Monday, December 02, 2013


That's her. That's my mom. She gave birth to those three men. Tuesday would have been her 86th birthday.

She had just turned 14 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. She was not quite 18 when she looked out the windows of her family home in Sapporo and saw, for the first time in her life, humans with blue eyes.

She was in her late 20s when she decided to marry an American and move to the United States. My father's relatives had trouble wrapping their tongues around her given first name, Akiko, so they started calling her Jo Ann, after the actress Joanne Woodward.

That's what most everyone called her for the rest of her life. Jo, for short. She was every bit as forceful as the punchy sound of her nickname, a presence magnified by the fact that she was 4'-11" on a good day.

She worked her entire life. Assembly-line jobs, mostly. She spent her last 20 years in a hospital kitchen. She went to culinary school before she came to America, and many of my fondest memories are set in the kitchen of our house on East 63rd Street in Los Angeles, watching her cook several meals at once so they would be ready to reheat during the week, when she worked a night shift at the Modern Faucet factory and my father was in charge of feeding three boys. She made a curry rice dish that killed; the dice on the carrots was eighth-inch and marvelously uniform, like it was cut by a machine. Everything I know about cooking I learned from my mother.

She was smart and canny. She had an attuned sense for trouble but never freaked out about it. Writing that just now made me realize: I never saw my mother freak out. I remember being a kid and seeing her quietly crying, the phone in her hand, as she got news that her sister had been killed in a plane crash. But there was no wailing, none of the sharp sounds usually created by sudden calamity. When her oldest son, then an MP, was shot in Pennsylvania, she took the news standing and didn't flinch. She did stoic better than anyone.

She didn't have time for fools and their foolishness. When she trained people in the kitchen, she told them once, and maybe twice. But she wasn't going to waste much of her time with people who didn't pay attention. She expected people to do their hardest and best. I got that from her, too.

often wondered what life would have been like if she had been born a boy. She was savvy. She could have done much more as a man in Japan. Had she been a son she might have moved more of the world. As it was, she stamped plenty of people with her personality. There are grandchildren and great-grandchildren out there with her eyes and gaze and mindset.

The older she got the warmer she grew. There's a photo of her in her late 70s, dancing next to an illuminated Santa statue on my brother's front porch. He was about as tall as she was. She gave off more light.


Lisa Davis said...

She was an incredible woman & my children are so blessed to have her blood running thru their veins. She touched our lives by the example she lived of kindness & steadfastness. She loved me, even after . . . I will miss her always!

Frank and Natalie said...

I loved reading this, Ron. She is simply beautiful. She did a great job at raising a very smart and a very complex man. I mean that in the nicest way possible, of course. Miss you, friend.