“Is That All There Is….To A Party ?”

| February 3, 2011 | Comments (4)

 White pearl necklace.jpg

A vivid memory from 1948, when I was eight years old, keeps coming back to me at bedtime when I am about to doze off.

My Mother is bending over me as I lie in bed, looking up at her.  We are living in Japan, in Tokyo, and she is about to go  off to a party with my Father. A geisha party that will last long into the night. As she leans near my face, I smell her scent of Chanel Number 5 mixed with the faint perfume of a gin martini coming from her mouth, vivid with bright red lip rouge. As she kisses me on the cheek,  glossy hairs from her mink coat brush my forehead and a string of cool,  milky  pearls dip from her neck,  touching my throat.

Nearly forty years-old, she is at the height of her beauty and middle-age seems far away. No grey hairs have yet to appear in her crown of dark locks, worn in a 1920’s bob-cut. Born in 1908, she remains for her whole adult life, a flapper, a creature of the Jazz Age. 

She and my Father will be going out to one of those marathon Japanese parties where everybody is forced to  perform. With her velvety  voice, my Mother always sings songs to great acclaim and is especially popular with Japanese who have never seen a gaijin (foreign) woman before. Her standard  numbers  are Hoagey Carmichael’s  “Stardust” and “China Night”  (Shi-i-nanoyoru) which she renders  in Japanese. She sings them often in our house as she works,  practicing for these nights out.

My sister and I are being left in the care of a maid, an invisible creature who seems terrified of white people, even tiny ones aged eight years and nine months old. Closeted in an impossibly small servant’s room, our domestic buries her nose in an English-Japanese dictionary which she seems to look at, not read. Some months later we are forced to terminate her services when my Mother finds Junko in the kitchen standing over the stove gulping in  deep breaths of gas, attempting to take her own life. It only comes out later that she is a war widow, her husband having perished in a suicide bomber attack days before the end of World War II.

My Mother seems gay and sophisticated as she says goodnight and tells me not to be afraid  of the dark.  I have always been terrorized by the night  especially since I discovered that tale of darkness,  Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Each creak of our earthquake-proof house, shuddering readily with the passage of every truck on the nearby highway, drives me to distraction and desperation. Mother knows this and tries to soothe me into sleep before she leaves.

Inspite of her party face and good-time behavior, my Mother is a shy person, filled with insecurity. Beautiful, she is unsure of her looks. At nearly 5′ 10″ and almost three inches taller than my Father, she feels freakish, not statuesque.  A tee-totaler her whole life, her new persona as a bottoms-up, let the good times roll party girl, seems an uneasy role  she tries too hard to play. I hear her being “happy” and know her laugh is too high-pitched and almost desperate-sounding. I sense she plays this game for my Father, to make him happy,  to be the perfect trophy wife of a successful man.

Our life in Japan seems surreal to me. I go to a school where large chunks of pages have been cut from our social studies textbooks and replaced with brownish slabs of cardboard. The Cold War has just  made its debut and any mention of the Soviet Union has been judged taboo and beyond the pale. Maps on the classroom wall show this vast area called USSR,  a huge, lumbering animal, straddling the globe from Europe to China, but we have no idea what’s happening in this gigantic expanse.

Our barracks-like living quarters are surrounded on one side by a lawn devoid of any pleasing vegetation; the grass seems to be cut  every day, and too short,  by a squadron of elderly Japanese ladies who squat with huge scissors, clipping  the sward blade by blade. On the back side of the house is a road along which trucks  rumble day and night.  With each passage of a vehicle,  our wooden and stucco structure shudders in imitation of a earth tremor. I long for the friendly familiarity of our village on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Left alone in my room, I fall into a fitful slumber after hours  of watching leaping  shadows dance on the wall.  As dawn breaks, I think I  hear a car door slam and what sounds like a woman moaning and crying in pain. I look out my bedroom window barely able to see the image below on the street as light breaks in the eastern sky. My Mother’s head is hanging out of the window of our Chevrolet and she is vomiting. Her vomit streaks the car door and her beautiful fur coat is covered with mucus.

A lump forms in my throat as I watch my parents below. My Mother continues to vomit and sob while my Father stands by the car door, watching speechless, seemingly helpless to do anything. I want to rush down and comfort my beautiful, helpless Mother who, until now,  has always seemed  so strong and in control, but I do nothing, sadness and anger welling up in me.

Half a century later, I hear a song by Peggy Lee called “Is That All There Is ?” She sings about a raging fire that burns down her house and when the fire is over, she asks, “Is that all there is to a fire?’ Then she goes to a circus and after watching clowns cavort, elephants prance, and trapeze artists defy death, asks again, “Is that all there is to a circus? ” Finally she sings about how she  falls in love and how sad she feels when the boy leaves her,  concluding with ” Is that all there is to love? ”

Sixty years after that morning in Japan,  I watch my Mother struggle out of our Chevy and think,  “Is that all there is to a party?”

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Comments (4)

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  1. Candace says:

    A different Tokyo than I knew, some twenty years later, but still the parties continued. And I, too, learned about the ugly face of racism. Great story. Thanks.

    • Sam says:

      Thanks, Candace. Yes, the most interesting feature of Japan, to me, is how little it has changed since I first knew it in 1948. “Modern” yes, but still a bit medieval, in my humble opinion.

  2. Roger Cranse says:

    Very touching, Sam. The imagery of your Mother as she leans over you is stunning and tinged with the sadness of time past. RC

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