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Remembering the ghost of a Christmas past

by Thomas Dillon

I prefer this season not as one of tinsel, lights and storefront carols, but rather as one of quiet — a season of soft-falling snow, a season of anticipation, a season of memories.

In this season I am haunted by the memory of a Christmas past, that of my very first Christmas in Japan in 1976. And like the Dickens messenger from the shadows of distant youth, the ghost that I welcome is not unfriendly at all.

It was a time when Japan was first modeling its hard-earned affluence, clumsy attire that yet did not fit so well. In my tatami apartment, in richie-rich Denenchofu no less, I slept on futon, slurped Cup Noodle for breakfast, cranked my space heater as high as it would go, and wondered if I myself would ever fit Japan. My home seemed far away.

In the mornings, I would ride the elevator to the first floor, my half-asleep head propped against the doors, and when I arrived, I would wade my way through a sea of high-school girls ebbing from the station, girls with straight black hair and grape-colored coats, all a-chatter in the new day.

Each girl the same. Or so I thought.

Then I would hold my breath for a jam-packed commuter ride to Shibuya, where I would mangle wa’s and ga’s in the hallowed halls of Naganuma Language School.

Every day this had been my pattern, from my arrival in September until now, the final few days before Christmas.

It was a nondescript morning, with the winter air biting my face and neck, adding a freeze-frame background for the event to come.

I picked my way among the high-school girls as they streamed around me and up the hill for their campus. My head held its usual contents — meaning it was empty.

But then came a thought. I had forgotten my notebook with my homework! One hundred and 50 days of classes and this was the only time I would ever forget.

I cursed and retreated for my apartment.

When I slammed through the building doorway, I found a high-school girl standing at my postbox. She was shoving a Christmas package inside.

Her eyes burst with terror. Behind her, a second girl, a friend, backed against the wall.

The girl stood there, flummoxed and trembling. That I could hardly speak Japanese was a blessing. For I had no idea what to say.

I was 22; the girl maybe 16. She stared at me with big eyes.

Presently, she tugged the present from my postbox and placed it in my hands. I rustled it open. Inside was a hand-knitted scarf, one she had no doubt spent hours making.

I fumbled out a “thank you,” and tried it on — to find it long enough to wrap around a redwood, let alone my neck. I grinned with her scarf knotted about my throat and both ends drooping past my knees. I must have done it all wrong.

For in that second she choked in tears and banged out the door. Her friend ran after her. I watched them trot away.

With the scarf came a note in hiragana. When I pulled myself together, grabbed my notebook and made it to class, I showed the note to my teacher. It read “Anata no koto ga suki desu. Satoko.”

“But,” I told my teacher. “I don’t play the koto.”

The teacher went berserk with laughter and showed the note to everyone in the building. I couldn’t make out was she was shrieking, but perhaps it was, “Yes, it’s true! I’m teaching a total dork!”

So . . . a love note. From one girl in the ocean of girls who watched me shiver to the station each day.

I hadn’t seen her before. And I would never see her again. Except once at a distance as she wound up the hill toward her school. In March, I moved from Tokyo to Kyushu.

Kyushu — where I met another big-eyed girl, a few years older, whom I one day married. One who finds my Christmas story touching.

As for me, I don’t reflect back in any “Disneyfied,” what-if kind of way, nor, so much, as if an awkward moment borrowed from the outtakes of “The World of Henry Orient.”

Instead, I dwell on the incredible synchronicity of one notebook forgotten. And I wish I could have somehow better swallowed my surprise and fished up a more gentlemanly response. The unknown girl deserved that.

Still, each Christmas I lift my wine glass to some Satoko somewhere in Japan, no doubt now approaching age 50.

That was a nice gift, Satoko. One of the nicest I ever got.

Somehow, in some glow of stumbling human spirit, in the cold and loneliness of that first Christmas, it helped me see that, yes, Japan might be the right fit for me.

Merry Christmas — wherever you are.