Under the F Word

Have you ever wondered what goes on in one of those blue tents you occasionally see stretched over homes? You probably know enough to say, “They’re having their house fumigated” – but why and what does that mean? I’ll tell you my story.

Our first sign of something amiss was many pairs of small thin wings in my daughter’s bedroom. She washed all her bedclothes and clothing and scrubbed down the floor, but the wings kept reappearing. An on-line search alerted her: termites. An inspector from a pest control company confirmed that guess when he shone a light down under the crawl space under her room—scads of termite droppings. Since our garage was infested too, we needed more than a local application of chemicals, but tenting the entire house so that a noxious chemical could be pumped in.

Before that could happen, it was upon us to remove any foodstuffs or medicines that could be inadvertently laced with the poison that would be administered. I started two weeks beforehand by separating out what jars of glass or plastic still had their from-the-store packaging. These could be kept, as well as the metal cans, so I placed them up high out of reach. The half-used stuff went  low or into bags to give others—such as the pitted dates to my son-in-law or the cake mix for my friend.

Two weeks early was not too soon to start preparation. I like to cook, my cupboards are many, and the cuisines I like various. Here’s a sample of what I had to deal with: from Hawaii came my pink rock salt. Half of it remained and a cellophane envelope would not keep it safe. Normal salt sits in three shakers—blue, cherry wood casing, and a thirty-year-old pink capped Tupperware container. All these needed to be removed—or thrown out—and that’s just a speck from the plurality of other things to be considered and then tossed, passed on, taken away in boxes or sealed up ever so tightly.

I didn’t know I’d stored up so much. My daughter and family took away three good-sized bags of food to use. Friends stored for us a very large box full of frequent use bottles like oil and vinegar and seldom used items like corn-syrup, Mirin, rum. They also helped us drink up some of this tiny bottles of hard liquor we used to receive free on international flights. Items from the freezer and refrigerator filled a large laundry basket and a huge bag and stayed safe in the 2nd refrigerator in a friend’s backyard party area.

We needed to consider more than what was in the cupboards, but al the refrigerator and the medicine cabinet or bathroom shelves. Any food, or medicines not still in its original pristine just-come-from-the-store condition. And not only that, but if an item was not packaged with hard plastic or glass or metal – such as rice in a plastic bag – it also had to be protected. An unopened Cheerio box is not okay. Nor are those crackers in pretty white paper or cellophane or the frozen chicken in its thick plastic packaging. All must go or  the noxious gas they would pump into our house at high pressure would penetrate its packaging.

Despite all my efforts to simply remove food from our homestead, lots was left to go in the bags that the fumigation company gave us for safe storage on site. We filled all but two of the twenty-some thick plastic bags (roughly two-feet by three-feet).  They came, of course, with a half-page list of instructions on how to double bag and seal them rightly (long, long twist-ties or twist the plastic and duc-tape).

If an item was forgotten and accidentally left here during the time of forcing of the gas into a blue tent surrounding our home – it could not be eaten. That’s terrible enough – I can’t stomach waste, can’t take the guilt of buying food and then not using it – but worse would be if the workers found items I’d left behind and -as their contract and the law requires them to do – double bagged them and then charged us for it. Something I didn’t want at all, but accidentally left behind in the wrong kind of packaging could incur a cost.  The fumigation staff was responsible to do wrap and bill me. That was the deal. Or, ordeal.

If that wasn’t enough to put fear into the pit of my stomach, the knowing that workers—all certainly unknown to me and probably all men—would come into my house and demand that the safe be left open unnerved me. That they’d look for any hidden chocolate bars that might have been unwittingly overlooked – such as in a safe spot in the bedroom where my mother used to them, sugar addict that she was – also unhinged me. Would they find the cough drops I keep at the head of my bed or in the bottom drawer of my bathroom vanity and, if they didn’t find the little drops, and neither did I remember to gather them up, would I forget and eat one in the following days and unwittingly put poison inside my body?

The boxes used to carry food away have come back home. Then a new job commenced. Before emptying them, I had to cleanse sticky shelves of the refrigerator and the cupboards. Juice or oil had dripped and hardened and required spray cleaner, baking soda, muscle power and a scouring sponge. I arranged food stuffs and medicines neatly in their freshly-scrubbed shelves. After that, I took scissors and sliced tape holding those brown cardboard boxes together. With them flattened, I could finally take them away and feel again the pleasure of my house in order.

