For me one of the most complicated questions for me is, “Where are you from?” As a child I moved often and as an adult my gypsy upbringing has repeated as a pattern in my life. The chapters of my memoir Puffy & Blue: The Chronicles of Nine Lives Together are divided by where I lived. I don’t consider myself as having a home town. I thought it would be fun to share the start of each chapter for a longer answer to where I am from.
In Dallas, Texas, my parents got the shock of their lives. While my mom was pregnant with me, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. The news continued to reverberate in our lives for decades. My mom put my life above her own and refused all treatment during pregnancy. She wouldn’t even allow the surgeons to sedate her for the biopsy. She wanted no harm to come to me in any effort to extend her life. As I grew, so did the cancer, but she actually lost weight during pregnancy as her body suffered the consequences of the disease. My mom always told me that I was a most wanted child.
Tachikawa, Japan (1968–1972)
My very first memory in life is very much without context. I was about two-and-a-half years old at the time. I was standing beside the railroad tracks in Tachikawa, Japan, with my parents calling, “Casey, here kitty, kitty, kitty,” in what I am certain was the sweetest little voice ever.
We were searching for our lost cat. I have absolutely no memory of Casey, yet my hazy early memory starts there beside the railroad tracks. I remember that the burnt smell of the tracks tickled my nose. I was trying to balance my wee little feet on loose gravel and stones. The scene feels black and white to me, like an old photograph. I imagine that maybe I was wearing my Mary Jane shoes and a pink jacket with a fuzzy lining. My favorite color in Japan was pink.
We never found Casey. I know from old pictures that Casey was a Siamese cat. From the stories my parents used to tell, I know Casey loved to hide and jump out to scare my dad. Once my dad jumped and screamed, Casey would prance away, satisfied. But that is all I know about Casey.
San Mateo, California (1972)
We were transferred to America when I was nearly five years old. We moved to California and suddenly no one noticed me. It was quite a shock when every other kid had blonde hair, and I discovered I was simply ordinary. I walked the streets of San Mateo without fanfare. I blended into the crowd. I adjusted just fine to no longer being photographed, stared at and touched by strangers. I am pretty sure those four years in Japan attributed to my distaste for being photographed even today.
My mom was no longer in remission. We were transferred urgently to California so my mom could go through experimental treatments at Stanford University, because Hodgkin’s disease at the time was one hundred percent fatal. Going through the experimental treatment was a gamble, but her fate would have been sealed without them.
The only problem with our planned transfer was that I had recently gotten over a mild case of chickenpox and I had passed a severe case of it onto my brother. As we prepared for our international flight, we had all our transfer papers ready, our pets were vaccinated and Kevin was covered head to toe in the chickenpox. Our transfer home was crucial to my mom’s health. So, my parents decided to have Kevin travel home as if he was a make-believe robber wearing a ski mask. He even wrote in Crayola on his suitcase, “I am a robber.” This plan was working just fine until somewhere over the Pacific Ocean a stewardess noticed the speckled little boy on the plane.
Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, our little family, animals and of our belongings were ushered out of the city limits to a hotel for quarantine. While we were quarantined, officials attempted to verify that Kevin indeed only had chickenpox and was not the carrier of some unknown deadly foreign disease.
I had no previous good memories of life in America to call my own, and I was not encouraged as our arrival seemed abrupt and unwelcoming. I continued to think that many things about America were odd for a while. I had never seen such perfect little yards with high wooden fences before. Other kids told me I spoke very good English for being Japanese. I didn’t understand that comment since I thought it was obvious that I wasn’t Japanese. After all, my blonde hair was the stark contrast to my former neighbors in Japan.
Desoto, Texas (1972–1976)
When my mom’s Hodgkin’s disease went into remission again, our family was transferred to Desoto, Texas. We had two cars, three pets, two kids and two adults who needed to get from California to Texas. My parents hitched our second car up and towed it across the country with the pets in it. Naturally I was fretful and worried about our pets’ safety in the towed car.
