Women’s Friendships, Women’s Voices, in The Story Hour

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar is about the friendship of two women from two different cultures, whose complicated personal histories and cultural values eventually lead to judgment and misunderstanding and threaten to end their relationship.

Lakshmi is a 30-something woman who immigrated to the US from India to join her Indian husband, a store and restaurant owner. As we are introduced to Lakshmi, we begin to understand how lonely she is in the US and in her marriage. She feels no love from her husband who treats her more like a possession than a partner and who has forbidden her from ever contacting her family again. Lakshmi tries to kill herself one night (this is written on the back cover), and while hospitalized is assigned to talk to Maggie, an African-American psychologist.

Lakshmi’s husband scoffs at the idea of therapy and tells Maggie they cannot afford it. At that point Maggie tells them that she will meet with Lakshmi in her home without charge.

With the therapy sessions Lakshmi gradually comes to develop a voice for the first time, encouraged to believe that her stories are worth telling. As she tells her stories and becomes braver in her trust in Maggie, she reveals more and more, and we learn that her marriage to her husband is not what it seems.

At the same time, and unbeknownst to Lakshmi, Maggie is dealing with her own issues in her marriage and questioning how much her abusive relationship with her father has impacted her and her relationships to this day.

Toward the latter half of the book, the issues of the two women clash and come to a head, and both are reeling in their judgment of one another. Both are not the people they had imagined the other to be.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. To me it was women’s literature without being chick lit. There is the cultural piece, for those who want to read “diversely”; as an Asian-American who’s very familiar with how it feels to have one foot in one culture, I saw well the cultural differences that Lakshmi and Maggie were dealing with. Do you honor family or do you honor yourself? Is passion in marriage more important or duty? In very traditional Asian cultures, it is often hard to have both.

Mostly, I enjoyed the psychological complexity as I’m always drawn to stories of basically good human beings who are confronted with difficult life decisions and choices. I thought this was an intriguing study of two women with complicated histories that are made more complex by the cultures in which they grew up. It’s also an interesting story about women’s friendship and the expectations we have for our women friends. We can want and love so much and at the same time be very judgmental and unforgiving. In the case of Lakshmi and Maggie, I’ve wondered how much each was projecting on to the other, and did judging the other make it somehow easier to accept (or not think about) one’s own mistakes? This would be a fun book to read in a book club.

Bookish Miscellany in Tokyo

Well, I’d overestimated my ability to blog while traveling so I apologize for having disappeared! We had a wonderful time in Japan and I am now back, finally getting over a very bad cold that I had caught the day we left for the airport. While my primary goal in Japan after seeing family, friends, and clients was to eat, I also made sure to check out the book scene in Tokyo. Japan has a strong literary and reading culture and was ranked #1 in number of bookstores in 2012 according to The World Cities Cultural Report released that year. Below is a small peak into Japan’s reading world:

First, the bookstores. I visited about seven or eight during my trip. According to The World Cities Cultural Report in 2012, Tokyo had 1,675 bookstores that year. There is also what is known as the Book District in the university town in Jimbocho – a half square kilometer of almost 160 used and rare bookstores. I spent a short afternoon walking around here, wishing that I could read Japanese as most of the books I found were in Japanese (naturally). The Book District is known to be the largest book market in the world.

The Book District

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Junkudo, a popular bookstore chain -There were about 18 active cash registers and a staffer managing the queue. From my experience the major bookstores have as many as 5 to 8 floors of books.

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A display of Haruki Murakami books at Junkudo

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Ernest Hemingway and other western literature in translation at Kinokuniya, Japan’s largest bookstore chain with stores in the U.S., several Asian countries and Australia. They’ve recently remodeled one of the main stores to dedicate the entire top floor to foreign books and Japanese books in translation. I was quite impressed by their selection and the prices were not exorbitant. Wouldn’t it be something to find this kind of selection of foreign books at Barnes & Noble?

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These English-language novels are labeled with corresponding TOEIC scores to assist non-native English speakers in choosing appropriate books. The TOEIC is the Test of English for International Communication, taken by many non-native English speakers who wish to qualify for various work and academic requirements. 