How wonderful this morning sit in my home this morning and have that past me. I lounge in my office and notice that the windows that my husband and I carefully wiped clean of streaks and hardened particles one Saturday morning are smeared again. Yet I feel that those smudges are alright. I’ve worked hard and long. So instead of attempting to wipe them clean, I retreat into the world of words again.

Lounging in Kapaa — that’s Kapa’a, Kauai


To what will I listen? How about the long and throaty call in the distance? Or, the high pitched, rapid chirps nearby? Or the rustle of the leaves in the intermittent but unending gusts of wind? I sit on a bamboo chair on the second floor balcony-porch of our Air BnB. It’s on the upside of a ravine, so that I can see into trees from two sides of my perch. Some seem my height and some are far below. The magnificent avocado tree’s regal clothing meets my eyes—its trunk descending some thirty steps below, and its limbs go on up and up past the roof of my perch. Its large leaves are shaded a green tinged with black, a green unlike its unripe fruit that hangs on its drooping and limber branches. The green of the avocado tree’s leaves match the ready-to-eat avocado our host gave us as a breakfast side–a dark richness as of coffee.

As I eat, I look down on the amazingly long leaves of the banana tree, its trunk planted some twenty feet down the hill from the avocado. The leaves fold and lean over, as if to bow down before the king riding in, each leaf wearing a wonderfully long and regular fringe like some Hawaiian girls fringed skirts or more imaginatively, IMG_1415like some obsessive and talented preschooler, who was exhibiting early his destiny in art and installations, had taken his scissors to each palm leaf (leaves as long as my body) and cut through one green leaf,  and then another and another until sun is setting and he must sleep. The early morning light shines behind the uprising grove below me, through the bending, swaying branches, and illuminates a sea I know is blue but yet looks grayish in the fierce light of morn. Oh, the green of its gargantuan variety—the multitudinous greens and shapes of leaves—from huge hearts to perfect oblongs that narrow to a point—from fern-like, lacy leaves to the tiny ovals on narrow-bowed branches. The birds too, and their calls are of such variety they seem almost disjointed—quacking or crowing, bugling or bursting inchorus. It’s all yours, oh King—all singing and trumpeting beauty in a myriad of forms.

To think now that when I awakened to a chamber concert of the birds and the splendor of the sun rising over the ocean and clouds stretched on either side of long and narrow slit like a stretched out eye, that on my waking I wished for tissues and thought about writing on the Air Bnb site my complaint—”No kleenex in bathroom or bedroom.” Oh, how my mind flits and settles on such a sorry landing, grumbling about what is missing. How my anxious ears often listen to rustlings of ruin, when so much around me shouts glory, glory, glory.

California Girl’s Return to Japan

Two blogs back I reflected and raised questions on our family’s past, a blog penned on a jet from California to Japan. I anticipated a five-day stay in the home of a Japanese friend and a reunion with my young-adult daughter Sheri.

Sheri peaks into Japan
Sheri peaks into Japan

The journey triggered my reflections on Sheri’s youth—that is seventeen years ago—when at age eight she, along with me, her sister and father, moved back to California after six years of living in Tokyo and Kobe. At that point, my daughter knew Japan better than America.

Recently Sheri has ventured to Japan to summon up her past and how it’s shaped her in the context of broader questions. As a visual artist finding her way at age 24, she is pursuing questions of multi-cultural identity. Her next themed artwork will explore and illustrate her probe. Japan has shaped her aesthetic sense. As an artist friend remarked a half-dozen years ago on viewing Sheri’s paintings, “In her use of colors you can see the influence of Japan.”

Sheri arrived in Kobe about five weeks ago, in early September, a week prior to my scheduled arrival. A few days after her Japan stay began, her host and our dear friend Matsuoka-san emailed me: “Sheri and Yukino still have same relationship.” I could scarcely believe what she’d written.

Yukino is Matsuoka’s daughter. She and my daughter met in a private yochien, preschool/ kindergarten, that Sheri entered when age four. They played together almost daily for two years before they had to separate for first-grade classes at differing neighborhood schools. For one more year both girls and us two mothers kept up our close friendships. Then our family returned to live in California. While Sheri was immersed in California life, Yukino attended a typical high school and college in Kobe, Japan. Health difficulties kept Yukino close to home.

On their meeting, five weeks ago, a dozen years had passed since Sheri and Yukino had last met each other. They weren’t email buddies. They weren’t Facebook friends either. And so I wondered, how could their relationship be the same? Especially with intervening years so disparate.

The adolescent years of each—so formative—varied immensely. Yukino wore uniforms and committed herself to study hard and memorize much information, including the few thousand Chinese ideograms necessary to read a newspaper or to succeed at academic tests that come at the end-of-eighth grade or high school.

In contrast, Sheri attended a project-centered academic magnet school where she did artwork as part of school assignments. She often found September’s start of school boring as they reviewed math for one month to compensate for an amazingly long summer break (because heaven forbid that we Americans should study during our three month break—a contrast to Japan’s six week break with assigned daily homework). For extra-curricular Sheri did art lessons and participated in Irish Dance and school dramas. Her only weighty tests before college were the SATs, and she did no tutoring or cram school to prepare. For college, she ventured off to upstate New York and at meals with various undergraduates, including individuals from Arizona, NYC, a Japanese-Moonie cult, India, Korea and more.

How could Yukino and Sheri still have the same relationship? They no longer speak the same language. Since her two elementary college Japanese classes five years past, Sheri hadn’t spoken Japanese. In contrast, Yukino’s Japanese has been developing constantly through her school education. Plus idioms—especially teen slang—keep changing in any language. And, just as the vocabulary, thought and articulation of a six-year-old American vastly varies from that of a twenty-four year old, so would their languages, and the concepts imbedded in them, diverge. Impossible for them to have the same relationship. Or so I thought.

But as I watched Sheri listen raptly to Yukino the first night and understand the Japanese spoken to her (which I often could not understand) and saw their two sets of eyes meet in tender exchange, I wondered. I learned they had both worked as receptionists for a period and so experienced the difficulties of working with the public. When I saw the photos Yukino’s mother had taken years past of her daughter jumping—at the same stage when Sheri was also having her sister take many of this kind of photos—I felt amazement. I heard that Yukino has been working with children, children with disabilities, and that is now her career path. I thought how similar is that to the many jobs with children that Sheri has held and how both their hearts go out in compassion for those who are on the outskirts of society.

The four of us attended some outdoor art exhibitions in Kobe. In one, they furnished masks—looking something like Kabuki masks—that we were to wear as we walked around the arboretum and engaged with nature. Sheri and Yukino clowned around with their masks, thought of great photo ops, and exchanged much laughter.

Clowning around with art.
Clowning around with art.

On another day, as we drove by a large modern art museum in Kobe, I learned that Yukino often visited alone—Sheri shares that love for contemporary art and willingness to go solo if no one else can join in.

I saw many Japanese friends, and fellow train passengers, faces aglow with make-up. During one of our long car rides together, I mentioned how I disliked putting on make up. Yukino told us that she too didn’t like putting make-up on and does so less than the other women surrounding her—another likeness to Sheri and I, her mother. I also noted to myself how Yukino enjoyed dressing casually, like us. She wore flats, not high heels, and often loose cotton shorts or tops, and appeared indifferent to the sleek or elegant clothing that I saw other young Japanese women wearing for a gatheringg for tea at Matsuoka’s home or an outing to the top of ahigh-risee and lunch.

Over dinner at a five-star traditional Japanese restaurant, I learned that my daughter who was never willing to eat anything but a California Roll now likes sushi.

Sashimi as art
Sashimi as art

Yukino loves sashimi, raw fish, and Sheri—who as far as I knew didn’t care for it and wouldn’t taste it—murmured, “Delicious,” alongside Yukino. They seemed so much at ease with each other as they pinched morsels of food with chopsticks. Sheri spoke Japanese with a flawless accent and seemed to understand most of what her friends or the waitress said. I saw Sheri handling small conversational exchanges with a subtlety, kindness and sensitivity that are so characteristically Japanese.

Dressed for glam
Dressed for glam

At night, the eve of my departure, at Matsuoka’s home, Yukino’s mother offered us whatever we’d like to take home from her stash of numerous kimonos, jackets and kimono-style undergarments—all of silk. Sheri held several gorgeous, floral silks to her cheek and considered what looked best on her. Yukino advised. She then wrapped and fastened Sheri in a kimono of glorious rich colors that transformed Sheri into a picture of elegance.

Matsuoka repeated several times, “You can take it home. Anything you want.” As for Yukino, she admired Sheri in her kimono, but also knew when to step back. She allowed Sheri space to consider her ideas and what she could carry away in a visit to six more locations. What might Sheri use for her making of videos and other artwork? What clothing was suitable or worth the responsibility of receiving such a magnanimous and generous gift? In the process, Yukino appeared so in tune with Sheri. Language didn’t matter.

