Search This Blog

October 1, 2012

The Companion of Memory

Simple pleasures are often our true treasures. Annette Greene takes us on her walks with her mom, across time and continents. Submitted to go with the theme, "Life was good when...", this essay is an invitation to us to revisit the simple pleasures that we shared with loved ones, and to remember that once given, those simple pleasures are very much ours to keep. 


Pixalot, iStock Photo
by Annette Greene

I love walking. I’ve lived in many large cities and I’ve walked in them all.  In Vancouver I walked to school; in Seattle I walked to work.  In New York, Tokyo, and Singapore, even with the convenience of the subway systems, I found myself walking everywhere and I still do here in now in Washington, DC.  I don’t know if this particular trait, the love of walking, is inherited, but my mother loved to walk, too.

My mother visited me in Tokyo, Japan in the 1980s when she was in her 50s. Tokyo was my home for seven years when I was beginning my career teaching English as a foreign language. It is one of the most densely populated places in the world. When my mother was there, we took several long walks and one day headed from my little house in the Harajuku fashion district to Shibuya, one of the great hubs of this bustling Asian city. With all the trains, subways, and buses arriving and departing here, millions of people pass through Shibuya station every day.

Shibuya Station, Tokyo, Japan
On this warm spring morning, my mother and I set out at a moderate walking pace; she, at 5 feet 10 inches tall, towered over me, as she had my whole life. Her hair at that time was black and short, teased and held in place with hairspray which added to her height. With her tall frame being a little on the heavy side, she always walked in “sensible” shoes, and this was about the only type of exercise she did. I was in my 30s and, at that time, slimmer and more athletic. I was also four inches shorter than she was and, with my long wavy brown hair, I wondered then if others could guess that we were mother and daughter.
We first went down side streets which usually had more people than cars on them. Because of a lack of space, many Tokyo streets have no sidewalks; instead it is common to see a low metal fence dividing the road from the area where people are supposed to walk.  We were probably no more than a mile from my house when we left the side street and started walking on Meiji Dori, a major road close to Shibuya station. As we walked, we talked, catching up— it had been a while since we had seen each other.

“Mom, how does it feel to finally visit me in Japan?” 

“It’s like a dream,” she replied. “I really didn’t know what to expect and now here I am.”

We had not lived in the same city for more than 10 years and now were separated by continents and an ocean as well. That day, given my mother’s love of shopping, I was taking her to Tokyu Hands, a large department store which sold unusual hobby, home improvement and “lifestyle” products, the likes of which she would never see back in Canada. My mother, for most of her life a traditional housewife who got married at age 20, prided herself on having her “own money,” separate from my father’s, and one of her simple pleasures was to spend it as she saw fit. We wandered through a number of the store’s departments and she enjoyed every minute of it. The only things I can remember her buying that day were some small ceramic chopstick holders shaped like various types of vegetables (eggplant, carrot, and squash, to name a few)—things she kept in plain view on her kitchen shelf for many years after that trip.

On our walk that day in Tokyo, we reached a major intersection across from the train station that I’d been to hundreds of times in the five years that I’d lived there. Where the streets met was a type of zebra crossing common in Japan: all the traffic stopped and people crossed in all directions at the same time, even diagonally if they wished. Stepping off the curb, I indicated to my mother that we should go because the lights had turned green. Instead of following me, however, she stopped and, with her eyes widening in amazement, she said, “Oh, Annette, look at all the people!” I glanced up at the crowd and realized what we were seeing was perhaps several thousand people crisscrossing this huge intersection at the same time. For me, this was an everyday occurrence in this city of 10 million people. However, for my mother, who lived in a small town near Niagara Falls, it really was an extraordinary sight.
Adams Morgan Neighborhood, Washington, DC
Many years later when she was in her early 70s, my mother began visiting me in Washington DC, a much less densely populated city than Tokyo.  DC is a comfortable place to walk in May, the month when she frequently came for what had become a yearly ritual. I now think of it as her Mother’s Day gift to me—making the eight-hour road trip down here from Ontario with my father doing the driving. A trip of that length wasn’t easy for them as they entered their senior years, and surely my mother preferred walking to being a in a car all day long. She had slowed down as she aged and was most comfortable walking at an unhurried pace. We went many places together, including to the Washington National Cathedral when they were holding their spring Flower Mart and out to Bethesda, Maryland, for the outdoor arts and crafts market.

Duke Ellington Bridge
One particularly beautiful Saturday morning, we headed from Woodley Park over the Duke Ellington Bridge to the Adams Morgan area. As we walked, she still towered over me, even though she was probably not the height she had been in her younger days. My father was content to stay at my home, reading the newspaper and watching sports on television. Had he been with us, he wouldn’t have understood our delight as we stumbled upon a two-block-long collection of yard sales in progress. My mother loved “window shopping” at conventional shopping malls, but this was even better because it was less predictable. Here we were, leisurely walking and able to peruse the odds and ends that people were trying to sell at bargain prices. She kept stopping, surveying the assortment of small household goods and asking me if I saw anything that I wanted. It reminded me of shopping with her when I was a child and she would always want to buy me “something:” something attractive, useful, and not too expensive. I still have the turquoise cloth dinner napkins that she bought me that day at one of the yard sales. They are now faded from being laundered countless times, but whenever I use them I am reminded of that time and those yard sales.

That day, as on all our previous walks, we talked about anything and everything. She confided in me that she would like to move to a “walking city” like Toronto and could imagine doing this if, one day, she found herself a widow. “Dad would never want to live in a big city again, but I know I would love it. “ Remarking on how much we enjoyed walking together, she continued, “You were a terrible teenager, a rebel, and we didn’t always get along…..but you turned out ok.”

“Oh, come on, Mom, I really wasn’t that bad, was I?”
She had told me in the past that she couldn’t understand why I wanted to move out of the house at age 18, why when I got married I didn’t change my name, didn’t have a traditional ceremony, or didn’t even want a wedding ring. She also probably couldn’t completely grasp why I chose to live so far away from home. My mother left school after finishing tenth grade and so she never fully appreciated why I went to college and graduate school, even when I was way past the age of most traditional students. Nowadays, it’s surprising to meet old friends of hers and hear them remark how much I remind them of my mother— I just always assumed that she and I weren’t very much alike.

iStock Photo
Today, I still love walking and sometimes walk with friends, occasionally with my husband, but mainly I walk alone. My mother never had a chance to become a widow.  She died unexpectedly in the winter of 2005. Our walk to Adams Morgan that previous spring turned out to be the last time we would take a long walk together. These days, during my solitary walks, along those same streets near my home where we once walked, I am often reminded of our conversation back then. I mostly remember the mood of that slow, carefree stroll we shared one beautiful spring day. In a sense, my mother is still accompanying me at these times, and I’m grateful for those memories I can hold close to my heart.


Annette Greene is a freelance writer and educator living in Washington, DC. Originally from Vancouver, BC, she writes on a variety of topics, including health and wellness, travel, and cross-cultural communication. Essay copyright Annette Greene, all rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment