Saturday, August 28, 2010

Friday, August 27, 2010

MUM and the naked man up a tree

     It was the Fourth of July, if I remember. Or maybe it just felt like it. Dao, Annie, Diep and Jenny were on a flight to Los Angeles and we were going to welcome them to the United States with an American picnic. Mum had arranged for someone to pick them up at the airport while she went to a park early in the day and staked our claim on a picnic table.
     It was still early--in fact the call may have waked us up--when my husband Rick and I were drawn into the day's events.
     Mum's voice sounded apologetic, as it often did when she had to break it to us that there had been another change of plans. (They were so common she called them "C. of P.") "Hi, Honey. There's been another C. of P."
     "Hi, Mum. Dao's being flown to Alaska?"
     "No." She laughed without losing her air of purpose. "Do you--does Rick have a pair of pants he doesn't need?"
     What did this have to do with a picnic? "I--don't know. I'll ask him." There was no point getting into "Why?" yet. I knew we'd hear about it in good time.
     I asked Rick (my husband then). He thought there was an old pair he could live without.
     When I relayed this information, she asked, "Could you--would one of you mind driving them over to _______ Park? I'll meet you there. Actually, maybe Rick should bring them. There's a man here that needs them. I'll tell you all about it when I see you later."
     Rick agreed to go without complaining but I could see him shaking his head a bit as he dressed. With Mum it was always something--something totally unpredictable.
     When we both went later to meet Mum in the park at the originally agreed-upon time, with our promised contributions to the picnic, we found she had secured a table. It was complete with a paper tablecloth, paper plates, and plastic tableware, as well as containers of what we presumed to be food.
     And a strange man.
     As Mum greeted us and explained who would be bringing Dao and the girls and when they were expected, I couldn't help noticing out of the corner of my eye that a small Mexican man was sitting quietly at the table. He was probably just resting on the bench for a minute, I decided, and would get up and leave soon.
     Just when I couldn't pretend to ignore him any longer, Mum said, "Oh, let me introduce you to Jose." Jose stood and bowed slightly as we offered him handshakes. Mum laughed slightly. "He's the one who needed Rick's pants." I realized now that he had on a pair of familiar-looking pants way too big for him in every direction.
     On the pretext of helping us fetch things, Mum walked with us to our car so she could talk to us privately.. "When I came here this morning," she told us, "I made several trips to the table and then sat down to wait for everybody. After a few minutes I thought I heard something. I looked around and there was no one in sight. Then I heard the noise again.
     "This time I looked up--and there was a man crouched in a tree overhead."
     It turned out that Jose was from Mexico and had been sleeping under the tree the night before when a couple of guys found him there and roughed him up. They demanded everything he had on him, including his clothes. Apparently when Jose saw Mum coming--I say apparently, because he could not communicate this to her in English--he was so embarrassed he climbed the tree.
     But Mum, in her usual way, got him all sorted out and managed to convey to him that he was welcome to join our family picnic.
     Other tables were filling up now so it was good Mum had come early (good for us and especially good for Jose.) But we still had two or three hours to kill. We sat down and chatted with Mum for awhile. We didn't want to be rude to Jose but we didn't know what to say to him, nor he to us. Questions like "What was it like hiding naked in that tree?" were a bit awkward, even if we'd known how to say them. 
     Dao and the girls arrived eventually and so did other people I'm sure but that part of the picnic is a blur. All I remember is the shock of being at a "family" meal with a bunch of strangers and no common language--four who spoke only Vietnamese, one who spoke only Spanish and the rest of us who spoke only English. Mum and I kept throwing in smatterings of Japanese and a soupcon of French--but it wasn't intentional.
     Tim can keep each new language he learns in its own compartment. If he needs "thank you" he goes to the appropriate bin to pull up"arigato," "spasiba," "danke," "gracias" or "ta." But Mum and I were both created linguistically incorrect. Every foreign language we learn goes into one big mushpot. So when we fumble for foreign words, especially with Asian people, Japanese is usually what comes out. Or even ghastly combinations like Mum's memorable sentence, "Coke wa pau desu," which jumbled three languages, including a smidge of Hawaiian. (She was trying to say, "There's no more Coke.") And she bowed as she said it.
     It was a long afternoon. Nobody could speak intelligibly to anyone else--but somehow everyone had a wonderful time.
     Our family had expanded again. Someday it would include everyone in the entire world. I just knew it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

MUM: Maigran

     Maigran is what they called her--Dao Mai and her three girls, Anh (Annie), Diep, and Jen.  Maigran: short for "My grandma."

