I’m welcoming my friend and fellow writer DeVonna Allison today as she shares this beautiful story about a woman who had a lasting impact on her life. DeVonna is a freelance writer whose work has been published in various periodicals, both in print and online, including the best-selling “Chicken Soup For the Soul” series. Recently, she was a winner in the Southern California Genealogical Society’s memoir writing contest. DeVonna and her husband have four children, enjoy live music performances and make their home in Southern Michigan.
If I were asked to choose (and I have been) one person who has had a profound influence on me and my life, I would have a ready answer in Emi Abe, (Emmy AH-bay) a 78-year-old Japanese–American woman I’ve known since I was 16.
Emi loves people and Emi loves life, she is the kind of person who remembers the names of your children and is genuinely interested in their lives. She remembers and honors birthdays, of friends as well as family, and is always up for a party. She’s taken quilting lessons for the last thirty plus years even though now she just sits and chats with the other students, her fingers having lost their flexibility. She has numerous health problems, has had heart problems and takes insulin four times a day, last time I checked. She loves her church and her God, and is confident in His love for her. Emi is the one person I know who could honestly carry the tag of “exuberant”. My children adore her and call her Bachan, Japanese for Grandma. When once I suggested she should be called Oba-chan-san, “honorable little Grandmother” Emi was horrified, believing such high respect should be saved for the truly venerable. She is modest, open, genuine, loving and one of the strongest women I know. She’s not just a survivor, though she is most certainly that, but she is a thriver as well. To understand why I feel as I do toward her, one needs only to look at her life and marvel.
Emi was born in 1935 to very young parents. Her 18-year-old German mother and 21-year-old Japanese father divorced before Emi was even a year old. At that tender age her mother rejected her and her father refused to care for her, but she went to live with her paternal Grandfather and he cherished her. Her bond with her Grandfather is as close as ever though he’s been gone for many years and she still speaks of him in loving, reverent tones. When she was five years old she and her grandfather were two of the 110,000 Japanese–Americans rounded up and incarcerated for the duration of World War II. She spent four years in Manzanar, the infamous “relocation camp” in the California desert, before going to live with her father and his new family after the war. Her step mother mistreated her cruelly and on the streets of the city of Los Angeles Emi faced racial prejudice, a leftover from the war years. Many of these things hurt Emi deeply, but true to her Japanese upbringing, she learned to “gaman” (GAH-mon), a Japanese word that means “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity”, in the midst of her trials.
When she was 18 Emi wed a young Japanese-Hawaiian Marine named Alan Abe. Life could be hard at times as she followed her husband around the United States to his various duty stations. They moved twenty one times in twenty years, but, as she says, “I didn’t know it was hard at the time because I was so happy.” It was Alan who comforted Emi when she received news of her Grandfather’s death.
Though Alan was often gone for training, (he spent a year in Okinawa without her), the years he spent at war were some of the hardest times she faced. Through three tours of Vietnam, Emi waited patiently, praying for Alan’s safe return while raising their growing family of four little girls. When Alan retired from the Marines they bought a home and prepared to settle into a normal family life, only to have Alan cruelly taken from them in a car accident. Not for the first time, Emi found herself alone with a family to raise, but for the first time with no hope for a reunion with her beloved husband.
This is what I admire about Emi: her resiliency and her ability to “gaman” in all the cruelties life dealt, accepting them with honor and grace. And love, because love is what Emi is all about. She loves to travel, (she’s currently planning a trip to Tokyo), she loves ice cream, she loves quilts, and most amazingly, she still loves people. In spite of all the injustices she’s faced in her lifetime, Emi is truly joyful. She taught me that life is not just to be endured, it is to be embraced and relished. And for that I am truly grateful for Emi, whose name means “blessing”.
I am a guest blogger today at Brenda Yoder’s blog, Life Beyond the Picket Fence, where I’m sharing my journey to forgiveness. This Mother’s Day, I’m beginning to understand my birth mother and the role she played in my life. Please join me there.