Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Looking Forward

When I first visited Keiko, I didn't see her picture of the Pope. It was small; it hadn't been given pride of place. I only spotted it on my second visit to her house and even then I didn't recognize the great man. He was in the middle of a group of bashfully smiling Japanese housewives, including Keiko, and at first I thought it was a photograph from some sort of pantomime.

"This guy looks like the Pope!" I said, with typical gaucherie. I don't know what it is about famous people, but I never do recognize them in pictures, especially when they happen to be in the snapshots of friends.

Keiko ducked her head. "Well, that is the Pope. A few of us met him when he came to Nagasaki." She looked embarrassed. "I helped interpret."

I stared at her; we were speaking in Japanese, and I had no idea that Keiko could speak any other language. "Interpret? What language...?"

"English," she replied shyly, in beautifully enunciated English.

I was thunderstruck. Although the Japanese are famous for being modest and unforthcoming about personal accomplishments, when it comes to speaking English, this reticence goes right out the window. On an almost daily basis, I met countless people with very little English who were anxious to show off how much they could say.

"So, you speak English?" I said now, redundantly.

Keiko nodded. "To some degree." Her pronunciation and intonation were completely natural. I'd had any number of conversations with her in Japanese, but there was no doubt about it: her linguistic skill trumped mine.

"But -- you've only spoken Japanese to me!"

She looked embarrassed. "Shizue told me how much you hated it when people started speaking to you in English."

Now it was my turn to look embarrassed. I had bent the ear of Shizue, our mutual friend, on this subject. There were few non-Japanese in our area, and even fewer Caucasians. People saw me as someone who would be willing, even eager, to listen to their halting attempts at English -- or worse still, to their children's. At first this had been something of a novelty, but in very little time it wore thin. I'd been approached by strangers whose lack of ability in English never stopped them from trying to engage me in conversation -- in the supermarket, in restaurants, on my way to take out the trash, and once, memorably, when on my way to the doctor's, dizzy with a fever, I was commanded to listen to the virtually incomprehensible recited poem of a high school student. After a while, I developed zero tolerance and feigned incomprehension -- Excuse me, no English, I am Russian! -- or I simply told them in Japanese that I was in a hurry and could not chat.

But Keiko was obviously a different case. I found out that she had studied in Sweden for several years, living on her own away from other Japanese speakers. The more of her story I heard, the more impressed I was. Her stock rose even higher when a neighbor dropped by and she quickly flicked back into Japanese. Keiko didn't just have impeccable linguistic skills, she had impeccable manners and a real sense of humility despite her impressive accomplishments.

She was also patient. While I was visiting once, I met her only child, Hiroko, a girl in her teens. From what I'd heard about her, she was undoubtedly a handful, and I couldn't help but feel that Keiko and her husband must have spoiled her. A pretty girl, Hiroko had a typical adolescent girl temperament: she flounced, she pouted, she sighed, and she had a good line in eye-rolling. Even in those unenlightened pre-kid days, I recognized Keiko's gentle tolerance and wondered that she could keep her temper so well.

I moved away from Kyushu just before Hiroko went away to college. As it turned out, it also happened to be the year Keiko had her second baby.

"She's thrilled," Shizue told me. "After all those years, they'd given up, and now Hiroko is going to have a baby sister or brother!"

Shizue and I agreed that Keiko's situation was unusual, but also ideal: Hiroko was just the right age to help! In retrospect, my own ignorance, though nothing to be proud of, still wasn't as bad as Shizue's naivete. She was a mother, after all; I wasn't.

To make a long story short, Hiroko didn't help her mother at all. On her brief visits home, she declined to change diapers or do any other housework. She saw her baby sister as an interloper who had come along and spoiled her first visit home as a college student. And no wonder: Her mother, instead of listening breathlessly to her stories and cooking her favorite meals, was suddenly preoccupied with a baby.

Keiko took it with her typical patience. "Hiroko tells me that when she becomes a mother, she'll do it the right way," she sighed. "She says that she'll make sure to have her kids when she's still young."

"I hope you set her straight!" I said, thinking that if I had a daughter like that I'd show her who was boss.

