Saturday, September 20, 2008

Mom Doesn't Look Back

Mom doesn't look back anymore. For most of her life, my mother always looked back. It was just a given that when Mom and I finished visiting, we would be waving out the door, from the car, down the street. My sister and I always felt compelled to turn back and wave after visiting her until she was out of sight. Before she boarded any plane she would demonstrate her horizontal wave to us so we would distinguish hers from all the other typical waves she imagined other passengers would use. Marti, my sister once noted that everyone in the terminal was waving at our Mom. She was right. "There’s Johnny! He's right there, sixth window waving at us." The horizontal wave.

Mom would always look back even in less literal ways, giving us advice she received growing up from her parents, advice they heard when they were growing up in Meiji Japan. Those are not easy standards to hold! "When can I date, Mom?" I asked as a ninth grader, 15 years old.
"Oh, 21 sounds about right."
"21!. I won't even know Kenny Saylor then. I'll be graduating from college! Have my first job! Jeez!"

Today, as I left Southtowne, a care home for people with memory loss, I automatically turned around to wave at my mother, but she was already walking to lunch, holding Katrina’s hands, looking straight ahead, our visit already forgotten. I turned back and walked through the door, by myself, alone.

I know what people say about dementia, that it is a deterioration of the brain. But I have learned that my mother cannot be defined by a state of deterioration. She is in the state of the moment. Her eyes are filled with Now.

When we take a joyride, which we do once or twice a day, we don’t talk about what happened that day. She talks about the trees -- the pointed one, the yellow one, the dark one, that one that seems to need tending, another one that seems like it doesn’t know what it’s supposed to do, the one someone needs to organize.

Mom once called me Auntie. I thought she was forgetting me. I asked, “Do you know my name, Mom?”

“Of course I do!” she snapped. “You’re Donna! My Number One.” (I am firstborn.) Then she went on, “ But you’re not a daughter. You’re an auntie now.”

That was an Aha Moment for me; as the roles changed, the familial positions shifted. For the Now, I am my mother’s auntie. Of course, most days she still refers to me as daughter, and to herself as mother. But that one moment was a moment of clarity not confusion. I must give her credit.

I am happy for two things. First, I am grateful to be that daughter whose visits are welcomed each day whenever I walk in to Southtowne, the fun person who’s come to take mom on a joyride, or take her to my home to cook some Japanese food, or walk with her up and down the grocery aisles looking at the pretty displays or in the summer to the nurseries to look at plants, daughter-like things to do.

I had entertained such high hopes about Mom living with us when we fixed up the bedroom for her in our home. I sewed and painted so it would be more her style, elegant and mahogany, rather than my style. My Winnemem brother, Mark Franco hit it on the nose when he first came to our house. He sank into a chair in the living room, looked around and said, “Hmmmmmm. Retro-hippy-Japanese!”

Mom collected elephants and was proud of her collection. Will put up a decorative shelf close to the ceiling spanning one wall, and we placed her 300 elephants of all sizes and colors into a dramatic display. When mom first walked into her new room, she looked up at her elephants and demanded, “What’s that?”

“Your elephant collection, Mom. It all fits. Doesn’t it look nice?”

She put her hands on her hips, paused and said wryly, “Elephant collection, huh. I must have been crazy!”

Collecting elephants are not the only thing mom left behind that day. I had imagined the two of us going to the community potlucks, hanging out to the Longhouse, at Obon, learning Japanese craft and cooking class, shopping at the dollar store, sunning ourselves in the garden, eating out, all the things she loved to do. I had assured my sister Marti that since I’m retired Mom could easily live with us because mom and I could do all these things together. All my friends had no problem with dementia. She’d have fun. It would be fine for mom to move in.

My sister had been told by the assisted living staff that we needed to think of a better placement for our mother. She had loved it there at Horton Plaza, blossoming under their independent living for active elders philosophy. Mom was the designated event photographer for Hortons, had wonderful joyrides around local sites, went on cruises to Alaska, to China, had a first real best friend with whom she spent every moment, planning the day, eating together in the fancy dining room, restaurant style, gossiping on the phone at night after they both had gone to their separate studio apartments. But when the time came that Mom needed more care, I thought our home would be a perfect fit. That was not the case.

