Of Christmas and Karma


In the winter of 1954, when I was eight, I found out that Christmas meant a lot more than the spindly little tree on top of our TV set. Mrs. Gill, Mom’s friend from work, invited us for Christmas Eve. Dad stayed home. Once he got out of his Army uniform at the end of the day, he didn’t feel like putting on a tie unless someone had died. So Mom and I put on our best outfits, made from Woolworth’s remnants, and drove from our working-class neighborhood to a nicer part of Baltimore.
 

Mrs. Gill lived in a garden apartment with a patch of lawn and flowerbeds out front. In those days, it was a rare treat for Japanese Americans to be invited to a white person’s house, so Mom gave me a last once-over before she rang the doorbell. She picked lint off my coat and ran a spit-moistened finger along my brushy eyebrows to smooth them down.

“Well, well! Here they are!” Mrs. Gill’s voice was loud and hearty as she opened the door. She was resplendent in stiff black taffeta. Two oddly dark braids wrapped around her head like a knotty halo framed her round face.

“Well, don’t just stand there. Come in, come in!” She ushered us into an apartment crammed with furniture in deep, rich colors – mahogany, maroon, and hunter green.

A boy stood awkwardly near the coat rack. She grasped him by the shoulder and pushed him towards me. “Say hello to my son Kevin.” He was about 12, fair, freckled and pudgy, with a perceptible disdain for eight-year-old girls. I mumbled my hello into his green-and red plaid vest.

 

As Kevin showed off their Christmas treasures, his resentment at having to entertain a mere girl eased into smug self-satisfaction. The Gills’ Christmas tree put our tiny one to shame. It rose majestically from floor to ceiling, topped by an angel instead of a star. It was dense with silver snowflakes and candy canes and pressed-glass ornaments shaped like violins and trumpets. Golden chimes rang as angels revolved magically from the rising heat of bright red candles. Red-ribboned mistletoe hung in a doorway; glass bowls overflowed with ribbon candy and frosted cookies. There was eggnog in a cut-glass punch bowl, and fruitcake, which I had only read about in books. I was captivated by the bright, translucent colors of embalmed fruit. But when I took a bite, I wrinkled my nose at the unexpected tang of brandy.

A Lionel train set dominated the living room rug. The locomotive tooted and blew smoke, and the crossing gate lifted and lowered by magic. “Can I try?” I asked, eying the controls, but Kevin rolled his eyes heavenward. He was the lord of this domain.

 

And his mother presided over the festivities like a dowager duchess showering her largesse on the heathen masses. The truth was, she was a Martha Stewart forerunner, seeking to put her life in order through things. Take away the stuff, and she was simply an aging divorcee with a soft, spoilt son, and my mother and I were her only guests on Christmas Eve.

Kevin pointed out the pudgy-legged Christ child in the manger under the tree. “That’s why Christmas is so special,” he said. “It’s the day that Jesus came to save us all from Hell.”

“Like Buddha’s birthday,” I exclaimed, relieved to find something in common. “In May, we decorate his shrine with flowers and pour sweet tea over his head.”

Kevin cut me off. “That’s not the same at all!”

He stood up and glared at me. I stood up and glared back. He lowered his head to look me in the eye. “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re gonna burn in Hell!” he hissed.

I shivered and clenched my fists. Tears sprang to my eyes. “No, I won’t,” I blurted. “Buddhists don’t believe in Hell.”

“Children, children, what’s going on?” Mrs. Gill called out. As Kevin explained, his mother’s eyes grew hard as black buttons. Her bright red lips continued to smile as she glanced at her watch. She ruffled her son’s hair and remarked to Mom, “My goodness, I didn’t realize it was getting so late.”

Mrs. Gill’s eyes stayed hard as Mom and I got our coats and said goodbye.

 

As we drove home, I picked at the seat covers. Christmas trees and angels were fine. I didn’t even mind reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm after the Pledge of Allegiance at my public school. I figured it was a nod to Lord Calvert and Baltimore’s historic Catholic roots. But when the Federal government added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, I felt invaded. I refused to say the words out loud; I just moved my lips. Didn’t the Pilgrims come here for freedom of religion? I didn’t push my religion on people. Why did they have to push theirs on me?

