A jewelry box, my mother, and the time that was not to be

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                                                                                                                                                  Beth Nakamura

It was a little wooden jewelry box in the shape of a log cabin, tucked high on a shelf at Sears. I was 9 years old and instantly lost in the charmed world the scene evoked: Painted flowers spilled from small window boxes like brightly colored candy. A log bridge led to the front door, a stream of painted water passing beneath. The box itself was lined with cheap red velvet and had tiny river rocks glued to its roof. I loved seeing the glue, loved the artifice of it, as if its every imperfection somehow made it more attainable –- as if a little glue and some paint could make that life mine. 

The jewelry box had a water wheel and, if you turned it, played "The Lonely Goatherd" from "The Sound of Music." If winding that wheel prompted it to shout, "Throw yourself at me! You know you want it!" I'd have probably done it right then and there, although I'm not sure I'd have known what to do exactly.  

A small wooden bench sat glued to the corner in front of the house. Standing in the store aisle staring up at it, I imagined myself sitting there, nestled safely in that dreamy, moss-covered world. My family may have been unraveling around me, but that box provided momentary shelter from it all and transported me to a softer place.

I knew immediately I would give it to my mother for Mother's Day. Remarkably, I remember buying it. I remember, too, how proud I was when I gave the jewelry box to her. 

I told her that when I grew up we would live in the cabin and be old together, just her and me. Think about that. A 9-year-old kid willing to hole up in the middle of nowhere with an elderly woman. 

Twenty years later, that's pretty much what happened. Only instead of a log cabin, the setting was a makeshift hospice in a dusty back bedroom of the house I grew up in and where she still lived, the ceiling visibly slanted from a do-it-yourself conversion from a dilapidated back porch years earlier. 

My mother had lung cancer. Doctors gave her six months, give or take. I was making good on a promise made long ago, that I'd be there when the time came and if she needed me.

The time had arrived. 

My mother was sifting through a lifetime of experiences, and focusing on regret. Like so much from my childhood, the jewelry box was long gone, given away years ago to a sister-in-law.  For reasons that remain a mystery, the memory of that discarded gift had her in its grip. Intimacy came hard for my mother and as she grappled with what remained of the sum of her choices, grief seemed to manifest in life's B-sides. Smaller moments replayed in her mind and she wrestled them down, one by one.

Giving away the jewelry box? It felt, to her in those moments, as though she squandered love itself. No big thing, I told her, shooing away her grief as I cupped a handful of berries and fed them to her, one by one.

I'm not sure whose idea it was to take a trip to Maine in those final weeks. My sister found a condo in Portland and, as if swept up in a collective last gasp of the dying, we rallied. Excited and worried, we made the trip from my mother's house in Massachusetts. 

She'd lost so much weight I could carry her to the car. Her arms and legs, little more than skin and bones, dangled on either side of me like a sleeping toddler's. 

Nausea was her constant companion, and she heaved off and on the entire way. By the time we got to Maine, about an hour's drive from her house, I convinced myself the whole plan was ridiculous, if well-intended. 

We saw an old antique store and pulled over, hoping solid ground and a little browsing – my mother always loved a good flea market – might rouse her. But she was too sick to leave the car. You go, she told us.

I've long since given up trying to fully wrap my mind around what happened next. As I tell my own kids, there are questions and there are answers -- and sometimes there are questions without answers.

I hesitated as I got out of the car and dragged myself into the store; the last thing I wanted to do was look at antiques. But I sensed there was something in it for her, a vicarious, pleasant experience I could provide her.

(Looking back, it all seems so absurd. My dying mother is heaving in the parking lot in the back of a car and I ... go shopping?)

The antique store was full of maritime memorabilia and nautical items: old anchors and wooden steering wheels and amber glass hanging from the ceiling. None of it held my interest, but like a dinghy unmoored in fog, I aimlessly wandered. Mostly I worried about my mother lying in the car. She wasn't alone out there – my cousin and then boyfriend kept her company – but still. 

I walked over to a glass case at the center of the store and peered inside. What caught my eye was so remarkable that I can still muster the swell of feelings -- the flutter in my heart, the tightening in my chest -- when I spotted it. There among the nautical bric-a-brac and pieces of sculpted driftwood was the jewelry box, as dreamy and folkloric as I remembered it.

I plunked down thirty dollars – I'd have paid a thousand -- and hurried to the car to give it to my mother. None of us could believe it, least of all her. We marveled at the synchronicity of it all, and wondered if this was the jewelry box. 

Maine was everything Maine is, all coastline and sunshine and lobster, of course, which we boiled up in the condo.

My mother barely left the bed the entire weekend. But she had a view of the ocean, which soothed her. And she had the jewelry box, which never left the nightstand by her bed.

The morning she died, a couple months after the Maine trip, I was with her, camped out on an adjacent bed in case she needed help in the middle of the night. The cancer had metastasized to her bones and the pain was so debilitating that the pre-measured doses from the morphine pump were no longer enough. 

