When I was attending Miss Rayson's School in New York City, my favorite poem was "Pippa Passes," by Robert Browning. It was a long poem, and I've forgotten most of it, but that first scene, when Pippa springs out of bed on New Year's Day, remains vivid in my memory:
Faster and more fast,
O'er night's brim, day boils at last;
Boils, pure gold, o'er the cloud-cup's brim
Pippa works in a silk mill in northern Italy, and New Year's Day is her only holiday in the whole year. Determined to savor every drop of good in that day, she puts on her best clothes and goes tripping off through her town, smiling radiantly at everyone she sees.
I don't know why, but somehow Pippa reminded me of Noda no Iwa-san, my grandmother's gardener back in Japan. He was short, wiry, and didn't look at all like Pippa, except for his smile.
As with Pippa, so with him: New Year's Day was the one holiday of his year. He would come to our house early in the morning, in his best kimono, to bow to my grandparents and wish them all prosperity in the New Year. Then he was off, not to appear again until the next morning, when he would be back in his dark-blue gardener's tunic and split-toed rubber shoes.
Iwa-san tended our trees and bushes meticulously; not a branch or a spray was out of place. Grandmother depended on him for many other things as well. In spring, when the cherry tree at the foot of our garden filled with five-petaled pink flowers, Iwa-san would bring a bench from the shed and cover it with a red blanket. Then he'd bring the tea set from the kitchen so Grandmother could whisk powdered tea for us under the blossoms. If the corner of her camphor chest was chipped, he would mend it so no one would ever know the difference.
And he was particularly nice to me, the youngest of three girls living with our grandparents.
Our own parents were away on a diplomatic posting in Vancouver, British Columbia, and we three girls were famous throughout the neighborhood for the gorgeous pink or blue ribbons they sent us for our hair.
As the youngest, I always came home from school earlier than my sisters. As busy as Iwa-san was in our garden, he often had something special for me. I remember particularly a toy-sized bird cage he made from strips of bamboo, in which he put a couple of crickets he had found. As summer turned to fall, they would make a strumming sound that I always associated with the lengthening nights of the new season.
But it was always in the last days of December, just before the New Year, that Iwa-san really shone. He was here, there, everywhere, cleaning out the shed, setting up the bamboo and pine decorations for the front gate, and wrapping straw around Grandmother's ornamental pine tree to shield it from the frost.
Two days before New Year, he would bring out a tall pestle and a wooden tub from the shed and make sure they were spick-and-span for making mochitsuki, the smooth pounded-rice cakes for the New Year.
Pettanko! Pettanko! was the sound we thought Iwa-san's pestle made as he raised it high, then brought it down on the cooked glutinous rice to mash it into a gleaming paste. I would rush around after him. I'm sure I got in his way, but he never lost his smile.
Everything was ready when New Year's Day rolled around, clear and cold. "Omedeto gozaimasu!" (Happy New Year!) Iwa-san would boom as he greeted each of us individually, even the children - even me. Then he was off for the day, while Grandmother prepared mochi soup with black beans, candied chestnuts, and other goodies.
Suddenly, when I was 11, my life in a small town in the prewar Japanese countryside came to an end. I crossed the Pacific in a big white steamship, the Empress of Japan, with my parents and my sister Fumi. (My oldest sister, Haru, stayed in Japan as she was already in high school.) My father had been appointed consul general in Ottawa, and he and my mother thought it would be a good idea to expose us to English while we were still children. Thus began our great adventure.
We were so excited, we had no time to be seasick. By the time we docked in Vancouver, we had explored every deck of our grand ship. Crossing the Rockies by train was just as eye-opening. How could we spend days and days - going through deep forests, long tunnels, dappled valleys, and wheat fields that stretched to the horizon - and still be in the same country!
The only two English words we knew were "Hello!" and "Goodbye!" and we tried them out on everybody we met. Our verbal victims were gracious enough to smile back at us.
In Ottawa, we met wonderful neighbors, the Machados, who were from the United States. They had six children. Fumi and I were almost always in their house, or they in ours. We started school in the first grade, but by the end of the year we were in grades appropriate to our ages.
By the time my father received his next assignment - consul general in New York - Fumi and I had almost forgotten there ever was a time we did not speak English. "Fumi or Kiyo, translate for me," my mother would say when she ran into difficulties. By the time we got to New York, we were ready for high school. I loved English literature, devoured Longfellow and Wordsworth, Keats and Browning.
"Pippa Passes" took me back to Iwa-san. I wondered how he was spending his New Year's. I wrote Grandmother and asked how he was.
"Iwa-san has started his own gardening business," Grandmother wrote back. "He has a couple of young men working for him. But at New Year's, he still comes to pound our mochi. He says he will do that as long as he lives."
After high school, I went back to Japan for a year, to live with my grandmother and to get reacquainted with Japan. A new continent had vastly expanded my horizons, but I didn't want to forget the flavor of mochi. It was important to me to feel at home in both cultures.
As my train steamed into Matsue Station, there on the platform alongside my grandmother was Iwa-san. He had a bit of gray in his hair, but he also had a smile as big as New Year's Day. As big, in fact, as Pippa's.