Monday, August 24, 2009

Naomi Milliken (1935 - 1984)

Everyone called her Naomi, but her real name was Masako. She was from Nagasaki and spoke English with a pronounced accent, her l's sliding into r's and she dropped articles with abandon. I became accustomed to the way she spoke and from a young age understood everything she said. I still hear her voice when I bump into certain words like 'linen' and 'Halloween'.

My best friend Bert was her oldest child. She called him 'Bet' and when reprimanding him, 'Betoran' and for a time I thought this was his name in Japanese.

I spent most days after school in their backyard and much of the summer there as well. Their house was an incredible mixture of smells: incense, fresh bread, warming rice. Their suburban yard bloomed with life - chickens, rabbits, dogs, a huge well tended garden complete with a beatnik dad who was home a lot, puttering. When Naomi wasn't doing any number of household chores, raising her three children or crafting beautiful glass trees, which was their family business, she was on her knees in front of her butsudan chanting away in Japanese. As a child of 5, I thought nothing of the fact that my half Japanese friend's mother was a practicing Nichiren Buddhist.

Though I was never emotionally close to Naomi, she was in many ways a very special person in my life. She was not a nanny or any kind of close caregiver, really. Nevertheless, because I spent so much time at their home after school and over the summers, she was perhaps the most prominent adult female role model in my life, even more so than my own mother, whose illness prevented her from taking a more active role in my young life.

Before she died, she had one last burst of life in which I saw her not as a mother of my friend, but as a woman. She dressed up and got out more - with lots of make up and a wig - and was more active socially than I had ever seen her. She came unannounced to my 15th birthday party and was very talkative to everyone, laughing and drinking wine. She did something she had never done before - she touched me. It wasn't anything personal - just sliding her hand on my shoulder and hugging me close to her like any tipsy adult might do to show affection. I had never asked for it and never thought about it, but for the first time I realized she liked me. I couldn't categorize the feeling - was it sensual? desperate? alcohol? It was a haunting moment of nascent sexual awareness, both familiar and strange like an intimacy that I remember having wanted long before and was now surprised to experience in the unexpected conditions of the present moment. It was also my first contact with the living dead. I knew she was dying and that made me uncomfortable and happy at the same time, seeing her enjoying herself and looking very unlike what I thought death would look like.

By that time, there was already distance between Bert and myself. We had different interests and schedules. We talked here and there, but didn't hang out. Naomi's death was the final chapter, her death providing faux closure. I didn't know what to say and so much of what what was going on in my teenage mind didn't seem to flow well with, 'Gosh, your mom is gone.'

Recently I reconnected with Bert and his own family. It was terrific. We spoke briefly of the time when his mom died, how hard she worked and how lucky he was to get into a good school. He seems to be a very well adjusted person. I didn't know how to tell him I loved his mother, how to speak of a 25 year old loss for someone who I still can't clearly define what they meant to me but somehow had a deep impact on my view of life, relationships and death.


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