     Mum didn't know she would become grandmother to three Vietnamese children when she met Dao Thanh Mai in Japan. Dao had come to Hiroshima from Saigon for plastic surgery on her face, badly scarred by French bombing in 1947.  For 30 years, scars on her mouth had made it impossible for Dao to open it wide enough to insert anything bigger than a straw.
     Dao was on staff at an orphanage for Amer-Asian children in Saigon.  Despite everyone's warnings that the city was about to fall to the communists, Dao flew back after the surgery, refusing to abandon the children until finally forced by the Khmer Rouge to do so at gunpoint.
     Then Dao grabbed Anh (Annie), whose father had been a black soldier--a big one, from the looks of her--and Diep, whose father was white, and fled.  She tried to hide and support them while Mum doggedly appealed to American members of Congress to let the three into the United States, offering to be their sponsor.  Some of them were sympathetic but the U.S. was admitting no one into the country from Vietnam, no matter how desperate their situation.  No exceptions.
     For five years, Mum received sporadic letters from Dao, addressed to "Mama." During that time a man "befriended" Dao, leaving her with a baby of her own.  So now there were four.  Once during that time Dao paid someone for a place on one of the boats slipping secretly out of Vietnam.  But the person took her money and the boat left without her.  She heard later that everyone aboard had died.  She tried to escape again and ended up in jail for six months.
     In 1983 the door to the United States was opened to Amer-Asian children and the children Dao had protected became her ticket to freedom.  Mum received word that the family was safely in the States.  They had been flown, for some reason, to Maryland.
     "That's a relief," I said.  I was relieved they were in the States but secretly I was also relieved they had overshot California.  Now someone else could take over responsibility for them.
     But Mum was already on the phone.  "Maryland," she said to the operator, and in an aside to me, "I know of a church in Maryland that works with refugees.  Maybe they can track the family down."
     I knew it was only a matter of time until we had the four Vietnamese in Long Beach and were finding a home for them, enrolling the kids in school, driving Dao to the Social Security Administration, including them in our family Thanksgiving and Christmas. 
     With a sigh I faced the inevitable and let the borders of our family enlarge.  Again.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

MUM and the Exploding Wheat Germ

July 21, 1985

Public Relations
Kretschmer Wheat Germ
PO Box 302
Milwaukee, WI 53201

Dear Sir or Madam:

I have always felt safe around wheat germ. With all the other problems of life, it always seemed to be one thing I didn't have to fear. If everything around me slipped its moorings, wheat germ was one product I could count on to remain stable. Not any more. The other day our jar of wheat germ exploded!

It was a half-used jar which I had kept refrigerated for several months after opening. Recently I loaned the jar to my mother, who used some and put the rest in her fridge. The next day, she got the jar out to use a second time and it exploded in her hands, propelling a large hunk of glass out of the side of the jar. Although the hole was below the level of the wheat germ, no wheat germ blew out through it. When she leaned down to pick up the glass shard, it was too hot to touch--and the hole it had made was charred and hot around the edges!

Friends have offered various theories. No, the jar had not been near the refrigerator light; the light doesn't even work. As far as we know, nothing in the jar had fermented. And the possibility of demon possession seems doubtful.

Have you run into this before? Is this a case of spontaneous combustion such as takes place sometimes in grain silos? I want to be able to reassure my mother that I did not deliberately rig the wheat germ to detonate.

We await your reply with great curiosity.

Jessica Shaver

P.S. Perhaps you need to label your jars "Fissionable Material!"

International Multifoods
Multifoods Tower
Box 2942
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55402

August 15, 1985

Dear Mrs. Shaver:

Thank you for informing us about your mother's experience with a jar of Kretschmer Wheat Germ. We are concerned about your report and apologize for this incident. We hope your mother was not injured.

We would like to obtain more details as well as the jar if your mother still has it. We are sorry for the delay in responding to your letter, however, it was addressed to a clearing house which handles our cookbook requests and just now reached our corporate offices. We were unable to obtain a telephone listing for you from directory assistance.

Please be assured that the wheat germ cannot create a condition such as spontaneous combustion which can be a problem in grain storage areas. Neither fermentation nor gas buildup could be factors with this product. In checking with our plant manager, he informed me that in his 14 years of experience, he is not aware of any similar incidents and cannot explain such an occurrence.

We would very much like to learn about this incident in greater detail. It would be most helpful if you could send the jar and any remaining wheat germ to my attention at the above address. We will be happy to reimburse you for postage.

Enclosed is a postage paid envelope to use in supplying further information such as the code number stamped on the jar bottom in blue ink, the size (12 or 20 oz.) and flavor (regular or brown sugar & honey) of the wheat germ. It would also be helpful to know if the product may have come into contact with some chemical in your mother's house or if perhaps a spoon or other utensil used with the wheat germ may have been exposed to some contaminant such as a cleaning compound, solvent, etc. Last, and most important, please let us know if your mother escaped injury. If you would prefer, you may call me collect at _________.

We look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible and will be happy to keep you informed about our examination of the jar should you be able to send it to us. We hope this unusual experience has not discouraged you from giving Kretschmer Wheat Germ another try. Enclosed are some coupons as well as our popular cookbook, "Something for Everyone" which we think you'll enjoy. . .


Diane Wieland
Communications Manager
Consumer Products Division

August 19, 1985

Ms. Diane Wieland
International Multifoods

Dear Diane:

My mother, after describing the explosion to me over the phone, threw the jar into the garbage. When I said I wanted to see it, she fished it out for me. The hole was perhaps an inch across, like a jagged many-pointed star and some of the glass around it was charred brown.

I wrote you (before I saw the jar) that it was half-used. Actually there were only two inches of wheat germ left in the jar (the largest size, regular flavor) and the explosion was just below its surface. When I saw the jar, some of the wheat germ was wet and was adhering to the side of the jar just below the hole. I immediately assumed this helped explain the hole; my mother insisted that had not been there previously but was a result of having been put in with the garbage.

My mother was not injured, just shaken. I have to say that she is rather scatterbrained and frankly, there's no telling what a utensil she used with it might have been exposed to! She has been in Japan all month and is due back Friday. I'll ask her if she still has the piece of glass.


Note: As it turned out, she hadn't but here's the sketch of it I sent to Diane Wieland. Since the glass of a Kreschmer Wheat Germ jar is thick and the piece blew straight out the side of it without breaking the jar, I assume not only Kreschmer but our Department of Defense would have liked to look at it. I'm sorry we didn't keep it or the jar, not so much for their sakes but as a personal souvenir.
     Things like this could only happen to my mother, But with her they were a way of life.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