I concede. Yukino and Sheri do have the same relationship. So much remains of their young selves. Their lives have sped on trajectories that, at least on the surface, have much in common. Maybe more alike than different. Sheri loved her time in Japan and though I went to Japan to help her find the former sites of her homes and touch again the memories they held, the trip became much more—joyous reunions with my former English students and friends, marvel at the beauty of their kindness, cuisine, and environs so that I too felt myself falling in love with Japan again. I was mistaken. Japan, you are still with us—perhaps in us–always.

Caoling Trail Shortly After the Typhoon

In the Visitor Center -
In the Visitor Center – to risk it or not?

We hated what was said by the young slender man standing behind the counter of the Visitors Center in the Taiwanese village of Fulen. “You shouldn’t walk the Caoling Trail because of the typhoon we just had. It could be dangerous.”

Two days ago a high wind and rain had shaken the balcony in the sky rise apartment where I stayed with a friend and her family. Large tree limbs crashed down and smaller trees toppled too. Schools were closed that day and also the following, although on that second day of closures no storm showed its face.

Now it was the third day and no wind or clouds warned of danger. Was it necessary to accept his advice? Getting to trail’s start had required a ninety-minute train ride as well as some bucks to travel there from Taipei.

We were prepared and eager. I’d equipped myself with water, snacks, umbrellas, asthma inhalers and a second pair of shoes incase the first got too muddy. Both I and my Taiwanese companion Karen had already cancelled on outdoor trip because of the typhoon. Today’s shorter alternative provided challenge as well seclusion within walls of green and blue. For me, it would be the first time walking a mountain forest of Taiwan. For Karen, a former athlete, it would be the first time to hike without a young child in her care in nearly three years.

The official stared at us earnestly through his horn-rimmed glasses. He wore a button-down moss- green shirt with a tie. Taiwanese are typically thin, but his girth seemed more so, less than many of the trees downed by the storm. He pointed to a map underneath the glass countertop. “You can bike instead hike. There’s many sites to see.”

We didn’t ask what. Asphalt streets with roaring motorbikes and honking cars would be no substitute for the cool, green arms of trees. Karen looked towards me. “Do you still want to go?”

“I do, do you?” She nodded.

I’ll admit, in retrospect, there wasn’t much basis for my trust in her judgment. Our whole prior relationship was based in a private conversational English conversation class I teach back in California. Since Karen’s visit to her family of birth with my planned trip to Taiwan, we’d decided to meet up. I did know she was smart and shrewd. And in  Japan, where I’d lived for six years, taking physical risks–ones commonplace to me–were discouraged. Could it be so here?

The young official stared at us as if waiting for our answer. I plunged in. “I’ve had thirty years experience of hiking, both in California and Japan. I think we can keep safe.” My words–voice of deference to his–probably have shocked him.

“We have many people say they’ve had experience with beaches or rivers and swimming and then they cause themselves and us much trouble.”

“I won’t go near the ocean. I only want to hike.” Truth—I’d never contemplated going in.

He nodded as if to release us, assured him that he or others wouldn’t have to go searching for our bodies. When out of earshot, Karen explained, “Probably he was required to say that.”

“Yes. And I don’t mind stepping around or bending under downed trees. I’ve done that many times in California.”

Next lunch. In a small take-out place situated on the single main street, we picked a lunch box set that included an egg darkened with age and soy, and slivers of pork upon rice, and a tablespoon each of seaweed and cabbages. The colorful, cheap, and nutritious array came in waxed cardboard boxes with wooden chopsticks. Later, I’d find it tasted as good as it looked

Out we headed with Karen swinging by her hand the tied pink plastic store bag. Not a good idea to add it to our backpacks since the bag kept our tasty assortment in their thin boxes upright and prevented sauces from leaking out. Next stop: for yellow ponchos. Later, when we watched dark gray clouds slowly intrude on our presently blue skies and becomes a massive presence over us, we were very glad we ported those ponchos.

We first set off down an asphalt road, then on a path through a green like I never see in California. Deep, sprawling, dense, soaring, and profuse. The path was good—made of asphalt at first. And dry. Later patches of mud showed up. The path narrowed, then became dirt. About twenty minutes into our walk we had to step over our first downed bamboo rod. Then a few minutes later we encountered a four foot wide thicket of branches across our path. We lifted lift some up or stepped between others. We could continue with no obstacles for a few more minutes, then it became a near constant job to clear the path or step high around obstacles. Our trail descriptors said this one-way walk would take three to four hours (with a train taking us home from our end point). With such added work, would it be six?

“I am wondering if the young man had a point. If I believed that it would be like this the whole way, I’d turn back now. But I don’t think it will.” I said. Karen said nothing. “Let’s give it another thirty minutes.”

