My Sister and My Mother

Back when my ex-husband was flying 747’s for Evergreen International, I read an article about owner Delford Smith, and was moved by what he said about his sons growing up in an affluent family. I can’t remember the exact quote, but it was something akin to: “My kids didn’t have the advantage of growing up with disadvantages I had as a child.” That really hit home for me, and I often think about how lucky I am to have had such a “different”, at times very difficult, childhood.

Dancing with my big sister Janet, OkinawaThe first eight years of my life in Okinawa were pretty idyllic. Living on a tropical island, even though we were in close proximity to the Vietnam War, was simple and carefree. My older sister Janet and I both went to American schools, because our dad was an American citizen working for the U.S. Navy.

Since both our parents worked nights (our mother ran successful “Hostess” clubs), there were many evenings where I was in Janet’s care. I can’t imagine leaving a 7 and 10-year-old alone night after night, but that’s just the way it was back then. Luckily, we spent many afternoons with our oba-chan (grandma) watching her make tofu (which she sold at market) and caring for her pigs (which we ate).

Our Parents, Okinawa (early 60's)I don’t have many memories of my mom being a “mother”, but I’m so grateful that I had oba-chan and my sister. If it wasn’t for oba-chan’s nuturing and love, I think both Janet and I would have turned out much differently. During World War II, she adopted our mother, along with many other war orphans on the island. Our oba-chan was just a phenomenal woman.

The shock of divorce is never easy on children. Break-ups are rough, but when my father got custody of myself and Janet, we were suddenly on an airplane (just us little girls) flying across the Pacific to live with our grandparents in America.

My Sister JanetWe didn’t want to leave Okinawa, but looking back, our father made the best decision he could have made at the time. Okinawa had been under U.S. possession since 1951, but reverted back to Japanese control in 1972, the year our parents were divorcing. Our dad was simply afraid that he would have no rights as the American parent in a foreign land.

Janet and I settled in San Marino, California with elderly grandparents who tried to “Americanize” us immediately. We had visited them before when we were younger with our mother, but those were only quick trips. Our dear grandfather tried to make us more comfortable by treating us to Chinese food once in awhile (heck, he tried… it was “Asian”), but our grandmother did not NOT like the “Okinawan” part of us at all. Let’s just say that she and I never became close.

Scotland Visit 1980After our parents divorced, our father was transferred to Scotland (his mother was from the Maxwell Clan), where he re-married and still lives today. As you can imagine, we had some rough patches during the past 30+ years, but as adults we moved past the blame and the pain. “Life’s too short”, is something we say over and over again.

Now, I absolutely adore my dad, step-mother and younger brother Greg, and will be visiting them again in Scotland this summer. But as a young girl I had some major “daddy issues” that I couldn’t even admit to until a few years ago. Janet, who was older (and wise beyond her years), fared much better.

My Sister JanetOur first year in America was rather turbulent, but mostly just confusing. Even though our grandparents (who became our legal guardians) did the best they could, they eventually placed us in a children’s home nearby. Janet and I always felt like the “lucky ones” though, because at least we got to spend every holiday with our grandparents, away from the “home”. We both lived there until graduating from high school. Janet “served” (as we joked) seven years and I struggled through ten. Looking back, it really wasn’t THAT BAD. We had a roof over our heads and plenty of food.

With my Oba-chan, MyLastBite.comMy relationship with my mother is very complicated. I’ve travelled to stay with her several times over the years, and although the visits were exciting, they definitely lacked any real warmth. I’m sure the disconnect is there because she never “mothered” me as a child. She was busy working, and helping to put food on the table, so I don’t blame her for that. The truth is, after we moved to America the only person “mothering” me was my sister. When my beloved oba-chan died, I didn’t feel the need to visit Okinawa on a regular basis anymore. I didn’t need to, because my sister was then, and is now, my mother.

When I look back at family photos of the two of us, the most notable thing I see is that my big sister is always looking out for me… literally. Of course back then, I was the baby sister, but even as adults she still wraps me tightly in her arms. Janet was always determined to take care of me, and as a kid I was just as determined to escape her big-sister clutches. Thankfully, she never gave up on me, because I was NOT an easy kid, teenager or even young adult.

With my big sister Janet, MyLastBite.comI had planned on writing this last year before Janet’s birthday in July. Then again for Thanksgiving when we celebrate a family feast at her house. Christmas would have been a perfect time to share her awesome “Christmas Chili” recipe, and March 18th is the anniversary of our move to America, but that came and went as well.

