a child says goodbye
breeze blows on the runway
Steel stairway, wings and jet engines. Our Pan Am Boeing 707 in sun-glare. Idlewild to San Francisco, to Honolulu, then to Tokyo. Blue bows braided into my pigtails, blue plaid summer dress catches a hot breeze. Suddenly, I realize my Cinderella watch is still tucked into the seat pocket, and I’ll never see it again. Our family of four begins a three-year adventure in a new country and culture, far from my grandparents’ secure New Jersey home–our place of permanence–amid our transitory Air Force life. My father’s Far East forays are difficult for Mother, baby sister and me, but we are open to learn and enjoy this beautiful land and culture.
The Japanese expression for a sweet memory link–to a song, familiar food, place–is Natsukashii. I return to the traditional music of the stringed Koto, the popular song of“Sakura” Cherry Blossom, the colors and textures in silk fabric, in straw, bamboo, the plants; the scent of burning cone incense, sweet waxy red ink of my honko initial stamp, all of the imagery and life that was the Tokyo I knew.
A lush water garden captivates me. A chain of blue iris-filled streams and four wooden arched bridges over beads of glimmering ponds. Green iris leaves spike, and purple flower shades coalesce and merge filling each tiny brook. Dragonflies dart and hover on water lily pads. Ladies with black hair piled and fastened wear silk printed kimono. High geta shoes; gentle sound of wood on wood. Serenity.
Washington Heights–over eight-hundred housing units, office buildings, schools, movie theatre, chapel, base exchange, clubs, and swimming pools–was a sprawling middle class community built in 1946. Courts of quadplex landscaped with Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Yews, and Maples, green lawns for children, and sidewalks lined with cherry trees becomes our home the summer of 1961. A three-acre grove of black oak and pine stretched along a wide slope below our neighborhood. I roamed the mossy ground among big stones, on paths under a domed canopy in dappled light, or in bare winter chiaroscuro. We children carved hearts in bark, and peeled hardened cambium scars to renew old initials and friendships. Cicadas slipped their shells, claws gripped to rough bark. We wore papery skins on our shirts like badges. These trees, a forest fragment, spilled over a high fieldstone wall undulating at the edge of our play space. One-hundred and seventy acres of evergreens surrounding Meiji Shrine and inner garden were planted in 1926 to honor spirits of the Emperor and Empress, last rulers of Tokyo’s Edo period. The wall banked and bordered my sanctuary, my peaceful shrine.
sultry summer day
mantis in a bamboo cage
horned beetle eats jam
I attended fifth and sixth grades at an international girls school several miles from Shibuya-Ku and Washington Heights. Sisters of Notre Dame taught French, English Grammar, Arithmetic, Art and the sacred rule of Silence. We wore navy blue, but for family days, when our traditional garb, art, music and foods were relished. A cathedral-like chapel, medals bestowed for merit, giggles in refectory lunches, field sports, and myriads of smiles, all too brief.
Dad liked to venture outside the gate with us to Shinjuku shopping district. Vivid images, textures, toys entice me. Doll faces fascinated. A ten-year-old’s allowance of a few Yen could buy tiny glass animals, a pair of painted wood peg kokeshi dolls, lucky Daruma dolls, Hakata dolls in folk dress, or eggshell faced Ichimatsu Gofu, boy and girl baby dolls. Mom chose a kimono-clad Geisha doll in a glass case, and a delicate-looking red-flowered paper umbrella, Wagasa, waterproofed with oil, made with bamboo ribs, for spring and early summer rains. We followed mingled fragrances of street food: steamy Yakisoba noodles, tasty fried or grilled dumplings, savory grilled rice crackers, skewered chicken Yakitori.
Slated as the site of 1964 Summer Olympics, Washington Heights was set to be demolished. Dad made ready to move us summer of 1963, so we could be spared the sight of familiar buildings razed. I did my best to adjust to the move to Johnson Air Force Base, Irumagawa, north of western Tokyo, but change always came too quickly.
I missed my grove of trees, and one day I wandered on a shaded path at the rear of our quarters. I found myself at the top edge of a tea paddy, above a vast field of manicured tea bushes. Below to the right was “Ichiban Village,” airman’s housing. Ichiban means number one. I am “number one” daughter, and at twelve, would attend base junior high that fall. I squeezed through a break in the barbed wire fence and picked a handful of aromatic leaves. I breathed fresh air under a wide, blue sky. Ninety miles away, snow-capped Mt. Fujiyama, suspended from soft clouds. On rides through the city of Sayama to another airbase, I’d seen picturesque fields, farmers in peasant garb bending in rows, and Fuji San, getting closer, getting farther away.
In Spring – Sakura
beloved cherry blossoms
sidewalks turning pink
Want to read more by Mary Ellen Gambutti? Read her previous story, I Must Have Wandered.
Cover photo: TWO GEISHA AND THEIR WATER-LOGGED GHOSTS IN THE HORIKIRI IRIS GARDENS of OLD TOKYO, JAPAN, by Okinawa Soba (Rob).