“Come with me to the ends of the earth,” joked Miguel, a handsome Andalusian who was young enough to have been my son.
“The ends of the earth?” I repeated, unsure if I had understood his rippling Spanish.
We were strangers who had just met a few hours before. Both of us had taken shelter from the rain inside a Santiago café.
“Cabo Fisterra,” said Miguel. “It’s only a three day walk from here.”
Three days? I could certainly walk three more days. I’d just finished walking alone for five hundred miles across Spain on the Camino Frances, starting out from Saint Jean Pied de Port in France.
Miguel, too, had just completed a solitary pilgrimage, coming up from Seville and following the Mozárabe route to Santiago.
“And you can burn your boots when you get to Fisterra,” said Miguel.
I looked down at my boots. They were mud-encrusted and the heels were worn. For a minute I questioned in my head whether the Spanish verb quemar really meant to burn.
“In the Middle Ages, pilgrims first went to Santiago, then they would continue on to Fisterra and they’d burn their clothes or shoes there,” Miguel explained.
“Because they probably stunk,” I said.
“Or as a sacrifice, to give thanks,” said Miguel.
I was silent for a minute. Something about giving thanks choked me up a bit.
“So, will you come along?’’ he asked.
Now if I had been a young woman, I would have assumed that Miguel was trying to seduce me. But he had already told me – within a few minutes of our meeting – that I reminded him of his grandmother.
“You have a kind smile just like my Abuela,” he said. “But, she could never walk a Camino like you. Nunca. She has bunions, and other problems.”
I kept to myself the knowledge that I, too, had bunions and arthritic toes. At that moment, I was grateful that my aging body worked at all. I was sixty-five.
“And what else is there in Fisterra?” I asked.
“Magic,” he said, softly.
Like all charming men, Miguel must have sensed something about me that I didn’t know myself.
“You don’t want your pilgrimage to come to an end, do you?” he asked quietly.
“Not really,” I said, “I’ve got a bit of a let-down feeling. But all things end, I suppose.”
“Yes, yes, that is true. But the earth comes to an end too, and you should see it.”
I laughed. I knew that there were several places on earth with that ancient distinction. Lands’ End in England. Finisterre in Brittany. Finis terrae, said the Romans.
“Fisterra is waiting for you,” he said.
“I leave at dawn,” he added, dramatically.
From café window, I sat and watched the arrival of more and more soggy pilgrims in the cathedral plaza. Some were embracing or crying, others were wandering around in a daze. The long anticipated trek was over…the damp Pyrenees, the red clay of Rioja, the dry Meseta, the cow dung of Galicia.
And now, suddenly, this young stranger was putting a bug in my ear, beckoning me to the sea. I started to envision dinners of fresh fish, wide empty beaches, and days of sunshine.
Did I mention that Santiago was thick with grey clouds and a hint of sadness?
So I set off.
But not with Miguel.
I assume he left the refugio early the next morning. This particular grandmother needed to eat breakfast and find a washing machine and take a day or two of rest.
Practicality before magic.
I pictured Fisterra like Cape Hatteras, where, decades ago, my husband and I had climbed the lighthouse with our baby son jiggling in a back pack. Windy and invigorating. Or maybe it would be like the Danish island of Møn, in the Baltic, where we had gone family camping. The smell of the sea stayed in our clothes for weeks.
I would find out.
The route to the coast wasn’t particularly difficult. I walked slowly. Miguel, being young and fast, would have come and gone by the time I arrived.
When I got to Fisterra, I could see a small hotel, a few restaurants, and blue fishing boats bobbing in the harbor. The actual end of the promontory was up another hill. I would walk there later, but for now, I needed a place to stay. I began looking round the Plaza del Ara Solis.
And that’s when the magic started.
“Senora, I have a good house,” said a voice behind me. I turned and saw a woman who had a toddler in one hand and a market basket in the other.
“Perdón?” I said.
“I’ll rent you a room. Cheap.”
A place to stay fell into my lap, just as if I had been granted a wish by a genie.
Under ordinary circumstances, I wouldn’t follow a stranger to her house. But Fisterra is part of the pilgrim world and has been a spiritual place for millennia. I was not the first soul to be lodged by one of its inhabitants.
We exchanged names. I followed Bianca to her mother-in -law’s where she left her toddler and some of the onions from her market basket.
“Now we’ll go up to my house,” she said.
She led me through a maze of lanes. With each step, we got higher and higher, the roaring sea dropping below us on either side.
Bianca showed me to a room on the second floor. From the window I could look out on the Atlantic, churning frothy blue and endless. Fresh laundry snapped on a clothesline in the wind.
I took off my boots and my backpack and stretched out on the bed. A real bed. A clean bed that smelled of citrus. On the Camino,I had grown accustomed to sleeping on sticky plastic sheeting, with a bad-breathed woman or a snoring man on either side of me.
I knew I would sleep well that night.
I put my boots back on. Bianca said there was a path which led down to the water. Braving the wind, I hiked to a wide circular beach. I breathed in the iodized air and threw stones into the Atlantic. I thought about the same ocean sloshing back and forth between the Iberian Peninsula and my home near New York. I thought about all the peoples who had come to Fisterra over the centuries, each with a story.
Later, after a welcome shower, I walked to a restaurant in the village. The first course was an array of shellfish. I gorged myself.
Before I went to bed, I looked at the night sky and thought about my good fortune.
Tomorrow I would go to the very tip of the Cabo, following the same path that the ancient Celts and Romans had trod.
I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t set fire to my boots. But maybe I would say a prayer of gratitude to the gods for bringing an old lady with bunions all the way to the end of the earth.
“You must go to Temple 24,“
said the naked stranger at the Kuroshio Baths on the island of Shikoku. “It can’t
We were the only two customers
in the women’s section of the hot springs. For nearly an hour, we had been
soaking and chatting, neck-deep in a steaming pool overlooking the Pacific
“Sorry?” I said, “I’m not sure
what you mean.”
My Japanese was functional, but
nuance was a long way off. Was she giving me travel advice, spiritual advice,
or something more? Why was she suggesting that I add to my already strenuous
“You absolutely must go to Cape
Muroto, to Temple 24, “ she repeated.
“Doshite? Why?” I asked, as
politely as I could.
“Because Cape Muruto is a very
special place,” she said, with conviction.
“Have you walked all the way
down there, yourself?” I asked.
“Walked? Oh my goodness, no. I’m
not a walker. But I’ve visited Hotsumisakiji many times by car.”
She was a Japanese woman in her
early fifties. I gathered that she was married, lived nearby, had time on her
hands, and came to the hot springs regularly for an afternoon of relaxation,
the way some people might go to the cinema or play golf.
I was a American woman, in my
late sixties, trekking around the island of Shikoku, following the 1200
kilometer pilgrimage trail known as The Eighty-Eight Temples. I had a husband,
family, and friends back in Connecticut.
Unlike the stranger, I had
stopped at the Kuroshio Baths as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I had been
reading billboards for several days touting the virtues of these hot springs.