Through all these years, the only consistently good thing I have had in my life is Janet, and I’m so grateful we had the “advantage of sharing so many disadvantages” together. It’s taken a lot of tears to get these words on paper (plus a wee bit of courage), and there’s no way I could have conveyed how much my sister means to me, without sharing a bit of our story.

Happy Mother’s Day, Janet. I know it’s early, but thank you for always being my wonderful sister, and my mother.

(Originally posted 4/12/10)

My Sister Janet

My Sister Janet
Janet & her husband Paul and oldest son Camron

My Sister Janet
Janet with her kids Cody, and twins, Kindal & Chace

My Sister Janet
Janet (at right) always the “mother”. And yes that’s me with the two bottles!

A yearly, family tradition is to gather on Christmas day at Janet’s house for her awesome chili. The recipe:

Janet's 4- 15oz. cans of White beans
2-15oz cans of Black beans/drained
4-6 cups of cooked chicken breast diced
4 onions minced
2-4 cloves of garlic minced
4 cups of broth
2 cups of white wine
1 small can of jalapenos
1 –7oz. can of diced green chiles
2 Tablespoon Oil
Juice of 3 freshly squeezed limes
½ – ¾ cups of chopped fresh cilantro
2 tsp. Oregano
1 tsp. Cumin

Sautee the garlic and onions in the oil

Combine all the ingredients **except the wine, cilantro and limejuice into large pot or crock-pot, simmer not boil.

Add the wine, cilantro and lime juice before serving.

Janet’s Notes:
These amounts are basic…I add more garlic for my family!
The chili is thicker and tastier the next day, so make plenty!

My Sister Janet

More photos of Janet

Mentioned above:

Visits to Scotland

History of Okinawa

Okinawa Military History

My ex-husband Perry




Filed under Family Stories, Recipes

89 responses to “My Sister and My Mother

  1. Robert G.

    What a great story. I had only heard bits and pieces of it but this put it all in order. You and Janet are lucky to have each other!

  2. My husband just looked over at me and asked me what was wrong. Your amazing story made me cry!

  3. Fascinating! I love the personal stories that aren’t about the everyday hangnail or bloatedness (although we all experience it).

    It’s something to say that many of us Asians have a more immediate reference to upheaval in our lives from war and culture differences than many. We move past it, but there’s always that element lurking there somewhere.

    So glad you have amazing sister Janet to be level-headed and help raise you! Family — wherever you find them — are amazing.

    I was born in Tokyo myself!~

  4. Wow, beautiful sharing of family & positive spirit!

  5. You and Janet are so lucky to have one another as is exampled in this very touching story. I too have heard bits and pieces so it’s nice to see it all here, to be able to fill in some gaps. And what a story it is! Your experiences have obviously made you stronger despite how difficult they were. Thanks for sharing this. xo

  6. Having missed the last half hour of yesterday’s Master’s finale, I’ve just finished watching it on my DVR. With the tears of Phil Mickelson’s justifiable joy streaming down my face, having dedicated his weekend of hard work to his wife currently battling breast cancer, I read this heartfelt post. And I can’t say I can turn off the waterworks at the moment, and I’m not sure I really want to.

    What an incredibly deep, intelligent, and personal piece this was. This goes beyond food blogging, Jo. This is soul blogging. It’s quite apparent that you have a series of real stories to tell, and I feel blessed to be able to read them as they trickle from your fingers, piece by piece.

    Thanks for sharing your storied history with us. You are incredibly fortunate to have a sister like Janet, and she’s been graced with the same. You define “family”.

    • Oh Phil, you so nailed it… SOUL BLOGGING. I held so much back at first, then wrote it ALL out, then cut it back again before posting. Feels good, but definitely exhausting. THANK YOU. x

  7. Kat

    Wow! Should have come with a Kleenex warning. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It was so well written and what a great tribute to Janet. Big hugs and love to you both.

  8. Janet

    I just (tearfully) finished reading this…thank you so much for such a wonderful Mother’s Day gift, a gift of great memories of our “journey” together. There were so many moments in our lives that I haven’t thought about in many, many years that you brought back to me this evening. Throughout the years, experiences and circumstances, I thank God that we were always together (even though I know I drove you crazy at times:)! I love you very much and I’m so proud of my little sister in many ways…I’m honored to be your big sister!! Thank you again.

  9. Absolute perfection.

    I’m so proud of you for sharing this and have always loved and admired the bond between you and Janet. I love that you look at the “advantage of sharing all of the disadvantages”. Poetic perfection.


  10. Julie Wolfson

    Wow Jo- that was beautiful.