Hospice had an on-call nurse, whose help I leaned on as I tried and failed to find my way through the crisis. I was hesitant to increase the amount of morphine, even as my mother's moans grew louder. But nothing else was working.

"You want to make the pain go away, right?" the nurse asked me. She could hear my mother's moaning from the other end of the phone, and there was a sense of urgency in her voice. Yes, I told her. I want to make the pain go away. She walked me through the exact steps, none of which I remember now. The extra dose of morphine quieted my mother and that quiet settled over the room. It was early November and unusually warm for New England. I remember the sun was shining.

I left the room and went out into the rest of the house for about 15 or so minutes. When I came back she was dead.

The hospice nurse later told me they often do that, the dying: They wait for you to leave the room. 

That was over 20 years ago.

Adulthood unfurled itself with the requisite markers: marriage, children, an entire career. There's so much of my life she never got to know or see.

After all these years, her memory is akin to a gilded object just beyond reach and, I tell myself, out of my price range. Miss my mother? Who can afford it?

This story amounts to the sifted remains of my mother, and the memories console me. So there's that.

That, and the jewelry box.

From the day we stopped at that Maine antique shop, the box never left her bedside. Now it rests on mine.

-- Beth Nakamura

 

 

DREAM OF PEARL HARBOR

 

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                                                                                                                                  Beth Nakamura

 

Ask Wallace Doble about Pearl Harbor, when he was a newly enlisted 17-year-old onboard the USS Tangier, a seaplane tender stationed in Hawaii. Or when, later in the war, an accident involving an ammunitions explosion left him mostly deaf.

He'll get to that.

But not yet.

First, he'll want to tell you about the dream.

In it, Doble is holding onto a rail, looking out onto a body of water. 

"I don't know if I was on a ship or a dock," Doble recalled. "There was an explosion in the distance, and then a plane came by," he remembers. The plane had a red circle painted on it near the tail. It was so close, Doble says, he was able to look the pilot in the eye.

"I waved at him and he didn't wave back," Doble says, "so I got to cussing him." Right after that, "I woke up."

He was 11 years old.

Fast forward six years, when Doble quit school, enlisted in the Navy, and found himself on the Tangier, a boatswain's mate, 2nd class. It was Dec. 7, 1941.

"I was standing on the deck, holding onto the rails, looking out onto the water, and that's when it happened," Doble says, his voice getting more excited with each twist and turn of the story. "It happened just like my damned dream."

A big tank, "across the bay, a few miles away," exploded before his eyes. Then a plane flew past, a Japanese flag emblazoned on its side. "I waved to the pilot and he didn't wave back, just like the dream," Doble says. "And I started cussing him out."

The rest happened fast.

"Someone opened fire," said Doble, who didn't realize quite what was happening until he noticed a shipmate, who was walking up the deck behind him, had been shot at the collar. "I didn't think it was real until I saw he got shot," he said.

Petrified, Doble thought about jumping off the side of the ship, or "going down the hatch," he said. He chose the hatch, where he hid out for the next couple of hours. The Tangier, he believes, was the first to fire back that day. Several members of the crew went on to rescue over 30 men from the nearby USS Utah, which had been hit by two torpedoes, and capsized.

Doble, who is 90, lives with his wife, June, in Eagle Creek. He spent five years in the Navy, going on to a brief stint as a merchant marine before becoming a logger. He attended USS Tangier reunions years ago but hasn't met with fellow Pearl Harbor veterans in a long time. Last he knew, there were about five shipmates left. The Tangier, which was decommissioned in 1947, had a second life with a shipping company.  It was sold for scrap in 1961..

When the weather's good, Doble likes to spend all day outside riding his push mower, or tinkering in the workshop he built several years ago. There's a pond out back, which he spent two years digging out. In it, there's a big koi collection; he feeds them when the weather's warm. Every day, a couple times a day, he puts out corn and nuts for the squirrels.

Behind the pond, over past the bridge he built, sits an old trailer he bought some years back. He no longer uses it for storage since a storm came, bringing down some trees and a piece of the trailer with it. But there's a painting he made that runs along the length of it, something he did with his son, Dan, who died this past spring. He was 60.

The painting was a big project, and took them several days to finish. It's bright blue, about the color of Doble's eyes, and glistens on a sunny day, when the shadows of backyard trees sway and shimmer on its surface.

"I don't know why I chose to paint the Tangier," Doble says. "I just did."

-- Beth Nakamura

 
                                                                                                                                                                Beth Nakamura

                                                                                                                                                                Beth Nakamura

Introduction to a talk I gave at the Society for Professional Journalists' Building a Better journalist conference

This photograph floated into my mind as I thought about what I could possibly say to you, a group of wannabe young journalists, sitting in a room, earnest, open, expectant. I tend to think in pictures, which float in and out of my head. And when I’m lucky enough or open enough or in the shower or whatever it is that predisposes the mind to latch onto and capture our most important and often elusive currency, which is to say our ideas, I try and stay alert to that. So this picture came into my head.  I shot it years ago, when I was just beginning my career, when I was you. And I thought, that World War I veteran, sitting there, that’s me: ancient, a little broken, just sort of holding it together -- at first glance, at least.  And that’s you, over there, that great-grandchild, face up against the window, clamoring to get in.