Within twenty, we’d reached a slope from where we saw a home and a driveway leading down to it. A large black dog barked ferociously ahead. He guarded the asphalt we needed to proceed down. I could see in my mind’s eye him rushing up to grab a piece of my thigh. That frightened me.

Another couple walking ahead of us seized the dog’s interest and he ran to within a foot of them, then turned away. But now he headed towards us. I know dogs, and bees, can smell fear. My own aroma was sure to be quite evident and would encourage him to take an ounce of flesh out of me. I wished the creature knew English.

I talked to him anyways. “We’re just walking past. We’re not going to bother you or your home.” He came closer—more scary than the downed bamboo earlier. I told myself to not be afraid.

We kept walking. He turned away to chase the other couple a bit and that gave us enough time to get past him. I counted it my good fortune to go onward unscathed.

“Now we’ll start the trail,” said Karen.

Two ways of turning  Chinese script into English.
Two ways of turning Chinese script into English.

“What? I though we were on it?” It seemed we’d already walked a mile. “That was just the path to the trail,” she replied. Again, I wondered if we’d make our destination.

Fortunately, here on the real trail, no more downed trees thwarted our progress. Several challenges did make me wonder this would be more drudgery than joy. I never voiced those doubts.

Slick portions were the first and most frequent difficulty. I wondered at first if the ranger’s warning would prove true. Would the mud get thicker? Would the rocks we walked on get dangerously slippery? We forged on. The slick or sticky portions did not worsen or lengthen. After a near falling, I made an conscious effort to slow down when needed and watch for mud. I would half my pace for five or ten minutes at a time, and then speed up again.

We climbed stairs made of rocks that rose up and up and up, perhaps a hundred at a time. My right knees started to hurt and I wished I’d brought a hiking stick. Only nine months past I had a severe episode of arthritic knees that made climbing stairs impossible for a week.

We walked past a gorgeous roaring river with ferns on its banks for an hour or so. I kept repeating, “It’ so beautiful!” Sometimes we descended to a level where we could approach it and put our fingers into its cool clear waters. IMG_0522After the joy of the river, came many more steps, but finally a cliff from which we could look out point over a vast open space and saw a bit of gray ocean and clouds in the horizon.

“You can usually see the blue stretching on and on.” Karen’s thick brows were lowered—her disappointment I think more for me than herself. She’d seen it previousy and this was my one chance.

Clouds did have one benefit. They kept it somewhat cool. Yet the high humidity—what typically hangs on after a typhoon—made it incredibly humid. The waistband of my shorts was soaked with sweat. My arms and back were sticky and, as I drank to compensate for the sweat, my water was running out.

We walked on and down. At one spot inviting tables and benches of concrete stood under a covered porch. “Let’s stop to rest.” Karen studied a large sign. “No, there are Tiger Bees here. They can kill a person.” “How often does that happen?” I asked as we continued on down the trail. “Every month they sting someone or two, but probably only kill a person occasionally, like once a year.”

The gray clouds became fuller, even bulky, like steel petticoats that wanted to shed their heavy load.

“We may get rained on. I’m glad for the ponchos,” said Karen.

“Let’s try to outrun the storm.” I enjoyed explaining the idiom, before I started to run. We pushed ourselves faster and stopped less frequently for photos. Only for watrer.

And my quart or so of water was nearly gone. A sign told me not too long until a restroom. The vending machine at the rest stop was one of the highlights of the trip.

Soon after we left it, bottles of cold oolong tea in hand, we came upon two young people toiling up the trail: a blond-haired woman with a brunette haired man. “Is this the start of the Caoling Trail?”

“Yes,” answered Karen.

“Is it okay for walking?”

“Yes,” my friend replied ithout skipping a beat. I wasn’t so sure. “The trail that takes you into Fulen though has a lot of downed trees or bamboo cut off trail,” I added.

“So when you get to the road and a house and a barking dog, just go on the road,” advised Karen. I looked at my watch–2:30 PM–and added, “I’m more concerned about how late it is.”  In October, the days were getting shorter.

“Yes, we got a later start than we meant to.”

At least they looked lean and strong. Maybe they could do it in three hours.

“And the rain,” added Karen. “Do you have rain gear?”


“I’ll give you my poncho,” said Karen, again with no pause and I joined in the giving. We’d had such joy in beauty and invigorating exercise and wouldn’t want them to miss it. Without protest, only sincere thanks, they took our unopened poncho packages.

Twenty minutes later, we were down at nearly sea level, at the signpost that marked the trail’s start. IMG_0541Perhaps the ranger’s prohibition made my triumph all the more meaningful.