  11. It’s a beautiful story, you and your sister share an amazing bond. Thank you for sharing, Jo.

    PS. I like how she adds more garlic for her family 🙂

  12. Jo – this is a lovely story. Maybe it’ll encourage me to write more, not just about food, but about my life. Growing up as the “extra” kid in my dad’s life was hard, but going from Japan to the US seems even harder. Having met Janet, I feel so much more, in terms of this story.

    Thank you for sharing this. Those sister-folk are amazing.

    • It’s all relative, don’t you think? Pain is pain, no matter who’s feeling it. I must say, it sure feels good to get all the history down on paper. Thanks for reading. x

  13. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself. I’m teary eyed. You and your sister are so lucky to have each other. I too wish your sis a big happy birthday. – mary

  14. Wonderful story, Jo. Thank you so much for sharing a huge part of yourself, your history and your heart. 🙂 I see a lot of you in Camron.

  15. …so proud. I feel so lucky to be with someone with so much strength. She makes me be a better me everyday.

  16. This is an incredible writing, Jo. And because of my deep love for you and Janet, it touched my heart and made me have many tears!
    I congratulate you on getting it done!

    Janet will always be an awesome sister, fantastic mother, wonderful wife, great teacher and an extra ordinary friend.

    Love you both bunches, and so thankful for having you both in my life!

  17. Jo, thank you for sharing this moving and loving story. I’m so happy you and your sister have each other in life. Your challenges have created an obviously loving and truly authentic person. I’m thankful to read about you.

  18. tamara

    Oh Jo, this is so Moving (I have tears, too!) and
    Heart wrenching (I wish my mother could have adopted you both!)

    I love how you captured all these emotions & then sprinkled it with thankfulness, pureness & joy.
    Bravo, Bravo!

    ps. i really want to meet your sister….
    She is the Rock Star!!!

  19. Caroline

    A lot of heart (and guts, too) went to this touching post. I’m glad to have read it and come to learn more about you and your family.
    One thing is for sure: you do not need a *special day* to celebrate someone special in your life.
    P.S. I’m gonna give my sleeping boys another goodnight kiss right now (and tomorrow, give my big sis a call).

  20. Your story is so poignant and powerful at the same time. It’s nice that there is a good ending with the happy and beautiful families you two created.
    P.S. Photo with 2 bottles made laugh – was that your ‘foodie’ beginning?

  21. What a touching, beautiful post.

  22. Dennis

    Jo: You should be writing a book; a memoir of your life up until now. It wouldn’t necessarily focus on food, although that would certainly be a part of it. But you have so many rich and different experiences; plus (I imagine) many more chapters and stories to share.

    • Hi Dennis,
      That’s actually the reason I started MyLastBite, so I could work on writing through blogging about my experiences. I feel pretty lucky that I grew up with so much food culture: Okinawa, Japan, Scotland, and good old U.S.A.

      Thanks so much for your kind and VERY inspiring words.

      Cheers! Jo

  23. Christina

    This is such a beautiful, touching tribute. Thanks for sharing a bit of your story.

  24. Like your father, my cousin was stationed in Okinawa during the Vietnam War and married a local woman. Over the years they and their children moved back and forth between Asia and the US a number of times, so I had the pleasure of getting to know her. I think one of those “A-ha!” moments I experienced that nudged me toward food exploration was discovering that Kiku kept garlic salt in the salt shaker. The meals she fixed were certainly the only exotic foods I had during my growing up years on a Tennessee farm. I’d forgotten about that until reading your story now.

    Thank you so much for sharing it, Jo!

    Cheers! Carol

  25. Jennee

    Oh Jo… I just read this and it was just too amazing for words. Janet is such an incredible woman, I feel SO privileged to know her and have her in my life-and you both are so lucky to have each other. She is just as lucky to have you:) Makes me wish I had a sister to share life with.

    Simply beautiful writing. xoxo Jennee

  26. I’ve been saving this post for when I had time to really savor it.

    Thank you for sharing your history, Jo. Your words and life are beautiful.

  27. What a lovely story. I love hearing stories as these.. it definitely gives strength to others going through difficult times.
    Thank you for sharing!

  28. Jo,

    A new friend forwarded your blog to me a couple of months ago after I’d told her I was trying to eat EVERYTHING on Jitlada’s menu and then develop an iPhone app detailing my progress. My discovery of your blog and similar intentions initially shocked me (how could there be anyone else who shared my feelings? And, Bazaar too!). My productivity over these last 2 months has really took a beating as I obsessively devour each new post (and tweet). Your blog has the perfect mix of foodie and personal “ingredients,” making it one of my favorite blogs ever! I hope you don’t mind, but I not only want to put you in my blogroll, I want to write about it.

