Monday, October 31, 2011

Other Mothers

My husband's best friend from childhood wrote this on Facebook recently:
I'm now FB™ friends with (the) mother of my best friend from childhood. If I committed some sort of crime in Athens, Ohio (1970 - 1984) by the time I got home my Mom knew already because of (her). (She) is the reason that I didn't end up like Curt Cobain. Okay, I have no musical talent, but you get the idea.
They met in kindergarten and graduated from high school together. Stories I have heard over the years include tales of a particular yard they mowed; books, then albums, and then MTV videos they watched along with memorable moments from graduation, to films made, to meals eaten as well as the various drinks they consumed. Their mothers looked after each of them over the years. For her birthday my daughter got "Tell Me" a card game that asks lots of questions. She asked her dad, "What have you done with a friend that you would not have had the guts to do alone?" He mumbled, "Buy beer." I laughed, and immediately thought of his old friend.

My daughter ditched me yet again- at the school festival on the weekend. I can see the wariness emerge and then the physical distance grow between us as we near the school yard. I finally asked, "Are you embarrassed when I speak English to you at school?" "Yes. I don't like the attention. The boys ask me over and over to translate everything. I don't like that." "So does this mean that you'll talk to me when you are in American schools?" I asked. "Yes," she said. Mystery solved- shy around the boys.

I wonder how my children will think back upon their childhood memories of Japan. They belong here and yet they don't. It is a complicated thing. My own identification with Spain during my high school years lead me to the realization that though I loved Spain, I was not Spanish but it took a while to understand the difference. I had few ties beyond my friendships- there was no excuse to return as my  parents are from Ohio not Seville, I am not Catholic (it seemed as if to be Spanish you had to be Catholic), and I did not speak Spanish fluently even if I loved the place. Though I am good at making patata fritta and love garlic chicken, gazpacho, and olives, I can barely  say, "Hola," to the other gaijin mother in my daughter's class who happens to be from Peru. My very little Japanese has embedded in the same places Spanish once resided. Cross cultural experiences are certainly defining moments, but they don't make us something we are not. 

I rely more on the other mothers than my children. I can barely help with their homework (particularly Japanese or math word problems); follow the school schedule, PTA announcements, or class notes (all in Japanese); or understand the rules of etiquette without help (because I have no Japanese cultural reference points of my own). 

At the school festival an impromptu chat with the mother who rescued me last year, I felt the flood of tears pierce my eyes yet again. Gratitude resides where pain once did because of her.  Facing a roomful of mothers sitting properly at their children's desks, starring across the classroom at nothing, at each other, each mother was given a few minutes to introduce herself and say something about her child. When it was my turn to speak, it was if a  knife turned and entered into my heart with a suddenness and with a sureness I could not lessen, bereft of words, but awash in the painful realization that as an immigrant mother I could not speak, I could not read, and I was not the master of the way. Everyone tried politely to ignore my pain in the afternoon's quiet with no mask out of place but mine. The mothers, the teacher, giving me a moment to collect myself and hide my feelings, but I could not. I have no practice with this cultural expectation. Still, it was my turn, tick tock, but I was paralyzed by the overwhelming pain of incompetence. Then this mother got up, crossed the room, and moved a desk to sit by my side, stepping over her own cultural barriers in a small act of kindness that sensed my need for a friend. I stammered something out. She translated.

I feel vulnerable when I go to my children's school. I wander around in a haze of unknowing that I am not truly at peace with. I try to remind myself that you can know through knowledge and intellect and through the heart- in  my heart I think it is good for my children, but tough for me. This poor mother saved me, but all I can do is feel my heart overflow. My heart is littered with a trail of helpful mothers that have kept me afloat and helped me at just the moment I could take it no longer. However, I can't always recognize the mothers that help me , like my husband's childhood friend did on FB, in a way that equates their act of kindness with it's impact on my heart, and sometimes those feelings come in the form of tears since I have no words to express my gratitude.