Anne and the Gifts
The encounter began in a stark waiting room in a Japanese hospital in Tokyo. My sister, Anne Pillsbury Gripp, was occupying a room in intensive care there, having suffered a heart attack while attending an orchid show in Tokyo in 1994. Anne was the owner of the Santa Barbara Orchid Estate located in Goleta, California.
I had flown in to be with her and with her two mostly adult children, my niece Alice and nephew Perry. The next two weeks were surreal, punctuated by bewilderment and occasional humor.
Anne had always had problems with her heart, we knew that. She had suffered from Rheumatic Fever when she was two years old and it had left its print on her health; her cardiologist was optimistic but realistic. She and I had gone through the loss of the sister who was between us in age, Carol Sylvia, twenty years before. Carol had been 36 when she died of a heart attack. You don't like to think about what that might mean to about your own heart.
Carol was just two years younger than Anne but no one would believe they were related. That was sort of amazing when both their last names were Pillsbury and they, unarguably, had the same parents. Anne was tall, skinny and dark haired with dark brown eyes. Carol was short, curvaceous, blond, and had huge, vivid blue eyes. Anne was a book worm who went on to major in math at UCLA. Carol went to secretarial school right out of high school and went on to dominate any job she took. Anne would become a mathematician for GE right out of college in 1958.
Anne and I had talked just before she took off for the airport. We were putting the finishing touches on our plans to take all of the kids to Disneyland as soon as she was back, mine and hers. When the phone rang that day I picked it up expecting to hear her voice.
That waiting room was a long ways from Disneyland, no matter how you looked at it. There was too much time to think about how fragile life really is and about whether of not that still figure in the bed upstairs would wake up and see us. Twice a day we got to see her unmoving form for 45 minutes.
Carol had died the day before Valentine's Day, 1974. I was 9 months pregnant with my second child then. Later, my mother returned to me unopened the Valentine I had sent Carol. Inside were two embossed cards, one from me and one from the baby she had promised to Godmother. I still have those small cards in my desk. Every so often I take them out and hold them.
The nursing staff did not speak English but they were very firm about the time limit.
While in the waiting room we had little to look at except the other families. Some of these changed over that two weeks; some remained the same. We exchanged smiles and nods.
We could not comprehend what those who shared that small room with us said; but we knew what they were feeling. All of us waiting to see patients in Intensive Care were herded together up the elevator when the time came for the 45 minutes we were allowed. We sat together in that small room between times between the two visits we were allowed. Sad events brought all of us there, we understood each other. Waiting and not knowing is hard.
One day I bought a small box of candies and shared it with the lady and her little girl who were sitting cross from me. Her face lit up and she bowed, accepting the small confection. I smiled back, using the word for “you are welcome,” I had just then learned.
That started the Battle of the Gifts. I was about to learn about the Japanese custom of gifting. Giving gifts is a custom that is taken seriously in Japan. Gifts are a major line item for companies and for individuals. Gifts given at specific times of the year even have special names. A midsummer gift giving is traditional and called O-chugen. At the end of the year another gifting period blossoms with presents and is called O-seibo. Those are usually gifts given to those to whom you feel indebted.
The next day I was astonished to receive a beautifully wrapped gift handed to me by the lady who looked like a porcelain doll in western clothing. She smiled and bowed gracefully. I bobbed and accepted. Inside was a perfect pastry enclosed in cellophane. Delicious.
It was a much needed distraction at first. The gift-giving continued every day and the value and permanence slowly grew. Delicacies to be consumed turned into a small book, a set of cups, tea to be used in the tea cups. Alice and Perry began wondering aloud where it would end. So did I. Eventually, we found that out.
Talking to the English manger of the hotel where we were staying I learned that it might never stop. Frightening thought. But it was a distraction we all needed, I think.