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Japanese literature wrapped to ensure their good condition. I asked Max about these, and he thinks these may be out of print or somehow “special” books, since contemporary books for sale are not wrapped like this. I found shelves and shelves of these at one of the larger and more modern bookstores in the Book District.

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And speaking of wrapped, whenever you buy a book in Japan, you have the option of getting it wrapped (usually in brown paper) for free. At first I thought this was to protect the book – and this is true – but when I started reading my purchase on the train I realized that the book cover holds another benefit: privacy. 

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There are also many fancier book covers for sale at book and stationery stores, meaning that covering up is quite popular in Japan. Here is one that I found. I love Japanese English!

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Some of our western feminist sensibilities might get a jolt when visiting Japan. In some bookstores are sections for “ladies,” but then maybe this is simply the Japanese equivalent of the labels “Chick Lit” or “Women’s Fiction.” (More knowledgeable readers, feel free to weigh in!) This photo is of the “ladies'” comics or manga section at a shopping mall bookstore. (Manga are also protected before purchase by cellophane ties or plastic wrap.)

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And at last, my Japan finds, because I couldn’t visit without bringing back something for myself: Haruki Murakami’s (translated into English) memoir What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, two books on speaking Japanese, a Japanese novella that a friend recommended to me as one way to practice Japanese, and this Kinokuniya tote bag. There were many Japanese books in translation that I wanted to get but I controlled myself, knowing that I can get them cheaper through the internet :-(. Plus I can only carry so much back in my suitcase…

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Have you visited bookstores in other cities? What are your favorites? How is the literary scene in your city?

Greetings from Land of the Rising Sun

And the sun rises early here…like before 4:30. I know, because I’ve been awake since 2:30. Jet lag.

We got in 36 hours ago and have hit the ground running. We’re here for both business and pleasure. I expect to still post when I can, if even just photos.

I might go back to sleep now, so I’ll see you again next week. Or, as the locals say, Mata raishuu!

 

No Flowers or Jewelry; Just Love

My husband has rarely bought me flowers, and the few – okay, the two – times that he did, I think he got them from the supermarket. He reminds me that I had once specifically asked for food over flowers.

He used to buy me jewelry too, until I started losing them. And preferring books instead.

And there was a time when he wrote me cards, short reflections on our relationship and restatements of his love. And then he – and we – stopped writing altogether.

Love does evolve over time, into something far grittier. The sacrificing, compromising, forgiving, and understanding seem to take years to fully emerge. It’s only after years together that I looked up and thought, yes, that’s what we are now: a patchwork of butterflies in stomach, respect, fondness, gratitude, minor annoyances, insecurities, cultural and temperamental differences, and hopefully forgiven hurts. This patchwork is love that has been made ironclad through commitment.

In our thirteen years together I have felt Max’s love in unexpected and unscripted ways. I would never find them in a store-bought card, or in the most expensive bouquet. I can find them only in him:

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Not long after we began dating I moved into Max’s place in an unfamiliar suburb 70 minutes outside of Tokyo. On one particular night that I was working late, Tokyo experienced a rare snowfall and commuter trains were delayed and rerouted. Still not comfortable in Japanese, I struggled to understand the announcements over the loudspeakers instructing passengers on new routes. I was nervous and took a chance, boarding a crowded train that only got worse as it sat on the platform waiting to pack in as many people as possible. I called Max and told him that I had no idea when I was getting home, and he asked me to ring him once I reached the station.

I finally arrived two hours later. Exhausted and frustrated and with tears in my eyes, I rang to tell Max that I had made it. “I know,” he said. I looked up and saw him standing at the entrance of the station with an umbrella. I don’t know how long he had been waiting for me.

We weren’t married yet at this point. In fact, we only dated a week before we both knew we were going to marry. The few friends I told thought I was crazy. They were scared for me, believing I was rushing into things. But somehow I always knew that I had found someone rare…a genuinely kind man who would always protect me, look out for me, and put me first in his life.

