When people ask me where I’m from, I never know how to answer. The truth is that I grew up in Virginia and I now live in Chicago but in many ways I think of Tokyo as my hometown. I lived and worked there from the age of 21 to 29 and I am the person I am today because of the many wonderful and rich experiences I had there. Coincidentally my husband Bill lived in the Yamagata area (about 50 miles from Sendai) of Japan before we met.
So we were devastated to wake up Friday morning to the news of the earthquake and tsunami catastrophe in Japan. I spent the day noticing every piece of Japan in our home. The picture above hangs over our kitchen table as a reminder of one of the happiest days of my life. It was the day I took our then 4-year-old daughter to meet Nakajoh-sensei and “The Ladies.” Nakajoh-sensei (the one wearing the burgundy apron) was my Japanese flower arranging teacher for 7 years but more than that, she was a mom to me in so many ways. The oldest of nine children who helped run the family farm while all of the men of the family were fighting in World War II, Nakajoh-sensei is an extraordinary woman who welcomed me into her family where I learned a lot about what it means to be a woman and a mom. I was an investment banker when I started taking flower arranging lessons from Nakajoh-sensei. I would never have become a designer without her influence and guidance.
“The Ladies” include a number of other women in their 60s, 70s and 80s who also took flower arranging lessons from Nakajoh-sensei and shared their wisdom with me weekly. They were warm, funny, generous and never tired of trying to understand me and my culture. I was the first American any of them had ever met. Every week for 7 years, I looked forward to seeing this group of women. In the picture below, Nakajoh-sensei spent nearly an hour dressing me in her daughter’s Coming of Age kimono. I was 23 at the time and she thought that I needed to “capture my youth” and my time in Japan in this photo taken in front of her house.
The picture that I really wish I had to share with you is the one in my mind before I left in December 1990. Nakajoh-sensei and “The Ladies” decided that in addition to a homemade lunch at Nakajoh-sensei’s house that they wanted to take me to Tokyo Disneyland. None of them had ever been but they decided that they had always wanted an excuse to go and that it would be a really fun send-off. The eldest of the ladies who was in her late 70s at the time decided that she might even try a hamburger there because she had never had one and wondered what they would taste like.
One of the ladies decided that we should ride the Merry-Go-Round. None of the ladies had ever been on a Merry Go Round on which the animals went up and down so they were shocked when the horses that they were perched on began to rise and fall. The shock turned to laughter and soon to hysterical belly laughs as the ride stopped and they found themselves far higher above the ground than they had expected to be. “How do we get down?” they gasped in laughter. As the young one with the good back, I went around to each of the risen animals to help them down one at a time. Several of us assisted Nakajoh-sensei, whose zebra was the highest of all. I remember that moment so well. I remember thinking at the time that I just felt flooded with love for these women and flooded with love from them. Here I was 29 years old, with a bunch of decidely un-hip Japanese housewives and widows, some 40 years my senior and I thought, “These are the best friends I’ve ever had.” I have some wonderful friends here in the States now, but those women have been a huge presence in my life.
I’ve been trying to call Nakajoh-sensei to see how she’s faring but I haven’t been able to get through. I’ve tried to think about what I will say to her in my rusty Japanese. I’ll tell her that my heart is heavy for the suffering going on there and that I want so much to find words that could comfort her but I know that those words don’t exist. I’ll tell her that I’m praying for her and for the Japanese people. And I’ll promise her that I’ll try to find my way over there, when the time and opportunity are right, to help rebuild that wonderful country. Surely my language skills and determination will be useful to someone at some point.
The highlight of my day today was reading about the name chosen by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces for their collaboration with the US military for humanitarian assistance in the tsunami and earthquake regions. They chose the name Operation Tomodachi, which translates to Operation Friendship. It isn’t a typical mission name. They want our friendship. And they want our help.
If you’d be willing to forgo a cup of coffee or a yard of fabric, I know that the American Red Cross in conjunction with the Japanese Red Cross would use whatever you can give to help the millions of people who are living without electricity and water and the hundreds of thousands who are homeless tonight. Visit Redcross.org or text REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10 from your phone. Huffington Post also has a good list of relief organizations. If I learn of any other Japanese charities that are worthy of your donations, I will be sure to post them as well. If you’re a praying sort, let’s see if we can find us a few miracles because that’s what it’s going to take.