In kindergarten or maybe it was first grade, when celebrating my first formal birthday party with invited guests, I was allowed to host six or seven children from school to enjoy games and a lightly iced angelfood cake. One of the children who attended this party was a shy, kind child who went by his first intitials. T.J. was the only boy at my birthday party.
Eventhough I was a city kid, on brutally cold days, T.J. and I could share a short ride on the yellow bus afterschool. My father was one of the district’s bus contractors; thus, one of the perks of being my father’s child was a “free” ride home on extra cold days.
My new friend T.J. and I had wonderful conversations on the schoolbus about our area’s amazing snowfall and the even more amazing and seemingly unending bitter cold. On the best of days, we could breathe on the bus windows and draw pictures in the fog or etch images into the windows’ already thick frost. These activities and our easy chatter filled the time on the ride home.
Although I had never met T.J.’s dad, I remember thinking he must be unkind, because poor T.J. had to wear his jet black hair in a crewcut throughout the dead of winter. Crewcuts were not a good buffer against the cold nor were crewcuts in style. All through the harshest of winter months, T.J. wore an extra heavy winter cap. But, those were his dad’s orders.
Living just outside of city limits and near a house where his paternal grandparents resided, T.J. and his mother were new to the area. After serving in Japan, T.J.’s father brought a Japanese bride home to the States.
A stay-at-home mom, T.J.’s mother waited expectantly for him every day afterschool. I knew this, because each time I rode the bus, I could see that the window, where she waited, carried a more expansive layer of frost than the other windows of the house. The frost on her window was from her patient and expectant breathing. Approaching T.J.’s stop, I could feel the terrible loneliness within that house–the house not quite in town and not quite in the country.
As a child, I did not understand anything about Japanese culture, though I knew T.J. and his mother to be somehow alone. Sensing the lonliness, I knew it had to be very difficult to wait for one’s only friend to return from school like that every day.
What I can say is that T.J.’s birthday present was the most carefully and exquisitely wrapped box among all of my presents. Inside of a prisitine, white box, there were layers upon layers of carefully folded tissue paper, concealing one satiny pair of little-girl underwear–snow-white and with a single rose or cherry-blossom embroidered along the elastic hem of one leg. The gift was extremely thoughtful and far too personal, too special, too good to be worn, ever.
Upon opening T.J.’s gift, I was embarassed for my guests, myself and my friend, his being the only boy at the party and his mom having selected such a private article for him to present in a public setting. The notion of cultural context entered my understanding for the first time.
T.J. and his family moved away in late spring of that same year–to a metropolitan area, a place where school was cancelled whenever it snowed. I know this because we corresponded for awhile.
When I asked my father why T.J. had to move away, he said something about T.J.’s mother not having a sufficient amount of community in our city. And, I thought in my first-grade way, we need to make more of an effort to get to know one another, so that too much frost never builds up on that one window, where we wait expectantly for our one friend who makes our house a home.