AS THE weeks and the months had drifted by, unconsciously in my mind the present had been linking itself more and more closely with the past; for I had been learning more clearly each day that America was very like Japan. Thus, as time passed, the new surroundings melted into old memories and I began to feel that my life had been almost an unbroken continuation from childhood until now.

Beneath the chimes of the church bells calling: “Do not—forget—to thank—for gifts—you ev—ery day—enjoy,” I could hear the mellow boom of the temple gong: “Protection for all—is offered here—safety is within.”

The children who, with their burden of books, filled the streets with laughter and shouts at 8:30 A.M. made the same picture to me as our crowds of boys in uniform and girls in pleated skirts and shining black hair, who, at 7:30 A.M., clattered along on wooden clogs, carrying their books neatly wrapped in squares of patterned challie.

Valentine’s Day with its lacy scenes of bowing knights and burning hearts, all twined about with ropes of rosebuds, and with sweet thoughts expressed in glowing, endearing words, was our Weaving Festival, when swaying bamboos were decorated with festoons of gay sashes and scarfs, and hung with glittering poem prayers for sunshine, that the herdsman and his weaver wife might meet that day on the misty banks of the Heavenly River which Americans call the Milky Way.

Decoration Day, with its soldiers of two wars, with its patriotic speeches and its graves with tiny flags and scattered blossoms, was our Shokonsha memorial to our soldier dead, when, all day long, hundreds march through the great stone arch to bow with softly clapping hands; then march away to make room for hundreds more.

The Fourth of July with its fluttering flags, with snapping crackers, with beating drums and its whirling, shooting rockets in the sky, was our holiday on which the flag of Japan waved beneath crossed cherry branches in honour of the coming to the throne, twenty-five centuries ago, of our first Emperor—a large bearded man in loose garments, tied at wrist and ankle with twisted vines, and wearing a long, swinging necklace of sickle-shaped gems which is to-day one of the three treasures of the throne.

Hallowe’en, with its grotesque lanterns, its witches and many jokes, was the Harvest Festival of Japan, when pumpkins were skilfully scraped into lovely pictures of shady gardens with lanterns and flowers; when ghost games were played and pumpkins piled at the gate of round-faced maidens; and when orchards of the stingy man were raided and their trophies laid on graves for the poor to find.

Thanksgiving, the home-coming day, with its turkey and pie, and jolly good cheer, was our anniversary when married sons and daughters with their children gathered for a feast of red rice and whole fish, gossiping happily while they ate, with the shrine doors open wide and the spirits of kindly ancestors watching over all.

Christmas, with its gay streets and merry, hurrying, bundle-laden crowds, with its sparkling tree and many gifts, with its holy memories of a shining star and a Mother with her Babe, was something like our seven days of New Year rejoicing, but with a difference—the difference between the soft organ tones of an old melody and the careless, lilting song of a happy child.

At New Year’s time, above every doorway in our crowded streets was stretched a rope of ragged rice-straw with pine trees growing on either side, and the air resounded with children’s laughter and the tinkle of tiny hidden bells in running shoes; with the gay tap-tap of flying shuttlecocks and the cheerful greetings of bowing friends. In every home were thick rounded cakes of mochi; every babe had another birthday, every maiden had a new sash, and poetry cards were played by boys and girls together. Oh, it was gay in Japan at New Year’s time! There was no thought of solemnity anywhere, for the chrysalis of the past was broken, the butterfly had burst forth, and the world had begun again.

My first Christmas Day in America was a disappointment. We were all invited by a lady friend to attend Christmas services and afterward to go home with her to dinner and to see her tree. She had children, and I had pictured the scene as being gay, pretty, and pleasant, but with an undercurrent of dignity and reverence. I had idealized too much the wide influence of the symbolism of the day; and everything seemed such a strange combination of the spiritual and the material that I was lost. The star on the tree and the thought of unselfish giving were beautiful, but little was said of either—except in church; and just beneath the star were festoons of pop corn and cranberries—things we eat. Indeed, except for the gaiety of giving and receiving gifts, most things especially belonging to the day seemed to be only the serving of certain kinds of food and the very inartistic and peculiar custom of hanging in a prominent place the garments of the lowest part of the body for the purpose of holding gifts of toys and jewellery—even candy and fruit. That was a custom difficult for a Japanese to understand.