Thirty minutes later, we boarded a nearly empty train to start our long ride home. “I’d like to call that ranger and tell him we made it!” I knew that we couldn’t actually do so. We didn’t know his number.

The hike had worn me out. It takes a whole lot of tiredness for me to sleep on a noisy, swaying train. I did just that. I was surprise to realize that our car had arrived in Taipei. I gathered my stuff together and as we got off, Karen said, “I hope that young couple made it.”

“Me, too.” Could we have erred in the opposite direction from the ranger and steered the couple into discomfort–or worse, danger?

Going Back to a Japanese Childhood

I’m flying across the Pacific to Japan. It’s not a popular destination for my California friends, but it’s a homecoming for me.

Who's behind the mask?
Who’s behind the mask?

I moved there with husband and preschool daughters, age two and four, in 1993. I came to Japan with two semester’s worth of Japanese—enough to ask where the station was, but little able to comprehend rapid-fire answers greater than two-words. In the years before we departed Japan, my language abilities had grown so that I could easily converse with a doctor, teacher or neighbor about common matters. We didn’t move back to the U.S. till my littler ones had grown into grade schoolers, ages six and eight.

At the beginning of our six-year stint, Japanese mothers would attentively listen to Sheri, seated in her stroller, speaking with her two-year-old high-pitched voice and, as typical way of that age, unclear articulation. She enjoyed the strangers’ warm, encouraging smiles and nods—except when she told them of what was to her a personal disaster. Then their smiles—due to their incomprehension—brought on her wails.

Looking for the Past
Looking for the Past

At the end of our six years there, when Sheri spoke, both native Japanese or English speakers understood. Her Japanese was acquired naturally while a teacher talked to her as she drew pictures or Japanese adults read her a picture book or children played tag or other games with her. This Japanese immersion experience came through both friendships and organized activities: first a playgroup, then a preschool-kindergarten for ages three through five, and, lastly, first grade at a typical Japanese elementary school. There the repetitive writing of detailed characters, attended to daily for the sake of memorization, did not daunt her.

In her first years back in California, Sheri longed for her black-haired friends of Kobe with an intensity unmatched. Not even the long-awaited dog we adopted consoled her. She’d had a handful of American friends in Japan, but they were not the ones she pined for. New friends in California could not substitute. I looked in once when, sitting on her bed, Sheri opened her photo album of life in Japan, eager for the blond-haired third grader sitting near her to view her treasured experience. Sheri’s new friend looked away, feeling no need to feign interest, and picked up a stuffed animal to examine. Japan was a world far away across the ocean and Sheri could not entice her there.

Sheri dives into her past, and Kobe Art.
Sheri dives into her past, and Kobe Art.

Sheri made pilgrimages back to Japan for four years. The first summer our whole family boarded the plane, then came a summer trip with only her sister for a stay with Japanese friends, speaking only their language throughout, as they splashed in a patio, inflatable pool or at an amazing water-play park and did other active play. Then those same two young Japanese sisters visited us. The photos that we keep show them having climbed high in our Ponderosa pine—something not done in Japan. When I see the tree still standing in front of our Redwood City home, I sometimes think of them.

Sheri awaits me now in the Kansai airport. Having arrived five days ahead of me, she’s been re-experiencing Kobe with my friend Azusa Matsuoka and her daughter Yukino. When Sheri started her pre-school in Kobe, Azusa reached out and supported us in many and various ways, including translating school notices and taking Sheri out for an outing when she was bored stiff with the rest of us, her flu-stricken family. The cheerful, immense help Azusa gave in various ways forged a friendship for all of us in Sheri’s yochien days.

For Sheri, it’s been a dozen years at least since she visited Japan. This return to her Asian roots is part of an artistic and personal search to understand her identity through visiting the places that formed her. Since living in or visiting Japan, she’s passed through many changes and stages—the tween years, adolescence, college, and the angst of being just-graduated or boyfriend-gone. I wonder whether Sheri will connect again deeply to Yukino and others. Since she hasn’t navigated a friendship in Japanese for a dozen years, will much communication be possible? Many questions. Answers await.

Grandmothering–the Dark Side

Keeping still is hard to do!
Keeping still is hard to do!

We celebrated Mother’s Day over an early dinner with my two daughters and my “son-in-love” and a grandson, recently turned 13 months old and walking. The charming and classy hillside restaurant we’d chosen, Shadowbrook, proved great for our whole family.

