One of the Tsukimi Kai 3 friends with whom Will and I traveled to Cuba wrote a comforting email to me of a lesson she learned after her father had passed, “You will still grow to know your mother and understand her as the years go by.”
Those words struck me because it is so true. In the days, mere days, following my mama’s death, I began to have flashes of her as a woman, what her choices revealed about her as a woman without the mystique of Mother.
My mom was raised to be and do right in this world by her family. Every example she saw, every story shared with her, and those were the stories shared with my sister and me as children, the examples and role models she pointed us toward, were of rightness, of goodness.
However, in her life, she encountered and sometimes even became immersed in things she had never imagined -- hate, violence, wartime hysteria -- all that was not right or good, a side of life she had never been prepared for; no insights to help her de-construct clearly.
Each time "life threw her a big one," she held fast to what she knew to be right and good and without becoming immobilized, walked through the best she could and took her babies with her.
For her, doing right meant to be a single mother in a multi-generational home. Every woman knows what sacrifice of personal worth and independence that choice must have required. At the same time, every human being knows what a gift it is for children to be raised by a mother, and grandmother and a grandfather. Her choice was clearly made for us. Once single and living with parents, always single -- with all the baggage of a single person living with her parents carries in the eyes of the Nikkei as well as the rest society, seen as the perennial dependent and the effects of those dynamics on the rest of her life.
Our upbringing was shared by my mother and grandparents. Definitely we learned Grandma and Grandpa knew best. However, I have a clear memory who taught me how to navigate a school system in which a teacher put me in a closet if I spoke Japanese, god rest Mrs. Finney’s soul. I remember who read Mine Okubo’s book to me as a child and clarified that the Nikkei were not guilty of anything when they were herded into concentration camps and it was wrong. In this way, my mother planted the seed which sprouted fully in me so that when I saw injustice, I knew it by name and could stand firmly on the side of justice and stand with any child victimized by it in the classrooms without fear or hesitation.
Definitely, it was my mother who taught me a very healthy attitude toward protecting myself as a little girl and later, as a woman so I would not be easily victimized. My antenna for 'red flags' are quite sensitive.
Definitely, it was my mother who taught me that becoming involved in public service, civic responsibility was a good thing. I remember the whispered arguments in Grandma’s bedroom between them over me -- whether I should join choir, whether I should run for office, whether I should be involved in so many school activities. It may have been Grandma’s house but those were the battles my mom decided to take on while letting the others go. And when there was a performance or event, both Mama and Grandma would be there supporting us.
I remember peeking in her bedroom -- a.k.a. the sewing room -- her back bent over the Singer, late late at night, sewing something for my sister or me. I remember my spoiled attitude that I had a personal designer of my own. We would go to buy a pattern, and beautiful fabric, but I always wanted something changed -- not a mere hemline -- but the scoop of the neck, the dip in the back, a hemline which draped. And mom would do it.
I read and write for fun because of so many “fun times” with her, my sister and a book and how much praise I received for writing, encouraged to enter into contests. My mom is not so much a reader, so that is something she deliberately did for her daughters. I went to college because it was a given, an expectation from the time we were little girls. We were encouraged to put our pennies in a big piggy bank for college. Now I know that she did this in spite of the “out of reach” costs of higher education so that when the time came I would be motivated to find a way -- national grants, work study -- to actualize what was essentially a dream.
She taught me from the time I was barely walking all through adulthood that all people were equal, including me, even if she may not have been able to believe that fully herself. It was just one of those things she wished for me -- just as she wished for me to go to college when she could not, choose my profession even if she could not, choose my life partner wisely even if that choice was not something she was able to have, to participate in community, run for office even if those options were closed by war and law from her.
She did not wantfor her daughters a life where bad things were thrown at them -- unexpected, unfathomable surprises as her substantial challenges must have been for her -- and she prepared us for life the best she could. She wanted us to have some say about our destiny. I am grateful for the blessings of my life because she thought about what I might need on whatever road I might choose and gave me everything she could to prepare for any difficulty.
Along the way, my mother did follow her daughters into college, became a teacher, and dedicated herself with great passion to a chosen profession. When given bad news about a third procedure for her heart in her 70’s,she moved into assisted active living near my sister and did not allow the prognosis to limit her. In fact, for the first time away from Home, she lived as an independent individual, had her first best friend, went on tours around the world, and lived the life of a popular coed. When she received bad news about dementia, and it became serious, that did not overwhelm her. She moved with me and even with her dementia, lived with personality and grace intact, greeting each person, each new day, and all of nature with love. Finally, as I witnessed it, when faced with dying, she simply left in an instant, her face reflecting surprise and wonder at something I could not see or hear before she shook herself free and took her last breaths.
The blessing from now on, as my friend passed on to me from her own loss of a parent, will be to grow to know more and more, to begin to understand my mother. For this I am most thankful.
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