As a tired and sweaty hiker, I couldn’t resist. But the Kuroshio Baths were a
detour. I would soon be back on the pilgrim trail, ankle deep in either dust or
“You will not regret it,” said the stranger, stepping out of the
bath and reaching for a towel.
Her wet black hair was piled on
top of her head.
My guidebook had made it clear
that walking all the way to the tip of Cape Muruto was problematic. The trail
was isolated, with almost no accommodations for forty miles or more.
“You cannot have come all this
way and not see Cape Muruto,” continued the woman, drying herself off.
She had known from the get-go
that I was a pilgrim, an O-Henro. No doubt she had seen my identifying uniform,
the traditional white vest and conical straw hat, hanging in the outer room of
“That is very unusual. A foreign lady, alone, doing the
Eighty-Eight Temples on foot,” she had said. “Quite unusual.”
She didn’t add “at your age”,
but perhaps she was thinking it.
I had explained to her in my
halting Japanese that I would be spending the night at Yakuoji,Temple 23, not
far from the Kuroshio Baths. I had already called and made a reservation with
the temple monks.
“A reservation? That’s not hard
to change,” said the stranger, now partly dressed and running a hairdryer over
her straight hair.
“They are expecting me for the
evening meal as well as lodging,” I said.
“My husband knows those monks
at Yakuoji very well. He will explain that you are not coming.”
“Sumimasen, ga, excuse me, but….”
I tried to explain my decision
once again. I had already soaked away most of the afternoon in the baths. At
best I would arrive at Temple 23 before dinner if I didn’t dilly-dally. Then
the next day, instead of heading straight south to the Cape, I was planning to
take a bus west into northern Kochi prefecture and start walking again at
Temple 28. I would leave Cape
Muruto and its sister temples, numbers 24 to 27, to more hardy souls.
I wasn’t sure the woman heard
my explanation over the whish-whish of the hairdryer. But when she turned it
off, she smiled at me and said.
“So it is settled, right?”
I tried to parse the sentence.
Settled? What was settled?
I finished getting dressed,
putting on fresh underwear, a clean tee shirt, and my dirty hiking pants. I
only had two pairs with me, both dirty. I finished off with the white vest and
“Are you Buddhist?” she asked.
I didn’t have the vocabulary to
clarify that I was a Unitarian.
“No, I just respect Buddhist culture,” I answered.
“Then you will never regret going to Hotsumisakiji. “
I knew that Temple 24 had
historical significance. Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, had
achieved enlightenment in a cave somewhere in the vicinity of Hotsumisakiji
sometime in the 9th century.
In fact, the prophet’s common nickname, Kukai, probably refers to the
meeting of the sky and the sea that he experienced at Cape Muruto. Temple 24
certainly sounded like a cool place.
Too bad I was going to miss it.
I was still confused as to why
my bath companion assumed that she had gotten me to change my mind.
I ran a comb quickly through my
hair, but the humidity of the hot springs had left me with wild curls. I put
the comb back in a recycled plastic Lawson’s bag, on top of my dirty tee-shirt.
I checked to make sure I had all my belongings. Living out of a backpack isn’t
complicated, but I had learned to always make sure that I didn’t leave behind
any of the items I depended on. My cell phone, my poncho, a map, band aids,
safety pins, and my journal.
The friendly stranger was still
talking to me non-stop while she primped in front of the mirror, carefully
applying a fresh coat of lipstick and dabs of moisturizer in strategic
places. Finally she was ready,
dressed in a simple, but elegant, beige silk pants suit, with a coffee-colored
scarf. We returned our towels to the matron at the main desk. Then I picked up
my wooden walking stick , which I had left outside the door, and I was just
about to say goodbye.
“Please wait here for my
husband,” said the woman. “He is finishing up in the men’s bath.”
And in fact, in a few minutes,
a Japanese man with a boy’s face came out of the building. He looked benign and
relaxed, like a dolphin who had spent the afternoon in a lazy lagoon.
“Yes, of course,” said the
husband after the wife had taken him aside. He bowed and in a mixture of
English and Japanese explained their plan.
“We will be delighted to drive you to the Cape Muruto temple.
This is a good thing.”
“You mean, you will drive me to
Temple 24 and then drive me back to Yakuoji where I have a reservation?”
“No, no. We will stop at
Yakuoji and tell them you are going to the Cape Muruto temple with us, and the
monks will be pleased for you.”
I assumed that the couple were
devout Buddhists who wanted to share their practices with me.
I had no compunction about
hitching a ride with these kindly people, but I didn’t want to get stuck at a
distant destination with no shelter. Cape Muruto was known for fierce winds and
“That’s very kind, but you see,
I have no place to stay down there.”
“Afterwards we will drive you
to our home. We have a guest room and many pilgrims have slept there. You would
be most welcome. Please, come.“
I could see an exciting detour
being dangled in front of my eyes.
Both of them looked at me with
gentle smiles. I had a good feeling about these people.
“Really? You would do this for
me?” I asked. “Doozo,” said the husband.
He gestured to a shiny white
Mercedes parked in a shady corner of the parking lot.
Although the pores of my skin
were probably the cleanest they had ever been, my hiking pants were covered
with grass stains and traces of lunchtime onigiri purchased at a convenience
store. I couldn’t remember if these were also the pants upon which I had
spilled a bottle of Qoo, a fruity beverage which I frequently found in Japanese
vending machines. The soles of my Gore-Tex boots were corrugated with mud. I
hesitated before getting in.
“Notte kudasai, please take a
seat,” said the husband, politely, relieving me of my backpack and stick.
The minute I stepped into the
car, little flakes of mud fell onto the floor mats like shavings of chocolate
on a vanilla ice cream cone. Neither the husband nor wife seemed to notice. Nor
did they pay attention when I knocked my conical hat askew on the door. I
caught a quick glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror. With my hair frizzy
from the steamy bath, I looked vaguely buffoonish, a cross between a bag lady
and Coco the Clown.
I reflected on the elegance of
the wife’s outfit, her clean fingernails, and well-coiffed hair. I thought of
her saying that her husband knew the temple monks very well. Perhaps the
husband was a high-ranking Buddhist priest. I glanced at him as he was coming
around to the right hand driver’s seat. He was wearing an open-collared sports
shirt, chino pants, and soft leather shoes. He looked more like a tennis player than a man of the cloth.
“Are you a bokushi?” I asked,
as soon he as was nestled on the white leather seat.
“Me? Oh, not at all. Me, a
His wife giggled. Then they
started to laugh heartily. Obviously I had made some sort of joke.
“But you know the monks well?” I continued.
“I know everyone in Kochi
prefecture,” he said. “And almost everyone in Tokushima prefecture as well.”
I could see a slice of his big
grin in the mirror.
I tried to imagine what kind of
person would know a lot of people. A politician? A drug-dealer? A yakuza? Did criminals know monks well enough to
call them on the phone? The man looked
more like a mischievous school boy than a person with connections to organized
“We like to help the walking
pilgrims,” explained the husband. “To share Shikoku with them.”