Mom became very anxious in groups and crowds. She felt she had to fix things but there was nothing to fix. As for living with us, just the two of us, she would become distraught because she thought she needed to be “with the elderlies.” She would look all over the house for her “elderlies.” In order to sleep through the night, we installed gates all around to keep her from exiting the house or into the kitchen. This wonderful creative cook who showed her love by cooking -- Bonny Butter Cake, cream puffs, donuts, huge popcorn and peanut balls -- was no longer safe in a kitchen. There was nothing in my DNA that allowed me to consider putting our mom in a facility, a “home.” Even if we witnessed how happy our mom was at the elderly day care center and that she was listless and searching at home, we kept revamping our home and continued bossing her to keep her safe. We all felt trapped.

As “nighttime naughtiness” amped up, (hard as it was for her to climb stairs in the day, she could climb over those baby safety gates at night), Will and I suffered serious sleep deprivation. Our bodies will demand our attention eventually if we don’t listen. After five months of very little sleep, my forehead and around my eyes rashed out with eczema. Every morning when I brushed my teeth, a red masked raccoon stared back from the mirror reminding me, “Hey!!! Your body is in stress! Do something! Now!” The blood tests indicated I was allergic to almost everything, even soy. According to my naturopath, the immune system had become compromised.

My family convinced us of something we already knew. This was not working. When I look back on that time, I wish that I had understood with clarity what was right for mom rather than thinking as a guilty child would. “You can’t put your mom in a home, you selfish ingrate!”

The answer was so sane and so easy. It made sense that Mom deserves to live in a place where she could be who she is, an elder with dementia. She deserves to live somewhere where she can go anywhere she wants, and it will be safe. She deserves to sleep when she wants to sleep and if she decides she doesn’t want to there’s a caregiver who will play miniature golf with her at 3 in the morning. She deserves to be the mom rather than a captive of a bossy mess of a daughter even if the bossing may have been for her own good.

And as for the easy part? Mom always asked, “When am I going home?” when she lived at us. That was her mantra. “Where are the elderlies? When am I going home?” So after my sister and my brother-in-law, bless them forever, did all the paperwork necessary, after I attended all the interviews and tours, we chose Southtowne, five minutes from home.

By November, exactly one year from when she moved to our home, everything was ready at Southtowne. One day, she asked, “When am I going home?”

“I can take you now if you want, Mom,” was my answer.

Without a look of surprise, without asking one question, she held my hand and we walked to the car, drove five blocks and walked in to Southtowne for the first time, together. “Hi, Mary!” she was greeted by staff members.

As she waved to them, I took her to her room. Hers was the twin bed closest to the door with the most wall space. She looked at the framed pictures of her father and mother, a family portrait of us. She looked down at the light green quilted bedspread sprinkled with tiny pink roses, the pink pillow crocheted by Obachan. A bed stand, part of her mahogany set, stood by her bed, a mirror for lipstick, a lamp. She spied the big laminated poster that hung above her bed. It was her baby picture blown up for her special 80th birthday party when we took mom home to Idaho for a big celebration with the whole family and her Nisei friends. We all scrawled our birthday wishes on the baby picture with the gold marker. As my sister told me before, “Mom always knows she is in the right place when she sees her baby picture.” Just as my sister said, Mom pointed at the poster, and said proudly “There I am when I was a baby.”

I hung her coat in the closet. Her clothes were lined up neatly on hangers. They reminded me of the day I started to write her name on all her clothes, socks, hats, underwear, everything, with permanent marker. It took me weeks to get up the nerve to do it and I cried as I wrote “JOO” on clothing where it couldn’t be seen. It seemed so wrong to me at the time.

We went out into the main room. Easy chairs were placed in arrangements meant for socializing. In the corner was a big grand piano. Mom loves music. Mom was welcomed that day to eat in the “special room” for people who still are able to socialize. Everyone else ate in the dining hall sitting at long church tables, their food served on cafeteria trays. Some sat at curved tables around a caregiver who fed each them, one after another.

My mom sat down at one of the three round tables welcomed by the other elders who ate in the special room. I said as I started to take my leave, “I’ll come see you later today, Mom.”

She waved me off and said gaily, “OhKaaaay.”

She was home, at last, with her “elderlies.”