That evening, Mother and I went over to call on Miss Helen. And there, in her big quiet parlour, spreading over a large snowy cloth on the floor, stood her tree—large and pine-scented, sparkling with lights and coloured, swinging ornaments. It was wonderful! The tree, though so big and beautiful, reminded me, as an American skyscraper may remind one of a tiny temple pagoda, of the fairy-like branch of our Cocoon Festival from which swing and float, swaying with the lightest breath, myriads of fairy-like, sugar-blown replicas of every delicate symbol of the day. Miss Helen’s father and mother were there, and we talked of the holidays of America and of Japan. Then a little niece and a neighbour’s child sang Christmas carols, and my heart was full of joy, for I felt that my ideal Christmas had really come.

The morning after Christmas we had our first snow—a flying mist of dry, feathery flakes that was no more like the heavy fall of Echigo’s damp, solid clots than fluffy silk-floss is like weighty cotton-batting. All day long it fell, growing thicker toward nightfall, and when we wakened the next morning the world was white.

Just at the curve where our driveway turned into the broad public road stood the coachman’s cottage. He had three children and they asked Mother if they might make a snow man on our back lawn. Mother gave her consent, and then the most interesting things happened! The children rolled a big ball, then piled on it another, and on the top of that, a small one. Then with much pushing and patting of red-mittened hands, they formed rude features and, with shiny bits of hard coal, gave the image a pair of bright eyes and a row of buttons down the front. An old hat of their father’s and a pipe from somewhere completed their work, and there stood a clumsy, shapeless image that reminded me of Daruma Sama—the Indian saint whose devotion cost him his feet.

I had never expected to see a Buddhist saint in America, but I greeted the likeness with merriment and entertained the children by telling them the story of the cheerful rice-pounder who threw away his pestle to become the founder of a new religion; and who asked that his image be not honoured with reverential bows, but be made into amusing toys that children’s hands would use and children’s hearts enjoy. Later on I saw a Damura Sama at other places than on our snowy lawn. To my surprise, the little squatting figure muffled in a scarlet cloak seemed to be a familiar object, but no one knew his story or his name. All my life I had been accustomed to sees Daruma Sama in the shape of every toy that can be made for careless baby fingers; but I was really shocked one evening at a card party to find the little red, rolling figure used as a booby prize.

“It is such an odd selection for a card-game prize,” I said to Matsuo. “Why should a Daruma Sama be chosen?”

“Not odd at all,” replied Matsuo. “Very appropriate. A man so well balanced that, however he may fall, the next moment he is again right side up, makes an excellent booby prize. It means, ‘Down only for a moment.’ Don’t you see?”

In Japan we always treat a Daruma Sama rather disrespectfully, but it is a kind of affectionate disrespect; and my sensations, as I walked home with Matsuo from the party, were rather mixed. Finally, just as I reached the iron gate, I drew in a long breath, and with a ridiculous feeling of loyalty and protection tugging at my heart, I surprised Matsuo by saying, “I wish that either you or I had won the booby prize!”

It was an unusual thing for snow to remain on the ground longer than a few days, but Mother laughingly declared that the American gods of the weather had evidently planned a special season in order to keep me from being homesick. At any rate, more snow fell and still more, and we began to see sleighs go by—light, carriage-like vehicles, filled with laughing ladies in furs and with gay scarfs floating behind them as they flew by. It was like a scene from the theatre. How different from the deep snows of Echigo, over which snow-booted men pulled heavy sledges—built for work, not fun—chanting, as they pulled, a steady, rhythmic “En yara-ya! En yara-ya!” I missed the purity of Echigo’s clear skies and snowy mountain-sides, for it was only a few days until the coal-tainted air had stolen the fresh whiteness from our snow, but the happiness of the children was not spoiled. Daruma Samas stood on every lawn, and the streets were filled with boys throwing snowballs. One day from my window I saw a lively snow-fight in which a group of besiegers pressed hard a heroic few, bravely dodging behind two barrels and a board with snow piled beneath. When the besiegers called a truce and ran around the corner for reinforcements, I pushed up my window and clapped as hard as I could.