My mother got cancer when I was 29. I was working at the Virginian-Pilot then, and took a leave of absence to take care of her. A few weeks turned into a few months and that eventually became six precious months together until she died, finally, from cancer, and exhaustion and more morphine than oughta be legal. When it was clear early on she was terminal and needed me with her, the Virginian-Pilot encouraged me to go and do what I had to do and don’t even think about them and Godspeed.  And they stayed true to that. They also kept me on the payroll the entire time. The entire time. That, my friends, was the gilded age of journalism.

I bring up my mother because when I think of the waves of grief I have endured in recent years, having experienced this slow motion collapse of the world of big and of institutions and of journalism as we understood it, and just, gosh, the entire revolution that is happening, and the redefinition of the craft and how we practice it; When I think of all the amazing minds that have left the industry -- whether through layoffs or just because they couldn’t stomach it and they’ve got kids to take care of and all the real and legitimate reasons, and even some of the phantom reasons, and just the cumulative effect of all of it, of these tremendous, tsunami-size waves of grief; Well, it’s not like losing your mother. But it’s close. 

If you don’t have the mettle for the atmosphere I am describing here you should walk away now and don’t look back -- while you still have plenty of chance. But if, like me, you can’t imagine a life without all the interestingness, the access and the steady stream of fascinating people and stories and of the beauty that is our everyday ordinary, our privileged experience, then by all means, welcome. Who am I to get in your way. Throw everything you have at it. Be nimble. Be open. And play those two words on repeat. Nimble, open, nimble, open.

Which brings me back to this picture. Because the best work in whatever form contains nuance and metaphor and often a little irony or paradox, and because wherever there is shadow, there will always be light, I thought, well, sure, that’s me, that old guy. That much is obvious. But I’m also that little kid, alive with the possibility and power of visual journalism, hands pressed against this window of opportunity I have with the work, and with you here now.

In ancient myth, as in life, wherever there is death, there is always rebirth. And I think that’s where we are now. I’m often pretty much baseline emotionally exhausted these days. But also – and please hold onto this if nothing else – I’m exhilarated.

-- Beth Nakamura

 

Prom dress giveaway at Abby's Closet

                                                                                                                                                                        Beth Nakamura

                                                                                                                                                                        Beth Nakamura

Savanna Smith is nestled in the corner of a large, open-aired dressing room staring into the mirror. With more than 7,500 prom dresses to choose from at Abby's Closet, Smith has narrowed her selection down to two: a cream colored, floor length strapless dress and a second option, bright pink, with sequins. She's struggling to decide.

"Attention everyone!" a volunteer shouts to the three dozen or so high school students who are all there trying on dresses.

"Which one do you think she should choose?"

The students turn, all eyes on Savanna. There's a clear winner.

Abby's Closet, now in its 13th year, offers free prom dresses to high school students at the nonprofit's annual giveaway at the Oregon Convention Center. The event runs through Sunday.

Abby's Closet is the brainchild of mother-daughter team Sally and Abby Egland, after Abby, whose pink prom dress hung in her closet collecting dust, had to figure out what to do with it before heading off to college.

Her mother suggested Goodwill, or maybe Buffalo Exchange.

"I wanted it to go to a girl," Abby said.

Abby, a self-confessed tomboy in high school, remembers what it was like to wear the dress.

"It made me feel beautiful," she said.

"I stood up a little taller, felt more confident."

Savanna, 17, a senior at Rosemary Anderson High School, an alternative school in North Portland, will be attending the prom with friends. 

"I don't think I would be able to go to prom without this place," she said.

"I know a lot of family members would have helped," she added.

 "This makes it a lot easier."

Admission to Abby's Closet requires nothing more than a student ID. The nonprofit also offers an annual scholarship - the winner is allowed first pick of the dresses - and an active student advisory board.

Savanna will be attending Western Oregon University next fall as a psychology major. She hopes to one day counsel children.

Admission to Abby's Closet prom dress giveaway requires nothing more than a student ID.

"My father died when I was six," she said, adjusting the fit of the cream colored dress with the help of a friend.

"I wasn't able to afford proper counseling. I was pretty lost for a little while," she said. 

Savanna says her mentor at Rosemary Anderson always tells students to "'be the person you needed when you were younger,'" she said.

Savanna's ultimate goal, she says, is "to be the person I needed." 

The girls in the dressing room all shout supportive comments in Savanna's direction.

"That's so pretty on you!"

"It fits perfectly!"

"The cream one!"

Three volunteers from Abby's Closet surround Savanna, each offering their own two cents.

Savanna takes one last look in the mirror.

Cream it is.

"I'm always wondering about what I'm doing and if it would make my dad proud and what he would think," she says, changing back into her street clothes. 

"I think he would be proud."

-- Beth Nakamura