Some Christian beliefs seemed just plain weird, like my friend Patsy’s First Communion. Patsy had been excited about it for weeks, so I’d been excited for her, though I really missed playing with her when she had to stay after school to study the Catechism. When Communion Day arrived, Patsy got all dressed up in a lacy white dress with a little white veil. She looked like a miniature bride, with a little bouquet of flowers and everything. Afterwards, she showed off the new rosary she’d gotten, and the Holy Cards, vivid pasteboard pictures of Jesus and Mary and saints stuck with arrows. Patsy tacked her favorite card on her bedroom wall. I wouldn’t want to go to sleep under a bloody heart encircled by thorns, even if it was sacred. But I never told Patsy that. And she never told me I was a heathen.

As Mom drove us home from the Gills’ party, I stewed about Kevin. Finally I asked her, “How come we have to burn in Hell? It doesn’t seem fair. What about the people in Africa and India and the Amazon jungle? They’ve never even heard of Jesus”

“We won’t burn in Hell,” Mom said quietly. “We create our own hells by the ideas we hold. Everybody makes mistakes, so we need to have compassion. Anyway, Mrs. Gill has a hard time, raising Kevin without a father. She believes what she needs to believe, and we can believe what we believe.”

We had driven into a blinding rainstorm. Water poured down the windshield in ropey ripples that caught the glare of on-coming headlights. The windshield wipers whined as they worked overtime, but it was almost impossible to see the road. “I hope we make it home all right,” Mom sighed. “Baachan always says, “When you’re scared, think of Hotoke-sama, the Buddha.” She began to sing a Buddhist gatha at the top of her lungs, “Non nono nonosama, Hotoke-sama, watashii no suki ni, ka-a-sama de…”

 

There was no Buddhist church in Baltimore because there were hardly any Japanese Americans, but the following year we returned to California and I started going to Dharma School. Dad was transferred to Tokyo, and Mom and I stayed with my grandparents until we got military approval to join him.

Baachan and Jiichan, Grandma and Grandpa, were finally getting back on their feet – ten years after they were released from the incarceration camps of World War II. They’d finally saved enough money from sharecropping Driscoll’s strawberries to buy some land and build a house. Ten acres was nothing compared to the sweeping 140 acres they’d leased before the war, but at least they could say good-bye to tarpaper shacks and outdoor plumbing.

In those days, Silicon Valley was still the Valley of Heart’s Delight, afloat in pink and white orchard blossoms every spring. Japanese American farmers grew zucchini and bell peppers, apricots and plums along the narrow southern neck of the valley, along Coyote Creek. It was a long drive into town on Sundays, so a traveling minister held services in a little whitewashed building on the Nakano ranch, a big spread a mile north of my grandparents, off Highway 101. Blood Alley, they called that stretch of blacktop because every so often, cars got hit by fast-moving traffic as they tried to pull onto the highway from a farm road.

 

When you’re nine, church is boring. We sat on hard folding chairs, in a bare, linoleum-floored room with a piano and a portable Buddhist shrine. We sang corny Christian-sounding hymns and read boring sutras out loud. To pass the time during the sermon, I crossed my eyes just the right amount to make the minster disappear into the wall. I chewed the inside of my cheek and twirled the tassel of my ojuzu prayer beads. If I forgot and started swinging my legs, Mom gave my thigh a sharp, quick squeeze.

I believed in the Buddha; I just hated church. Every week the words of the Golden Chain etched themselves onto my heart and weighed down my brain.

I am a link in Amida’s golden chain of love that stretches around the world. I will keep my link bright and strong. I will try to be kind to all living things and protect all who are weaker than myself. I will try to think pure and beautiful thoughts, to say pure and beautiful words, and to do pure and beautiful deeds, knowing that on what I do now depends not only my happiness or unhappiness but also that of others. May every link in Amida’s golden chain of love become bright and strong and may we all attain perfect peace.

 

“How can I protect all those weaker than myself?” I wondered. “I’m just a little kid! Give me a break.” It was a heavy responsibility I couldn’t stop thinking about. I could see my mother and father and Baachan and Jiichan and all my aunties and uncles lined up in a row looking at me sadly because my link was not bright enough or strong enough. They didn’t look angry, just disappointed, which felt even worse.