I watched from the back window as we crossed the miles. Sometimes my mom drove and sometimes my dad did, but in the pet vehicle, Puffy drove the entire way. Puffy stood in the driver’s seat with her front paws on the steering wheel and stared back at me the whole time. Smokey sat in the passenger seat sometimes with his paws on the dash and other times curled up asleep. Tora sat in the middle of the back seat just like the child he was. Tora was still a young puppy.
Smokey didn’t like change. He howled the entire way. We could see his complaints clearly, but thankfully, we couldn’t hear him. He did make sure at least one person heard his complaints. Once when we stopped at a gas station to fill up the towing car Smokey paced back and forth across the front seats. At one point, he threw his whole body against the steering wheel causing a sudden loud honk. The attendant pumping our gas jumped out of his skin. He hadn’t even noticed the animals and was stunned when our towed car noisily came to life.
We arrived in Desoto at the home my parents had pre-purchased. The green shag carpet inside stood out in sharp contrast to the brown grass surrounding our house as the sun faded away over West Lake Drive upon our arrival. We unloaded the animals first to allow them time to investigate the house while we unloaded the car. The house had been vacant awaiting our arrival.
As we toured our new home, we heard a loud yowl coming from the kitchen. We raced in to find Puffy facing off with a scorpion as her nose began to swell. Puffy had taken on the scorpion and lost. Quickly my dad unhitched the other car while my mom searched the phone book frantically for a vet. We raced her to an emergency vet where she used up life number two of her nine lives.
Munich, Germany (1976–1981)
In the summer of 1976, we moved to Munich, Germany. I remember clearly the day my dad came home from work and announced we were moving. I was eight years old. I sat in our papasan chair from Japan in our Texas living room. My dad pulled out the globe and stuck a magnet on Texas and said, “We are here.” He spun the globe and put a magnet onto Germany and announced, “We are moving here.”
We had to go to the doctor and have painful shots to get vaccinated for the move. I remember my parents filling out stacks of paperwork about each of the family members and our three pets. Our house was sold; our furniture and many possessions were packed for storage. The rest of our possessions were shipped to meet us in Germany. I remembered all the goodbyes this time. In the past, I had arrived to new places without a sense of loss.
Duncanville, Texas (1981–1984)
My thoughts about airplanes changed in junior high. I don’t ever really remember being sad about a move until we left Munich, Germany. The summer before my eighth grade year, we were transferred to Duncanville, Texas. I was terribly distraught about leaving my friends behind. I cried at the airport, all the way through security and off and on during the long airplane ride to America. The animals all made a huge scene in their cages as we parted ways for the flight. That scene had been enough to make my tears flow freely.
I was curious about what was ahead, but my heart strings were still attached to the people I had just said goodbye to. Once in Texas, every time I saw a plane fly overhead I thought, “There is someone crying on that plane.” I had never thought that before and I couldn’t shake it. I relived the sadness of my separation from friends when I thought of someone else on the plane overhead going through sad goodbyes.
Later, with some distance from the experience, I finally realized that the chances of someone crying on the planes that flew overhead were actually not that great. Most people travel to go on vacation, for business or to visit people. In my mind, airplane travel had been become a sad event, when in reality, it rarely is for others. It was my own burden that had twisted my perspective on a fairly common enjoyable experience.
After we moved back to America, it was, in general, very foreign to me. I had only lived in America for a small portion of my life. I did not remember there being a wall of heat like the one that greeted us as the automatic doors of the airport slide open at the Dallas Fort Worth airport. It was odd to hear everyone speaking the same language. I think it was the commercialism that was most shocking to me. Everywhere I looked there were billboards and advertisements on TV and radio. The only commercials I was familiar with were public service announcements like the one that played every night on AFN radio, “It is 10 p.m. Central European time. Do you know where your children are?”
