainbow

78 degrees on December 21st, my husband, daughter and I decided to go to the beach for a stroll.  What else do you do when God gives you this on the winter solstice?  Sunny, squinty bright, everyone smiling, thankful for this gift of unexpected warmth.  As we crested the wooden ramp that took us over the dunes to the beach, a white mist rose from the sea at the same time it reached down in pockets from the sky.  It was as if the sea also was celebrating a reprieve from winter.  A low cloud enveloped us, wrapping us up like a Christmas present.  The mist moved in and out, opening up for warm sunshine and then closing up around us - back and forth, back and forth.

We walked North, telling stories and catching up, half-heartedly searching the sand for shark teeth.  A half mile later I turned around to notice my daughter's best high school friend, also home for the holidays, walking with her mother a few steps behind.  
     "Look," I said.  "You're not going to believe who's behind us."  The two girls, young women now, grins spreading across their cheeks, ran to each other, embracing upon impact.  

We continued our walk, the two girls off to the side, heads together, really talking about what they want to talk about, the two mothers talking mother talk, and my poor husband now out of the loop, along for the ride.  

Another half mile later, it started sprinkling.  I felt it first on the back of my neck.  What had been a glittering white mist behind us had turned in to gray clouds.  The rain fell, heavy and warm, big drops of bath water pouring down on us.  As we began to run, heading back South to through the rain to the car, an uncontrollable laugh erupted from my mouth.  Joy.  

Only moments later, the rain stopped, the downpour over, and we turned back around to look to see where the rain had gone.  A bright double rainbow stretched across the beach, low and wide, filling the entire horizon.  A Christmas rainbow I will long remember.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving Is Not For Shopping

Tomorrow I will buy a turkey breast to cook for Thanksgiving.  It's my turn to cook.  I won't buy a whole turkey, because there will only be five people around our Thanksgiving table, and we certainly don't want to be eating leftovers into mid-December.

This is not an advertisement for Harris Teeter, my grocery store "home," but that's probably where I will go to purchase my turkey breast.  I usually know where to find things, even though it is my husband who does the grocery shopping 99% of the time.  Five minutes from my house by car, I will drive there, plunk the turkey breast in my shopping cart, roll my cart to the check out counter where they will scan it and put it back in the cart for me to push out to my car.  When I get home, I'll carry it to my refrigerator where I'll place it until it's time to cook it the next day.  It will take a half hour at the most to get my turkey.

It was different for my mother when I was growing up.  She used to journey to downtown Tokyo on two separate trains to purchase our turkey.  It took her well over an hour just to get to Kinokuniya, the import store where American food like peanut butter, popcorn, corn flakes, or a turkey could be purchased. Once she selected our turkey, she placed it in the large, sturdy bag she took with her to the store, packing it carefully among a few choice other items she felt she could manage to carry home along with the turkey.  She then began her trip back to our house in Mitaka, first hauling the twelve pound bird to the train station.  She placed it on the seat next to her (if there was room) on the train, and then an hour later put it into the wicker basket on the front of her bicycle to peddle it home.  It took practically the entire day to buy the turkey.

I am thankful for my mother who went to extra efforts to make sure that we celebrated Thanksgiving and got to know this holiday.  We celebrated it, even though nobody else in our neighborhood did.  She showed me the importance of this most precious of holidays where we stop, come together, and give thanks.  It is my favorite holiday.  I enjoy its slow pace, the purposeful time in which we are together just for the sake of being together, and count all the ways in which we are blessed.

So when our commercial world marches on to take away even this, this one single day when we pause to give thanks, I will not participate.    I will never, ever, shop on Thanksgiving Day.  I will remember those stores who opened on this holiday.  For the rest of the holiday shopping season, I choose not shop there.   It's that important to me.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Popcorn for Dinner

It wasn't often that Mom was away at dinner time, but when she was, she usually prepared something that Dad could heat up and serve up on the table for dinner.  Our family rarely ate out at restaurants.  It was a really special occasion when we did, and it certainly was not something we did for convenience in those days.  We went to restaurants as a family for celebration, so we did not go to a restaurant without Mom. That just wouldn't be fair.

On those rare evenings when Dad was left to his own devices to prepare dinner for us, we had popcorn.

Dad loved having popcorn for dinner, and we were part of his ritual of preparation from beginning to end. He told us all about how often he had this special dinner of popcorn when he was growing up.  Our kernels came from Kinokuniya, the imported food store in downtown Tokyo, or was shipped to us in care packages from America.  Not to be overly dramatic about this, but having popcorn was one of the ways we were reminded that we were American.

First, Dad coated the bottom of the stainless steel pan with some vegetable oil.  Then, we watched as he cut open the bright colorful American plastic bag of corn kernels, and poured them in to the metal pan, making a loud noise.

Then, Dad placed the pan on the stove, and we gathered in close to listen for the first pop.  I always wished I could see the popping and not just hear it, but of course, that was impossible with the metal pans.   We silently waited, still as we could be, so as not to make any unexpected noises that would take away from the excitement of hearing that first kernel hit the lid of the pan.  When we heard it, that first lone popper, we looked at each other's faces to be re-assured, that yes, that was a pop.

Slowly, gradually, more and more kernels popped, and in no time there were so many kernels popping in rapid succession that we couldn't tell them apart.  That was the best part.  It was out of control!! As the popping died down, Dad shook the pan over the stove to make sure that as many kernels as possible would pop, and slowly, slowly, the energy and sounds from the pan died down.  Sometimes Dad included enough in the pan that the white jewels began to lift the lid off of the pan.  I secretly wished for it to overflow and cover the top of the stove.

When the popping was finished, Dad salted it and tossed it in a mixing bowl.  Then, the three of us sat at the card table in the kitchen rather than the dining room table where we usually ate dinner.  Dad scooped the popcorn out of the pan with the bowls he would set in front of us for dinner.  Finally, just before we said the blessing, he retrieved the cold glass bottle of milk from the refrigerator, and poured it over our hot popcorn. We ate it with a spoon, just like Dad did when he was a little boy.

My family does not eat popcorn for dinner.  We don't pour milk on our popcorn, either.  Our popcorn is popped in a microwave in a paper bag that expands and we throw away in the trash.  My family won't be carrying on that tradition, much to my Dad's dismay, but I will always have great memories of pop corn for dinner at the little square card table in the kitchen in Mitaka.