In spite of my protests to Kevin, I still wasn’t sure what the Buddha was. Was he a historical personage, or a spirit in the sky? My Morgan Hill baachan said he could see everything we did. Every day I had to offer him fresh flowers from the garden. When Baachan cooked rice, she gently packed fresh hot grains into a little long-stemmed brass cup, and told me to place it in front of the shiny black-lacquer obutsudan in the dining room. I wondered if golden-rayed Buddha in the shrine ever got lonely in the dining room, because we always ate in the kitchen unless we had company.

Baachan hedged her bets by praying to her Shinto shrine, too. Every morning, Baachan stood in front of the refrigerator, craned her neck upwards towards an unpainted pine shrine that sat on a high shelf. She prayed loudly in Japanese. Then she clapped her hands twice and got on with her day.

 

Baachan said Amida lived in the sky and kept track of everything we did. If we did good things, good things would happen to us. If we did bad things, bad things would happen. This was called karma, and you couldn’t escape it. Amida was all-powerful and all-seeing; it was useless to try and sneak by him.

One day, I was sitting on the front porch steps, bored and at loose ends in the lazy heat of summer. An enormous horse fly buzzed around my head. I flicked it away, but it kept coming back, big, fat, and greasy-looking. It landed on the steps and rubbed its feelers together. Huge red eyes bulged from the sides of its head. Did it see hundreds of little girls bending down to look at it?

What would the fly look like dead? I wondered. Almost immediately I thought, I will try to be kind to all living things. I tried to brush temptation away, but the thought kept returning. I wonder what would happen if I killed it?

I looked around the yard. No one was there. Mom was at work in San Jose and Baachan and Jiichan were in the fields behind the house. I glanced up at the sky. It was a sharp clean blue without a cloud in it. It’s only a fly. Maybe Amida won’t see. I mentally manufactured a dense white cloud and tugged it across the sky. Then I slipped off a scuffed Mary Jane and swatted the fly with it. When I lifted up my shoe, I was disappointed. The fly doesn’t look much different, except for the thick yellow guts oozing out, and the red smear of blood. Its blood is the same color as mine! My stomach clenched, and my imaginary cloud seemed to get darker.

From then on, whenever Jiichan’s pickup bounced over the railroad tracks and waited for a gap in traffic to turn onto Blood Alley, I could almost feel a big flyswatter hovering in the sky above us.

 

My Morgan Hill baachan’s Buddhism blended girlhood superstitions with pragmatic stoicism, but my other baachan, my dad’s mom, modeled true compassion. She ran a hotel on Stockton’s skid row. Visiting her was a revelation to a sheltered, middle-class kid like me.

After Mom parked our two-tone blue Pontiac on Center Street, she checked to make sure her stocking seams were straight and that my ponytail was so tight it made my scalp ache.

She grasped my hand firmly, and pulled me down the shabby street, walking as fast as she could. She looked neither to the left nor right as we passed a liquor store gleaming with golden pints of port and muscatel. We picked our way among splats of dried vomit, past a passed-out drunk lying twisted on the ground, past a man on crutches with an empty Army-green pant-leg folded up and secured with a safety pin, dangling where his leg should be.

Baachan’s hotel was in the middle of the block next to the pool hall. As we sped past the Jesus Saves mission, I stole a peek through the open door. Men were sitting on folding chairs, listening stoically to the preacher and waiting for a chance to sleep in one of the iron beds lined up along the wall, with white sheets pulled drum tight.

“Rooms • Daily • Weekly • Monthly” read the faded sign of the Senate Hotel. The stench of stale piss hung heavy in the doorway. Mom fished a lacy cambric handkerchief out of her purse and held it to her nose as we climbed up the greasy, threadbare stairs. “Don’t touch the walls,” she warned, gathering her skirts tightly so they wouldn’t brush the stamped metal wainscoting stained with grime from many hands.

Grandma waited at the end of a dim, narrow hallway lined with closed doors. She was four-foot-ten, thin and stooped, with a mouthful of crooked teeth and wispy grey hair knotted into a bun. Wiping her hands on her apron, she beamed a welcome as warm as the sun.