That day, I became her daughter once again and gladly let my jailer duties go. I visit a couple of times every day. Before Mom’s appetite diminished, we would have meals together at our home, Japanese food, special desserts. We go on joyrides every day. We go to events she could handle for as long as she cares to be there. We go shopping. When I have to be someplace for a few days, then Marti drives up to be with her. Mom's special treat is when her sister Grace flies in from Idaho and Marti drives up. That is a family time that satisfies, a houseful.

The elephants are gone. All the things mom stockpiled are gone. The gates are gone. Family living as we once understood it is gone. But none of that left a vacuum.

You see, my mother’s eyes are filled with trees nowadays. Some days she trills like a small bird and tweets a sharp surprise when startled. Some days she’s a worker herself and joins the caregivers, placing her hands gently on someone’s cheek, murmuring comfort. Some days she greets everyone, shaking their hands as she passes them like a politician running for office, and for Jose, a tall young caregiver with a beautiful smile, who treats her like an auntie, she holds out her arms, walks toward him, puts her hands, one on each side of his belly, and leans to give it a quick little kiss while he blushes and laughs out loud.

These days, my mom doesn’t look back and just looks straight ahead, one step, in the Now.

Friday, September 19, 2008


The picture I chose for the Title is "Daruma," a Japanese symbol for perseverence. When Daruma is knocked down, this round bottomed figure pops right back up. His expresion is not mean. It's determinied. Two of the three Daruma have their eyes colored in. When a person makes a wish, one eye gets colored in, and when the wish comes true, no matter how long it takes, it's time to paint the other in. It's very comforting to see two of the Daruma with both eyes painted in!

I particularly like this photo because of the impression of plum blossom sprays at the top. It seems that the structure around the Daruma stands at a shrine, though I know nothing about that. I've never been to Japan, and although I pray at a mountain, it is Bohem Piyuk (Mt. Shasta) not Fujiyama. But Granny and Caleen say all the sacred mountains are related and they talk to one another. I notice the Shinto tokens hanging from the roof, tokens which have been prayed over and people buy them for the year's blessing. Although, I've never been to a shrine, I do go to the sacred fire, and the ancient altars at the ceremonial grounds for help and blessing.

The Daruma is a symbol I often choose to represent life, my upbringing and even our generation. Yuri Kochiyama, whom I will always look up to, often quotes Franz Fanon saying it is for each generation to choose their mission, and then for each person to live it or betray it. For our generation, it is a rocky road to try to live it -- so many tugging forces, so many challenges, such a time of crisis.

As I said, this particular Daruma picture pleases me with it's suggestion of nature, the plum which looks so fragile yet is so sturdy -- blooms even when it's snowing --, the blessings, the good luck, and the perseverance. This picture is set in the ancient land of my ancestors, perhaps at a shrine beside their Sacred Mountain, the mountain who talks to the the great Sacred Mountain that Puylolimit, my treasured Granny, introduced me to 20 years ago when I went to Winnemem, led by my ancestor spirits, for the help and care she and her people have given me since.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

SAW as in Single Asian Woman

My good friend commented on the blog about her new status as a SAW, Single Asian Woman. I think back on those days for me about 30 years ago and want to be there for her now. It was the Year of the Snake which are times of great change -- a long year during which I grieved my precious grandmother, went through a dissolution after 10 years of marriage, went back to work teaching, was pink slipped by spring and thoroughly unemployed by fall, moved three times -- out of the house into a rental which was sold from under me, into an apt, and back home when he didn’t want to live in the house anymore. “I think I’ll rent it out," he said. "It’s too big.” It made sense to me to move back since the house payment was much less than rent. In those days, we didn’t have the acronym for the new status divorce or dissolution forces us into. Without the acronym, I would guess the word that most accurately described me then was “pariah.” Two of my close married Asian women friends called me individually and told me best as they could that it would no longer be appropriate to socialize together because of my change in marital status. Year of the Snake is all about change but this was
mind numbing.

The story of my SAW initiation doesn’t end there. It continues on a very happy note. Being dropped socially meant new friends (remember the decade of the ethnic pride movements was still happening), new name, ears pierced (both on the left side because I was told the right hurt more than the left), lost my fear of driving. So I choose to remember that Year of the Snake as one where NASU and AASU and their coinciding community groups hung out together; the year I worked VERY part time as multicultural coordinator for 4J with crummy pay, housed in a little closet like room -- but I got to share that room with the newly hired director of the NATIVES program, Twila Souers, who remains today one of my closest friends. No room is too small if you both like to laugh a lot!

