Daughter of A War Bride
By Kayla Koeber Brown
I attended my first and only War Bride's conference several years ago in Los Angeles because my mother was a speaker and I wanted to support her. I was reluctant, envisioning and somewhat boring event, but went anyway knowing it was important to my mother. As I listened to the stories unfold... the personal tales of hardship and tragedy, perseverance and triumph I found myself riveted in my seat, captivated by these women it was my privilege to meet and hear. These were not just Japanese born women who married American men and moved, often for life, to another country. These women were the quietest, most unassuming heroes and warriors imaginable. Touched more than I ever imagined, I told my mother I would like to make a presentation someday honoring these War Brides and speak of what I knew of their experience – Through the eyes of a mixture child.
As I sat to write this I fully intended to focus on the very different culture War Brides and their children created. Part Japanese, part American, yet never fully 100% of either. I thought I would speak of the fluidity with which I learned to slide from one culture to the other. "Omusubi" and peanuts-pan-pan... adaptability and empathy and the good fortune of getting the best of both worlds as and "ainoko" child. But as I started writing, I realized what I really wanted to talk about was my mom. Tsukiko Teraki who became Kitty Koeber. A not so quiet warrior, who has lived her life to the fullest and makes no apology for doing so. This then is a tribute to my mother, and the countless other War Brides just like her. From her mixture child who has been given riches beyond imagining because of the courage, endurance and joy with which she has embraced her life.
It was not always easy being my mother's child. The very traits that enabled her to venture forth into a foreign culture, life and land were the same that sometimes seared a too-sensitive little girl like me. Now, on the other side of 43 years, these are the qualities I've learned to appreciate and cherish most in my mother. These are the qualities I fervently hope I have somehow inherited and learned from her.
Daddy always said while mom was tough as nails on the outside, inside she was really soft as putty. I have never doubted the courage of my mother. I have seen it come roaring forth like a lion many times in my life.
One of my most poignant memories is when our family moved from Japan to America in the 60's I was six or seven and didn't really understand. It was exciting to be at Haneda airport, exciting to be getting on a plane, exciting to have all of the Teraki family at the airport. Suddenly though I found myself on the other side of a floor to ceiling clear plastic wall separating my family from the Teraki family. We could only speak through special vented speaking holes to each other. Suddenly it seemed so wrong to be leaving Baba and the rest of my Japanese family. I remember bursting into tears and crying for Baba and Kiyoko one-chan. I decided I didn't want to go to America after all. I can't help but believe mom felt the exact same way. Only someone as tough as nails on the outside would have been able to board that airplane.
Other memories of my mom's strength come to mind. Wearing a kimono to Macy's Easter Parade in New York City years ago and almost stopping traffic. Showing up at her first American Ladies Club luncheon in full style when it was still very unfashionable for American men to marry Japanese women. Learning to speak up to survive in America life. Holding her head high when ignorant Americans made fun of her accent, mom taught me it was good to be different. Only scared, small people wanted everyone to be like them.
I have watched my mom endure much sadness in her full life. When her sister, Rita, suddenly died of cancer in Florida I saw the softest center of my mom when we opened the kitchen cupboard at Rita's house and found unopened box after box of Japanese food my mom had sent her. Rita, too had married an American and over the years become isolated and estranged to her homeland and family. That her sister had been ill and hadn't had anyone preparation her favorite Japanese dishes, didn't have anyone to preparation her body lovingly for a Buddhist wake and funeral, endured stoically and died so very far from home, friendless and alone except for her husband, was the saddest moment to this day in my mother's life. Aunt Rita, to me, is the tragedy of the Japanese War Bride. So determined to succeed in her new country she lost her home and family somehow. Her still body at the morgue, prepared for cremation in its sterile casket with no ceremony, no ritual, no loving prayer by the obo-san is one of my saddest memories as well.
