February 26

“There’s always plenty.”

I became the person I’ve become in great part from the time I lived in Japan and the influences of my ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) teacher, Nakajo-sensei. She was the oldest of nine children in mountainous Nagano prefecture during World War II. Although her family grew food during the warm months and was better off that many families, food was scarce by American standards during the war. When I first met her in 1983, she was endlessly trying to feed me. She lived in a three-generation household but enjoyed preparing food for people as an expression of love and hospitality. She’d often invite me to join her family for dinner after my lesson. It was wonderful to have someone so lovingly take care of me for even an hour.

In 1988 I contracted the chicken pox while traveling in China but didn’t become symptomatic until I got back to Japan. I missed a month of work and was isolated in my apartment for that month with, at one point, 50 pox on my face alone. Nakajo-sensei called me once during my self-imposed quarantine and said, “Open your front door. I’ve left something there for you.” In a small bowl were her signature sweet potatoes stewed with lemons. It was my favorite dish of hers. I called her back and thanked her for bringing them over. She responded, “It’s no problem. There’s always plenty.” Fifteen years later when I brought four-year-old Sophie to meet her, Nakajo-sensei brought out a bowl of the lemon sweet potatoes again. It brought tears to my eyes that she remembered.

Tonight a friend will join us for dinner. It will be a simple weeknight family dinner. Just like at Nakajoh-sensei’s house. Nakajoh-sensei is gone now but I hope in some way I can carry on her genuine hospitality and make my guest feel cared for as well.