A few Sundays ago I opened the door to the church sanctuary, and there stood Takemata-san and her two younger daughters. We both exclaimed in greeting and tried to pinpoint when we had last seen each other. Years ago we had met through mutual friends. She’d lived in the same neighborhood as our friends Sven and Tone, missionaries from Norway. When Sven and Tone started a coffeehouse in town, Takemata-san’s daughter Shiho began to attend their English classes. I happened to spend many of those same afternoons there, pouring coffee, serving cake, and chatting with the moms while their kids “studied” in the opposite room. Takemata-san started attending our church, and we got to know her family. I would guess that she is about fifteen years older than I, so our conversational tone was always a mixture of woman-to-woman chitchat and mother-to-daughter counsel.
The family had moved to Tokyo in the wake of last year’s earthquake, and it had been some time before that when we had last met. While it was nice to see them again, I did not expect sitting and talking over lunch to feel so…comforting. I asked after her two older children, their current living arrangements, and the girls’ education. I rolled my eyes at something Rei did at the lunch table, and before she said it I knew what was coming: her oft-repeated admonishment that boys grow up fast and leave your side; they are only with you for a brief time. We did not talk long, even though the words and topics came easily, as did our leave-taking.
My effortless and pleasant exchange with Takemata-san that day was a product of our shared history. Essentially, we’d had that conversation before. When you have spent enough time with someone in certain contexts, you know what to say and how to say it, and you probably already know the answers to your polite inquiries. The exchange brought my current daily reality into stark relief. The bulk of my days are spent as the new kid on the block. Whether at the boys’ schools, the pool, or our new church, I feel I must initiate small talk, presenting my best face in settings in which I am not well known. I find myself among groups of (mostly ) women who have established relationships. They are all Japanese and therefore have an innate understanding of the society’s inner workings and unwritten rules. Having missed last year, I become the default newcomer on all fronts. Not a natural when it comes to meeting people and making friends, I fight my tendency to draw inward and instead push myself to interact.
The effort has been rewarded; I feel my spoken Japanese improving (or at least not atrophying), and I am treated as an equal among my school library volunteer peers. The people at church could not be more welcoming. But thank God for Erika and Cathy, my foreign wife compatriots in this city and the ones who remain after all the water under the bridge (or over, as the case may be). Thank God for holidays and birthdays, Friday night Scrabble, and pizza or curry lunches with them. Our shared history keeps us on a somewhat even keel in this place that will stay forever foreign to us. We remind each other that there is more than one correct definition of “normal.” We meet on very similar cultural wavelengths and thus can dispense with navigating niceties and rigidities inherent in the culture here. We take a collective deep breath and exhale.
Saving the members of the family I was born into, there is no one I have more shared history with than Jennifer Linberger. I first came to know her as Jenny Crown when I started second grade at West Broad Street Elementary School. We were not classmates there until fifth grade, a year that began and cemented a lifelong friendship. We found we shared a lot: status of oldest child in our families, a Christian faith, a love of laughter. Of course, at the time we could not know the future; in fact, all we knew was that Jen’s family was set to move at the end of the school year, and she would not be returning to WBS. Beyond that, we would be going to different junior high schools as per the zoning, so we headed quickly, separately, into tweendom.
A year later my family moved–to the area shared by Jen’s junior high school. Together we rode the wave of seventh grade, eighth grade and all its attendant drama through daily phone calls, dances, weekends at the mall, sleepovers. On the cusp of ruling the school as ninth graders, another move was planned for Jen’s family. This time, they were leaving the school district altogether. High school loomed, and Jen was on her way out of my life again. In the intervening years, one of us would pick up the phone on occasion, and the conversation would flow as if no time had passed and no adolescent bridges had been crossed. The connection was almost eerie but always wonderful.
Junior year was starting, and word came that Jen was moving back…right next door to us. Did I hear that correctly? Are you sure? We had made another move two years prior, and now Jen was going to be our neighbor. Needless to say, we packed an enormous amount of fun and games into those last high school years, the memory of which has helped to soften the residual angst and regret over poor choices in fashion and boys. We rode to school every morning in her ’72 green VW bug; we worked at Provident Bookstore every Friday night and Saturday. We called to each other through open windows as we soaked in our respective tubs before the senior prom.
Considering our history to that point, I wonder why we assumed college would put us asunder. We started at different PA state schools, but circumstances were such that I ended up at Millersville as a transferring sophomore in her senior year there. Need I continue? We stood up for each other when we married. Through correspondence and visits we walked with each other through early wifehood and fertility issues. We had our children each within a year of the other. My kids call her, “Aunt Jen.” She is my best friend, but somehow that moniker doesn’t do justice to the relationship, especially as it is thrown around lately, shortened to the cute but trite “BFF.” Jen is simply a fact of my life, one I will not and cannot live without. Thankfully, I know I won’t have to.
What does it mean to possess this kind of shared history with someone? It means you have one of this world’s rarest finds. It means you pick up where you left off. It means that you have nothing much to explain but no dearth of things to dissect, moon over, reminisce about, or drown in chocolate. I kid her that one day she will find herself on her way to Japan, because you just never know. Truthfully, that does seem like a long shot. In the meantime, we build lives on opposite sides of the globe and hold onto the very few unchanging truths in life: It’s hard. You go through it anyway. Someone’s got your back.