The boys had a good time, but as I watched their soiled tracks in the snow and the smoky colour of the balls, my mind went to Ishi’s stories of the snow-battles held in the courtyard of the old mansion at Nagaoka during the first years of Mother’s life there. In those days life in the daimio households of even small castle towns was based on the customs of the lords and ladies in the court of the shogun, and, in a less degree, it was as luxurious and as frivolous.

Occasionally, when the winter season was late, the first snows that fell were light and dry. On the morning after such a snow had fallen, when the air was full of the cool sunshine of Echigo, and the ground white and sparkling, the men would lay aside their swords, and with their pleated skirts gracefully caught up at the sides, run out into the big open court. Soon they would be joined by the women, their gay trains looped over their scarlet skirts and their long, bright sleeves held back with gay cords. No one wore wooden shoes or even sandals, for that would mar the purity of the snow, but with only the white foot-mitten on the feet, with bare heads and tinkling hairpins, all joined in the battle of snowballs. There was running, with laughter, and merriment, and the air filled with flying and breaking balls through which could be seen the tossing of bright sleeves and dodging black heads powdered with snow. Our old servants often told me of those gay scenes, and Baya, the oldest of them all, would solemnly shake her head from side to side and sigh over the fact that Etsu-bo’s enjoyment must consist only of climbing the snow hills piled in the street, and of racing with Sister on snow-shoes as we went to and from school.

The children of my American neighbours had no snow shoe races, but there was great excitement over coasting. Ours was a hilly suburb and almost every lawn had at least one curving slope; but the snow was thin and no one wanted the grass worn off or beaten down. Of course the sidewalks were cleaned and the streets were forbidden. The older boys had discovered a few long slopes and monopolized them, but the smaller children could only stand around and watch, unless some big brother or kind friend would occasionally take pity and give a ride.

One day I saw a group of four or five little girls with two red sleds standing by our iron gates and looking wistfully up at the long slope of our side lawn.

“It would ruin the appearance of the whole place for them to be allowed to make a brown track there,” I said to Mother.

“It is not the appearance, Etsu,” Mother replied. “Probably all the track those little folks would make would not kill the grass; but it is too dangerous. They would have to bump over two gravel paths and end abruptly at the top of the stone wall. The battlements are not high, and the sleds might leap over on to the outside walk, four feet below. I should be afraid to risk it.”

That afternoon as Mother and I were walking to a meeting of the Ladies’ Club we passed the home of Doctor Miller. His lawn was small but it was one of the prettiest and best kept in our neighbourhood. The hill began at the roadway and swept in a straight, rather steep slope ending in a level stretch. At least a dozen children were gathered there, among them the forlorn little group with the two red sleds that I had seen in the morning. A long, smooth track had already been worn on which every moment a sled went down laden with a squealing, shrieking mass of hunched-up little figures. And on an uphill path beside the track a line of rosy-cheeked, rosy-nosed, panting coasters were pulling their sleds and shouting—not for any reason at all, except that they were having the best time of any coasters in the world.

Day after day, as long as the snow lasted, that hill was reserved for the little folks, and every child that went gliding down the smooth slide, and every one that came struggling up the broken path, had laughter in the eyes, happiness in the heart, and, hidden somewhere within, a growing germ of unselfishness, kindness, and godliness that had been planted there by the kind act of a man who could see from the viewpoint of a child.

It was like my father to have done that kind deed. Afterward I never saw Doctor Miller, even to pass him on the street, that I did not look to see if behind his fine, grave, intellectual face I could not see the heart of my father. I have not seen it, but I know it is there, and that some day, on the other side of the Sandzu River, those two beautiful souls will be friends.

January brought to Matsuo and me a quiet celebration of our own. For weeks before, the letters from Japan had been coming more frequently, and occasionally the postman would hand in a package wrapped in oil-paper and sealed with the oval stamp of Uncle Otani’s house, or the big square one of Inagaki.

One of these packages contained a thin sash of soft white cotton, each end of which had been dipped in rouge, and also two emblems of congratulation—baby storks of rice-dough, one white and one red.