America seemed loud in every sense of the word to me. It was bizarre to feel like a foreigner in my own country. The unsettledness was exaggerated by my parent’s difficulty finding a home to purchase for quite some time. We lived in temporary housing with our three pets while my parents searched.
San Antonio, Texas (1984–1986)
I entered two of the hardest years of my life abruptly. Those years I refer to as the years I don’t speak of. After three years in Duncanville, we packed our bags for our transfer to San Antonio before my junior year in high school. This was the first move I made without my brother by my side. He had graduated high school and had headed to college.
I had only lived in San Antonio a week when I unexpectedly discovered I wasn’t welcome there. I was in a rough school district with a mostly Hispanic population. The other high school girls were not excited about the arrival of a new blonde chick. I had barely recovered from the move when my initiation into my new reality began.
I realized my arrival to San Antonio wasn’t going to be smooth on my first and last day at a new job at a BBQ restaurant. The hours couldn’t pass fast enough. The girls who worked with me hated me simply for being another female. They physically threatened me. I decided a minimum wage job wasn’t worth a return visit. I don’t even think I told anyone I wasn’t ever coming back. I just left my uniform there and walked away.
I was shaken from the experience. I sat in the parking lot trying to gain my composure. It was there that I realized that I couldn’t remember how to get home, my address or what my phone number was. I inched my way out into the street and headed in the direction I thought might have been the way I had come. My orange Volkswagen had died, and I was driving a new light blue Datsun.
As I traveled down the road looking for familiar landmarks, I fell apart. I started to cry uncontrollably. I was lost, profoundly lost. I had no idea how to find my way home. Just then I saw the flashing lights of a police car in my rear view mirror. I was certain he was coming to my rescue. He found me sobbing in the front seat of my Datsun. Much to my surprise, he ignored my tears. He sternly informed me I had been speeding.
I explained that I had just moved to San Antonio and was completely lost. He asked me where I lived. He was not humored by the fact that I had no idea. He took my license and went back to his car. He returned with a ticket for speeding and a warning that I had only thirty days to change my address on my license. He actually drove away. He left me sobbing in my car on the side of the round, and I was still quite literally lost.
During the years I don’t speak of it felt like I was living in a dream-world. Nothing made sense when compared to the reality of my past. Before that day, I would have expected the police officer to help me. But somehow, I was living in a different world, which was so unfamiliar and disorienting.
That day I drove for what seemed like an eternity until I stumbled upon streets which started to look familiar. I finally found my home and wept inconsolably. My parents tried to comfort me. They said it was only a speeding ticket, but it wasn’t the ticket at all that I was upset about. It was the paradigm shift. In reality it was the first tremor in what would become an earthquake-like period in my life. My constant companion, Puffy, tried to lick away my tears, but even her comfort couldn’t ease the pain.
Nothing in my life seemed familiar, even the constants like my family and Puffy. The changes threw me off-kilter. It created a struggle in me to find a new reality. I was humbled by San Antonio and the two years I spent there.
Portland, Oregon (1986–1992)
With college, the opportunity I craved to reinvent myself was upon me. I was intensely frightened of speaking in public. I decided I was going to show up on my first day of college and pretend this fear didn’t exist. I arrived in my first class, and I had resolved to talk out loud in class and to participate whether I had anything to say or not.
As we sat around a round table discussing the book To Know a Fly by Vincent G. Dethier and N. Tinbergen, I opened my mouth repeatedly to speak and nothing came out. Finally, before class ended, I got my words out, even though my hands were shaking violently under the table. Over time, I forced myself through class after class speaking up while my hands shook, until one day, my hands stopped shaking and my voice grew confident. Eventually, I was truly no longer frightened of speaking in public.
During those four years, I became quite outspoken in the classroom, did many poetry readings, became a leader in student government and served on many committees. Somewhere along the way, I lost track of the girl with the fear of speaking. With time, my body forgot to shake violently.