Baby Isaac had refused to go down and stay down for his typical early afternoon nap, worrying both parents. The best part of my daughter’s Mother’s Day turned out to be his new-found ability to keep slumbering when lifted out of his car seat. In fact, Jennifer carried him, prone, down 96 steps to the restaurant door and once seated, got to enjoy adult conversation and shrimp wrapped with bacon while baby slept on.

Next year I’ll quiz my daughter Jenny about whether she’d rather picnic instead. Though we all loved the food and found many places to entertain baby when he was fully awake (like the bright-colored fish zipping up and down in the aquarium), I’d rather she not spend Mother’s Day stressed about how her son will do in the restaurant. I’d rather she not be like me in this way—the anxiety that often festered in me as a mother of unpredictable young kids.

Last time I wrote about being a grandmother and recounted the rhapsodies of this new role and how it lifts me up to forgotten, pleasures. But it also undoes me. From the get-go, I’ve felt so protective of Baby. Not only of whether Isaac is warm enough or fed enough, but also of the well-being of Mom. It’s like an old haunting has returned, my old sense of impotence.

I’m again a teetering freshman heading into finals week. The tension extends even to the baby’s dad. After Ozan returned from overseas, relief rolled in. I felt washed clean, elated as a backpacker who’d been traipsing dirty trails for a dozen days, now cleansed of a day’s sweat under a shower and released from a thirty-pound pack.

In these thirteen months of newly experiencing my role as grandmother, hearing my daughter’s stories has dredged up my own past—the exhaustion and bewilderment brought on by an infant or a sick toddler. Such remembering fuels my offers to help, but regret also steps in. I picture myself as a young mother—at my best and at my worst—and then self-evaluation follows fast. Stabs of guilt pierce and multiply. When I cared for young ones, I was on a quest to become some vague ideal of a mother, while I aimed to not be like my own mom. From her, I often felt the lash of her tongue. From her, the words I love you did not feel genuine because I felt I could not satisfy her. Did I escape becoming her?

I often suspect that I did not do it as well as my daughter Jenny. Did I get silently irritated when my baby threw a tantrum? Did Jenny or Sheri feel my frustration even when I was silent? Did my vocal anger harm our relationships for life? Sometimes I left off tidying and sweeping to play with baby—something I have reason to believe my own mother did not do—but did I do it enough?

Recently on the return trip from my daughter’s, I recalled Isaac screaming at her and arching his back. The strong and riveting scene took me back in time and called forth comparisons. In my daughter I saw no frustration or bewilderment bursting out and I marveled at her gentle words. “You’re so tired. You need to sleep,” she intoned with sympathy. Admiration welled up and, on return to home and computer, I typed an e-mail to her:

I think when I was in those situations as a mother of young children I sometimes felt, “I’ve done something wrong to cause this.  I should be able to stop this, somehow, but I don’t know how.” 

That is a bad and powerless way of thinking. 

Or, “What’s wrong with this child? She’s so mad at me and it’s so unreasonable.  How much more am I going to have to endure this?”

The knowledge you’ve gained and applied within your heart and actions—“Baby needs to be sleeping”—is a much more helpful way to interpret his tantrum. There’s less personalizing and anxiety than what went on within me. 

Watching you these last months, I often wish I’d been a better mother to my young ones and I am also stirred to amazement. I am grateful at the grace God has shown towards you and Sheri. You are so much more than the sum total of the parenting efforts of Collin and I. And here is where I credit prayer and raising you within a community of faith. You’ve become young adults who are kind and compassionate as well as responsible and diligent and for this I am so thankful.

In response, my daughter e-mailed these reflections:

It’s easier to be gentle when I’ve gotten help and am not overwhelmed myself — so thank you for helping enable me to be a kinder parent by giving me a break! Also, I want you to know I think you did a great job teaching me and Sheri that we as humans have physical limits, and that we need to respect and be compassionate about those limits.

I remember you bringing snack for me after school when I was four or five and saying it was to ward off a blood-sugar low, or how you insisted we go to bed and finish things in the morning if need be—rather than try to stay up too late. And how you didn’t push me past the limit of how long I could be out shopping! I know two close friends who didn’t get those kinds of lessons in their families. I’m grateful I did. Those lessons were foundational for my attitude of compassion and acceptance toward the body’s needs. Without that, I certainly wouldn’t deal well with Isaac’s upsets.

Ah, what a daughter. But back to the mish-mash of the grand-parenting experience for me. I don’t want, of course, to lean on my daughter often for reassurance when stabs of memory produce shame. Here’s where my journal—whether electronic or on paper—help. A time writing or silence or conversation with a close friend allows the little darts of pain or shame to bubble up. Then they can be addressed. I also ask God’s help to call to mind my mother strong points. They are there, like the time I spent two hours reading picture books to Jenny.