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We had gotten into a particularly awful fight. As the years went on, I began realizing more and more that even love was not enough to stave off the differences inherent in our international marriage. Neither of us had ever deliberately intended to hurt the other and yet we did. And we struggled to make ourselves understood.

During this fight I went into the guest room where Max had been sleeping. Excessive pride is my weakness in relationships and I often refuse to be the one to “give in,” but this time I was worried. When I walked in, Max reached for a notebook and said, “Please don’t talk and just listen. Please.” He picked up the notebook and began reading to me through tears. In careful and precise English, he told me how much I had hurt him with the casualness with which I attack him with words.

I began to cry, not only because of the realization of what I had done, but because I saw, in the notebook and the hands and voice that trembled with emotion, what he has sacrificed for me. English is not a language he spoke until he met me. He’d studied it, yes, but he’d never had to use it regularly or depend on it for a relationship. He’d never had to struggle this much just to be heard and to be understood.

I was talking with a Japanese client this week about international relationships, as he and his American girlfriend broke up because of distance. He asked me if Max had moved to the U.S. for me. I told him, yes. Max had moved here for me.

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Last year news came out that a private foundation was looking to recruit a married couple to go on the 2018 space mission to Mars. The trip would entail being confined together in a small capsule for 500 days. Max looked at me and beamed, “We can do it! If anyone can do it, it’s you and me!”

After all that we have been through together, it is the most romantic thing he could have ever said to me.

And he is right.

Cultural Loss Over the Years

Tomorrow is the Lunar New Year or, as we’ve been calling it for many years, Chinese New Year.

My memories of this holiday growing up are vivid. My mother would spend days scouring the house from top to bottom like a mad woman, because a huge part of the tradition is to clean out the old and presumably evil spirits in order to ring in the new year on a literally clean slate. With a traditional (read: didn’t lift a finger) husband who was always at work anyway and two uncooperative children who couldn’t see the point, my mother was at her crankiest on the days leading up to New Year’s. Every year we spent those final days of the year wishing we could have our old mom back.

Then there were the rules. We had to get our hair cut the week before New Year’s, even when we didn’t need a haircut. We weren’t allowed to say anything remotely hinting of ill fate or that included any version of the word death (as in “Ha ha ha, you’re killing me!” or “Wow, I would die for those shoes!”). Worst of all, we were forbidden to shower, bathe, or wash our hair on New Year’s Day lest we cleansed all the good that had by then reached our bodies (which only led to more cursing about how we were going to die of stink).

And there was the food, lots of it. Chinese New Year is celebrated on not just one day but over a period of two weeks. We had an enormous dinner on New Year’s Eve and another large meal on New Year’s Day to “open” the year. Two weeks later, we would close out the celebrations with another final large dinner.

My brother and I met these meals with some groaning. Because Chinese New Year dinner is not spring rolls and sesame chicken and sweet and sour pork (well, not that my mother ever made those dishes (they’re not real Chinese food, you know)). New Year dinner was a big, pimply, ghost-white chicken with its loopy head and neck still on the plate. It was dishes and dishes of healthy blandness that we normally never saw during the year, with ingredient names like “dizzy ear” and unidentifiable foods that looked like tangled hair.

Chinese New Year, to me, was a lot of Chinese-ness that went against my whole plan to be American and “normal.” So I mopped the floor (reluctantly) and skipped the showers (until I was brave enough to dare the evil spirits to take me on) and ate the bloody chicken (there was literally still some blood in the cracks of the bones). Until about fifteen years ago, which is the last time I celebrated Chinese New Year. Because of my time in Japan and then my work schedule, I haven’t been back to spend any of the holidays with my parents in all these years.

During this time, of course, I’ve formed a family of my own. We’re a tri-cultural family now living in America and following American traditions. Lack of access to ingredients, information, and shared celebratory spirits is one major reason. There’s also the lack of confidence. My Singaporean friend suggested getting together for New Year dinner, and I immediately felt overwhelmed at the prospect of cooking for the occasion. I wouldn’t know where to start. What to cook? How to cook it? How to shop for ingredients?