“Have you ever done the
Eighty-Eight Temple Pilgrimage?” I asked.
“Never on foot,” he said. “I am
too lazy. But I have visited every single temple many times by motorcycle. I
It turned out that he owned
several businesses all dealing with motorcycles and motorcycle parts. He also
admitted that he traveled
occasionally to the United States.
“You go there to work?” I
“Oh, no. I’m not that kind of
businessman. No suit or tie. No briefcase. Never.”
He looked at me in his rearview
mirror and his eyes were smiling.
“I am ‘casual guy,” he said in
“I go to California to surf,”
he continued. “And Hawaii too.”
“But you can surf quite well
here in Shikoku,” I said, gesturing out the window at the Pacific.
“Yes, but like you, I need a
change of scenery now and then, right? “
“Yes, of course.”
“Travel is a way to exercise
the body and feed the soul, no? That’s perhaps why you are walking in Japan
He continued talking for a
while in rapid-fire Japanese, probably assuming my comprehension was better
than it was. I understood about a third of what he said to me and almost nothing of what he said to his
wife. I eventually concluded that together they were speaking a local dialect.
Mostly I just sat back and let
the words flow over me as if my brain were a smooth rock in a stream, slightly
mossy and cool.
The Mercedes air conditioner
was working nicely.
The wife was already planning
“We’ll stop at the fish market on the way back. You can eat ALL
Japanese food?” she asked me in standard Japanese.
“Yes,” I said enthusiastically.
“But, well, the only thing is….I don’t really like natto (fermented soy beans).”
“I am Japanese and I don’t like
natto either, “ said the husband with a guffaw from the driver’s seat. “It
smells like baby diapers.”
It’s moments like this that I
travel for. Not for museums or spectacles or the Seven Wonders. But for
conversations with strangers who have a sense of humor.
I tried to imagine what my
family back home would think if they could have seen me whizzing across the
Japanese countryside with two people whose names I didn’t know, but whose
spirit I would never forget.
Sometimes I looked out at the
car window. We passed appliance stores and baseball diamonds, nurseries and
supermarkets. Then there were small wooded areas, and patchwork farms, all
bordered by volcanic hills and the blue Pacific Ocean. From time to time, the wife identified
vistas or places, or the husband told stories of their drives around the
We were in the car for at least
two hours. When I looked on the map, I was not sure why an eighty kilometer
journey took so long. Later I realized that we must have eventually taken the
Minami-Awa Sun Line, a scenic highway which winds its way through spectacular
countryside. Macaque monkeys played along the side of the road. Very few cars
or trucks passed by in either direction.
When we reached the tippy tip
of the Cape, the husband parked the Mercedes and we walked up to Temple 24. The
Much to my surprise, neither
the husband nor wife rang the temple bell or clapped their hands in “gassho”.
They spent hardly any time reciting the sutras or lighting candles. When I started to dawdle near the gold
statue of the reclining Buddha, the couple urged me to hurry along.
“The temple will soon close,”
they explained. “We can’t linger.”
I was puzzled that we had
driven so far and yet spent so little time. Surely they would have known that
the temple closed in the late afternoon.
“We’ve got to run to the Nookyoosho
and get your temple book stamped,” said the husband.
In the excitement of arriving,
I had almost forgotten this pilgrimage ritual. At each of the Eighty-Eight
Temples, one pays a small fee and receives a stamp to indicate that he or she
has visited the temple. We went back to the car and I took my small pilgrim
ledger out of my backpack and waited at the Temple Stamping Office.
Meanwhile, the husband went off
to find a vending machine. A few minutes later, he came back with some welcome
bottles of spring water. I was still waiting in line. A bevy of chattering “bus”
pilgrims had preceded me. Finally, after a wrinkled old monk stamped Temple 24’s
emblem into my book and signed the page with a beautiful calligraphic hand, we
were ready to go.
“You must see the view! This is
our favorite part,” said the wife.
“Yes, it gives you the good
feeling of being alive,” said the husband. “Please enjoy it.”
We bounded down to the overlook
across the road. We stood on the precarious edge of the cliff at Cape Muruto
and faced the thrashing Pacific. Sky and sea, Kukai, indeed. The fierce blue
heaven arched seamlessly into the equally fierce blue ocean.
It was pretty spectacular.
“We need to get to the fish
market,’’ said the wife, suddenly.
“Right,” said the husband.
We scrambled back up to the
temple just as the gates were closing.
After the husband dropped a few coins in the collection box, we got back
in the Mercedes and drove a half hour to a town whose name I didn’t catch.
The fish market was doing a
“Not that one,” said the wife
to the fishmonger, as she chose fish after fish, six varieties in all. “That
one over there.”
Nearby was an American-style
supermarket. The husband maneuvered the shopping cart as if it were a
motorcycle, happily turning corners at top speed, while the wife selected
vegetables and fruits slowly and methodically.
We headed back out to the
countryside, pulling up to a beautiful home, where they showed me the guest
room. There was soon an immaculate white futon spread out on the floor.
As the wife prepared dinner,
the husband talked to me about growing up on Shikoku.
“I grew up right here in Kochi.
We didn’t have much money,” he said, fiddling with the remote control on his
wide-screen television. “And I wasn’t a very good student. So I have been
luckier than anyone ever imagined. I exceeded my parents’ expectations. And my
in-law’s expectations as well.“
After a delicious dinner with
much laughter and lively conversation, I got up my courage to ask why they
offered perfect strangers such hospitality.
“Not perfect strangers.
Pilgrims only,” said the wife, as she cleared off the dozens of delicate little
porcelain plates from which we had eaten.
“It is just what we do,” said
the husband. “We have so very much. We are fortunate to have this home and cars
and leisure time. And we care a lot for Shikoku. It is our birthplace. Why not
share these things?”
I pressed them for their
address so I could send a thank you letter and gifts from the States.
“No need,” they said, “We are
just happy to have met you.”
“But….” I tried to plead
“Just consider this day and
evening as osettai, the Shikoku tradition of charity.”
They refused to give me any
I decided later that the temple
this couple really showed me was not physical or touristic or
geographical. It was metaphorical.
We didn’t need to spend a great
deal of time at Temple 24. My hosts took me to a much more significant sacred
Devotees of the great religions
have built impressive places all over the world. I’ve been fortunate to have
visited many of them and taken photos and read their histories. How Chartres
was Built. The Mysteries of Stonehenge. The Story of Machu Pichu.
But after that chance meeting
at the Furoshio Baths, I learned once again that, for me, the most important
sacred spaces are not in the guidebooks. They are the sacred spaces created
when human beings reach out to other human beings and pull them into their
lives, even for just a short time. Who hasn’t felt enormously blessed when a
stranger offers a meal, a smile, a conversation or a shared laugh? What traveler
hasn’t felt privileged, even awed, when a native extends an invitation to his
During the day and night I
spent with this delightful and unusual couple, I felt as if I were sheltered in
a sort of holy building, something with a dome or a nave or a minaret. A place
built entirely on trust and good-will. A place which existed only because of a
sort of grace. Like a rainbow or a sunset.
