About a month ago, a collarless cat appeared in our yard out of nowhere.
He lithely hopped onto our next door neighbor’s porch (our townhouses are side-by-side) and gave K a saucy stare. He slowly glided to and fro, sizing us up, as though we were auditioning for the role of potential owners.
We were on our way out and I urged K and M to hurry, but K was riveted. I happened to have my camera on me, so I snapped a few photos, all the while saying, “C’mon, we have to go!” Oh, he was confident, that cat. He knew he had our attention, and then did a lightning fast flip:
We stood stock still, agape at his invitation to scratch his belly (and then I took some pictures). We are not cat people, obviously. After a couple of awkward moments of nothing happening, he flipped back over and sauntered onto our porch. Was it my imagination? There was a disdainful flick of his tail. “Take it or leave it,” it seemed to say.
I finally mobilized K and M toward the car, and the cat looked on silently. He was gone when we returned.
I bring this up not because it was some earth-shattering momentous occasion, but because I was thinking about the cat’s natural self-assurance. It relates — in my convoluted way — to one of the thought-provoking exchanges K and I often seem to have just as I’m dropping her off at school. “I worry about what other people think of me, Mommy,” she said yesterday, and I lamented that we had exactly one minute before the bell rang and I couldn’t address this incredibly important topic sufficiently at the time. We talked, all too briefly, about how one of the bravest and hardest things to do is not to worry about other peoples’ opinions. Especially if this focus on others’ thoughts prevents us from trying or doing or saying things that are wonderful, positive, fascinating and exciting.
I still need to figure out my exact thoughts on how to communicate this concept of self-belief and confidence, because words alone aren’t effective and it has to be through my actions, as a role model. Given my limited time yesterday morning, however, the first example I threw out was my mom, because she’s always been unafraid of external opinions. She left Japan at age 19 and headed to Germany, aware that she didn’t fit in with the homogenous Asian culture. She was certain that there was a bigger and better world out there for her. Now, forty-some years later in Los Angeles, she’s spending her days just as she’d hoped: painting and gardening and enjoying life every day.
I grew up with the understanding that our family was odd, and my mom especially was like no other moms I knew. She was an artist, but more than that she was the main breadwinner in our family for nearly twenty years when my father was incapacitated for various reasons (more women are the main breadwinners nowadays, but that’s a discussion for another time) — she couldn’t earn enough money selling her art so she tried so many things: she worked at sushi restaurants as a waitress, at a silk screening factory as a “color technician” for art posters, she designed t-shirts and ceramic tchotchkes, ran an antiques booth, and so on and so forth. The language barrier narrowed her employment options; in fact, her English is still stilted and far from fluent even though she’s an American citizen now. From the outside, looking back, it probably seemed like a hard existence.
But throughout my childhood, all I remember is how much fun she was. She created relentlessly — knitting needles at the ready, costumes whipped up in moments, homemade Japanese treats bubbling on the stove. Even when she’d worked double-shifts at the restaurant, she would still paint every day and play with me and my brothers. She taught me that if you love something, if it really matters to you, you make time for it.
I am not as strong or courageous or insouciant as my mother. I still worry about the impression I’m making, and there have been way too many occasions when I didn’t try or do something even though I knew it was wonderful, positive, fascinating and exciting just because I was afraid of other people’s reactions. Luckily, I did inherit her samurai warrior-like work ethic and like her, I don’t take myself too seriously. K is blessed that she has such an exemplary role model in her Ba-chan (Grandma in Japanese), and I hope through a lot of hard work, I too might teach K the kind of powerful chutzpah and self-assuredness intrinsic to my mother and that mystery cat.
Mother’s Day is coming up so I’ve had motherhood on the mind…the interspersed images, by the way, are creations by my mom: my favorite painting of hers that we have in our living room; a pot that K and my mom (mostly my mom) worked on together; a fabric book she stitched up for K when she was still a baby. It has a bunch of Japanese words she appliqued, including K’s full name – one of our most treasured possessions!