Published with permission
by Bamboo Ridge Press (2007)
Forty-five years ago, when I was a child, my cousin Pam would always get a prize from the Tomoe Ame box that was better than the one I got. If I got a tin whistle, she’d get little glass berries that made a tinkling sound when she shook them. If I got a tiny wooden top, she’d get a wooden kokeshi doll with a moveable head. Once, I got a toy car with wheels that turned. She got a little hair ornament with flowers and a fringe of flat tin tassels. She stuck it in her Shirley Temple doll’s curly brown hair. Most of the time, she’d position her prizes just out of my reach on her open palm where they’d sparkle in the Hawaiian sun. “See, but don’t touch,” was what she’d always say to me. It was disgusting.
Tomoe Ame, a rice candy, used to come in a two-sectioned box. The large lower section contained 15 or so pieces of orange candy. It was gummy and sweet, double wrapped in cellophane and then in tissue-thin rice paper that melted in my mouth. Grandma would say, “Don’t eat the first wrapping paper, but you can eat the second one.” This confused me, because both of the wrappers looked and felt the same. One time, I ate the cellophane wrapper as well as the rice paper wrapper, and had a terrible time trying to strip all the bits of cellophane off my tongue. After that, I would carefully unwrap the cellophane wrapper then try to strip off all the rice paper wrapping too. I don’t remember how old I was when I figured out for sure which wrapper to eat and which to throw away.
Tomoe Ame didn’t even taste very good. It wasn’t sweet and tart like lemon drops; it didn’t have an interesting shape like fish candy or a hole in the middle like Life Savers. In fact, it didn’t even taste as good as regular American candy that I could get at Fujikawa Store. The only thing that made Tomoe Ame interesting was the small blue second section of the box it came in. This blue section, which was about one-quarter as long as a match box, looked like a treasure chest. It was sealed shut with a tissue-thin piece of paper with Japanese writing on it. I had to draw my nail across the seal to slit it so I could open the box and look at the prize inside.
Tomoe Ame was a treat we got in the summer time. It always arrived in the big brown suitcase carried by the peddler man. He was short and broad and smiled as he walked down the long coral driveway into our camp, which is what we called a group of houses clustered together. He must have come on a regular schedule because our grandmothers seemed to know when he would be there. They came out of their houses and spread their goza mats on the grass in front of my aunt’s garage and waited for him to arrive. I remember the garage had unpainted wooden timbers, faced the mountains and gathered in the cool breeze.
Our grandmas all looked the same. They wore dresses made of gray or blue fabric printed with tiny flowers. Their hair was rolled into buns at the base of their necks. They sat in a circle on the woven grass mats. They spread patchwork quilts out between them and laid the grandbabies on them. Grandmas sat with their legs sticking straight out in front of them, not like our mothers who always sat with their legs curled to one side beneath their skirts. Grandmas had brown skin, which was speckled with white age spots and crinkled like rice paper. They told stories to each other and laughed, bringing up their hands to hide their open mouths.
The peddler man set his suitcases down with a thump in the middle of the grandmothers’ circle. Everyone leaned forward as he began to unfasten the big brass buckles and leather straps on his bags. His bags were really a series of nested boxes. On the top layer were shallow trays of Tomoe Ame and other Japanese candy. We children liked only the Tomoe Ame. The other Japanese candies were not very good. They were formed into beautiful flower and leaf shapes and painted soft pinks and greens and golds. They glittered with what seemed to be sugar crystals but when I ate a piece, it was bland and floury. I was cured of ever wanting to taste another piece after I ate a cherry blossom that tasted like the cotton that collects on the inside of sweater pockets. Our group, the flock of 3- to 6-year-old grandchildren, would huddle around the peddler’s box and wait with open mouths as our grandmas began the slow process of getting out coin purses and searching for silver coins to pay for our Tomoe Ame. One by one, we would claim our boxes and swoop out gleefully over the grass, eager to slit the tissue paper seals and see our prizes. The grandmothers, freed from our distracting chirping, then began the leisurely inspection of the cases’ contents.
We children scattered among the hibiscus shrubs, palm trunks, Mickey Mouse berry bushes and pokey fern fronds. I usually went to my favorite place under my aunt’s mulberry bush, and there, I opened my blue treasure box. No matter what bright bauble tumbled out into my hand, I knew Pam would have something better. We played with our tiny toys until the fragile prizes broke, probably all of 20 or 30 minutes. Then we would spiral back to the group of women to resume tugging at their skirts and squeaking our high-pitched requests.
But there must have been times when I sat quietly and watched wide-eyed as the cases were unpacked; because I remember seeing some of their contents. There were envelopes which held tissuepaper-wrapped hairnets. These were prized by grandmas for wrapping their hair because they were made of filaments so thin that they looked like black spiders’ webs. I wondered if they were as strong as the spiders’ silk that my grandma claimed her father would wrap around his little ibos, tiny, raised blemishes on the skin. She said he would pull the webs tight to cut the tiny tags of skin right off.