The next day, we ate breakfast
together in the kitchen and then the husband took off on his motorcycle. The
wife proceeded to drive me to a nearest point where the pilgrim path
intersected with the road, so I could continue my long, quiet, and sometimes
“Before noon, you’ll be at Temple 25 and by mid-afternoon, you’ll be at Temple
26,” she said, “Ki otsukete. Take care.”
She waved and she was gone.
I stood by the side of the road and bowed gratefully into the warm Shikoku wind.
The anthology Winds of Change includes my story entitled “A Cup of Joe”, my first attempt (and probably last attempt) at cli-fi or climate fiction. Winds of Change was launched as part of the Vancouver-based international ecological movement known as 100,000 Poets for Change, and edited by Mary Woodbury at Moon Willow Press.
When I threw the butter dish across the room my mother turned around just in time to see the beautiful blue porcelain shatter against the dining room wall. I don’t remember aiming for my mother’s head with its elegant, tightly-wound hair bun. I’m sure I wasn’t trying to hurt her. I just recall being angry and upset. Seventh Grade, with its social cliques and expectations, was the worst year of my life and I took my frustration out on my poor mother.
“I hate you,” I screamed, the way I had seen people do in the movies.
She had just told me that I could not wear the black lipstick that all my friends were wearing.
“I hate you,” I repeated, as if she hadn’t heard me the first time.
“You are a monster!” she said, biting her bottom lip.
Then she began to cry.
“You’re not my daughter. You couldn’t be my daughter,” she said. “You are too disrespectful.”
For a brief instant, I wondered if she were right.
Maybe the hospital had made a mistake thirteen years before. Maybe some neglectful nurse had put me back in the wrong bassinet after a feeding. Maybe I really belonged to my best friend’s mother, Mrs. McFarland, who was blissfully young, wore snappy, white tennis skirts and drove a red convertible over the speed limit. My own mother, already gray-haired, usually wore conservative clothes and didn’t even have a driver’s license. She was old-school European, and fussy in ways that no other American mothers seemed to be.
“You’re ground up,” said my Mother, snarling at me like a rabid dog.
“You mean grounded?” I said, with a sense of linguistic superiority.
At least I could speak perfect English, even if I threw butter dishes.
“Yes. Grounded. That’s it,” she repeated. “You may not leave the house except to go to school.”
I immediately called a friend, perhaps the McFarland girl with the cool mother, and I began to complain vociferously.
“I can’t go to the party on Saturday night. The old lady is ticked at me.”
“Whadya do?” asked the friend.
“Lost my temper,” I said, “Again.”
I basked in my friend’s sympathy until my mother overheard me.
“The phone is off-limits too,” she announced. “Everything is off limits until you behave like a decent human being.”
That night she came up to my room on the pretext of drawing the shades. She sat on the edge of my bed, wedged up against the unraveling stuffed toy elephant that I had cherished since childhood. She smoothed the bangs on my forehead with a cool hand and said goodnight, as if I were a little girl still needing to be tucked in instead of a young adolescent with a chip on her shoulder.
“Your behavior….,’’ she said, “I detest it. I really do. But I still love you. Never forget that.”
I don’t remember if I told her that I loved her too. I probably turned my head away and gave her the silent treatment.
I was that kind of teenager.
The punishment only lasted a week or so. Not long enough for me to actually become respectful, that’s for sure. I kept fighting with my mother, off and on, until the morning I left for college.
Full truce didn’t come until I was almost twenty-five and pregnant with Child #1. My mother was the only person, besides my son’s father, who was as happily obsessed with the baby as I was.
After he was born, she called frequently, wanting to hear all about him.
“And he blows kisses, does he?’’ she’d ask. “He’s so advanced!”
Even though we were living over a thousand miles apart, long before Skype or email, we managed to communicate frequently and well. She’d send me money for plane tickets to come home just for the pleasure of seeing me and my little guy. The child was docile and precious. I loved being his mother, and my mother enjoyed being his grandmother.
Child #2 was equally precious. But before long, he showed a very strong will and a mischievous spirit. He was only four when he threw his first butter dish. (Which wasn’t really a butter dish. It was a plastic bowl of oatmeal, but, after taking aim, he displayed the same fiery temper and lack of remorse as I once did).
It’s not possible or practical to ground a four year old. He has no real social life.
I tried “time out’s” and “Go to your rooms” and red stars and no stars and all sorts of punishments. I tried bargains and badges and all the other stuff that the parenting experts advised.
I was at my wit’s end. A defiant child is a challenge at any age. And this one was not yet in kindergarten. (Did I mention that the pre-school suggested I keep him home for a while after he wouldn’t stop banging on the class piano?)
I confided to my mother about my frustration. And every once in a while she got to witness my little monster’s behavior for herself. No one forgot the day that Child#2, reaching the ripe old age of five, locked himself inside a rental car, with the keys dangling in his hand and a big grin on his face. No amount of cajoling or threat could get him to open the doors.
“I’m going nuts! This kind of parenting isn’t fun at all,” I complained to my mother.
“I know what you mean,” she said.
I don’t think I really thought about my own horrible incident with the butter dish until a few weeks later my mother sent me a little quotation, handwritten on an index card.
“Children need love the most when they deserve it the least.”
And there it was. The wisdom that my mother had been silently imparting for decades.
I knew immediately that she had experienced with me exactly what I was feeling with Child #2. Exasperation, pure and simple. Complicated by feelings of inadequacy. What kind of a pathetic mother am I? Plus overdoses of all the other bad stuff. Fear. Guilt. Anger. Shame.
There were differences, of course. I hadn’t really gotten on my mother’s nerves until I was eleven or twelve. I had been a manageable, though impish child. It was only as a pubescent that I became a complete brat. Selfish and nasty.
Child #2 was never a brat. On the contrary, he was sweet and kind. But he was impossibly headstrong. He drove me crazy before he was out of diapers, but mercifully, he was quite well-behaved by the time he hit Middle School.
My mother’s little index card became a mantra for me. Whenever my difficult child pulled and tugged his way to glorious independence, causing me to tear out my hair, I just kept trying to give him one message, the same message that my mother had tried to give me. I love you. Not your behavior. But you. Always. Forever. Even when it is hard for me to feel much of anything. Even when you don’t deserve much of anything. I love you, unconditionally.
Is there a more important lesson that a mother can give?
“The First Line” is a wonderful publication which provides first lines and invites the writer to create a story stemming from that first line. They chose my story “The Sea of Tranquility” for publication in Volume 16, Issue 4. The required first line was “We went as far as the car would take us.”
“Amazing,” I said, glancing down at the odometer as the old Honda sputtered and gasped to a full stop. “That’s the exact distance to the moon!”
“You mean the car is dead?” asked Lindsay. “The freakin’ car is dead?”
“Yup. We’ve gone to the moon, Lins. And here we are in the Sea of Tranquility!”
