Years ago, I remember reading an article about a wealthy executive and his children. He spoke about the fact that his two sons were growing up in an affluent family and how different his own childhood had been. I can’t remember the exact quote, but it was something akin to, “My kids didn’t have the advantage of growing up with disadvantages I had as a child.” That really hit home for me, and I often think about how lucky I am to have had such a “different”, at times very difficult, childhood.
The first eight years of my life in Okinawa were pretty idyllic. Living on a tropical island, even though it was in close proximity to the Vietnam War, was simple and carefree. My older sister Janet and I both went to American schools, because our dad was an American citizen working for the U.S. Navy.
Since both our parents worked nights (our mother ran successful “hostess” clubs), there were many evenings where I was in Janet’s care. I can’t imagine leaving a 7 and 10-year-old alone night after night, but that’s just the way it was back then. Luckily, we spent many afternoons with our oba-chan (grandma) watching her make tofu (which she sold at market) and caring for her pigs (which we ate).
I don’t have many memories of my mom being a “mother”, but I’m so grateful that I had oba-chan and my sister. If it wasn’t for oba-chan’s nuturing and love, I think both Janet and I would have turned out much differently. During World War II, oba adopted our mother, along with many other war orphans on the island. Our oba-chan was just a phenomenal woman.
The shock of divorce is never easy on children. Break-ups are rough, but when my father got custody of myself and Janet, we were suddenly on an airplane (just us little girls) flying across the Pacific to live with our grandparents in America.
We didn’t want to leave Okinawa, but looking back, our father made the best decision he could have made at the time. Okinawa had been under U.S. possession since 1951, but reverted back to Japanese control in 1972, the year our parents were divorcing. Our dad was simply afraid that he would have no rights as the American parent in a foreign land.
Janet and I settled in San Marino, California with elderly grandparents who tried to “Americanize” us immediately. We had visited them before when we were younger with our mother, but those were only quick trips. Our dear grandfather tried to make us more comfortable by treating us to Chinese food once in a while (heck, he tried… it was “Asian”), but our grandmother did not NOT like the “Okinawan” part of us at all. Let’s just say that she and I never became close.
This first year in America was turbulent and just confusing. Even though our grandparents (who became our legal guardians) did the best they could, they eventually placed us in a children’s home nearby. Janet and I always felt like the “lucky ones” though, because at least we got to spend every holiday with our grandparents, away from “the home”. We both lived there until graduating from high school. Janet “served” (as we joked) seven years and I struggled through ten. Looking back, it really wasn’t THAT BAD. We had a roof over our heads and plenty of food to eat.
After our parents divorced, our father was transferred to Scotland (his mother was from the Maxwell Clan), where he re-married and still lives today. As you can imagine, we had some rough patches during the past 35+ years and I had some major “daddy issues” that I couldn’t even admit to until a few years ago. Janet, who was older (and wise beyond her years), fared much better.
Now, I absolutely adore my dad and step-mother Mandy and visit them often in Scotland. My talented, younger brother Greg (who was born in Scotland) moved to Los Angeles a few years ago. As adults, we ALL moved past the blame and the pain. “Life’s too short”, is something we say over and over again.
My relationship with my mother was very complicated (she passed away in 2013). Over the years (as an adult), I travelled to Okinawa and Tokyo (where she had a second home) and although we had fun together, she showed very little affection towards me. I’m sure the disconnect was there because she never “mothered” me as a child. She was always busy working, helping to put food on the table, so I don’t blame her for that. The truth is, after we moved to America the only person “mothering” me was my sister. When my beloved oba-chan died (back in Okinawa), I didn’t feel the need to see my mother anymore. I didn’t need to, because my sister was then, and is now, my mother.
When I look back at family photos of the two of us, the most notable thing I see is that my big sister was always looking out for me—literally. Of course back then, I was the baby sister, but even as adults she still wraps me tightly in her arms. Janet was always determined to take care of me, and as a child, I was just as determined to escape her big-sister clutches. Thankfully, she never gave up on me, because I was NOT an easy kid, teenager or even young adult.
Through my entire life, the only consistently good thing I have had in my life is Janet, and I’m so grateful we had the “advantage of sharing so many disadvantages” together. It’s taken a lot of tears to get these words on paper (plus a wee bit of courage), and there’s no way I could have conveyed how much my sister means to me, without sharing a bit of our story.
Happy Mother’s Day, Janet. I love you so much. Thank you for always being my wonderful sister and mother. Love, Jo
Written 4/12/10 by Jo Stougaard, Updated 5/6/16
More photos of Janet
Visits to Scotland
Janet also happens to be a terrific cook. Here’s her recipe for chicken chili that she makes every Christmas, but it’s great ANYTIME.
4- 15oz. cans of White beans
2-15oz cans of Black beans/drained
4-6 cups of cooked chicken breast diced
4 onions minced
2-4 cloves of garlic minced
4 cups of broth
2 cups of white wine
1 small can of jalapenos
1 –7oz. can of diced green chiles
2 Tablespoon Oil
Juice of 3 freshly squeezed limes
½ – ¾ cups of chopped fresh cilantro
2 tsp. Oregano
1 tsp. Cumin
Sautee the garlic and onions in the oil
Combine all the ingredients **except the wine, cilantro and limejuice into large pot or crock-pot, simmer not boil.
Add the wine, cilantro and lime juice before serving.
These amounts are basic…I add more garlic for my family!
The chili is thicker and tastier the next day, so make plenty!
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