I remember U-shaped hairpins stuck into cardboard holders, which grandmas would use to hold hairnets in place at the napes of their necks. And black wax hair-coloring crayons, which grandmas used to hide white stubble that grew in their hairlines between the times when they would dye their hair. The crayons were big as grandpas’ cigars and I didn’t like their greasy, dishonest smell.
Other envelopes held white powders like mushi kudashi, or worm medicine, which a grandmother would buy after a mother reported a number of nights of stinky hunts around a sleepless child’s itchy anus. There were miniature glass bottles that held tiny, round jin tan pills. Grandpa kept the bottles Grandma bought in his tabako drawer next to his pipes and cans of tobacco. There were more mysterious envelopes of powders like kuma no i medicine, which if the Japanese name is to be believed, is made out of a bear’s stomach. There were yaito cones, or moxibustion powders which could be placed on the skin and lighted [with fire] if someone had a particularly serious illness. I heard my uncle say that bad children could also receive a yaito treatment too, which made me reluctant to ask anything more about it. Cardboard boxes of Salonpas exuded their medicine smell. The women, sitting with legs stretched out in the sun, often wore little squares of Salonpas, pasted in long chains down their calves. The smell of liniment rising from them permeated my childhood.
I remember cards which were pricked by rows and rows of straight pins and green and purple foil-wrapped packets of sewing needles. Orange and yellow paper wrappers printed with pictures of geishas held oval cakes of olive soap, which I thought was made of green olives. There were celluloid bracelets and pins and earrings made of clusters of Viennese glass flowers and leaves. The women, never interested in jewelry, lost interest in the boxes around this time and their laughter grew hushed as they began to whisper to each other about illnesses. Their hands smoothed swollen ankles as they talked in low tones about tönyö byö, diabetes; shinzö byö, heart disease; and gan, which is cancer. They nodded sympathetically as each recounted her symptoms, and listened with grave faces as they remembered friends who had already died.
I realize now I don’t remember how much money anything cost. I don’t know the peddler man’s name or how old he was. I don’t even know how old the grandmothers were, or how long they had been getting together. I suspect that they had been coming together to talk since the time when the babies that they carried out to their circle were their own. I know my memories are 45 years old and that all the grandmas were by then in their 60s, having come to Hawai‘i 40 years before as picture brides from Japan. I don’t know what their hardships were and what plagues they faced, though I do know my father had sisters who died of tuberculosis. Some things, I’ve learned in bits and pieces recently, like the reason olive soap was given its name is because it was perfumed by the fragrant olive flower which is called mokusei in Japanese.
I also realize that I do not know any Japanese words for sexual things, though the grandmothers must have spoken about them because each of them had had at least six children. Now that I am older, I realize that the grandmothers’ giggling laughter behind brown, laundry-roughened hands may have been about naughty secrets that they didn’t want small children to hear, and that Tomoe Ame may have been a treasure to insure that their small children could be shooed safely away. I don’t even know when and how all the women died. We moved when I was 12.
My parents believed in progress. We moved to an American house in a different neighborhood which was close to a main street, so that my mother could catch the bus to work downtown in an office building. My father had a car and on weekends we went to Longs Drugs to buy Dial soap and Bayer aspirin. My mother never sat on a grass mat with her legs stuck out in front of her; she never wore hairnets. She permed her hair and wore stockings and high-heeled shoes. Our parents believed in education for women. Pam and I went to high school, college and got jobs which turned into careers.
I saw a box of Tomoe Ame recently; the treasure box contains only stickers now because the candy company must be afraid of getting sued by parents of small children who might choke on small toys. The whole world has changed. We go to Straub Clinic and the Queen’s Physician’s Office Building to get prescription pills. Medicines and cosmetics come wrapped securely in plastic these days and not in thin tissue paper. Women drive themselves to shopping centers and supermarkets to buy the things they need. My cousin drives her Mercedes, and I drive my Ford. We don’t have time to meet at shopping centers and talk for hours.
But I am over 50 now and sometimes I wonder what it would be like to sit on a grass mat for a whole afternoon in front of a garage made of unpainted wooden timbers that collects cool mountain breezes like an open palm. I’d like to sit with my legs straight out in front of me and talk to women I’ve known for years and years, to laugh out loud with my hand over my teeth, to savor sweet memories and chew over them until they become prized stories. I’d like to have time to unwrap our fears about cancer and diabetes or even whisper about the dry certainty of menopause. I’d call Pam and ask if she would like to talk, but I know she is too busy selling fashionable clothes and makeup from her internet website; she has a business to run. Sometimes, sitting in my car in the asphalt parking lot between Safeway and Longs, I wonder what happened to the peddler man and his suitcases that contained the Tomoe Ame boxes.