My mom found ways not just to survive but also to keep alive her Japanese heritage in a very foreign land. When we moved to Maryland I remember literally hours she spent on the phone with Aiko and Akemi friends who moved to America also. Circulating Japanese magazines amongst the Japanese girls that Baba faithfully sent every month. Making long trips to the one Japanese market in the Washington area. Insisting on speaking Japanese to us kids, especially if she was angry. Cooking gohan and osakana in between steak and potatoes – Okusan lunch for herself every day. Putting up Hina dolls for Girls Day, dressing me in a Kimono for Halloween when all I really wanted was to be a clown. And writing. In these days before cheap long distance, e-mail or fax I remember my mother writing and writing and Baba writing volumes back.
My fondest and most enduring memory from this time is mom and Misora Hibari. Countless times I came home from school to find the record player turned up full blast, the vacuum roaring and mom singing along at the top of her lungs. "But we don't like her" we would say. "Urusai" mom would say. "This is how I keep sane and can keep living in this *&@! Country."
My mother has always found a way to endure. She is full of gaman though she likes to complain about it. She cared for Daddy faithfully (though not quietly) for several tough years before he died. For all of mom's tough skin and talk she devoted herself to daddy, which was not often easy as he became increasingly ill. Dad loved Japan all his life and was determined to go home to Shimoda one last time before he died. Somehow mom had the fortitude to get him there and daddy had a wonderful two months before he was hospitalized for the last time in Mishima. I will never forget those last weeks of daddy's life that I shared with mom. We were far from our friends in Shimoda and the Teraki family in Zushi, staying in a business hotel room the size of a postage stamp. Yet Mom remained remarkably upbeat and energetic, pacing the corridors, humming Misora Hibari, making certain the nurses took good care of him and the doctors remained attentive. She would collapse into an ofuro at the end of each day, still singing Hibari, sleep hard and get up and do it all over again. I learned to respect and admire my mother deeply in those weeks. I was never so proud to be her daughter. My daddy fought hard for his life to the very end – he died calling for mom and held in her arms. My father was a very lucky man.
I will always remember my mother as burning brighter than the rest of the world. She lives with more drama, intrigue and controversy than anyone else I know. Perhaps it is growing up in a war torn country, watching so many of her boyfriends as kamikaze. Perhaps it is the hardship she endured moving to America. Perhaps it is the friends and family she has watched grow old or ill and die. My mother has a natural joy and interest in everyday life that is amazing. There is no stranger she won't befriend and give advice to, no friend who can resist telling mom the most intimate details of her life, no country she does not want to travel to and no culture or food dish she doesn't want to taste.
Mom also has more imagination than anyone else I know. Some of my earliest memories are my brother and I in the back seat of the car and mom driving, with a faraway look in her eyes, chatting away deep in fantasy. I could never figure out whom she was talking to. Whether it was Tsuruta Koji, Kevin Costner or George Strait my family has lived with her idols as though they were members of the family. When she met my father she was a young girl in a war torn country hoping to meet Gary Cooper. I think she is looking still.
I think the greatest gift of my mother is laughter. I often suspect there has been much sorrow in my mother's life and perhaps there is still. I know she misses daddy more than she tells us and as she gets older I think she worries about her health and mobility and how long she can travel between America and Japan. But through all, my mother has never lost her ability to find humor and laughter in every situation. My mother refuses to grow old gracefully. She insists on going out for karakoke weekly, has started drinking chu-hai nightly and still likes to dress up in outlandish costumes. She befriends fishermen, government dignitaries, farm wives and elegant ladies equally. She laughs uproariously with all of them. I hope I grow old just like her.
It was not always easy being a half Japanese, half American girl-women in this world. But I would never trade one moment of my culturally diverse, hopelessly different, abundantly contrasted life for any other. For you see I learned about the promise life holds when you hold your head up high and are not afraid to be different. I know about the wonders this world has to offer when you have the courage to leave what's familiar. And most of all I know I will endure whatever comes my way and ultimately live a life richer and fuller than most. You see, I learned all this from my mother.