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).]


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