We were actually a few miles from New York City, stuck on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike, not far from the big refinery. I gestured towards the metal guard rail, the distant gray smokestacks, the oil tanks. Double tractor-trailer trucks roared by, hurling little dragon-breaths of hot air into our open windows.
Lindsay started to cry.
“Hey, Lins,” I said. “It’ll be okay.”
I put my hand on her neck and try to draw her next to me, but she wasn’t budging. She crossed her arms across her chest and bit her bottom lip.
Lindsay could have been a model. She was tall and thin, with curly black hair skimming her shoulders. I liked the fact that she didn’t seem to be particularly hung up about her looks. She was far more serious about academics. She had been Phi Beta Kappa back in college. Currently she was gritting her teeth through the second year of law school, proud to have made Law Review.
When I said ‘The Sea of Tranquility’, I had hoped she would laugh, but she hadn’t.
“Jesus, Gordon. Jesus Christ. You’ve got to be kidding,” she said.
“Just relax, Lindsay.” I said. ” I’ll take a look under the hood.”
I announced this calmly, as if I knew my way around automobile engines. As if I were a six-foot-tall linebacker driving a Dodge Ram with a gun rack, instead of a Brooklyn jazz musician with a Honda Civic and a faded Obama-Biden sticker. Looking under the hood couldn’t do any harm. It didn’t mean that I would have to rebuild the hoisted engine in my garage, or replace the crankshaft with my bare hands.
I have always cultivated being mellow. Even, that morning, when we found ourselves in that major traffic snarl on the Upper Level of the GW Bridge, I stayed chill, unperturbed, Zenning. Lindsay cursed and diddled with Map Quest on her cell phone.
Now with the dead Honda, I was completely relaxed. I was feeling kind of proud of myself for actually remembering the distance to the moon. I’d learned it back in Middle School and hadn’t thought about it for over fourteen years.
We were just south of the Vince Lombardi Rest Stop when we broke down. I could smell the cinnamon buns from the service area restaurant when I got out of the driver’s seat and opened the hood. The cinnamon fragrance was making me feel quite optimistic. Like Christmas. What could really go wrong when the air smells of apple pie, with a little soupçon of oil refinery fumes?
I propped up the hood with that metal bar thing and stared down. It was kind of like going to a trendy Brooklyn art show. Rusty bits here and there. Tubing. Wires. No way to interpret anything, but still you feel obligated to stare for a while. I looked carefully at the little knobby nipples on the battery. I poked around a bit for the heck of it. Some of those parts were damn hot. So I stopped.
“I knew I shouldn’t have let you drive us,” said Lindsay, when I got back in the car and futilely turned the key. “Not in this piece of junk. Not to my sister’s wedding. We’re going to miss the pre- rehearsal.”
Her voice quavered.
“We’ll get there, “ I said, confidently, turning the key once more.
The old Honda’s engine did not respond.
“We’ve gotta get there, Gordon,” said Lindsay.
I looked at the moribund control panel. I ran my finger along the dust which had collected on the dashboard lip.
“We’ll get there,” I repeated.
“Well,” said Lindsay, “And how do you propose getting there?”
I placed my hands on the useless steering wheel, like a little kid on an amusement park ride. I was starting to consider the options. The traffic continued to thunder by. I started to listen to the Honda’s blinking hazard lights. Dit-dot. Dit-dot.
“Jesus, Gordon, are we just going to sit here? We have to be in Philadelphia by three,” she snapped.
“It will happen,” I said. “We’re not out in the middle of the Sahara. We’re probably in one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The only place denser might be Hong Kong.”
“Jesus,” said Lindsay. “Hong Kong, my ass. We can’t just do nothing.”
“Hmmm,” I said.
That was a hmmm that meant “I will eventually do something”, or “Let me think.”
Lindsay suddenly sat bolt upright in the passenger seat. She yanked her cell phone out of her huge knock-off Gucci leather handbag. You could fit a couple of six-packs in that bag. Or a family of raccoons.
“I’m calling my father,” she said.
She punched the speed-dial and started shaking one of her crossed legs, the way she does whenever she’s antsy.
I didn’t say anything.
Lindsay was definitely the kind of twenty-three year old who kept her parents on speed-dial.
I waited for Mr. Cunningham to pick up. He always answered the phone, “Cunningham here,” as if he were perpetually in the office. Even if he could tell from the screen of his smart phone that the caller was one of his own kids. That’s where Lindsay got her work-ethic from. And definitely her sense of humor.
In the meantime, I started wondering if Hong-Kong was, in fact, more densely populated than the area around the Vince Lombardi Rest Stop. Then I started thinking about Vince Lombardi, himself. The guy who said winning wasn’t everything, it was the only thing. Didn’t he belong in Wisconsin? Green Bay Packers? It was weird seeing his name on the New Jersey Turnpike. But maybe he was a native son. Yeah, that must have been it.
I looked over at Lindsay. Her ankle was shaking even harder. Her gold bracelet was jingling like a little bell. The phone kept ringing and then I could hear Mr. Cunningham’s voice mail kick in.
Lindsay hung up without leaving a message.
“I’m so embarrassed,” she said. “To be riding to the wedding in this…this clunker.”
I ignored the insult. The Civic had served me well for the past ten years. I had bought it used, back in high school, with money I had earned mowing lawns and shoveling snow. It had carried me back and forth to college, taken me and Lindsay for innumerable rides to Long Beach Island or Cape Cod, always gotten me to my gigs on time, never been stolen even when parked overnight in highly questionable areas.
“This here car has been to the moon. Give it a break!”
Lindsay stared at me with her mouth open and her eyes narrowed. She threw back her mane of black curly hair.
“Give it a break?” she screamed, “How can you say “give it a break’? It’s my sister’s wedding, for god’s sakes.”
She gripped her cell phone tightly like a weapon, and speed-dialed again. When her mother answered, Lindsay started to cry in earnest,.
“We’re broken down, on the New Jersey Turnpike,” she said.
I heard her say, Yes, Yes, then No, No, then Yes, then No again.
“Nothing,” she said finally. “He’s doing nothing.”
I wasn’t exactly doing nothing. I was getting my thoughts in gear. Lindsay never understood that my thoughts don’t just do the lock-step thing. Ipso facto or whatever.
Lindsay used to think that I was amazing. All my odd jobs and stuff. A man of experience. I’m older than she is by four years, although we graduated college at the same time. I’d had to matriculate and then drop out, over and over. My father had gone on disability. He’d had a colostomy and I went home to be with him, help him with that gross little bag full of shit that needed to be emptied. I was working my way through college, in any case. Not like Lindsay, who had gone to Barcelona for her Junior Year and always taken summers off.
