Meet Emily! She’s just starting her weight loss journey…

by Christine on April 12th, 2011

filed under Short Stories

It is my pleasure to introduce you all to my friend Emily! She’s a lovely lady who is starting off on her weight loss journey. To keep her accountable, she is going to post regular V-blogs, which I will share with you! Please post a comment to encourage her on her way. Look up user “Ametsipe” on YouTube and subscribe to her v-blog if you prefer that way of following her.

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“Accommodations!” yelled a real-life angel

by Christine on September 17th, 2010

filed under Short Stories

I was 21 years old, fat, from a tiny midwestern town, but through a whole series of events I found myself living in Europe for a year. The first semester I lived in London, right in the middle of the breathtakingly beautiful Regents Park, attending a private liberal arts college. The second semester I lived in Paris, in an all-women residence and attending the extremely large La Sorbonne university. The two semesters couldn’t have been more different from each other, and my experiences were radically different as well. The biggest difference was that in London I had other classmates with me from the USA; in Paris I was completely and utterly alone.

After just a few short weeks in London, Fall Break was upon us. We had one week to go on “holiday,” and my group of friends and classmates decided that they wanted to do a quick tour of Continental Europe: 3 days in Rome, 3 days in southern Germany, and 3 days in Paris, then return to London.  We decided to leave London after our classes got out on Friday night. We flew out of Gatwick airport on this tiny little puddlejumper — my first but not final experience on a completely un-airworthy plane.

Unfortunately we arrived in Rome in the middle of the night. Ours was the last plane to arrive; the airport was completely shut down. We four women went outside, dragging our luggage behind us (oh, did my friends overpack!) only to discover that the buses had shut down most of their evening routes because the airport was closed. Oh no! We stood outside for nearly 2 hours, and by then it was about 1 a.m. We got on the bus and had to beg our way on board: because the airport was closed, we were unable to exchange our money to Lira.  The bus driver was at a loss for us because he didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Italian, so finally he just gave up and let us on board.

“City center?” he asked, and we nodded, and applauded. He understood!

He dropped us off at the Rome train station, which apparently is in the center of the city. However, the man must have had a sadistic sense of humor because it was gang central. After hauling our oversized luggage off the bus, we stood in the middle of the plaza area, looking around us in astonishment (we were in ROME, for heaven’s sakes!) and also in fear.

You see, we didn’t have hotel or hostel reservations. This trip was a spur of the moment idea, and it hadn’t occurred to anyone to make reservations.  For that matter, I was nonplussed about it; I hardly ever travel with actual reservations anywhere; I’m a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of girl. However, I learned (the hard way) in this situation that just because that’s how I prefer to travel, that’s not always the safest method of traveling, especially when going out and about with a group of ignorant female tourists (myself included).

None of the four of us girls had even so much as hailed a cab before in our lives. (Cabs? We were from cornfield country, for heaven’s sake.)

There were gangs of young men standing on each corner of the plaza, standing in groups of about 10 people or more. They looked at us like we were lunchmeat. We looked at them open-eyed like cornered rabbits.

They started walking towards us.

I screamed. A little.

“WALK” I demanded, and my friends all looked at me with puzzled looks on their faces. Jamie had a map of Italy spread open on top of her luggage, and Rebecca was fumbling to get her camera out of her purse to take a photo of the city.

“WALK NOW!” I growled in my best no-nonsense voice. I picked up Amy’s massive suitcase, hoisted my own travel backpack on my shoulders, and started walking towards the nearest lighted street. I think that’s the first time my friends noticed the gangs of young men marching ever closer to us. They picked up their suitcases and started to jog after me.

The men were closing in on us. I saw some of them nudge each other with their elbows, laughter coming from behind me. There was a LOT of wife-beater tshirts, backwards hats, sparkling and oversized gold jewlery.  They spoke Italian so I didn’t understand what they were saying, but trust me, their intent was perfectly clear.

I was contemplating how I was going to chuck Amy’s suitcase into the face of the nearest gang member when, out of nowhere, a voice came ringing loudly and clearly.

“ACCOMMODATIONS!” the voice said.

I whipped around. The voice was coming from behind me. “ACCOMMODATIONS!” the voice said again.

“OVER HERE!” Amy yelled, waving her hand in the air.

Out of the shadows came this wrinkled 80 year old man. He walked with a cane. He had white hair, a collared shirt, and very practical shoes.  He smelled like prune juice. He walked quickly, considering his hunched back. He was old, but the man was solid as a rock.

The effect that he had on the gangsters was something out of a movie. Every last one of them stopped in their tracks. The nearest group of men parted like the Red Sea to let the old man walk through their group. In an instant, every last gangster disappeared into the shadows, melting away into the darkness as if they had never been there. It was like it was part of a dream.

My racing heartbeat told me that it was no dream, but I was having a hard time believing my eyes.

“Accommodations?” he asked again, smiling at us.

“Yes, please” I said. “Grazie, grazie. Oh my god, thank you so much!”

“I know just the place,” he said in broken English. “Hotel Pelicioni. It’s not…how you say…rich…but you are students, yes? Not much money? Hotel Pelicioni is perfect. Follow me. Owner is my friend; I get discount for you.”

And with that, this wrinkled old man grabbed Amy’s oversized suitcase out of my hand and started speed-walking down the street. I had to literally jog to keep up with him. I’m not sure that he actually walked, but floated.