Does my child remember that or the times I failed to stop and listen or play? I also wonder, was I loving and gentle enough? I’ve decided that I cannot know. In fact, we don’t really need to and that my quest to absolve myself from the past is a doomed way of trying to gain reassurance.

(I must made an aside here: I’m assuming that for concrete wrongs—a spanking in anger, a failure to feed or meet another need—parents need to ask forgiveness. Clear failures that must be dealt with.) But, as in my case, complex emotions can spur a look backwards. Perhaps it’s an attempt to assure myself that I earned my child’s love. That I have not failed as a parent and therefore my life has meaning or worth. Or, perhaps, that my child will be there for me in the future. None of these add up.

Much as I wanted to do so, I could not daily and hourly find and show love in my days of intensive mothering. Nor could any human. Human fallibility remains despite reading a shelf of books on parenting or digging deep with a counselor.

Fortunately, our kind God can make good things out of our mistakes and weaknesses. Parenting done perfectly? No, but mine has been enough for God to use. It’s not necessary to know I’ve done enough or done it well enough. That’s one more way of trying to buy security.

Besides, true love—whether from God or a child—is given, not earned. We all have flaws. When we encounter love, it’s not due to a stellar record, but a gift of grace. So when baby Isaac reaches out his fingers to discover the feel of a purple stalk of blossoms, I can remember that the Maker of those flowers extends that same delight to my own person.

Grandmothering: It’s not that simple!

Full of glee!
Full of glee!

“You’ll love it,” so promised enthusiastic members of that club when my oldest, Jenny, was pregnant. They were right, but the gift of new life brought upheaval too. None hinted, and I didn’t suspect, that the impact would be dense and textured. Both light and dark layers comprise my new stage and status as grandmother, as strands interlace and weave such exquisite art.

The delights abound. Weekly they amplify. Like when infant Isaac first started recognizing me on reuniting after days, or weeks, of separation. Though only months old, he’d chortle and hold out his arms. Oh, the joy—I held that mental snapshot for hours, sometimes days.

My husband pinned on a label on the appeal, “There’s nothing like that look of adoration.” Hmm, is that part of the appeal of relating to a baby? A longing to be worshipped? Or, more kindly, to be unconditionally—well nearly—accepted?

And the thrill of seeing Isaac change from an immobile baby—totally dependent on human hands to get from one place to another—to crawling and now walking. What seemed subhuman nine or twelve months ago became a toddler. As a new walker, he wobbles, awkwardly shifts his weight from one foot to another. I’d forgotten the charm in a little one’s uncertain gait and his gaze to us for kudos.

And the wonder of seeing him explore and his early reactions to happy gifts of this earth—both excite me. The pucker of his light-brown brows and waver of his lips tells his how of unsure he is when confront with a new culinary experiment—the sharp corners of corn flakes or the pungent taste of cold tuna. As he reaches out to touch a leaf or a flower, I enter into his curiosity. What fun it’s been—it breaks my apathy to plants I’ve glimpsed a thousand times. Once numb to the wonders surrounding, I take them in with new eyes.

And what equally fascinates me is the process of acquiring language, as when—for the first time—he actually sat still for a picture book looking at its page. Or, when he wanted it read to him a second time. Lately I tell him frequently, “This is a (purple, pink or yellow) flower.” His parents do that too, in both English and Turkish. Together we introduce him to the immense variety shapes and colors all bearing that designation flower. He’s piecing together the puzzles of words, and I see glints of new understanding alighting. What an incredible process. I discover language anew through Isaac.

Being a grandmother lifts me up to a new, or forgotten, order of pleasure, but it also undoes me. I’ve felt so protective of Baby. And not only of whether Isaac is warm enough, fed enough, slept enough, but also of the well-being of his mother, my daughter. An old haunting has returned. As if again I’m a teetering freshman heading into finals week. So after the absence of Isaac’s dad on an overseas trip, when he returned, a relief broke over me. I felt as glad as a backpacker cleansed of a day’s sweat under a miniature falls.

A totally unexpected sensation has come as I’ve watched Jenny with her little one—the sting I feel at times from memories, stinging like a cold and salty wave engulfing an open wound. The past – our own mother-baby duo—has crashed in. Recall of the seemingly endless exhaustion and bewilderment of motherhood has fortified my offers of help and comfort, but regret is also part of the memories. I’ll post next my reflections on traveling through that angst.