03 January 2010
under my feet
Even though I was young, I remember many of those same places and people as my mother. Our perspectives are different, and often the only reason I remember certain families is because I remember their children, older or younger than me.
I have six brothers and sisters, but there were only four of us when we lived in Japan, one born there, so she was just a baby. Many of my memories are visual - the smooth wood floors of our home in Kokobunji with its sunroom and beautiful garden, the red girders of the Tokyo Tower and the gray water and enormous ships in Tokyo Bay, deep square baths tiled with little square tiles, the white and red bullet trains, Pocky sticks, markets and open-front stores, and the standard school uniforms of white shirts and dark skirts or shorts and knee-high socks. I loved school, and I loved cartoons. My heroes were the Samurai and the super-hero warriors prevalent in the local culture. I also loved the reassuring snow-white peak of Mt. Fuji that I could see from my bedroom window.
We were transferred around in Japan. We lived off-base, then on. I learned to ride a bicycle when we lived in the military housing with The Big Tree - a set of three two-story apartment buildings arranged in a horseshoe. In the center of the open yard grew a single, enormous tree, a pine or fir of some kind. All of us little girls and perhaps some of the boys were so impressed and enamored by the teenage Gunnell boys who could climb The Big Tree. Evenings we would sit out on the apartment stoop as it got dark to see if a game would start up of "No Bears Are Out Tonight" and to see how long we could stay out before our mother would insist we come in. My parents were connected to a tight-knit group of other military families in their church as well, and I remember it was a very nurturing and supportive community within the larger whole of the Japanese culture. I did not at first know what my father did for a living; I assumed that he was one of the armed military personnel like the security guards who saluted us in and out of the bases.
By the time we came back to the states, that community life was all I knew, and re-entering the U.S. was a culture shock in all its glory. My early context was completely different from that of my peers - of geography, language, social structure, TV characters and superheroes. I had grown up as a minority in a vivid, ancient culture of respect and ritual. Our beautiful and quiet nanny/housekeeper had assured me, "Buddha love you same as Jesus," and my sense of the world had been broadened by the miles of travel and the wonders we had seen: Hiroshima, Shinto shrines, peaceful gardens, small villages, the Cherry Blossom festival, Kyoto, fishermen throwing their nets in the ocean, rice paddies, the pink and blue fish kites of Boys' and Girls' Day. I loved the elaborate silks of the kimonos, the white swans in the moat around the dark stone walls of the Imperial Palace, and old stone and wooden pillars of the Buddhist temple. I had danced the Obon with my mother and sister to celebrate our ancestors and couldn't begin to find the words to explain to my new American schoolmates what that even meant.
To make my social integration more difficult, I had a severe lisp and, to my shame, was put in a special education class for language and reading. The little square flash-cards of vowels kept in my childhood scrapbook still evoke a twinge of pain, although it feels more like sorrow today.
My father served his final year at Fairchild AFB in Spokane, Wash. Afterwards, he moved us to Bakersfield, California. Then Tustin. Then Idaho, Utah, and back to Idaho. Along the way, I gained three more siblings, several dogs, a horse, a guitar, and a reinforced sense of nomadic detachment. Over the years, it would manifest regularly as a light flutter that would kick around inside my stomach, telling me it was time to move on. In 1984, my parents settled in Utah, and I continued to move, ungracefully, through my life and to different places and spaces until I landed in the Pacific Northwest in 1995.
So much happened that year, good and bad, change and more change. I moved nine times in the next 12 months. But the spiral of journey had turned inward, and I moved one final time and have since remained in the same place for ten years, content for the time being.
I remain grateful for those years during my formative childhood. They continue to influence my life for good today. Perhaps it is, finally, something else our Japanese nanny told me so many years ago when I was young and full of questions.
She said, "Answer under your feet."
at 7:48 PM