That was the year I was relieved to find myself gravitate toward learning to beadwork rather than bars. And beadwork led me to the Longhouse, which led me to pow wows; we piled into my new red Datsun B-210 for all destinations to find beads. Mostly, that was the year the first of my 30-plus roomies moved in because I had to do something to pay the $135 a month house payment while I was severely underemployed. Thanks to Eugene’s "pre fair housing law atmosphere," I had quality renters, the first of whom was Bob Flor, first PhD graduate of Filipino descent from the College of Education! Bless him forever! He got his PhD, and kept a roof over our heads, and on graduation day everyone celebrated this great day at the house Bob saved!! I learned to just go with the flow, or more accurately, the flow came right through the middle of my house. After all, there are times every Movement needs a house.

This house has known many I-5 artists and activists. Janice Mirikitani, my favorite poet, taught me which direction the head of the bed should NOT face when she spent the night here. Despite the mystique she held for me because she was my favorite poet, she cut through all that and all was comfie like good friends. The rep for Free Cho Sul Lee left his records behind, and so did the Noh Buddies. (We didn’t have cd’s). Nobuko Miyamoto and the Chop Suey cast who didn’t party hard stayed with me and learned what a Giveaway was firsthand when my roomie Roger Amerman impulsively and with a full heart gifted them with all he had with him to show his appreciation for their performance. Frank Chin, Frank Abe, Lawson Inada, and a my close sister friend Peggy Nagae brought us up to speed on the first Day of Remembrance at Camp Harmony here.

Speaking of Peggy, I remember Bob Shimabukuro saying he had the perfect t-shirt for us, one that said, "I'm a strong Asian woman with a Bad Attitude and a Chip on my shoulders!"
Once Peggy asked Bob, how is it that he grew up to be a Feminist man? He answered, "As you know, I have asthma, and when I'm having difficulty breathing, someone would rub my back." Then he explained when his dad rubbed his back he talked about Marxist philosophy. When his mom rubbed his back she talked about Okinawan pride. And when his sister rubbed his back she taught about sexism and feminism. If he wanted to breathe, he listened very closely.

But I digress. In this house, there were many meetings for Reunification of Korea, to stop the war, to organize conferences on Asian American Justice issues on the campus and showcase our artists, taiko drummers, poets, musicians on and on. And afterwards at the house, always the after party.

Roger had his Beatles Party here playing each album from the first to last, and it took exactly 12 hours -- from 5 pm to 5 am, then everyone went to Hoots for breakfast (not me). Marcine decided to have "Halloween on Pearl Harbor Day party" here with tasteless (yet yummy) snacks and Marcia brought hotdog sushi.

This house also knows the agony of ecstasy of a couple of the NASU pow wow directors. Oh, my! How can I ever forget what happened when the salmon didn’t come for the feast as expected. My friend Emilio who had gone hunting had been storing his elk meat in my freezer for about a year until he could get it. What could I do. The pow wow director was a roomie, after all! All I can say is that the elk stew was good and fed hundreds. My roomie, Greg’s day was saved. But what of Emilio who went hunting, had the meat cut up and wrapped and labeled perfectly. Wouldn’t you know the day of reckoning came very quickly and Emilio showed up just days later to take home the elk meat. He was forgiving but I still cringe. And when Roger lived here and was pow wow director, there was a family in each room, while I slept squeezed in with the washer and dryer. I think Rog’ the Dodge slept on the lawn. When I think of it, those years may have been pretty stressful but I cannot deny that it was the best of times too. For each loss, there was a gain times 100.

So to my good friend who just wrote me, we’ll watch out for each other! Call on me. Everyone in transition needs a Bob Flor, or Alicia Moccasin, or Wilma Crowe, or Martha Choe, a Marcine Anderson, or Roger Amerman, or a sister Marti. I guess some of us needed a whole movement. I and so many others want to be there for you and your family. May there be many unexpected blessings!


Dear Friends, Your comments flew back from somewhere and just appeared! Wish I knew how I did that. ---M.


TBAsian evolved from indecision and brain freeze when trying to name the blog. My husband helpfully suggested, "Just put TBA for now. You can always change it." (uh. . . no I won't change anything that requires technology.) As I typed in TBA I thought, "TBA . . . To be Asian . . . TBAsian" It suits me. If the past 62 years are an indication, I am and continue to be a life in evolution. I am a life To Be Announced. The name fits.

