By Carol Bergman
Recently, as I was walking with my friend Mikiko on a busy New York City street, she began to tell me a story about her mother. She had just returned from Japan and was jet-lagged and morose. Her English faltered. As she dropped her prepositions and confused her tenses, the story scrambled.
She began with the words: “This story take away appetite.” After that, I didn’t understand what she said.
“Are you speaking Japanese?” I asked her.
“It’s a very sad story,” she said clearly.
We were on our way to an Italian restaurant. Mikiko didn’t want to eat Japanese food in New York anymore. Most of the restaurants were now Chinese-owned and the sushi was inauthentic—over-sized portions and coarse rice.
“We can just ask a question as we walk in, find out if the chef is Japanese,” I suggested.
But Mikiko didn’t agree with my plan. At her request, we delayed the meal and continued walking west into Central Park. It was late summer and the sun fell away in a burst of tawny color, then seemed to rise again in bright illuminating rays before sinking into the windows and terraces of the skyscrapers all around us.
“In Tokyo, except for the Imperial Gardens where the Emperor lives, we have no large parks,” Mikiko said. “In Tokyo, we have lost everything.”
I did not know whether I should remain quiet or encourage her to say more. I was curious, of course, and also concerned. Her mother was a widow with two of her children living on the other side of the world, one in Canada—Mikiko’s younger brother—and Mikiko in New York.
“Our lives are too transient,” I said, thinking about a disturbing conversation I had with my own daughter just a few weeks before. I was listening now with three ears, as the saying goes.
As we settled on the grass near Turtle Pond, Mikiko opened her bag and pulled out a small package. This was a gift for me, a souvenir of her journey.
“I could not bring anything heavy,” she said unnecessarily.
My young friend is often self-effacing. She does not understand that the gesture alone is dear, a commemoration of the constancy of our friendship. It makes no difference that I thank her profusely and truly enjoy all she has given me from Japan: beautifully crafted wooden chopsticks, an everyday cotton fan, a silk cosmetic case, a strap for my cell phone with hand-made bead work that once graced a kimono.
“My brother has decided to take his wife’s name,” she said.
The sentence was released quickly. The pond, with its slow-moving turtles and spindly grass, stirred gently, as if in sleep. In the distance, Belvedere Castle, a stage set without rooms or halls, cast a wide shadow on the lawn below.
Which brother was she talking about? Her elder brother lived in Japan near their mother. He was married but had no children. Nor did Mikiko or her brother in Canada. All had married beyond the time when children are expected in a Japanese family.
“I think my mother will die soon,” Mikiko said.
“What if you brought her to America? Is that possible?”
“It was a small action with big consequences,” Mikiko said, distracted by her thoughts and unable to adhere to mine. She was referring to her elder brother’s decision to change his name. He had done it to satisfy his wife, an only child. Her father was dying and had no male heirs. His son-in-law had agreed never to leave Japan and to take on the family name and business.
“Your brother must love his wife very much,” I said.
“It will bring shame on my mother,” Mikiko said.
“Much sadness for her,” I agreed. “Have you talked about this with your brother in Canada?”
“No,” she said. “He knows, but we do not talk about it.”
Americans always want to fix things. Is there anything we cannot talk about? In my mind, I was in Japan, sitting on a tatami mat with Mikiko’s mother, consoling her and offering advice. The map of Japan would be on the table, every prefecture and chapter in Japanese history rendered a different color, the key obscured by my ignorance.
“Time will pass,” Mikiko said.
It already had.
We gathered our belongings and walked out of the park together. I dropped Mikiko at her building and said good-bye with a gentle bow. I knew that within two days, perhaps, she would write me an email apologizing for burdening me with her story and that, once again, I would not be able to persuade her that it was O.K. to be more American in this regard.
Carol Bergman is a journalist whose feature articles, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, The Daily News, The Amsterdam News, Cosmopolitan, Family Circle, Child, and many other publications. She is the author of two film biographies (Mae West, Sidney Poitier), a memoir, Searching for Fritzi, and the ghost of Captain Kangaroo’s autobiography, Growing Up Happy. Her creative nonfiction and literary fiction has appeared in Aim, Willow Review, Onionhead, Potpourri, The Bridge, and other literary journals in the US and the UK. Objects of Desire, published in Lilith and Whetstone, was nominated for the 1999 Pushcart Prize in nonfiction. She teaches writing at New York University. Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories, which she compiled and edited, was published in October 2003 by Orbis Books (US) and Earthscan Books (UK) and will be translated into Chinese, Polish, Portuguese, and Korean in 2005.
Read VerbSap's interview with Carol Bergman.
Top photo courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.
Another Day in Paradise: International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories Compiled by the author.
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