    Thanks and keep eating, blogging and tweeting.


    • Hi Lloyd, I love that you are eating through Jitlada’s menu as well!

      I so appreciate your kind words. My blog is such a labor of love, and reading that you enjoy it just warms my heart.

      So, now the question is…. when are we going to meet at Jitlada for lunch??

      • Hi Jo,

        The labor you put into your blog really pays off. And, you write with such an authentic voice.

        Would love to meet for lunch at Jitlada ANYTIME. I’m ALWAYS excited to “get back to work,” try something new (but it is so hard to not order my favorites) and catch up with Jazz.

        Let’s do it!

  29. You are a fantastic writer Jo!

    That is the most beautiful and heart-wrenching story I have read in a very long time. Congrats on getting it out, I can only imagine the strength you took to write this. And Kudos to your sister for doing such a great job raising you!

  30. This is a beautiful post. I lived on Okinawa at the exact same time as you did. I also attended the IFBC last year and Food Blog Forum last month. We keep circling in each others vacinity. Next time we are in the same place at the same time we need to spend sometime together and get to know each other, it almost seems like we are destined to meet 🙂

  31. Thank you for sharing your story, Jo. I loved learning more about you and Janet. I know I’m a bit late with the comment but I’m glad I caught this post.

  32. I, too, have heard bits and pieces of your story but this all put together is so beautiful. I know that this a food blog but this is also your palate and thus your experiences matter.

    I shared a personal story at the beginning of the year and it was tough. It made me feel super vulnerable but you are so much stronger for having told it and your readers appreciate it. I know I do.

  33. Jazz

    Your story made me tear down! Why I fall in love with u! Since I met u! And call you ‘SIS” your life turn you to a giving person ! & you have the best sister jenet that always beside you ! Plus wonderful Nice man kindness as PETER. I love you verymuch, everybody that get to know you , said the samething ! I will wish whatever you want to do will made you sucess & famous !Love you JAZZ JITLADA

  34. MLB – what a great story about you, your wonderful sister, and the rest of your family and your travels and life as a child. It was really moving to read. I like how you look at the positive side of the situations which could have been so hard. Thanks for sharing!

  35. These family memory posts are so touching. The love of an older sister such as yours is so incredibly important. I am almost 9 years older than my little sister, and while we waded through divorce and family separations, I feel I raised my sister as well. It’s such a special bond that you and your sister share. Thank you for sharing this story!

  36. A beautiful tribute and story. Brought a tear to my eyes. Thank you.

  37. you know how i feel about you. and sisters. and family.

    love you and yours.

  38. What an honest, true story. Thanks for sharing it.

  39. Mayumi

    Fantastic writing. I want to mention that I also was born in Okinawa, our mother worked as a hostess most nights leaving my brother, then 5, home alone, while I, then 4, lived off and on with my grandparents. My mom ended up marrying an American soldier who adopted us and moved us to the US in 1975, which was the best thing for us.

    I am curious, did you attend Okinawa Christian School?

  40. I really loved the story, well written and gives a lot of insights about you. Thanks for sharing Jo! 🙂

  41. Aw, this post almost made me tear up, so sweet!

  42. Sophia

    Just wanted to let you know how touching your story was about your sister .

    My sister and I were adopted in Taiwan and lived in Okinawa for a year before moving to the states.(Our father was a civilian working on Kadena AFB).
    I wish I could say that we also had as close a relationship as you two. Unfortunately, my sister abandoned our parents during their last years and was rather unkind to them before their deaths. To this day we no longer speak to each other.
    While reading your story, tears were rolling down my cheeks. I miss my sister and the closeness we once had. You are very lucky to have Janet!

  43. Sook

    Tears in my eyes. You and your sister are possibly the cutest kids ever. Glad there’s a happy ending (w lotsa dogs).

  44. Hugs to you and Janet (wonderful to meet her at your 40th to America party!)! Thanks for your brave openness to share and enrich all our lives. Ted Tanaka, from Tokyo this week.

  45. Jimmy Jones....

    I was really hoping not to lose it today, but that story and knowing you and your sister has brought tears to my eyes! May God continue to bless you both….

  46. JoAnn,
    Thanks for the story that you know I can totally relate to, my only wish is that I could have stayed in the home longer, I didn’t want to leave. We were very fortunate to have the life we did there. I get emotional when I think about the past and your story took me back to the place and time in my life that I love and cherish. Life is very fragile, love it and learn from it and live it like never before, each day. Thanks again JoAnn.. 😉

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