Keiko sighed. "I just tell her I look forward to her becoming a mother. She paused as a slow smile transformed her tired face. "Which I do."

I thought about Keiko the other day when my eldest, so similar to her Hiroko, made an interesting statement.

"I hope I have twins someday," she claimed breezily. "It just seems so cool."

"I'll look forward to that," I said.



The Quoibler said...

This is a wonderful example of the patience we have to show our children.

My feeling has always been that perhaps our kids really will find a better way and we shouldn't assume that they'll be as jaded as we! I don't want to be the type of mommy who constantly says, "You think that now, but when you're older..." Why kill innocence?

I love your writing style, Mary. So effortless and delightful. You're much more talented than you could ever imagine.


Kim Ayres said...

Twins - matching accessories - love it :)

By the way, some of the photos from Sunday didn't turn out too badly so I'll put them on a disc and post them up. Do email me your address & postcode, or let me know if you're down this way again soon.

Carole said...

This is great. I enjoyed it tremendously. My daughter-in-law blogs also and I read a comment where she said her and my son are trying to do their parenting right so they don't make the mistakes their parents made. I chuckled endlessly but made an appropriate comment with no smiley face showing.

Please think about submitting a couple of your essays to the following publication.

The Sun Publishing Co.
107 N. Roberson St.
Chapel Hill NC 27516

Fax: (919)932-3101
Web site: www.thesunmagazine.org

Contact: Sy Safransky, editor

They pay very well and I believe if you they take the time to read a couple of your essays you could be a regular contributor. If not, I will quit subscribing to them post haste.

Mary Witzl said...

Angelique -- What a nice compliment. From your mouth to the ears of agents...

I agree with you about our kids finding a better way. If it weren't for new generations wanting to find a better way than their parents', the human race would just fizz right out. We all hope to do a little better than our parents, and some of us accomplish this. I like to think I do a few things better than my parents did, and I try not to kill my kids' enthusiasm too. Even though sometimes I have my doubts...

Kim -- And believe me, those are two accessories I would enjoy seeing my eldest sporting. Twins run in my family: my grandmother was a twin. Who knows? It could happen.

As for those photos, I'm betting we looked like hell warmed over, but if you've succeeded in getting good shots of us, you've worked a real miracle, and I will be even more impressed with your photographic skill than I am with your musical abilities.

Carole -- I have been a subscriber to The Sun for the past three years, through the generosity of friends. I love The Sun, but I honestly cannot believe they would publish my writing; otherwise, I'd submit my work to them straight away. The fact that you think they would publish my work really touches me, and I will consider it (and not be upset with you when they reject me!)

Good for you, managing not to make a smiley face at such a comment! You're a better woman than I am; I'd have had to leave a snarky comment, no doubt about it.

The Anti-Wife said...

Keiko sounds like a wise woman.

When I was 16, I knew everything about parenting. Now I know nothing. I admire those of you who we able to take that path.

The Anti-Wife said...

Oh, and thanks for stopping by to help celebrate my bloggiversary!

Ello said...

Mary, so sorry about the car! And I love this piece about Keiko. I wish I had this kind of patience. THere is a reason I am called Mean Mommy and Stinky Mommy.

Gorilla Bananas said...

So now big sister needs to produce some nephews and nieces for little sister to play with. I wonder if they'll call her 'auntie'.

Susan Sandmore said...

Mary, why are you so incredibly entertaining and insightful? Stop it! Whenever I get to the end of your blog posts, I feel so disappointed. If you're going to blog, consider doing so ceaselessly. (Um, I'm not sure how that would work, but you figure it out!)

Please listen to Carole and try The Sun. And every other blinkin' quality publication. Please?

Mary Witzl said...

Anti-wife -- When I was 16, I knew everything about EVERYthing. One of the funniest, and truest, phrases I've ever heard is that one "That was back when I was young enough to know everything." Not all 16-year- olds are like this; I know a couple who are wise before their time and truly humble me. And people who choose not to be parents have a special wisdom I much admire.

Ello -- I wish I had Keiko's kind of patience too! When I knew her, I was able to see her goodness and patience, but now I am in awe of it. I don't think she spoiled her daughter, either; I think she just got the same model I did: stroppy and well imbued with attitude at birth.