Lindsay and I met because my photo had been in the student paper. I had been working part-time as a security guard at Wegman’s. One night a guy tried to drive a stolen car through the glass front doors because he said he needed ice cream. It turned out he was a mental patient. I treated his head injury, got him some pistachio and Rocky Road, and talked to him while my co-worker phoned the cops. Lindsay was impressed with my so-called heroism. But she made no bones about the fact that she considered my working as a security guard to be a waste of time. She never believed me when I said I learned a lot on the graveyard shift at a grocery store. Particularly about boredom. How to keep one’s mind occupied no matter what. And, the next year, after we’d started going out seriously, Lindsay was embarrassed when I did that telemarketing for a while. But sitting in that big room, earpiece attached like a Martian, you learn a lot about human nature. It was a goddamn psychology course in itself. And besides the flexible hours let me be with my Dad a little longer before he died.
When Lindsay hung up the phone, she had a definitive plan. Her mother had convinced her that it was too dangerous to walk a thousand feet back to the Vince Lombardi Rest Stop. We would call the Limousine Service that Mr. Cunningham often used. We would be driven to the closest train station where we could hop on an Amtrak train, direct to Philly.
“We’ll be at the pre-rehearsal just a little bit late, but they’ll wait for us.” Lindsay said triumphantly.
I tried paying attention as she explained the details, but my mind soon wandered to the historic names of the other Turnpike Service Areas. I was thinking about all the times when I was younger, when I had gone down to D.C, heading for some church basement or social club where I’d play my music, traveling in the old Honda, passing signs that indicated “Clara Barton Rest Area 10 miles” or “Joyce Kilmer Rest Area” or Walt Whitman. Or John Fenwick. Who the heck was John Fenwick, anyway?
“Goddammit, Gordon. Are you even listening?”
“Yes. No. Not really,” I admitted.
I didn’t dare tell Lindsay what I had been thinking about.
“You’re completely irresponsible,” she said.
“No, I’m not,” I said.
“You are too. You’re…you’re just willing to drift, Gordon. And I’m not.”
“What does that mean? Willing to drift?”
“Like, you’re willing to sit here and do freakin’ nothing…in an emergency.”
“But it’s not an emergency, Lins, it’s just a dead car. And I have two decent feet and I’m healthy, and I can walk back to the rest stop and find a bus, or even hitchhike, if I have to.”
“Hitchhike? For god’s sakes, Gordon. What are you, an eighteen year old? Hitchhike to my sister’s wedding. For god’s sake.”
“I mean…if push came to shove. I’d find a solution.”
“But you didn’t. You didn’t find a solution. You didn’t even look for a solution.”
“But push hadn’t come to shove.”
I always liked that expression. I imagined Push like the Push-Me Pull-You in the Dr. Doolittle books. And then I pictured Push walking down the road and coming upon Shove.
“Goddammit, Gordon. The only reason we’re getting out of this mess is because of me. And only me.”
I wanted to correct her. Nothing was because of her. Not her alone. She depended on her parents. Always had. Still did. Even now. Second year law school. She needed their money. Their credit card. Their solution for broken down cars. Their ears. Their consoling words.
“Do you really think that you are the only responsible person in this car?” I asked, quietly.
“Frankly, yes,” she shouted. “The only adult.”
She was now rummaging around in her big faux Gucci bag looking for a compact mirror and some tissues. Crying had made her mascara streaky. Her eyelashes looked as if they had clumps of ants crawling on them.
“I’ve been supporting myself a long time,” I said quietly.
“Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard it all before,” she snarled. “But, you know what, Gordon, you still haven’t grown up.”
‘But you have?” I asked.
“Far more than you,” she said.
“Because people in law school are grown-ups and people who make music are children?” I asked.
The thought actually amused me. I imagined the New York Philharmonic being composed only of pre-schoolers, wearing little tuxedos and Pull-Ups, those sneakers that light up they run. The string section sucking on pacifiers as they bowed.
“It has nothing to do with your being a musician, for god’s sake. You’re just….” She hesitated.
“I’m just what?” I asked.
“A buffoon,” she said. “A loser. I don’t know…. A person who’s not going anywhere.”
She started to cry again, but there was something strained, not vulnerable, about her face this time.
I wanted to ask her where she got the word buffoon., but I didn’t.
Argument seemed unnecessary. At least that’s how I reasoned at that moment, sitting there, in the Sea of Tranquility.
Soon, sometime before it got dark, I knew that I would find a way back to Brooklyn. Probably by bus. I was looking forward to seeing the NY skyline tease its way over the horizon. I anticipated admiring, as I often did, the beautiful old stone library that sits on a rock in Weehawken, like a castle surrounded by a moat of highway, just before you go into the pit of the Lincoln Tunnel.
We sat for a while without speaking. When the limousine arrived, Lindsay avoided looking at me. She took her garment bag with the Maid of Honor dress in it off the back seat and handed it to me, along with a couple of fancy boutique shopping bags and a large duffle.
I couldn’t figure out why the Limo Driver didn’t help, but he didn’t. He just stood by the passenger door like one of those guards with the big hats at Buckingham Palace. So I lugged Lindsay’s things over to the big black Lincoln Continental in two trips. Then she flung the big Faux-Gucci over her shoulder and got in the back of the slinky car when the driver opened the door as if she were Princess Kate. She didn’t wave or look back at me. I could tell she was sobbing because her shoulders were shaking, but I also knew she still thought she was right.
Safely on the side of the earth with all the winners.
I stayed in the steel cradle of the Honda a while longer, like a lone astronaut on a lunar mission. I thought about the big sphere of our planet, blue and round like a billiard ball. I thought about my own orbit and Lindsay’s orbit and Vince Lombardi’s orbit and all the people orbiting in Hong Kong. Everything so big and so little all at once. All of us convinced of something. Being right, usually.
Later, when I got home, I dialed Lindsay’s number, but she didn’t answer. I had only wanted to say good luck. I didn’t leave a real message. I figured that we would eventually talk, or maybe not. Some things just peter out, like stars or asteroids. It was clear, in any case, that we had come to the end of the road. All the way to the moon.
The Binnacle (University of Maine) runs an Ultra Short Writing Competition every year. (An ultra short is a brief short story, usually under 500 words, that stands on its own.) My piece “Empty Forks” received an honorable mention in the 11th annual competition.
Vanessa was seated at the dinner
table pretending to lift Beef Stroganoff to her mouth. When she was little,
Vanessa had loved her daddy’s signature dish. She used to call it beef strong
enough. Sometimes she would take three helpings.
Now she was twenty, freshly
released from the Whitson Institute For Eating Disorders.
Her parents just called it
Whitson, of course.
The skin on Vanessa’s arms was
pleated, like a window shade.
anyone?” her mother asked.
At 88 pounds, the girl still felt
like a blimp, but no one noticed. Not even the psychiatrist.
“Best in his field,” her
father had said.
Vanessa moved the noodles around
on her plate like specimens on a Petri dish.
Her father, an engineer, rattled
on about bridges. Her mother, an artist, announced an exhibit. Her brothers
sopped up gravy and grunted.
Vanessa continued to raise her
empty fork, tasting the air.
Spirit First is an organization devoted to meditation and harmonious living. My poem "River, Stream, Brook, Mind" won their Editor's Choice Award in 2014 and appeared in their publication “Moments of the Soul: Winning Poems on Meditation, Mindfulness, Silence and Stillness".
