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.
The 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).
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.
We 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.
After 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.
Our 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.
My 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.
I 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)
A yearly, family tradition is to gather on Christmas day at Janet’s house for her awesome chili. The recipe:
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.
These amounts are basic…I add more garlic for my family!
The chili is thicker and tastier the next day, so make plenty!