GB -- The last I heard of Keiko her daughter had started working in an IT company. I can't help hoping she went on to have her own kids and has since made it up to her mother -- and her little sister.

Susan -- If I ever decide to quit blogging, remind me to read these comments again! You, Angelique, and Carole and everyone else who reads and comments cheer me up no end and make me want to keep posting. The fact is, I have 60,000 words of this stuff that I haven't even touched. I submitted partials to two British and three American agents, and I got some very nice compliments ("If only you were famous!"), but no deals. But after all these nice comments, fat chance I'm going to quit blogging in a hurry.

Christy said...

When I think back to what a little snot I was as a teenager, I always cringe a little. It sounds like Keiko was a really great mom. I bet her daughter turned it around after a few more years.

It makes me sad to think of Keiko and her husband struggling with infertility all those years. She must have been a very special person to not allow herself to be bitter about it.

laura said...

I vote for triplets!!

Kanani said...

Good story, nice flow.

Merry Monteleone said...


I have to agree with all of your posters who think you should be submitting these, I think your blog posts are both insightful and entertaining... and from a really unique perspective, I don't see many published essays from resident aliens.

It saddened me a great deal the day that I truly understood and agreed with the phrase, "Youth is wasted on the young" and I can't tell you how many nitwit things I self righteously thought I would do different as an adult and mother.... hmmm... someone should have kicked me, or explained that motherhood meant all of the responsibility and very little control.

Then again, I wouldn't have believed them at that age...

Kara said...

i can't read the name 'keiko' without thinking of that damn whale from Free Willy. you know the one. stupid whale.

and i don't know what a scooby-doo is. we may never know.

Mary Witzl said...

Christy -- I cringe too. My mother died decades ago, but there is hardly a day that I don't remember her forebearance with me; how she quietly -- and sometimes not so quietly -- put up with my laziness and back talk. Personally, I don't think I'm anywhere near as bad as my eldest, but then it was a long time ago.

Laura -- Thank you for finding and commenting on my blog! Sometimes I'm driven close to the brink and I vote for triplets too. Then maternal love kicks in and I grudgingly revise it to twins.

Kanani -- Thank you.

Merry -- Thank you! I'm betting that there are a lot of resident alien pieces out there -- in particular an anthology of various expatriates living in Japan that I have yet to read -- but I still wish I could publish these. I'm thinking of taking Carole's suggestion and submitting to The Sun. My rejection pile has been looking a little thin lately.

Whatever nitwit things you thought or said would have some serious competition from mine. I can still remember my mother laughing herself silly over Erma Bombeck. I didn't really get it at the time. Now I do.

Kara -- I actually sat through Free Willy (just writing that gives me the giggles -- you know what Willy is in British English, don't you?) but I cannot recall Keiko. Mercifully, time seems to have obliterated the memory.

And YOU don't know what doing a Scooby-Doo is? I'm doomed. I'll have to go and google it.

Stephanie Reed said...

You've got to be kidding that you don't think you could sell this piece. You * have * got * to * be * kidding. It's wonderful! I could see it happening. The slow smile, the sidelong glances. Pleease submit it. And thanks to Susan for saying she loves your blog.

Mary Witzl said...

Stephanie -- Thank you. I just wish you guys were agents or publishers!

Finding these nice compliments is especially cheering after getting yet another 'We just love your writing, but we don't really need it!' rejection letter. I have a fair number of these now. I guess the trick is to just keep plugging away and not allow myself to get discouraged. All the kind support I get really helps and I am very grateful.

-eve- said...

Another interesting story.

As for 'We just love your writing, but we don't really need it!', it could very well be true. The way I visualized your stories was as a book; a sort of 'memoirs', but a bit like the 'chicken soup for the soul' kind...

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you, Eve. I'm aiming for a quirkier and more irreverent chicken soup for the soul-type memoir, I suppose, and no, there doesn't seem to be a market for it in the literary world. I have a whole host of awful experiences to write about too, but for some reason I've been writing about the good ones. Once I exhaust them, I'll start on the bad ones.