But maybe saddest is my lack of connection. I’d spent so much of my youth rejecting my heritage, seeing and looking for all the parts that threatened my chances of being accepted in America. By the time I became more curious about my Chinese roots, I’d already distanced myself too much. I sometimes view the Chinese culture now the way any foreigner would.

I only realized how far I was when Fred once remarked, in a crowd of Chinese people, that he and I were the only non-Chinese. He knew he was American and he knew he was Japanese, but he did not know that a significant part of him has its roots in China.

But is this something that I need to worry about? Why does it need to be important for me to maintain my heritage, when obviously I had made my choices long ago in terms of how to live and who I wanted to live as? I think the sadness for me is that in loosening my connection to my heritage, I feel I am losing some part of a shared identity with my parents. We all disconnect in some ways and to some degree as we mature into adulthood. Being on the other side of the cultural divide within my own family just seems more severe, an ultimately necessary part of feeling at home in my own country but a division I hadn’t anticipated.

Love, loyalty, hurt and anger – the powerful world of mother-daughter relationships

I am so honored to be contributing to the wonderful writer D.A. Wolf’s series on mother-daughter relationships. This was by far the hardest piece of writing I have ever done, and more than once I asked myself why I had promised to contribute a piece. But I’m so glad for this experience writing and collaborating with D.A., which literally changed me.

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I’ve just spent my fourteenth holiday without my mother. In the years since I packed up two suitcases and moved from the States to Japan, a defining event in our relationship, we have been a long distance family, missing milestones and special occasions like birthdays, holidays, and the birth of her only grandchild.

There have always been reasons: the distance (even now that I’ve moved back to the States), her health, my work. I try to see her once a year and when I do I realize how much I miss her… how for so many years we knew the daily rhythms of each others’ lives and now that’s no longer the case.

For many years I had been the dutiful daughter. I acted as my immigrant parents’ interpreter from the age of seven when they moved from Peru to New England, and I helped them to navigate life in America. I attended college ten miles away from where they lived, and I moved back home after graduation. It was a shameful admission to my American friends that I was choosing to live with my parents, and a slap in my mother’s face that I was wishing I had chosen otherwise.

To continue reading this piece please click here to go to D.A. Wolf’s blog Daily Plate of Crazy.

Disillusionment in marriage, home, and life: The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic is Julie Otsuka’s 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novella about Japanese picture brides trying to start new lives in California during the first half of the 20th century.

The book opens with the young women’s journey at sea. They are frightened, nervous, hopeful, excited, and uncertain about what awaits them. They are from different walks of life and from different parts of Japan, but they all have in their hands (or in the sleeves of their kimonos) the photos of hope: handsome, young men who have promised that they can provide for them well in the new country.

Once the brides are literally off the boat, they cannot find the faces to match their photos. The young and handsome businessmen are, in fact, older, haggard, and sometimes cruel farmworkers and laborers. It hits the women at this point that they have been deceived and, unbeknownst to them, that this is only the beginning.

The chapters that follow cover the new wives’ lives over the next few decades: marital rape, infidelity, hard labor and long hours, sexual harassment, the struggles to care for their children, children who reject them and are embarrassed by them, acculturation, racism. The book ends with the mass exodus of these now Japanese-American wives and their families and neighbors to internment camps as per Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order issued shortly after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.

I’ve read other longer, more plot-driven books about the immigrant experience and I was surprised at how powerful this experimental novella is. This is both for your information and a warning: Otsuka’s narrator is a lyrical, first person plural. The book doesn’t focus on any single character or even a handful of characters, but instead covers the range of experiences of the collective group of brides. Here is an excerpt from the second chapter, entitled “First Night”:

That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently, but firmly, and without saying a word . . . they took us flat on our backs on the bare floor of the Minute Motel . . . They took us in the best hotels in San Francisco that a yellow man could set foot in at the time . . . they took us for granted and assumed we would do for them whatever it was that we were told . . . they took us violently, with their fists, whenever we tried to resist. They took us even though we bit them. They took us even though we hit them . . . They took us shyly, and with great difficulty, as they tried to figure out what to do. “Excuse me,” they said. And, “Is this you?” They said, “Help me out here,” and so we did . . . They took us with more skill than we had ever been taken before and we knew we would always want them. They took us as we cried out with pleasure and then covered our mouths in shame. (pages 19-22)

I didn’t feel that the narration took away from the intimacy I felt with the characters’ experiences (though admittedly it is a different kind of intimacy) and in fact maybe it is the collective voice that makes this book so powerful: seeing the range of experiences drove home for me how much these women were going through and what it meant to be a picture bride in a country that was, at the time, still very hostile to unfamiliar cultures.

