Sushi take-away on Christmas Eve. It was the last minute manouevre of a desperate housewife in possession of a credit card, trying to give some happy spin to the bleakness of her new life. I swear. That was what it was.
My family back home--Americans—we had always had such a rich tradition at Christmastime. For the whole of Advent, we kids would do ‘good deeds’ every day, and with each one we’d win a piece of straw to soften the bed for Baby Jesus in his manger. By December 25th the little Nativity Scene was piled high. Of course, on Christmas Day there was Santa Claus and stockings, and turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie and mulled wine. The night before, Christmas Eve, we’d all gather at Gamma’s to read St Luke’s Infancy Narrative. I wasn’t hypocritical enough to pull the religion routine on my lot. After the Reading, we’d go out caroling to raise money for the Blind Children. My sister and I composed descants for all the favourites. At midnight we’d finish up at someone’s house for eggnog around a blazing fire and sing more descants. Even if I’d known any of my neighbours to ask about local caroling, I wasn’t going to pull that one on them, either. ‘It’s freezing, Mommy,’ I could just hear. My husband—Japanese--wouldn’t know any of the words, and he’d either be asking me constantly for translation or just stand there looking socially awkward. My daughter would probably have an asthma attack. I’d have to carry the baby.
I left my job in Japan, my friends, my dream of scholarship and grad school, to chase his dream of empty affluence. And do you know what? We never even discussed it. I was a wife. That’s what wives want, don’t they? He got the nod, and the next day, he was on a plane, leaving me to pack, apply for visas and arrange everything.
We arrived in London on the afternoon of December 24th. The baby had screamed the whole way on the airplane; Junko was asthmatic. My husband had gone to work, just like any other day, and I was all by myself in a foreign country with a sick toddler and a screaming baby. He brings home a bakery-bought cake. ‘Look, a Christmas Cake’, he says, as if he’s just upheld some seasonal tradition. That’s what Westerners eat, don’t they?
Christmas was a time of cheer, and it was up to me. So, I took my daughter’s crayons, and we drew a Christmas Tree on our packing boxes. I didn’t know where the stockings were packed. We left out cookies for the reindeer in the middle of a roll of duct tape.
‘Sushi?’ my daughter Junko said, ‘It’s supposed to be turkey.’ That’s for tomorrow, honey, I explained. We were going to Papa’s boss’s for Christmas dinner on the morrow; they lived nearby. ‘It might not be turkey, though,’ I warned her. ‘That might not be the custom in their family.’ ‘Is sushi the custom in Papa’s family?’ she asked. ‘It’s the custom in our family,’ I said. ‘Sushi take-away on Christmas Eve, that’s the custom in our family.’
It got dark at 3.30pm. It rained every day. I fell into the deepest depression of my life. We lived in Highgate, and as I drove here and there trying to set up our new home, all by myself, with baby fussing behind in the carseat, I passed under Suicide Bridge several times a day, asking myself, ‘Do I? Would I?’ I took my credit card and I filled our big house with Western-style furniture, but it remained empty. I mixed the American traditions, the Japanese and the English, but the one custom that was missing was my happiness. I hid it from the children, but once they were in bed, I’d cry and cry into the night.
We upheld the tradition, and in subsequent years it was easy for my husband to pick up the sushi on his way home from work. He’d also pick up a Christmas Cake; why shouldn’t he invent new traditions, too? But every Christmas Eve, I remembered that first one. As I grasped the first piece of sushi with my chopsticks, the image of Suicide Bridge would pop into my head.
I tried diligently to teach Junko Japanese. Endless afternoons I’d sit with the other Japanese wives, wives of his work colleagues, to give her a chance to play with little friends, to give us both a chance to practice our Japanese. Goodness knows, we rarely got a chance with Papa. Whenever he was at home, he was asleep. Trying to hold up my end of another tedious conversation about where we buy our tea, what brand of coffee we prefer, I overheard her saying to little Mayumi-chan, ‘In Japan, they eat sushi every day, but Mommy only lets us have it on Christmas Eve.’
The baby—Hiro--grew up, having heard only that Christmas Eve was time for sushi. The American cousins came one year and were scandalised by the lack of religion in our house and the complete absence of Baby Jesus. Our tradition was expensive that year, with nine people around the table for sushi. Missing the carols and the eggnog, even missing the church, I tried to be of good cheer, talking to my sister about the ‘customs in Japan’ and the ‘customs in our family’. I heard Hiro say to his younger cousin Jimmy, ‘We moved to London because Mommy wanted to talk English with her friends.’ Sushi, he explained, ‘that’s the custom in Papa’s country.’
My Japanese husband, sadly, died, and on his deathbed, he phoned to say goodbye. ‘You remember that Christmas Eve when you first arrived in London, Suji? I brought home a Christmas Cake. You and Junko drew a Christmas Tree in crayon on the packing boxes. You ordered sushi take-away. You said it was a new family tradition. Do you know what? That was one of the happiest days of my life.’