These were Mother’s gifts for the “Five-month ceremony,” a special celebration observed by expectant parents on that date. My thoughtful, loving, far-away mother! The tears came to my eyes as I explained it all to my dear American mother, who in sweet under standing of the sacred ceremony asked how to prepare everything according to Japanese custom.

At this celebration, besides the husband and wife, only women members of the two families are present. The young father-to-be sits beside his wife and the sash is passed through the sleeves of his garment from left to right. Then it is properly adjusted around the wife. From then on, she is called “a lady of retirement,” and her food, exercise, amusements, and reading are all of a character called “education for the Coming.” The gay, light balls of many-coloured silk thread which are seen in American shops belong to this time.

In the package with the sash was a charm-card from my good Ishi. To obtain it she had made a pilgrimage of two days to the temple of Kishibo-jin—“Demon of the Mother-heart”—believing sincerely that the bit of paper with its mysterious symbols would protect me from every evil.

According to an ancient legend there lived in the time of the Buddha a mother of many children, who was so poor that she could not obtain food for them, and in helpless misery saw them starving. At last her agony became so great that it changed her loving mother heart into that of a demon. Every night she roamed the country stealing little babes, so that, in some uncanny way belonging to demon lore, their nourishment might be transferred to her own children. Her name became a horror to the world. The wise Buddha, knowing that however many children a woman may have she always loves the youngest with special tenderness, took her babe and hid it in his begging bowl. Hearing the child’s voice, but not being able to trace it, the mother was wild with distress and grief.

“Listen,” said the merciful Buddha, restoring the infant to her arms: “You have a thousand children, while most women have but ten; yet you mourn bitterly for the loss of one. Think of other aching hearts with the sympathy you feel for your own.”

The mother, thankfully clasping the babe to her breast, saw within the tiny arms a pomegranate, and recognized it as the miracle-fruit whose never-withering freshness can nourish the world. Remorse and gratitude healed her heart, and she vowed to become for ever a loving guardian to little children. This is why in all Kishibo temples the goddess of the altar is a demon-faced woman surrounded by children and standing in the midst of draperies and decorations of pomegranate.

These recollections flooded my mind as I sat stitching on dainty, wee garments into every one of which I breathed a prayer that my baby might be a boy. I wanted a son, not only because every Japanese family believes it most desirable that the name should be carried on without adoption, but also for the selfish reason that both Matsuo’s family and my own would look upon me with more pride were I the mother of a son. Neither Matsuo nor I had, to any great extent, the feeling that woman is inferior to man, which has been so common a belief among all classes in Japan; but law and custom being what they were, it was such a serious inconvenience—yes, calamity—to have no son, that congratulations always fell more readily from the lips when the first-born was a boy.

Little girls were always welcome in Japanese homes. Indeed, it was a great sorrow to have all sons and no daughter—a calamity second only to having all daughters and no son.

The laws of our family system were planned in consideration for customs which themselves were based on ancient beliefs, all of which were wise and good—for their time. But as the world moves on, and the ages overlap each other, there come intervals when we climb haltingly; and this means martyrdom to the advanced. Nevertheless, perhaps it is wiser and kinder to the puzzled many for the advanced few to accommodate themselves somewhat to fading beliefs, instead of opposing them too bitterly, unless it should be a matter of principle, for we are climbing; slowly, but—climbing. Nature does not hasten, and Japanese are Nature’s pupils.

Mother had a magic touch with flowers, and when spring came the crimson rambler that formed a heavy brocade curtain on one side of our veranda was thick with tiny buds. One morning I had gone to the door to see Matsuo off, and was wondering how soon the tiny roses would bloom, when I was joined by Mother.

“There are hundreds of buds here,” I said. “This will be a bower of rich beauty some day. How much joy we Japanese miss because of superstition! Roses do not look beautiful to us because they have harmful thorns.”

“And how much joy you have because of traditions,” said Mother, smiling. “In the poem you taught me last night,

The sacred lotus that bravely lifts its snowy head in purity and beauty,
Although its roots are buried in earthly mire,
Holds a lesson of pride and inspiration.

“Have you another blossom that is ‘a teacher’?”

“And the modest plum,” I answered quickly, “that blossoms on snow-laden branches, is a bridal flower, because it teaches courage and endurance.”

