Pickle Girl

Kathryn Lynch

Copyright 2018 by Kathryn Lynch

Photo of a bowl of pickles.

At the end of the Second World War, the country of Japan lay in ruins. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were piles of rubble from atomic bombs with badly wounded people wandering around glassy eyed in need of medical care. People were starving throughout the nation because farmers, fearing Allied attacks, had failed to plant their yearly crops of rice.

It fell to General Douglas MacArthur and his Allied Forces to to enter the devastated country, spend time there, and attempt to “fix” the problems the War had created. Their efforts proved so successful that within 10 years, the average Japanese citizen was four inches taller (diet changes), lived an average six years longer (medical care), and enjoyed growing business success (trade with Europe and US).

The westernization of Japan, though impressive, did not reach every aspect of Japanese life. In the distant northern Province of Hokkaido, these changes were slow to make inroads into the culture. The city of Sapporo still lived the old ways where rice provided the diet, huts were crude and dirty, the elderly were left out in the cold weather to die when they could no longer work, and extra children met the same fate as there was not enough food to care for them all.

Early one morning five years after the War ended, an old priest in Sapporo unlocked the city's only Catholic church to allow public visitation. At the foot of the stairs, a small girl, wearing only a shirt had been abandoned to the ravages of the incoming Winter. At first he did nothing, as interfering with the family business of others, was not the Japanese way.

When he retired to the rectory to read, the child's cries continued, disturbing him greatly. Finally, he grabbed a blanket, wrapped up the girl and brought her inside. She was approximately three years old. The backs of her legs bore large gouges of missing tissue which would later be diagnosed as the results of sitting long hours on a dirt floor with untreated strep infections. The child grinned and bowed at every amenity, first when she felt the warmth of the radiator, and then when she shared the old man's rice.

He would not return her to the outside, but cultural restrictions would not accept an unrelated adult male keeping a female child. He would have to find another place for her.

In the city of Tokyo, far to the South, the Japanese government had received funds from the U.S. To establish and maintain an orphanage to take care of children fathered by American GIs. These children were rarely accepted into Japanese society, so the government ran the orphanage using a staff of Catholic nuns and within a relatively short period of time it was nearly full.

The old priest and the small girl now made the long train trip south. He left her there where she would become one of the few full blooded Japanese children within its walls.

When I was 17 years old, my parents announced that they were about to adopt a six year old Japanese orphan girl. Shortly thereafter, the little girl from Hokkaido arrived at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, small, quiet, didn't speak a word of English but she smiled all the time. They named her Christine and the adoption went through about seven months later. I learned that Christine was friendly, accommodating, loved her new home, struggled in school and absolutely loved pickles of any kind.

During those years, I joined my family in the construction of a bomb shelter in the basement. While I thought the idea was ridiculous, my parents were spooked by the cold war with the Soviet Union as were many others. The idea was to avoid radiation while eating and drinking stores found in the shelter. Among the food stacked along the walls was a large carton of 24 jars of dill pickles.

We hid in that shelter, playing music too loudly and snacking at will. I marveled as Christine took a large jar of dill pickles out every time we went there, proceeded to eat every pickle it contained, then drank the salty juice left over until the jar was empty. After that, we always called her Pickle Girl.

Christine had fallen behind in high school and inevitable success did not seem to be in the future. My parents took her to a high school several miles away, smaller but staffed by the same Catholic nuns. Now they leaned on these teachers to see that she graduated from high school, and the teachers stepped up to the plate. At the age of 20 and after a thousand or so vehicle trips hauling her to the school, she marched across the stage.

Now she decided to become a Nurse's Aide. Training was available where I was teaching, so Christine came to San Francisco to live with me.

Living with my Japanese sister was like no other experience. We bought our own groceries, and on occasion I purchased a jar of dill pickles to enjoy one with a sandwich. I was never able to enjoy a second pickle as the jar always disappeared from the refrigerator. It always went like this: “Christine, did you eat my pickles?” “No, I no eat!” “Well, this is the jar from the trash and it is empty.” “I dunno. I no eat!” “Christine, are you telling me that someone broke into this apartment, left the stereo, the tapes, the jewelry, the money on the counter, sat here and ate these pickles?” “I dunno. I no eat!” As many times as she was asked, and as many jars that emptied out, Christine would not, apparently could not admit taking them to eat.

We kept our social lives separate and for the most part it was a good system. I worked in the daytime and went to school in the evening. Chris was home in the daytime and worked in a nursing home in the evenings. I had started to date Jack, a business man I had met at the Courthouse. We had gone out a couple of times and I was interested in seeing him again. To my disappointment, he didn't call. A week went by. Then two. After three weeks, I figured that I had been unceremoniously dumped.

One afternoon I came home after work for a quick dinner. It was obvious that Christine had company. A bouquet of beautiful flowers was displayed in a vase on the shelf. Next to it was an empty jar which had contained pickles. The noises from her bedroom indicated to me that it was not a good time to chat. Finally her bedroom door opened as a man, dressed only in undershorts made his way to the bathroom. It was Jack.

When he was gone, I confronted her. “Christine, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” “Well”, she said. “He call one day and I tell him you no home. He call next day, I tell him same thing. On third day when he call, he say you never there, so I say I will go with him to do what he wants to do!” And with that, Christine grinned from ear to ear and bowed deeply from the waist, indicating that she had just done me a huge favor.

I realized then that you could take a child out of Japan but it was much more difficult to take ancient Japanese ways out of the child. Her strong denials over the pickles was probably motivated by a desire to look good to everyone around, as every Japanese woman should. Her social accommodation with Jack was indeed the way Japanese women helped each other, just as the geishas in Sapporo performed requested services.

Epilogue: Christine married and had two daughters. The unusual circumstances of her life aligned themselves to allow her to have a happy family life, which she deserved.

She died in her fifties, not particularly surprising considering her deplorable beginnings.

I will never see or eat another pickle without thinking of her sweet smile.

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