Creative non-fiction / May 2010 (Issue 11)

Now and Then

by Mary Gilmer

She had long ago stopped fearing for my life as I never once had been injured skydiving. My cautious, reserved Japanese mother simply had come to view this unconventional sport of mine as just another of her daughter's adventure hobbies.

One beautiful 'perfect for skydiving' day, I asked my mother if she'd care to come watch me land my parachute. Her decision came as a surprise as prior invitations to the skydiving center's "dropzone" had always been declined. As sensitive as she was, I had assumed that her distinct aversion to noisy planes had been the cause. Needless to say, I was delighted that finally, I would have the pleasure of my mother's company on a favorite playground of mine.

"Are you sure, Mom? It might get a little boring for you just sitting there, you know," I said, getting down the picnic basket from the cabinet above the refrigerator.

"Shoe-ahh," she said playfully. "I watch you, then read Bible."

As I watched her prepare our lunch, a sense of gratitude washed over me. The sight of my tiny mom standing on a footstool, busy over the kitchen sink is a familiar one. Except now, in her 80s with her back rounded with age, from behind, she looked a bit like a dwarf witch, hovering over a cauldron.

She packed the usual picnic items: rice balls sprinkled with sesame seed and wrapped in seaweed, several rolls of sushi with ham, egg and cucumber strips inside, two or three persimmons, sliced into little wedges and a half-gallon of iced green tea, tightly sealed in the dented metal thermos that never could stand on its own. The customary twisted moist wash cloths—each in its own plastic sandwich bag—topped the contents of our Asian picnic basket.

The half hour drive to the dropzone, nestled in the beautiful hills of San Diego, was like traveling through an oil painting. The morning sunshine was a gentle but powerful presence. It caused the dew-damp grass covering the rolling hills around Lake Otay to glisten and the deep sapphire of the lake's surface to sparkle with an amazing dancing light. The little silver Honda Civic motored diligently down the winding road which followed the graceful contour of the water.

Reveling in the freedom of being out of her mobile home park, like a songbird, Mom sang, in her now faltering soprano, a hymn I knew well. I followed suit in Japanese right along with her. With all the windows down, we treated the surrounding hillside to the Asian rendition of God Will Take Care of You, our song a seemingly unending duet.

Just outside of the dropzone, her voice trailed off and I found myself singing solo. Wondering if she had fallen asleep, I glanced quickly to look over at Mom. Holding her eyeglasses to her face with one hand, she was leaning slightly out the open window, craning her neck to look above her.

"Whatcha looking at, Ma?" I asked, pulling myself forward with the steering wheel, craning my neck as well to peer upwards through the windshield. I scanned the sky in the area where Mom's gaze was locked.

Quietly, she said, "A plane."

Relaxing back in the driver's seat, enthusiastically I responded, "That's the 'jump plane,' Ma. That's what I'll be going up in. Can you believe that up to twenty-three skydivers are sitting on that plane right now?!"

My excitement was mounting as it always did nearing the dropzone, but, today it was magnified with the pride of having my mother with me.

Arriving at the dropzone, I claimed our space in the shade of one of the few trees in the spectator area. I eased her slowly down into the low blue-and-white nylon strapped beach chair, and, once certain that she was comfortable and that everything she needed was within reach, I put on my skydiving gear. Strolling with my group to board the awaiting plane, several times I looked back and, each time, found my mother waving.

A beloved memory of my mother watching me on the playground as a child pushed easily into my awareness.

"Mi-te'-ru! Mi-te'-ru!" she would call out to me in Japanese, assuring me that she was watching.

"Mamma, are you sure you're watching?!!" I'd insist nervously as I prepared to make another daring leap off of the jungle gym.

Treasuring the memory, I boarded the plane and took my seat. I kept my gaze initially on the floor, attempting to hide from the other skydivers the silly grin that wouldn't easily leave my face. From the air, high above the dropzone, I could still make out the tree that Mom was sitting under, now almost a dot on the landscape below. Smiling down at her from a small oval window in the plane, I knew in my heart that Mom, more than likely, was still waving up at me.

I could hardly wait to land my parachute—my goal, to get as close to that tree as possible. Although it turned out that my landing was far from accurate and less than ladylike, I quickly jumped to my feet after rolling to a stop, turning to face in my mother's direction. There was Mom, coming out of the beach chair, attempting to stand with the use of her cane. Regardless of my performance, she was smiling, nodding and waving her free hand as hard as she dared without losing her balance.

After removing all my gear, and exhausted from the jump, I plopped down on the grass next to her chair and leaned into her. Reaching over across her chest, she patted my face and head, not too gently, beaming with pride and relief that I had survived my landing.