It was later reprinted, with my permission, by Lilipoh, the national magazine of Waldorf Schools. It will appear again in an anthology of collected Spirit First winning poems coming out in 2019.
Read it here:
Meditation, it’s like getting in a canoe. So wobbly, at first.
No idea how to navigate,
no idea how to survive a meeting with an iceberg,
a tumble over Niagara Falls,
the free-fall of the mind,
the winding river, the unpredictable waves.
Breathe, says the master. Don’t hold your breath.
But I find myself tightening my life-vest, and clinging to the sides.
Take it all as it comes, says the master, the twists, the turns,
the scraping of the hull,
the long portage,
the doldrums and the rapids.
But I keep hitting rocks, I say.
Get rid of the paddle, says the master.
And when I finally do, I float,
buoyant as a plover,
high above the little creek I used to call my head.
My husband eats baked potatoes the way some people eat truffles. Or foie gras. Or torafugu. Slowly, lovingly, and with almost sacred appreciation.
But like all food aficionados, he has his rules. First of all, the potatoes should be Russets. And ideally, they should come from Aroostook County, Maine, because that’s where his daddy grew them. Acres and acres of them.
For generations, his family had a potato farm up in Washburn. But his folks didn’t just grow the things. His father was also a State of Maine Potato Inspector, and Douglas learned, at his father’s knee, not to fool around when it comes to tubers. They have to be the right size, the right shape, and the right color, with no signs of nature’s hanky panky, otherwise known as hollowheart or black spot.
Before I married Douglas, I didn’t know or care much about potatoes. When it comes to my carbohydrate background, I’m a French bread snob and an Italian pasta lover. For a long time, I thought that Idaho was a tuber species unto itself. But it’s not.
Those blemish-free brown things called Idahos, sold at the supermarket in big bags, are usually really Russets. And Russets aren’t just one kind of potato either, I learned. There are Burbank Russets and Alpine Russets and Peribonkas and lots of other kinds, most of which were developed for growing in the climates of the Western states.
Eating a potato grown in Oregon or Montana is a bit sacrilegious to a man whose family started pulling rocks out of the soil of New England in the 17th century, but some things can’t be helped. A Russet is still a Russet. Of course, he turns his nose up at Austrian Crescents, Yukon Golds, and French fingerlings. And you’ll never catch him buying those fancy-schmancy blue potatoes from South America.
Douglas will even wax poetic over a field of potatoes in bloom. I once showed him gorgeous lavender fields in Provence, and he liked them well enough. But he didn’t think that they were as beautiful as potatoes.
“Potato flowers move with the wind,“ he said. “Lavender doesn’t really do much, does it?”
You and I might think that a plain, baked potato is kind of boring. Not Douglas. When he realizes that there are baked potatoes with dinner, he lets out a little gasp of pleasure, as if he is welcoming a long-lost relative to the table. When he stares at the humble Russet, perhaps he is seeing his rugged ancestors, carrying load after load to the potato house. Or maybe he’s remembering his own childhood. He left Maine to pursue a career in labor law and the ministry, but he never forgets where he came from, and he never fails to appreciate the work that goes into growing, harvesting, and preparing food.
As the steam rises, Douglas takes his fork and pushes down on the potato flesh here and there, mixing in butter as he goes. I think the potato/butter ratio is calculated, but I’m not sure. Sometimes he’ll also use his knife to make transversal cuts, like a surgeon. Then he slowly adds salt across the surface.
If there is a roast or a chicken leg, he’ll eat a bite or two of the meat and let the potato cool. He nibbles the broccoli or whatever other vegetable is playing second fiddle to the tater. Then he’ll return to the pièce de résistance. He’ll fluff up the flesh a bit and bring the first bite to his mouth.
“Ah, it’s just the way I like it,” he’ll say. “Not too moist, not too dry.”
He digs out every last little flake, like a very thorough archeologist.
It’s clear that for Douglas, the baked potato sums up everything that’s important in his life: respect, heritage, continuity, simplicity, and a full belly. He leaves, for the very last, the two dug-out potato skins, moored on his plate like little birch-bark canoes. He cuts them up with his knife and fork, savoring the still-lingering taste of the earth itself.
Certainly there are times when I wish I were married to someone with more exotic tastes — say, an oenophile, or at least someone who enjoys calamari. I’ll admit that it can be frustrating to try to expand a baked-potato lover’s horizons. He has no problem worshipping at the altar of mashed spuds from time to time, but he clearly doesn’t think potato gnocchi are part of the fold.
I once introduced him to the Swiss dish called raclette, in which waxy potatoes are eaten with pickles and cheese. He pronounced it “tasty,” which, I think, was a kind of self-conscious display of tolerance, like a rabbi or a priest listening to each other’s prayers at a town-wide ecumenical breakfast.
But overall, there’s something marvelous about a man who is so deeply and spiritually connected to the simple potato. I watch him eat, and I find myself thinking, “Oh, wise one, teach me, too, to look at my dinner plate and always see the divine, without complications.”
Sans chichis, as we say in French. Without fuss.
Baked Potatoes à l’Aroostook
You will need:
6 Russet potatoes, blemish-free and locally grown
1 kerosene stove
Salt and pepper to taste
On a cool morning, wake up at 6 a.m. and start the kerosene or woodstove in the potato house (where the potatoes are stored and sorted).
Wash the potatoes in cold water with a brush and dry thoroughly. Place the Russets on the top of the hot stove.
Work until noon. Take the potatoes off the stove. They will be powder-dry and delicious. Season and eat.
Spend the rest of your life with the memory of their taste.
Same as above, except with the gas or electric oven housed in your kitchen.
Approximate cooking times and temperatures, depending on your schedule:
45 minutes at 400 degrees.
60 minutes at 350 degrees.
90 minutes at 325 degrees.
120 minutes at 275 degrees.
At higher temperatures, prick holes in the skin with a fork to let steam escape. At lower temperature, don’t bother. Never wrap the potatoes in aluminum foil.
I wrote the short story “Tsu Means Through and Nami means Wave” right after the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. It appeared in 3Element Review, along with an author interview, and it was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
In the hours after the Tohoku earthquake, Clara’s parents grew panicky. They left message after message for her.
“Come home, Clara. Get out of there,” said her mother. Her voice was low and hoarse. “We hope you’re okay, honey, “ said her father. “Please call us.”
Clara had forgotten her cell phone at Susumu’s the night before so she didn’t get the messages immediately. And it hadn’t occurred to her to reassure her parents. She assumed that they had looked at a map of Japan and could tell she was a long way from the disaster area. She didn’t think they’d be worried. But now, here she was, on the phone with her nearly hysterical mother. Unglued. Her mother was unglued. She couldn’t stop talking about cars floating into the ocean.
“Oh my God, they’re showing the footage again,” said her mother. “It’s like the end of the world.”
