Monday, January 19, 2015

Another Holiday Ritual

There’s a corollary to sending out Holiday Cards: receiving cards and then coming to the point of having to throw them out.  We keep a list of names and addresses so we have a checklist of the people we’ve sent and received cards from.  Over the years, that list has declined from hundreds, and then leveled off to about a hundred, and now to less than a hundred.  Death, and the attrition of friends with whom we now have only a superficial relationship are the main reasons for the decline, and some have gone the Email route to express their holiday greetings.  We still like to send a card and put a stamp on an envelope but probably that too will fall by the wayside one of these days.

I feel a sense of sadness when old friends or former colleagues suddenly disappear from our checklist.  Of course circumstances change and old relationships not actively maintained are the main culprits.  As much our fault as theirs.  On the other hand there are people with whom we exchange cards, year after year, although our contact with them from decades ago was strictly accidental and passing.  

One such exchange is with Bianca, the woman Ann shared a hospital room with when our son Jonathan was born.  I think we visited one another a few times after the respective births of our sons more than three decades ago, but outside of that, the only contact we’ve had has been those holiday card exchanges, she commenting on her son’s progress in life and we doing the same.  It is a touching tradition and we look forward to those holiday updates as our sons navigate their lives, born on the same day and at almost the same moment.

Another holiday card exchange is truly remarkable.  As the New Year was turning from 1989 to 1990, I had a business trip to Japan and decided to take Ann and Jonathan (his first such trip, being only 12 years old at the time).   

While I was meeting with our host, a Japanese bookseller in Tokyo one day (this photo is of us, he and his wife in front of our hotel), Ann and Jonathan decided to take the underground to the Ginza area to shop and have lunch.  As they were finishing their meal, Ann remarked to Jonathan that she thought a fellow diner appeared to have been listening very attentively to their conversation.  Ann smiled at her and shortly afterward a very demure looking older Japanese woman came over to their table and in very correct English apologized for appearing to be overhearing their conversation.  She went on to say “I hope you will pardon me, I do not mean to interrupt, but may I ask where you are from?”  Ann was a little surprised as it was quite unusual to hear a Japanese person speaking English so well.  

So Ann replied and the woman asked whether she could move next to them and talk to them a little as she had so few opportunities to speak to native English speakers.  She explained that she was a language teacher in her nearby home town of Yokohama.

By all means Ann said and so throughout the rest their meal, the three of them talked.  They hit it off!  She introduced herself as Mrs. Murakami, and invited Ann and Jonathan to be her guests at a specialty dessert shop down the street.  They continued to talk and then Mrs. Murakami did something very uncharacteristic of the Japanese, she invited us all for tea and lunch and to see her ancestral home in Yokohama where she and her husband lived.  Ann accepted knowing we were free that following Saturday.   

So off to Yokohama we went where she met us at the train station to help us find the house, situated in the prime spot at the top of a hill.  Although not a house the size of most average American homes, it was very large by Japanese standards.  But it had been handed down from generation to generation in her family and was highly treasured.  We were cordially welcomed by other members of her family and led into the living room and seated in places of honor.  This room also serves as a bedroom where tatami mats are placed on the floor for sleeping. After a small meal concluded with tea, we were given a short tour of the rest of the house, in particular one room devoted to the worship of her ancestors, where a shrine was adorned with candles.

The following year, we decided to send her a holiday card and she sent us one as well, the two crossing in the mail.  Since then, we have not missed a Christmas holiday without sending a card and note to her as well as she to us. 

As it turns out, Ann and Mrs. Murakami had a chance to renew their acquaintance ten years later, in 1998, when we flew to Japan to visit Jonathan, then spending his junior year at Doshisha University in Kyoto.  Mrs. Murakami treated Ann to an extraordinary luncheon where no menus were presented, exquisite small dishes just kept arriving at their table for almost 2 hours.  Ann remembers thinking that that was the most gastronomically incredible meal she has ever had!

However, this year we didn’t receive a card and we were worried, knowing Mrs. Murakami is about ten years our senior.  We were about to put our list away and suddenly there appeared an envelope from Japan and we could tell by the handwriting that it was from her.  We were elated.

Inside the card was a very neatly handwritten note as follows:

Dear Ann,
   Thank you very much for your 26th Christmas card.  It gives me courage for life.  The picture of you two is so wonderful and you are as young as you are when I saw you for the first time in Tokyo.  I am not so fine.  I was in a hospital ten days this summer and next year I will have an operation on my eye.  But fortunately I can attend the class of Reading Shakespeare two times a month.  We have spent twenty years now.  Still we have seven plays ahead of us.  Every member is around eighty years old.
   Please tell my best regard to your dear son Jonathan.  I wish you all Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
With love, Toshiko

Indeed, Toshiko, your note too gives us “courage of life.”