This week the topic is Memories of Christmas. I’ve lived through a lot of Christmases, and there are endless memories that I could share with you. But one particular memory has been on my mind lately, so I’m going to describe it to you and then try to explain why it meant so much to me.
Here is a picture that happens to include my dad’s family. I don’t have a print of this particular photo – it’s owned by the Grand Rapids Public Museum. My father is the little boy holding his mother’s hand, and his older brother Jim is standing next to him. This picture was taken during the Great Depression, when they – like millions of other Americans – needed help to survive. They had no family to help them, because Grandma and Grandpa immigrated from Japan. This was long before the days of Skype and FaceTime, and international calls were costly. I imagine their Christmases were rather quiet and perhaps a little lonely.
When World War II broke out, both Dad and his brother enlisted. They both served in Korea as well. In this picture, Uncle Jim is standing, and my dad is seated. After the Korean War, both brothers married Japanese women. While Uncle Jim and his wife lived in Okinawa, my dad and mom set up their home in Grand Rapids, and Grandma lived with us for most of my growing up years. Uncle Jim would visit once in a while, and one summer he brought Aunt Kay and their daughters, Diana and Cynthia. These were our only English-speaking cousins, and my brothers and I were delighted to meet them. You see, we also had quiet family holidays. While our friends went to visit grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, we kept to ourselves, other than a very short overseas phone call at New Year’s.
Fortunately, Uncle Jim was awesome at keeping in touch. Long letters arrived at our house on a regular basis, filled with photos and descriptions of the places they lived. Once he even sent us a little reel-to-reel tape player and we sent tapes back and forth. We knew we had cousins, and thanks to Uncle Jim’s regular correspondence we knew what they looked like. Best of all, we found out there were other people out there who looked like us – at the time there were very few Asians living in West Michigan. We were different, and I remember wishing I could be more like my friends who had blonde hair, blue eyes and dozens of cousins to play with.
I remember that every Christmas a huge package would arrive. Inside were several small, individually wrapped gifts. In retrospect, I realize these items were things we could have found at our local department store, but we were delighted because they were sent especially for us from a place far, far away. The gifts may not have been expensive, but to us they were priceless, because they reminded us that we had extended family – just like everyone else.
The knowledge that we had family who cared about us was the best Christmas gift he could have sent, and for that I’ll always be grateful. Rest in peace, Uncle Jim. You taught us the importance of reaching out to family, no matter how far away they are.