Clara pictured her mother sitting in the armchair next to the landline in the green-walled living room of the clapboard house on Mohawk Circle, back in Syracuse. She probably had that pillow behind her back. The one that was embroidered with white lambs and the words “God’s Love” in script. Outside, in March, the night sky in upstate New York would be the color of black velvet. Maybe Orion was visible. The television was probably the only light in the room.
Clara stared out the window as her mother talked and cried. It was almost noontime in Kyoto. Gojo Dori was bustling. A group of old men was heading into the udon shop. One half of a punk couple was waiting next to a tandem bicycle. The guy was wearing an electric blue parka that matched his hair. Before Clara got a chance to respond to her mother, the other half, equally blue-haired, came out of the convenience store. Within a minute, the tandem bicycle and the two riders were gone, camouflaged by the traffic. Clara continued to observe the street. A fashionable young woman, tottering on white majorette boots, was leading a small dog in the direction of Rokuhara Temple. The busy thoroughfare looked like it always did. In the distance, she could make out the plum trees just starting to blossom in the park.
She tried to explain to her mother that there was no reason to leave. She lived in Kyoto, five hundred kilometers away from the disaster area.
“Look at a map, “ she wanted to say to her mother. “Just look at a freakin’ map.”
But she didn’t say anything. She knew that her mother’s world was circumscribed by the new Walmart out on Route 2 and First Presbyterian, by women who looked like her and dressed like her and made the same recipe for meatloaf. Even attending the State Fair was a big deal. “We had those special dough things at the Greek booth,” she would say. “Gyros or whatever you call them.”
Clara continued to look out the window, staring at the laundry drying on racks outside the apartments opposite hers. A whole Japanese family’s pajamas fluttering in the breeze. She was used to such sights by now. How so much was exposed. Ugly electric train wires overhead, garbage bins, personal bedding draped over balconies, flesh in the public baths. And yet, how much was hidden. Emotions, for one thing. There was so much quiet control. Even at this very instant, even among those suffering terribly.
Her mother babbled on, her anxiety pulsating into Clara’s ear.
“They say that everything’s radioactive. I’m worried about what you are eating, honey. What about the water?”
Clara didn’t dare say that she and Susumu were thinking of volunteering in a few weeks, heading up to Tohoku to help out. People were already organizing weekend brigades. She could hear her father shouting in the background.
“Tell her we’ll send her money for a ticket,” he yelled.
“Here, you tell her, Rob, “ said her mother, handing the phone over.
“Just come home, baby,” her father said quickly. “Just come home.”
“I’ll think about it,” answered Clara, but she knew that she wouldn’t. Her head was starting to ache from listening to her mother’s fears.
On Friday, she had been walking down Sanjo, near Kawaramichi, just about to cross the river when the earthquake struck. The bridge had wobbled a bit, but no one paid much attention. Earthquakes were common. Susumu had told her that elsewhere in the city people hadn’t felt a thing. It was early afternoon and she had just finished teaching her classes. She told her parents that much. She didn’t go into details. About how she was on her way to Susumu’s apartment. About having subsequently forgotten her cell phone on the floor next to the rumpled bedding of the futon.
The last time she mentioned Susumu, a musician whom she had met two years earlier, her parents hadn’t reacted the way she had hoped.
“Susumu?” they had repeated. “That doesn’t sound like an American name.”
“It means going forward,” said Clara. “You know, to progress.”
“Their names have meanings?” asked her mother.
“Of course,” said Clara. “What did you think?”
“I don’t know,” said her mother, “Susumu just sounds like nonsense to me.”
Clara sighed. She thought about the distance separating her from her parents. All the bodies of water, all the waves of the Pacific ocean, the continental shelf itself, the whole canopy of sky stretching from Syracuse to Kyoto.
When her mother grew too tired to continue her rant, her father took the phone again. He got right to the point.
“They’re not gonna protect you, baby. If things get worse. They’re gonna protect their own.”
Clara tried to change the subject, but her father had spent the day soaking up information.
He wanted to talk tsunami and disaster.
“The news said there’s no looting yet,” he said skeptically.
Clara bit her lip. It was the idea of “yet” that annoyed her. Her parents just assumed certain things.
Clara tried talking about her work, a new project she had in mind, but all her father could talk about was the videos he had seen on the Internet. Cars and bicycles and buildings swept up like leaves in a gutter. The sucking sound of the tsunami as it ate its way into the coastline. The procession of displaced people staggering into shelters.
“I don’t know if they…the Japs…the Japanese…will ever recover…not from this one.”
Clara half-listened. Before she left to teach in Kyoto, her father had taken her on a long walk, down Main Street, past the clock shop that he owned, up behind the high school, across the playing fields where Clara had captained the field hockey team, and over to the canal, where they used to ice skate every winter.
“You’re going to the other side of the world, “ he said. “I can’t believe it.”
“I can’t wait, “ said Clara. She had studied graphic design and Japanese in college.
“You know that Grandpa wouldn’t have been happy with you going over there. To Japan.”
“Grandpa?” she had asked, puzzled. She only had vague memories of her grandfather, his fingers yellowed from smoking too many Camels, his use of the word “icebox”. She remembered him coming up to the house with Christmas presents in his arms, his lopsided walk.
“Why does Grandpa walk that way?” she had once asked as a little girl. The answer came back in one unfamiliar word. Schrapnel.
Later, she somewhat recalled the American flag draped over his coffin, the VFW president giving the eulogy at his funeral.
As Clara and her father tossed small stones into the canal, she realized that the whole walk had been leading up to this moment.
“He never talked about the war, you know. He was in the Marianas. The Pacific Theater. He lost a lot of buddies to …them.”
“I wish you were teaching closer to home, Clara,” her father said, looking grim.
Later as she was packing her duffle bags, sorting out her possessions before getting ready to fly overseas, Clara started to wonder how long people could hang on to something. Grudges, injustices, red-letter dates. 9/11. Pearl Harbor. Who knew what else? When did people let go and move on?
By the time the telephone call ended, it was eleven o’clock at night on the East Coast. Her parents were getting ready for bed. She could picture her father in his flannel bathrobe, the same one he had had when Clara was a little girl. Red plaid with a floppy belt. Her mother would have her cheeks covered in that moisturizer that smelled like eucalyptus. Even in March, there was probably still winter snow on the ground in the corners of Mohawk Circle, piled up gray and crusty. Clara could imagine the yard bathed in the yellow glow of her family’s porch light which her father would soon turn off. Then he’d check the door one more time.
“We have to get to bed, “ said her father. “But I’ll put Mom on to say goodbye.”
“We miss you, honey, please come home,“ said Clara’s mother.
“I love you, Mom,”
“Love you too, night-night.”
Clara waited for her mother to realize that, of course, where Clara was, it wasn’t night time. But her mother merely said, “Sleep tight,” when Clara said goodbye.
Clara thought about the wall calendar her parents kept in the kitchen, hanging on the pantry door. From the John Deere Tractor Store, with photos of different seasons. Hay baling for August, a tractor pulling a load of Christmas trees for December. On her parent’s calendar, it was Saturday. On Clara’s electronic calendar, it was Sunday. She had already left Saturday behind.