By Mary Ellen Gambutti
Tokyo, June 1961-1964
Mom, Dad, two-year-old Julie, and I have flown to Japan in a Pan American jet to begin the three-year tour in an American military housing complex called Washington Heights, in downtown Tokyo. Grassy courts are surrounded by beige, ordinary-looking double, and single-story houses. Mom and Dad make our two-story quarters comfortable with a few pieces of familiar furniture, and some from “supply” left by departing American families.
As service people, all we need is here: offices, schools, a movie theatre, a non-denominational chapel, a Base Exchange, clubs, swimming pools, wide streets, and sidewalks lined with flowering cherry trees, and park-like grounds that stretch along a wide slope below our court. I’m free to roam on foot or ride my bicycle. The stone wall that runs along the back of the forest-like grounds where we play separates Washington Heights from many acres of evergreens of the Meiji Shrine gardens. I ride my bike up and down the deep forested gully, around the roots, and over the lawns, finding every path.
We have to move to Johnson Air Force Base because Washington Heights will be torn down for the 1964 Summer Olympics. It’s a big shock to me because my Tokyo International school has become an important part of my life. Still, this is how it is in a military family. But as an adoptee, it feels like a bigger loss, it’s just that I don’t yet comprehend what that loss is.
One spring Saturday, at the end of our three years, Dad says, “I’m going to paint your bike to get rid of these scratches. I’ll clean it up before it goes on the boat.”
He lifts it from the side of the house where I lean it and puts the kick-stand down on the grass. He uses masking tape to cover the seat with newspaper. I sit on the top step of our front stoop, a safe distance from the coming spray. He shakes the aerosol can and aims a fan of blue at my six-year-old bike. He shakes again, the beads clacking in the can, and sprays an even coat over my bike’s body. One stab, a brief pang of regret, and I’m resigned to the new light blue finish; and my bike’s original white markings deleted along with the scratches and scrapes. He stands back, pleased. “What do you think?” he asks. “Nice. Thank you, Dad.” But it will never be the same.
He takes off the protective newspaper and walks my bike to the street. I feel sure he’s never ridden my bicycle, but he takes it for a spin in the sun to dry it, making a few tight turns. I grin back at his grin, and at his plaid shorts, calf-length white socks, and his old black oxfords. Did he have a bike growing up in New York City? He hasn’t told me, and I don’t ask.
New Jersey, again
My girlfriends and I walk a few miles back and forth to shop for records at Two-Guys, or we take the bus to E.J. Korvettes and the Bergen Mall. At thirteen and fourteen, we prefer to hoof it, exercising new freedom, alert for boys. Little kids, like my sister, Julie, ride little bikes with banana seats. Some older kids have three-speeds or ten-speeds. I’d rather avoid the teasing I’m sure I’ll get for riding a cruiser with manual brakes.
One summer day in 1966, I check on it–consider riding it–but it’s not on its kick-stand at the back of the garage. My heart sinks, and I call out, “Mom! Where’s my bike? My bike’s gone!” She says, “Your father brought it over to Cousin Johnny’s for his kids.”
“Why? Why didn’t he tell me?” I’m pleading. “You weren’t using it anymore,” she replies without apology.
He gave my bicycle to my mom’s cousins without talking to me about it. Behind my back! Dad had given our trusty 1953 Buick Special to them, too, without warning me. The car Mom and Dad drove us north and south, shipped it to Japan, and drove on the narrow streets of Tokyo. Now it was theirs, and they replaced it with an ugly Buick Wildcat. I was angry, and a bit surprised at my jealousy and resentment. Like dolls I’d nurtured and toys and books that were part of my childhood, they now belonged to this large family. Taken from my room without warning me. It occurs to me that nothing is really mine. Neither the car, nor the bike, nor any of my possessions. As we move, my parents shed things. All of it is theirs to do with as they please. All I have–all I am–is because of them. They chose to keep me. I hide my adolescent tears in the garage.
© 2022 Mary Ellen Gambutti
Mary Ellen writes about her life as an adopted Air Force daughter, her reunion with her biological family, her gardening career, and her survival of brain trauma at mid-life. Her stories have appeared in these and other literary journals: The Remembered Arts Journal, Modern Creative Life, Halcyon Days, Memoir Magazine, Borrowed Solace, mac(ro)mic, The Drabble, and Portland Metrozine.