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Home > Columns > "The Mirror" > September, 2004 - My Mother's Gifts
by "The Mirror"

My Mother's Gifts by The Mirror

This column was written by Susan Dalton

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Funny, how my mother followed me to the last place I would have expected her to go, Japan. In her entire life she'd rarely been out of a three county area-the county where she lived, the adjoining one where her parents lived, and the one, a county over, where her in-laws lived. But there along the Yahagi River, right outside my hotel in Okazaki, grew her favorite flowers, hydrangeas, in her favorite shades of blue, lavender, and purple. In the formal garden in Toyota City, I saw a Rose of Sharon much like the one that used to grow under her bedroom window, and I smelled the sweet scent of gardenias like the ones she'd cut for our kitchen table. As a small child I could lie in her bed while she read to me after lunch, and through the open window I could see the hydrangeas and Rose of Sharon, smell the gardenias, and hear the distant sound of the ocean. There in Japan were the ferns that grew in the swamp behind our house, the variegated camellias, the miniature azaleas. My son Ryan and I had flown halfway around the world to stand in the heat, humidity, and flora of my mother's southeastern North Carolina garden.

My mother had been proud of my doing aikido although she never understood why I chose to do it. She liked to take pictures of my son in his new belts and watch him roll on the beach. "Grandma, watch this!" he'd yell and jump off a sand dune into a spectacular breakfall. She'd ooh and ahh and clap and giggle every single time. A snaggle-toothed child in a yellow belt, chasing his dream of being a Ninja Turtle, she could understand. My choosing to practice confounded her. "Do you really think you could beat somebody up?" she'd ask, but then she didn't listen to my explanation that aikido isn't about beating people up. Instead, my sweet mother, who never discovered she could leave an abusive husband or refuse a command from a tyrannical mother-in-law, smiled as she pictured her daughter powerful and strong, kicking and punching the bad guys who jumped out of dark alleys.

When I was growing up, she feared the ocean and its strong currents. Some mothers may have kept their children in shallow water or not allowed them in the ocean at all. My mother saved up to get us something she'd always wished she'd had, swimming lessons, and sat on the beach clapping and cheering when we were dropped in "the hole" in the sound and successfully swam to shore.

She feared the idea of her children leaving her even more than she feared the ocean-the world out there was as unknown and scary as what lurked beneath the waves. So she resisted the idea of my going away to college-her father had told her that the hippies in Chapel Hill didn't take baths; instead they wore flea collars. I'd be the first in my family to go. She said if I was leaving home to go to college, I'd have to pay for it myself. Later she told me how proud she felt that I had defied her and done it and graduated with honors. She felt a bit ashamed that she hadn't been able to let me go when the time came. After she and my father inherited a little money, she asked my husband and me to take it as a down payment on a house, since I was still paying off college loans. When we'd visit, she'd tell her relatives and neighbors that I do a martial art and she'd ask me to go in the front yard and do a roll, so they could watch out the picture window.

She never noticed when my rolls were clunky or tentative, choosing instead to focus on her amazement that a daughter of hers could do such a thing. Still, her amazement had limits. How long was I going to study this aikido before I knew all there was to know? "Why are you going to another seminar? Aren't you a black belt? Isn't it about time to graduate?" Her questions gave me giggle-fodder to share with my friends on aikido-l. Surely, she thought, after seven years, I should be able to stop studying. I'd been going to class three times a week. I could have gotten my PhD. My mother had been taught to respect degrees and titles, tangible indicators that one person was "better" than another. Why did I need to keep attending class if I had the belt?

But then she died unexpectedly before I could make her understand, before my teachers moved and asked me to take the dojo. She never knew I survived the forty falls for my nidan test. She never saw Ryan grow eight inches in six months and have to relearn how to move his body. Now that he was a big person with ukemi as soft and relaxed as when he was a little boy leaping off of sand dunes, she wasn't around to clap. I couldn't tell her how he failed his shodan test because of our familiar issue, backing out of conflict, and how proud I was that he dug in and had a phenomenal second test. Perhaps with his test for an example I could have finally explained my thinking to her-that the belt wasn't the prize; it was only a symbol. I could have told her that although I was very proud of his new black belt, mostly I was proud of his attitude, his lack of ego, and his ability to recognize his teacher's wisdom in failing him on that first test. Instead of complaining or feeling sorry for himself, he stayed after class and worked hard. She would have understood my pride; she would have been proud, too.

Even though she'd been gone almost four years and I should be getting used to her absence by now, I expected it to ambush me at Ryan's high school graduation. After all, he was my mother's first grandchild, the miracle baby I stayed on bed-rest six months to carry to term, and she had so loved graduations and ceremonies. I thought of her of course, but graduation wasn't as difficult as I'd believed it'd be. Instead, she showed up unexpectedly a month later in Japan.

First, there were all her flowers. Then, as I watched my shihan's gentle indulgence and sense of humor in his children's class, I saw my mother's philosophy of child-rearing. Like her, he is calm and has kind eyes. Kids love him just as they'd always loved her. I had read that Japanese people are undemonstrative and uncomfortable with touch-that generalization was not remotely true of my teacher. He used touch to calm, reassure, and teach. As I watched him, I realized that my mother had also taught with touch. I'd look at his hands and I'd keep seeing hers. A sick child crawled into my lap and went to sleep instead of doing class, and as I rocked the sleeping child and brushed the hair out of her face, I remembered my mother's soothing hands. Later I thought of my mother when I saw so many old people riding bikes, walking down the sidewalk, and out conducting the business of their lives. My mother believed that in our culture we don't treat older people with the respect they deserve, so she spent a great deal of time visiting with and caring for older relatives. Also, before my trip, I wasn't sure how to handle the Japanese tradition of gift-giving, but once I got to Japan, I realized it was like my mother's tradition of taking a cake or a bouquet of freshly picked flowers, some little something to let a friend know she was thinking of her. Then there were all the little kindnesses I saw that were so much like my mother's. In a class with twenty-five or thirty black belts, I was the only one who couldn't go all the way to the floor in one of the stretches. Immediately the woman beside me came up off the floor as if she too couldn't get all the way down. That's exactly the kind of gesture my mother would have made to make another person feel comfortable. Later I suspected a sensei of watching the tape of my last test so he could teach my best techniques and I'd look good in front of a large audience. I probably wouldn't have noticed; however, in his position, my mother would have had the same thought. And last, Japanese hospitality was every bit as warm and gracious and comfortable as my mother's Southern hospitality. I expected to encounter an alien culture in Japan-I did not expect it to remind me so much of my mother!

I came to Japan to share a special trip with my son before he leaves for college, to train as much as I could with my shihan and my friends in his dojo, and to receive instruction in kihon waza so I could bring it home. Ryan and I trained, laughed, talked, and spent much more time together than we ever do at home. We had a trip of a lifetime with memories I'll always treasure. But this time, instead of aikido rippling into my life, my life rippled back into aikido. As seventeen of the twenty children in the kids class lined up to do kokyu dosa with Ryan and then as he laughed and played with the children after class, I realized that although we may have inherited my mother's tendency to back out of conflict, we've also been given some of her gifts. I can't control whether Ryan will continue to practice in college or whether he'll come home for special events in the dojo, nor should I. My mother followed me to Japan to show me I can let my child go.

© 2004 Susan Dalton.

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