“Haro, haro! Yokkata, ne. Rongu time no shee. Okikunatta ne! Hello! Happy to see you. You’ve gotten big, haven’t you!” she rasped in a voice as big as her smile. She shepherded us into a sitting room so cramped that she had to pull the table out so we could squeeze onto the davenport, then push the table tightly against us so she could back into the kitchen to make tea.

I was humbled to think that she’d raised ten kids here. Her family was poor, but loving. My Stockton grandma was an impossibly saintly yardstick, a daily, weekly, monthly reminder of what it means to be good. She spoke almost no English, but what she taught transcended words. Her unvarnished warmth drew out people’s real selves. When she walked down Center Street, everyone seemed to know her. Her compassion saw past the grime-stiffened pants tied up with rope, the safety-pinned overcoats and broken shoes. What she saw was the basic decency and hurt in red-rimmed eyes.

As she and I walked to Cousin Dickie’s doughnut store one day, a stubble-faced man blocked the sidewalk in front of us. “Hey Mrs.! Hey! How’s it going, Mrs.?” I shrank behind Baachan.

“Ahh, Bru-ran-San, Mr. Brown! Longu time no shee,” she peered deeply into his eyes. “How you? Okeh?

The man shrugged, “So-so. You know I’m trying, right?”

Baachan patted his arm. “You good man – good man. Remember dat, you be okeh.”

The man saw me peeping from behind Baachan’s purse, and began to rummage frantically through his pockets. Did he have a gun, I wondered. Is he going to rob us?

“Wait, wait, I’ve got it here somewhere.” He retrieved a piece of candy from a sweat-stained pocket and held it out to me. My knees locked in resistance as Baachan gently pushed me towards him.

“You’re a little cutie, aren’t ya?” When the man bent over, I was wreathed in a sickly sweet smell of stale alcohol. I looked at the candy. The wrapper was crushed and adorned with pocket lint. Don’t touch! It’s covered with germs, Mom would have said. But she wasn’t here. I looked up at Baachan. “Tek it, tek it,” she urged. “Say ’sank you.’”

“Thank you.” I took the candy with the tips of my fingers, being careful not to touch the man’s hand. His red-rimmed eyes welled. He straightened up and said, “You know, my little girl was about that age…”

Baachan held his gaze for a long moment. “Sori, I so sori. You good man,” she said, and bowed to him.

Mom would have made me throw out the candy, but I unwrapped it and stuck it in my mouth. It was so old my teeth sank through a layer of gummy softness before hitting the clean crunch of peppermint.

I savored the sweetness as I followed my Stockton baachan down the street.

 

Seigel
 
Author’s Comment: This story is one of the first that I wrote for Miss Goody-Good Grows Up, an in-progress memoir about whether it’s possible to “be good, see good, and do good.” As an Army brat, I had to decide very young whether to fear the unknown or explore it. When time-honored systems break down, different ways of seeing are helpful. As a woman of color and the grandchild of immigrants, I know that our country’s diversity has always been our strength.

 

Shizue Seigel explores complex intersections of history, culture and spirituality through a Japanese American lens. Her book In Good Conscience was supported by a California State Library grant, and she is completing a memoir with help from a San Francisco Art Commission Individual Artists Commission. Her prose and poetry have been anthologized in Cheers to Muses, InvAsian, Empty Shoes, and My Words Are Gonna Linger, and published in Negative Capability and other journals. She has exhibited in local, national and international art exhibitions, and her papers are archived at UC Santa Barbara’s California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives.

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6 thoughts on “Of Christmas and Karma

  1. Linda Farhall

    I too loved this. Just shows the different worlds children have to straddle. As adults, we don’t necessarily realise this, especially with all the fragmented families there are around. Marriages of different religions, nationalities and of course, second marriages. You remembered your childhood world so well and bought it to life. Keep writing. You certainly have a talent.

  2. Jane D. Choate

    I’m glad to have read this, glad that you are writing your experience so I can know more about your two-cultures life with the women living life from different personalities/experiences, and I found the bullying Christian women and her son to be a good depiction of how people cling to a set of ideas over valuing people themselves.

  3. Alice Folkart

    The truth behind your experience shines brightly. This is a completely digestible moral tale – the hotel grandmother is a lesson to me that compassion and empathy transcend agility with language. The few English words that baachan has achieve so much good. I will remember. Very nice work. Child’s voice is perfect. The world and the people in it are things to wonder about.

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