Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Love and Laundry

Soon after my mother moved to Portland from Florida to live with my family, she decided to make the trip to Osaka to say goodbye to relatives, including her firstborn daughter.  Yes, I have an older sister, a half sister. It’s a long story.

It was 1954, not too long after World War II. When Japan surrendered, Okinawa became a U.S. possession as well as a strategic location for military bases. The federal government recruited heavily from the United States. My dad signed up to find adventure and get away from Pennsylvania. Boarding a ship in California, he sailed across the Pacific Ocean and got a job with the Marine Corps as a civilian. He was 36, single and, as he told me later, frustrated in his efforts to find a wife.

So he found one in Okinawa. My dad and mom fell in love and got married in September, 1956. Then I was born. Two months later.

 So what happened between the boat and the birth? A unique courtship. You see, my mother is a deaf-mute and she was never educated. She can’t read or write.

One of my aunts had her own romantic version of their courtship which she loved telling whenever I saw her. For many years I thought it was true. In the story my aunt tells, my dad frequented a bar which was owned by my mother’s brother. My dad saw her and it was love at first sight. But he didn’t know my mom was a deaf-mute for many months, thinking she was quiet because of her Japanese culture. According to my aunt, someone finally clued him in after he kept getting the silent treatment in his attempts to have a conversation with her. Since her brother liked my dad, he encouraged the courtship and eventual marriage.

I found out a long time ago that the story was half true – my dad had known my mom was deaf from the beginning.  But guess what, I just found out today the whole story was made up. He did not meet her in a bar. He met my mom when she offered to do his laundry! The story suddenly went from “seedy” to “spotless”! Except for the timing of my birth.

You can imagine it was a challenge for my father to develop a relationship with a beautiful Japanese woman, who was 14 years younger and could not hear him, talk to him or understand any language. He couldn’t even use a Japanese/English dictionary. So he ended up creating his own sign language to use with her. That’s the language I still use today. It’s called “charades.”

But it was also a challenge for my mom to consider marriage. When my dad met her she was already a mother and an abandoned wife. My mom had made the difficult decision to move to Okinawa after the war in order to find work. Without a husband her desperation for a means of support meant leaving her daughter behind to be raised by her own mother, my grandmother.

When I was born, my grandmother brought my half sister, Natsuko, to Okinawa so she could be reunited with her mother. The hope was that my dad would help raise her. Apparently it didn’t go as planned. She was only 5 years old, but she had already learned how to get her own way. Natsuko did not want to go back to her mother. She put up enough of a fuss that my mom and grandmother decided Natsuko would go back home for a few more years until she was older and able to discern her circumstances.

When Natsuko was 12, she returned to our home in Okinawa. I was seven at the time. The plan was for her to stay for a while and transition into our family. But it didn’t work out. After almost 3 years, she was still unhappy, she did not adjust to the Okinawan schools, and she resisted my dad’s attempt to be a father. He was a disciplinarian (not harsh, but consistent) and she hated it. Unfortunately, Natsuko was also old enough to determine that her life was better with her grandmother who more easily capitulated to her demands. Natsuko went back and my mom never mothered her again.

I often think about the decisions people make and the impact they have in the lives of people who intersect because of those decisions.

In this story, here was a woman, a deaf-mute in pre-war Japan where there wasn’t any health care or education available to her. Her life was turned upside down when her husband left her with a newborn daughter that she knew she could not raise by herself. She decided to board a boat with a friend to find work on an island far from her home and her baby, hoping to make enough money to return home someday. That day never came.

Instead she found love. And it took the form of a white man from America, an enemy country that had just defeated her own. This man wanted children very badly but she didn’t. So he struck a deal with her: You have the babies; I’ll raise them.

The decision to bear his children was not easy. Would he abandon her like her first husband? How could she care for a baby and then a second daughter two years later? She wouldn’t hear their cries. She wouldn’t hear them when they woke up from their naps or in the middle of the night. She wouldn’t hear them if they asked for food or a drink of juice. 

To bring children into her home meant she would be confronted with her helplessness again. Daily. She was totally dependent on my dad during the night and house maids during the day while he worked. But as the two girls grew older, the maids came less frequently. The girls learned early to take care of themselves and take initiative. They were raised to be strong spirited and independent because their own journeys would take them far from home. The decision to leave was inevitable.

They were married for 37 years before my dad passed away. He loved her til the end. 

My dad chose to travel 8,000 miles to a small island. My mom chose to travel 190 miles to the same island. They met over laundry.  

And here I am.


  1. Wonderful unlikely love story ordained by God!

  2. Your dad looks so much like David.

    1. Wow! You're right! He does in this picture! Also, my mother said my granddaughter, Emma, looks like me when I was a baby. The picture of me and my dad seems to verify this.

  3. Thank you for sharing, Harriet.

  4. Harriet, I was so moved by your story! I didn't know any of this in high school. Truly an amazing love story :)

    1. Hi, Gail - Thanks! I didn't even know the story either in high school. I want to sit down with my mom and have her tell me more stories as best she can. Hopefully I will be able to understand. So, more to follow!