My sister and I grew up listening to our Japanese mother tell us stories about her childhood spent growing up in a small town outside Tokyo. My mother was born in 1925 and, like many others of her era, endured the Depression during her formative years. She belongs in the ranks of parents who scrape the mayonnaise jars clean, who save every scrap of leftovers, and who demanded their children eat everything on their plates so as not to waste food.
Our mother’s stories, though, did not dwell on the poverty she experienced. She told of childhood adventures and mishaps that, while from a different culture, we could relate to as children worldwide play hide-and-seek, catch bugs, and occasionally get lost. On the other hand, the cultural difference made the stories even more fascinating to us, as we learned about the many festivals celebrated in Japan and listened with wide eyes to her mysterious “Old Fox” tales.
For the most part, my sister and I spent our time trying to fit into small town American life despite our acorn-colored skin, the strange food we sometimes ate, and the silk kimonos hidden in the footlockers. Somewhere in my teenage years, though, a seed was planted to someday, somehow, record those stories of my mother’s youth. I had realized that many were indeed unusual and unique in our American world that contained little other diversity at the time.
It wasn’t until many years later, after I had married, moved several times, and had children, that I finally began work on writing down the stories of my mother’s youth. My mother’s friend, Frankie, started the project while my life was still busy and unsettled. One day Frankie handed me a computer disk containing whatever stories she had coaxed my mother to write in her broken English and that Frankie could manage to understand and type up. Thus began a beautiful journey.
The stories were gathered in spurts and bits and pieces during ten years’ time. My mother was full of happy reminiscences and I collected her scraps of writing as well as the little drawings she would create to help me understand her stories. Mostly, though, since my mother never mastered the English language, I would quiz her, reminding her of the tales she told me as a child, asking her about the circumstances and her feelings about what happened. I would scribble down the answers and later type them up, often to think of even more questions to ask. Sometimes I had to beg her to tell me simple details of her life that she felt were insignificant and unimportant. “Who cares about that?” she would say, clearly annoyed. “I do, and your grandchildren will,” I would answer.
As I listened to my mother and pried my way into some of the hidden corners of her life, I began to understand more fully who she was. As a child and especially as a teenager, I often could not understand why she behaved in certain ways that seemed either irrational to me or, at least, unlike what I was used to from other adults in my life. I began to see how her early cultural upbringing affected her life in America, and how certain painful experiences had made their marks upon her. I remember sitting in the car with her, crying together, as she spoke about a particularly painful time. I wished that I had known these things about her so much earlier so that I would have been more patient and understanding with her.
A few years ago my mother began losing her short-term memory. In the spring of 2005, I realized that I needed to work hard to finish the book before she was unable to help me anymore. I also saw reminders everywhere on television, on radio, and in the newspapers of the approaching 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, a significant event in my mother’s life. Those reminders nagged at me to hurry because time was flying by and my mother was in her twilight years.
I worked with my mother almost daily for three months, giving myself a deadline to complete the story of her life. By the time the book was finished, a month before my mother’s 80th birthday, I felt a deep bond between us. Laughing and crying, questioning and learning, the little gulf that used to be between us had disappeared.
My mother was astonished to see how well our project together had turned out. She was so happy to hold the beautiful book of her life in her time-worn hands. She is surprised and proud when people tell her how much they enjoyed and learned from her story. Most of all, she loves to turn the pages and relive precious moments over and over… precious treasures that will now never be lost.
Linda Austin is the co-author of “Cherry Blossoms in Twilight: Memories of a Japanese Girl.” She hopes the book will persuade others to capture their own family memories before they are lost.