“And how about the cherry?” asked Mother.

“Oh, that has an important meaning,” I quickly replied.

The quick-falling cherry, that lives but a day
And dies with destiny unfulfilled,
Is the brave spirit of samurai youth,
Always ready, his fresh young strength
To offer to his lord.”

“Bravo!” Mother cried, clapping her hands. “This is a real, albeit a second-rate, poetry contest that you and I are having. Do you know any more flower poems?”

“Oh, yes-Morning glories!” And I rapidly recited in Japanese:

In the dewy freshness of the morning, they smile respectful greetings to the goddess of the Sun.”

Oh, Mother, this is just like Japan—the way you and I are doing now! Japanese people often gather—a group of friends—and write poems. They meet at a Flower Viewing festival and hang poems on the flowery branches; or at a moon-gazing party where they sit in the light of the moon and make poems. There is one place where the moonlight falls on a plain of ricefields and from the mountain-side the silvery reflection can be seen in every separate field. It is wonderful! And then everybody goes home feeling quiet and peaceful—and with new thoughts.”

“Ah!” exclaimed Mother, starting quickly toward the door, adding, as she looked back over her shoulder, “Our poetry contest has given me a new thought!” And she disappeared within the house.

Our conversation had reminded her of a package of morning-glory seeds that a friend had sent when she learned that a Japanese lady was living with her.

“I had almost forgotten about them,” said Mother, returning with a trowel in her hand. “These were gathered from the vines which my friend had grown from seeds that came from Japan. She says the blossoms are wonderful—four and five inches across. Where shall we plant them? We must choose some appropriate spot for the little grandseeds of a Japanese ancestor.”

“I know exactly the place!” I cried, delighted, and leading Mother to our old-fashioned well I told her the legend of the maiden who went to a well to draw water and, finding a morning-glory tendril twined about the handle of the bucket, went away rather than break the tender vine.

Mother was pleased, and she planted the seeds around the well curb while I softly hummed, over and over, the old poem:

The morning-glory tendril has chained my heart.
Let it be:
I’ll beg water of my neighbour.”

We watched the vines eagerly as they reached out strong arms and climbed steadily upward. Mother often said, “The coming of the blossoms and of the baby will not be far apart.”

One morning I saw from my window Mother and Clara standing by the well. They were looking at the vines and talking excitedly. I hurried downstairs and across the lawn. The blossoms were open, but were pale, half sized weaklings—not resembling at all the royal blossoms we treasure so dearly in Japan. Then I remembered having read that Japanese flowers do not like other lands and, after the first year, gradually fade away. With a superstitious clutch at my heart, I thought of my selfish prayer for a son and vowed to be gratefully content with either boy or girl if only the little one bore no pitiful trace of the transplanting.

And then the baby came—well and sweet and strong—upholding in her perfect babyhood the traditions of both America and Japan. I forgot that I had ever wanted a son, and Matsuo, after his first glimpse of his little daughter, remembered that he had always liked girls better than boys.

Whether the paper charm of Kishibo-jin was of value or not, my good Ishi’s loving thought for me was a boon to my heart during those first weeks when I so longed for her wisdom and her love. And yet it was well that she was not with me, for she could never have fitted into our American life. The gentle, time-taking ways of a Japanese nurse crooning to a little bundle of crêpe and brocade swinging in its silken hammock on her back would never have done for my active baby, who so soon learned to crow with delight and clutch disrespectfully at her father’s head as he tossed her aloft in his strong arms.

We decided to bring the baby up with all the healthful freedom given to an American child, but we wanted her to have a Japanese name.

The meaning of Matsuo’s name was “pine”—he emblem of strength; mine was “ricefield”—the emblem of usefulness. “Therefore,” said Matsuo, “the baby is already a combination of strength and usefulness, but she must have beauty also. So let us give her the name of our kind American mother, which, translated, means ‘flower.’ ”

“And if we use the old-fashioned termination,” I cried with delight, “it will mean ‘foreign fields’ or ‘strange land.’ ”

“Hanano—Flower in a Strange Land!” cried Matsuo, clapping his hands. “Nothing could be better.”

Mother consented, and thus it was decided.


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Women's Autobiography Copyright © by dixonk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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