The women in this book arrive as strangers to both their Japanese-American husbands and America. It is a tale about what it’s like to land in hostile and unfamiliar hands, and it is as much about marriage (and its disappointments) as it is about immigration. The issues are heavy but somehow Otsuka’s writing translates the difficulties and hopelessness into something that is emotionally impactful and not bleak. I would have read this book in one or two sittings if I had the uninterrupted time (I read it in three); I thought it was wonderful.

The gulfs in marriage and home: Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri

I am so grateful to a couple of blogger friends who recently urged me to move Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri up on my reading list. This book had been sitting on my shelves unread for maybe three years.

Interpreter of Maladies is Lahiri’s first published work, a collection of short stories that also won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

The stories take place in both America and India although we often get the sense that we’re in both: the characters are making a new life in America or traveling back to India to a country that’s unfamiliar or consoling a friend who’s been separated from his family.

The stories are also about marriage, about secrets and lost connections. The opening story is a powerful one about the gulf that takes place in one marriage after the death of the couple’s first baby. Other characters struggle with infidelity, loneliness, hunger to be noticed, and bewilderment at the behavior and thinking of their partners.

And there are stories of women living on the margins of society in India – the ill, the displaced. They, too, long for connection and belonging.

I’m trying hard here not to resort to cliches or overly dramatic expressions to describe how I felt reading these stories, but the only thing I can say is that I was amazed at how much punch each of these short stories could pack. Lahiri captures the immigrant’s and the outsider’s story with such nuance and poignancy – the optimism, the hope, the alienation, the longing, the loneliness…and all of this is rolled together with the parallel emotions faced in each of the characters’ marriages or relationship with the community. These are stories for anyone – Indian or not, immigrant or not – who’s ever felt a part of themselves empty, who’s ever wanted to be full and yet not known how to feel whole.

Defining home

When I was in college, a “worldlier” friend used to enjoy making digs at me because I’d never left Boston. Indeed, I went to both college and graduate school right outside of Boston and I started my career 15 minutes from where I grew up.

So when a young attendee at one of the work events I was hosting read my palm (she just happened to be psychic – I wasn’t working with the paranormal ;-)), I soon learned that a foreign country was in my future. I balked at her prediction, because I was every bit as domestic as my college friend accused me of. I’d just gotten promoted at work and moved into a new apartment (10 minutes from where I grew up) and I had no interest in going anywhere.

Then, sure enough, one fluke event led to another, and two years to the month that I’d met the palm reading woman, I was standing at Narita International Airport with the two suitcases from which the next eight years of my life would grow. I would end up changing my career, meeting my husband, and becoming a mother in Japan.

Nearly a decade later, we – Max, Fred and I – relocated to the States, to the south. We wanted warmth and affordability and we wanted out of the city. Our son gets to now grow up with the kind of life I used to only dream about and see on television: a neighborhood filled with the laughter of children, an American-sized house, trees, yards, elementary schools with campuses, neighbors who smile and lend you eggs and butter if you need them. While there are larger, serious problems with our state, I do love the idyllic, international, intellectual, liberal-minded and friendly town we live in.

But I started to have second thoughts this year, when the bombings in Boston pulled me back to a familiarity and security that I’d long resisted. Mourning in the shared pain back in April, I realized that I have roots, however ambivalent I may be about my actual experiences. Boston, with its harsh climate and harsh personalities, was not an easy place to live or grow up in. But it was home – the place that I will always associate my family and childhood with, and the security that family and the past bring.