Something as basic as my name reflects that. I was born with one name, a name in which the Japanese was hidden to keep me safe. It sounded English; it was spelled English to make the disguise complete. I didn't like my name. It didn't fit me. Physically, in my feelings, my delivery, in all ways, my Japanese was no secret. However, I am grateful to my mother. Hidden though my Japanese name was, it was there and she told me the truth about why she hid it,( to protect me). That she told me the truth is what counted. In my senior year in high school, I switched it to Donna Rei, a proud display of correct spelling and corrected perception. Complete evolution happened in the Seventies when a divorce gave me a free name change. I asked Obachan if I could have her name, Misao, and she granted me that. So now I am Misa Joo and my name hides nothing plus gifted me with a good life. Obachan told me that her name meant "life is beautiful," and she cautioned as she always did in such cases "it's not just you're beautiful, you know." (ie., Don't let it go to your head, girl!) With my new name's blessing I entered what I still see as a good path of life.

And speaking of names, along the way on this good path of life, I am also named C'wisa which means "she is full of song." My Winnemem tribal leader who gave me that name explained that in Winnemem, the more accurate meaning would be "chock full of song." I like the Winnemem way of seeing it. So I am C'wisa, which is my tribal name, and gives me strength.

I'm following very closely on my grandparents' steps. They are immigrants who chose to live away from their birth place, perhaps out of necessity, but chose to live there the best they could. More like them than I am my nisei parents who were became very assimilated to their country of birth, I made a choice and chose to live Winnemem. Within the boundaries of the US are many indigenous countries, one of which is Winnemem, and their way of life is quite distinct from the country of my birth. For one thing, it is not an empire stretching from one ocean to another. Their land is not small, by any means going from Mt. Shasta to the Sacramento River. They are responsible for hundreds of sacred places in their region, and they take care of it. They take care of the medicines, the ceremonies and their way of life. They take care of the fish and all that lives within their region. This is something impossible to do if one were to have an empire. I am grateful that I have personal contact with my leaders, and that we all are committed to taking care of the elders, the children, the way of life, and the land. It's very satisfying to live this way. Like my grandparents, I have come to a land of great opportunity for me. And I like working hard to do whatever I can as a Winnemem.

Why am I blogging? It's not because I love working with technology. For me, the internet is scary in its anonymity, and things seem to disappear there. I can be kicked off just like that! Example MySpace. I disappeared and can't get on no matter how much I plead with "Friend Tom" for help. My lack of skill should be of no surprise. I was born in the time when those huge typewriters that could kill someone if dropped on them were in use. These clunky machines, however, were key in the Sixties for young people to write and spread the truth that was sorely lacking in what we were being taught. I am a product of my upbringing AND my generation and am forever changed by being part of the youth movements who used these machines to crank out a revolution, at least a transformation of self.

There are many books written about the Sixties but none quite tell about those times as I experienced it. Since my whole life unfolds from those two great forces -- of upbringing as an Asian American sansei as well as the youth movements of the Sixties and Seventies -- I'm inspired to blog despite my techno-disadvantages. Writing has always been a powerful tool for the Asian American youth movement. We wrote our own books, made our own songs, traveled up and down I-5 to share them on campuses and at community centers. Where ever the writers, activists, taiko drummers, singers, poets would go, it would become an event for the community. With this, a great network of Truth was built and alliances forged with all other justice struggles that continue today. In music and words we told about our brothers and sisters being sent to die in an illegal war and about our grandparents and parents who suffered grave injustices yet survived with their humanity intact. So just as I spelled my name as it was meant to be, I decided to write about another side of the story that has not been told yet, but lives on, and evolves, not so neatly plotted but as messy as life is.

"from Outside the Belly" was also known as "TBAsian" from 2008-2010. Thank you for reading.

from Outside the Monster's Belly

from Outside the Monster's Belly
. . . following Earth instead (Rakaia River, site of Salmon Ceremony, photo credit Ruth Koenig)


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Eugene, Oregon
I am a citizen of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. I am a Nikkei descendant sansei (third generation);retired teacher, involved in the Winnemem tribal responsibility to Water, Salmon, and our belief that the Sacred is our Teacher. Working locally for human rights and supporting youth leadership.