While watching the next group of skydivers land, she nodded very slowly as if agreeing in advance with herself.

"So this is time of peace…" she whispered.

"Huh, Mom?"

She looked up into the sky again, searching for any straggling parachutes that had yet to land.

"Pay to jump out of plane—for fun?" she said, not in disdain but more in wonder.

I chuckled at her statement.

"Yeah, crazy huh, Ma?" I said, tucking the afghan in around her, as the wind had picked up.

After the noisy plane had taken off again and the current batch of landed skydivers were completely off of the field, a kind of reverent silence settled on the dropzone. Into that quiet stage, as if an invisible curtain had risen, my mother began to speak—this time, in a markedly different voice.

"When I young girl" she said, "only Para-troopah jump from plane."

As I sat cross legged beside my mother, without having to ask for clarification, she continued speaking with purpose.

"I am sixteen when war with America."

Her homeland, in a continuous state of war with many nations long before the entry of the US into WWII, was already a devastated country in 1925—the year of her birth. Beyond that, I knew little, as she was mostly private about her childhood in war-torn Japan. Her openness surprised me.

"It was good I did not know not war. I know no different."

She shifted her weight in the beach chair to turn more fully to face me. Tapping the side of her head with her index finger and closing one eye, she said, "My life normal, I think." 

"Life hard. Sometimes hungry, yes, but happy. Be with family—see?"

Stretching her short legs further out in front of her, she let out a controlled sigh.

Over the dropzone's speaker system, I vaguely heard an announcement for the next group of jumpers to report to the boarding area. But the familiar sounds of the airport had already begun to fade into the background. I focused on my mother's eyes, a far-away look to them, as she searched for words to describe an incident from her life in the fall of 1945.

She had been harvesting what she could find of the Japanese Knotwood, an edible weed, in a field just outside of her village, much like the open field of the dropzone. It was a bright, windy day—the sky held no clouds, the weather similar to the one we were enjoying. Walking back to her village with the paltry handful of sprigs she had found, her entire body bristled when hearing the first blast of the warning siren from the village. No one could forget the haunting first wail of the siren that foretold that another air raid was imminent.

For the first time, she found herself outdoors during an air raid. Hearing the low buzzing of fighter planes approaching over the sound of the siren, she turned slowly to look in the direction of the sinister droning. There were many—possibly a dozen P-51 Mustangs— spread unevenly in a threatening line across the horizon. Dropping her handful of weeds, she found herself paralyzed, watching the approaching planes like a field mouse hypnotized by a swaying cobra.

She described the planes clearly: how the sun had glinted menacingly off of the silver fuselage as one by one, they nosed down, the pitch of their engines reaching a maniacal whine as they dove toward her village. A deafening and continuous popping ensued as their guns fired on their target, their trajectory clearly marked by the spray of white, fiery dots. The dirt path she was on suddenly snapped with dust and smoke, the smell of fire and metal all around her.

A P-51, in line with where she stood, fine-tuned its course to hone in on her. She described how, behind the almost invisible whirling propeller, the nose of the plane was painted a bright yellow. For a fraction of a second, unbelievably, she met the eyes of the American pilot before he took more careful aim at her. Experiencing a sudden rush of adrenaline, she abruptly went numb. She was no longer afraid but, rather, painfully confused by the surrealness of the moment. She just could not fathom why another human being was trying to harm her.

Although the pilot plowed the earth all around my mother with gunfire—the concussion in the air actually buffeting her body—incredibly, he missed hitting her altogether. Describing vividly her relief, she shared how her weak knees had buckled, dropping her to the ground as the P-51 had thundered by, close overhead. The siren had continued to wail long past the disappearance of the herd of Mustangs, its sound now a perversion to the beautiful blue sky day.

After my mother finished sharing what happened to her that day in long-ago Japan, we were both silent for a while. Eventually, awkwardly, I put my arm around her. As if eager to break the intimacy of the moment, she soon moved away, busying herself with a wax paper package. Producing a rice ball with a smile, she held it out to me with her eyebrows raised in question. There was really nothing to say. I took it from her with a quick nod of thanks.

Enjoying the comfort of each other's company in the shade of the little tree, we watched the next group of skydivers climb aboard the awaiting plane in the distance. As the big lumbering Twin Otter aircraft made a bumpy U-turn over the grass, I glimpsed the pilot—red baseball cap on his head and the mirrored sunglasses that he wore, catching the sunlight. He shot a big thumbs-up in the direction of the skydiving office before crunching down the gravel runway for takeoff.

Taking a long drink of green tea from the old crippled thermos, I slowly allowed the depth of my mother's earlier statement to sink in.

"This," she had said, "this—is time of peace…"

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