That I felt rooted is significant, as someone who for a good part of her life didn’t feel like she belonged anywhere; I was too American for my Asian friends yet not quite western enough to be seen as American. Coming back after almost 10 years overseas, I have an affinity for other expatriates and international people.

I found myself wanting to move back to Boston – for my parents, for Fred (there are better educational opportunities in Massachusetts (read: feeder schools)), for myself. I’d even managed to convince Max to seriously consider the possibility, which was no small feat given that he’d left one home behind for me already.

After some gut wrenching ruminating, I told Max I’d changed my mind. I couldn’t make the possibility work without throwing a grenade into our family. Our time line would mean sending Fred to 3 different schools in 3 years. We would need to downgrade our living space to a small apartment. Finances would be tight. And I’d need to pull both my husband and son from the only home in America they know, a home and community that they absolutely adore.

The whole process made me rethink the meaning of home. Is it where I have my roots, my childhood memories, my parents? Is it a place that is defined by history, or is it a starting point for history? Is it the place brimming with opportunity and stimulation, or the place where you feel most serene? Can home be a home if one has chosen out of duty – for filial piety, for a better shot at Harvard for your kid? Can it be a home if one half of your partnership doesn’t feel the same way you do about it? Can you love your home and yet still long for another place? Questions like these made my head spin.

In the end I understood that home is where all three of us are happy, and eventually the place where my parents are better off retiring to. I decided that home for me needs to be about peace and comfort and space and freedom, a place without resentment or constant anxiety…and it is what we already have.  But the decision is also a compromise because we don’t have the luxury of having it all, and no matter what we choose we do end up sacrificing.

Summers

Summer’s started.

In sharp contrast to the eternal, mind-numbing boredom of my summer days growing up, my summers since becoming one half of an international couple have involved travel. We are always an ocean apart from one set of parents or the other, and this distance only became harder when Fred entered the picture. Both sets of grandparents are getting older, their health is an ongoing issue, and the responsibility to make the time to see them while we still can has become ours.

We leave early tomorrow for Japan, where Fred was born and had spent the first four years of his life. Though he’s stopped speaking Japanese, he maintains an inexplicable attachment to his first home. He still remembers the park near our home, the “school bus” he used to take to preschool, his favorite store, his grandparents.

I always go back with a bit of weight in my heart. Japan is where I became a mother, and memories of those early baby and toddler years are packed up – so neatly, so separately and so inaccessibly – on one side of the world. I have no physical reminders of my early motherhood where we are now in the States, at all…but when I go back – two planes, one three-hour bus ride and a taxi later – it all hits me again. I walk again down the path to our favorite park and the familiar streets to my three grocery stores. We didn’t have a car back then, so I used to walk those roads pushing Fred in a stroller, with groceries in a backpack and more hanging on the handles of the stroller. As Fred got older he would come with me on his tricycle. On bad days when he was too hot or too tired, he would refuse to pedal and ask to be carried. I would then carry him and the groceries, and push the tricycle the half mile it took to get home. But mainly I remember how he would stop to look at the flowers or pebbles along the way home, or we would stand at the train crossings to wait for and watch the trains go by. With Max away at work 16-18 hours a day, I often felt lonely and alone that first year, isolated in a town with no friends and knowing no one who spoke English. The days seemed endless with so many hours, and so I didn’t mind how long it took to get home from the store. During this time, Fred and I had our own special world: we had each other.

We moved to the States right around the time Fred was ready to enter school. By the time he started kindergarten he was becoming part of a social fabric that would stretch wider and wider. In the years since, he’s moved from my arms and my lap to arranging play dates on his own; from watching flowers and pebbles to explaining to us how our phones and camera work.

But we’ve both grown, haven’t we? I get together with girlfriends now, without Fred. I’m working again with clients. I’m reading again, and writing. We’ve both developed our own worlds here in the States, together, and apart.

So I’m looking forward to flying out tomorrow, and spending three weeks together with Fred and Max, starting with the 16-hour flight. I’m looking forward to asking Fred, “Do you remember this?” and sharing with him the pieces of our world that have meant so much to me but which he was probably too young to remember.

Do you revisit the different places of your children’s life?