MUM: Bodhisattva* Barbara

     When did I realize my mother is in a category all her own, a "singularity," as my brother Tim would say. Was it the day she called to tell me her wheat germ had exploded? Or the day she wanted to borrow a pair of my husband's pants for an illegal alien she had found naked in a tree?
     Most people who knew her called my mother a saint, not in the Biblical sense, as a term interchangeable with "Christian," but in the sense in which most people use it, to mean someone exceptionally good, kind, caring, and compassionate. In either sense, Mum qualified.
     In 1969, Mum left Hiroshima after 17 years' unpaid philanthropy. There was a farewell party given by an "Association to Express Appreciation to Barbara San" and Mayor Setsuo Yamada presented her with a key to the city. She had written a message, "Goodbye to Hiroshima," to the people she was leaving and the local YMCA printed her words in a bilingual booklet, with a preface by the mayor and many messages of praise and thanks from those who had known her.
     In it, Dr. Tomin Harada wrote, "you may feel uneasy if we treat you a saint, but your modest way of life--humble wear, not riding a taxi, always taking a bus, and most of the time walking in flat shoes, has an image of a saint in Hiroshima. We suddenly realized that here is the true beauty and an overall impact projected by your character."
     Under the heading,  "To Bodhisattva Barbara" (as opposed to Bodhisattva Buddha), Eiichi Nakata of Osaka wrote, "As I admire and worship the teachings of Buddha, Christ, and Gandhi, I also admire Mrs. Barbara as a saint. . . I am not so brave as you; I cannot give up my home and possessions. . ."
     One person called her "the flower of Hiroshima."
     Over 1,000 letters and contributions totaling nearly 1,000,000 yen (about $2,778) were sent to her before her departure, to support her future welfare in the States.
     But I'm here to tell you they don't know the half of it.
     Way back when we were still an intact family living in Japan, friends often gave us lavish gifts of fruit, huge baskets lined with green tissue paper, on which rested elaborate arrangements of choice apples, grapefruit, oranges, and grapes covered with cellophane.
     I don't remember our ever unwrapping one. Mum just gave them as gifts to other people. We assumed they made the rounds of the community in this way like a game of "Hot Potato" and we used to ask each other, "Who gets the brown bananas?" Passing on the bounty we received was a standing family joke.
     Mum didn't just give away the overflow that came into her life. I've already told you how she gave away her bed to a refugee family when she was 65. My first husband and I loaned her our trundle beds and she gave those away, too--to two separate people. She gave away a fountain pen which had been given to her at some banquet in her honor, not realizing that it had her initials inscribed on it. She gave away the centerpiece I bought her as a housewarming present when she settled in Long Beach.
     I told you about the lipstick, too. A Cambodian woman died and her family had no idea how to go about arranging for a funeral. They'd just arrived, couldn't speak English. Mum found an interpreter who explained that the county would take care of it and that the family could spend a few minutes saying goodbye, preparing her for cremation.
     The woman's children combed her hair and wanted to give her face a little color. Mum went down to the gift shop to buy some lipstick for them but they didn't carry any. So she gave them her own lipstick, a gift from us. Even the fact they gave it back wouldn't have been so bizarre if she hadn't gone on using it after that!
     Miyoko Matsubara, one of the two Hiroshima survivors whom Mum accompanied on the Peace Pilgrimage throughout the United States and Europe, later published a memoir of their travels together. In Little Boy the style-conscious Miyoko wrote, "We've often noticed that Barbara is traveling somewhere with only one pair of shoes and a single purse. If she receives a dress which was chosen specifically for her, it quickly disappears. The more expensive the present that someone gives her, the sooner she gives it away."
     Clothes, books, stationery. Money.
     Hiro, the other survivor who traveled with her, entrusted $1,200 to me to use for Mum's needs. I made the mistake of giving her the money to use for herself. The next thing I knew she had opened a time account for her Vietnamese "daughter" Dao.
     The day Mum was mugged, she had in her purse $100 that belonged to the thrift shop she and Dao were helping set up. Knowing that the shop was in a bad part of town, she had taken the money home with her for safe-keeping. Since she felt responsible for losing it, she put the stereo system we had given her for Christmas in the thrift shop to sell so they could make up the loss.
     Then there was the Christmas tree.
     When she first moved back to the States, Mum lived for two years with a lady named Emma. Emma was 96 years old and starting to forget things. But she mainly needed a companion, someone to share her homemade peach pies and play Dominoes with her. She was a sweet lady. I remember her sitting contentedly in her easy chair when Mum brought Miracle or friends with children to see her. Emma would rock contentedly, murmuring, "Little dogs. . . little dogs. . ." or "Little kids. . . little kids. . ."
     But there was one issue on which Emma stood firm. Emma's daughter had died around Christmastime at the age of 16 and in all the years since then, Emma had refused to put up a Christmas tree.
     Mum brought a straggly five-foot tree for her anyway and our family donated balls and tinsel. Surprisingly, Emma wasn't offended. She was pleased. But a few days later, her breathing got bad, as it did periodically, and she had to spend Christmas in the hospital.
     Emma was hardly out of the house before Mum, like the Grinch in reverse, was spiriting the tree, the  decorations still clinging perilously to its limbs, out of the house, into her car and down to her church, First Friends, where it graced the fellowship hall through the remainder of the holidays--through the telling of the gospel story to more than 100 Indochinese children, through cookie-cutting and carol-singing and a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings for the entire church.

*Bodhisattva: (Buddhist) n. An enlightened being who, out of compassion, forgoes nirvana (paradise) in order to save others. [Sanskrit bodhisattvaḥ, one whose essence is enlightenment: bodhiḥ, perfect knowledge + sattvam, essence, being (from sat-, existing).]