A Small Stone
Alone in the dark
No need of jacket
My soul wraps around
Letter From Japan...from an American English Teacher, my niece, Michele R. Steele
Today I had a lesson with Keiko, the wife of one of the business students sent abroad for work. It was the second time to have met her. I met her for the first time on Saturday, the day after the earthquake, and I was sure she wouldn’t show. I was amazed when I looked out the window to see a middle-aged woman sizing up the sidewalk area, trying to negotiate a way into the parking lot. My school is in a bit of an awkward location, as the only two options for entering the parking lot involve driving on the sidewalk. I noticed her and immediately went out to help navigate her to a space next to my car, and I was immediately taken aback by her smile. It was very open and natural, and I wasn’t processing any of it then, still so amazed was I that she had decided to come out on such a day. But perhaps what registered somehow was that a lot of women of her age in this culture cover full smiles behind a hand. Also, it seemed incongruous with the situation underway in the country. She entered my school and in my memory I recall that she was almost electric, she was so full of life and warmth. We talked for a bit and I quickly learned that she had lived in the U.S. for nine years in the past. That explained a lot. Her English was superb; I told her she didn’t even need lessons. And she had a relaxed openness that I have observed in people who have lived abroad.
On that first day of class we just got to know each other a bit and, since the earthquake had occurred less than 24 hours earlier, we talked about where we had been and what we had been doing. Her husband is already in the US with his job; she will join him in a month or so. She has a grown daughter living in the States, and a grown son who lives here in Japan with her. I asked her where she was at the time of the earthquake, and she said she was at home alone, and when I asked what she did then, she said she ran to protect her spoon collection. She had mentioned that she collected spoons, and confessed that she thought it was foolish to run to the spoons at such a time, but I was mesmerized, and assured her that it wasn’t silly at all. Her daughter had left home, her husband was already abroad, her son was at work that day, and she knew in an instant what she wanted to take care of in that moment. I admired her quick-thinking.
Today she came again. It’s Thursday, almost a week since the earthquake. I had thought things would be settled when I next met her, but in fact things appear more grim. On a local level, the shelves at the supermarket are emptying so quickly that there is nothing left for those who don’t show up early. The same is true for gas.
On a national level things are downright frightening, depending on what you read. Japan seems fairly calm, while foreign outfits are going over the top quite rapidly. Embassies are moving to Kyoto, chartered planes are flying foreign nationals out. Keiko and I talked about all that is happening, and then she told me a story about a friend of a friend of her daughter. At first the configuration seemed so distant, “a friend of a friend..” But then I heard the story. The friend was trying to escape the tsunami with her husband and her two young children. The youngest child was a year old, and when it looked like the tsunami was going to take them, the husband shouted for the wife and the baby to get out of the car and run. There was apparently no time to think of all of them escaping. The wife jumped out of the car with the baby, and then watched as the wave took the car with her husband and child. She and her baby were then thrown against the side of a house, and there were people on the roof of the house there that helped them up. She made contact and confirmed she was safe, and made contact a second time after that. But she has not found her husband and older child.
Now. Normally in a classroom setting I try to keep conversation interesting, meaningful, and important. But I never cry in class. I feel I can gently guide the ship to calmer waters, and I have a responsibility to stay calm. After she told me that story, I started to move on, commenting on it’s sadness, and then realizing there was no way to segue into something else, nor did I want to. In the middle of my effort to shift topics, just as I was commenting on how sad it was, I started to cry. And she was already starting to cry. And I understood that we needed that moment, we needed to just be still and cry, to hell with the English class.