True to his word, Hotel Peliconi was only a few blocks away, and “charming” would have been a rather quaint way to describe the place. The wall paper hadn’t been changed in about 200 years, the facade was crumbling, there were holes in the walls, and the bedroom door didn’t shut (or lock) quite properly. But the hotel was quiet, clean, and most importantly, safe. Plus, he got us a deal on it: $20 per night.

I grasped both of his hands. “Thank you SO MUCH,” I said to him. He brushed me off. “Nothing, nothing,” he replied.

“No, I’m serious. Thank you so much. You saved our lives tonight. I can’t thank you enough. Please tell me what your name is. Who do you work for?”

“Bruno!” the old man said, smiling, and walking away. “I am volunteer. Tourisma. Good night ladies.”

And with that Bruno vanished into the darkness of the street.

When we finally returned to London after our 10 day grand tour of continental Europe, I looked on the internet for the phone number for Rome Tourism.  I called them on a pre-paid phone card, and I was put on hold numerous times as they tried to find an employee that spoke English.

“I had to tell you how grateful we are for your employee or volunteer named Bruno. He’s an old man, maybe 70 years old. Last week he helped us in a very dangerous situation, and he helped us so much.  We are so grateful for his help,” I tried to explain as simply as possible.

I could practically hear that woman on the end of the phone shaking her head. “No, no Bruno here.  You sure it wasn’t Iaccopo?”

“No, definitely not Iaccopo. He said his name was Bruno.”

“No Bruno here, sorry.”

I am not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m definitely not Catholic. (Even though we enjoyed attending two masses at the Vatican in the three days that we were in Rome.)  I do honestly believe that I met a real-life angel that day.

Thank you Bruno, whoever you were.

That’s the story I remember when I see this “before” picture above. This was the four-some dumb enough to venture into Rome in the middle of the night: Rebecca, myself, Amy, and Jamie (Left-Right).  We’re practically screaming to get mugged.

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Passing on the memories of Grandma Zena

by Christine on September 10th, 2010

filed under Christine's Life Updates, General Information, Short Stories

I come from a family of spectacularly strong individuals. While my father’s mother was strong in a subtle, “raised five children on an income of next to nothing” kind of post-depression way, my mother’s mother was strong in a more brutally obvious way. I talked about her the other day in this post, and her influence on my life was profound.

My grandma Zinaida (We called her Zena, like “Zena Warrior Princess”) was born in northern Russia in the 1920s. She had 24 brothers and sisters, and she was the middle child. Her father was the mayor of a small down, but when political parties switched in Russia, he was taken to Siberia. She remembers the day when he was taken away; she told me it was the first time she had ever seen an automobile before. Big black cars drove down their long dirt driveway. The men waited as my grandfather hugged my grandmother goodbye. Then he got into the car and she never saw him again.

She was sixteen years old when World War II broke out.  She recalled to me one time being taken prisoner in the Russian army, and having her butt-length hair shaved off. She said she cried that day, but I suspect that the atrocities that she witnessed thereafter made her cry for very different reasons. As a 16 year old girl, she was put to work in the Army, finding bombs that hadn’t detonated on contact with the ground, and using her skinny fingers, pulling the plug on them.  She recalled another time, being so exhausted that she fell asleep in a muddy ditch. She woke up finding a bomb that had rolled down the hill and landed on her lap, still “hot.”

Eventually she was captured by the Nazis, and she was put into a work camp. I don’t know how long she was in the camp, or where.  Most likely she didn’t know the answers, herself.  Eventually she escaped (how she escaped is still a mystery to us), and traveled around Europe, hiding in peoples’ attics, working as a nurse for underground movements, such as the Belgium Underground.

She was captured again, and this time put into a concentration camp. There she met my grandfather. Dmitri was also from Russia, except from the south, near the Black Sea. For a while he was in Italy, work for various political movements. There my grandfather made some important contacts that would help them get to the United States after the War. Together they escaped from the concentration camp and lived in hiding as best they could.

When the war ended, my grandparents were in Germany. They had no place to go; they couldn’t go back to Russia because of political instability. They were Displaced People, or people with no nationality and no homes. Germany had thousands of these people left in their country after the war, and the only way to house them was by converting the former concentration camps into Displacement Camps. In one of these camps in Stuttgart, Germany, they had three children, including my mother.

My mother lived in this converted concentration camp for about the first 10 years of her life. (We have a theory that this time in the camp has had health implications on her later in life. Both she and my aunt have skin cancer. Doctors have presumed that this rare type of cancer may have come from nuclear testing, which was happening within and adjacent to the camps in Stuttgart. As young children they would have played in the dirt, and sanitary conditions were poor in the camps.)  During this period my grandparents worked as musicians in local bars. My grandfather played the accordion and my grandmother played the balalaika and sang. Their payment? Scraps of food off the table at the end of the night. They lived this way for 10 years or so.

They tried once to get to the United States, saving up every bit of money they possibly could. However, when the time came to get on the plane, my grandmother was so malnourished that she failed the physical exam.  They lost their money on the tickets and had to stay in Germany.

They were determined to make it to America, and my grandfather went to Italy to purchase a new last name. You see, during this period rich families would sponsor Jewish families to come to the USA. My grandfather purchased a more Jewish-sounding last name, as opposed to his Russian-sounding last name. Sure enough, they got sponsorship. Alexandra Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy’s daughter, paid for my family to come to the country. (Alexandra sponsored many families to come to the USA, including the famous composer Rachmaninoff.)

This is really when my mother started to experience some language problems. In Germany, they spoke Russian because they were living in a camp with other Russian families. However, when they came to the country, my grandparents lived in an old farmhouse (no running water, no power) with a German family. So they switched to German, and my mother had to learn a whole new language. (My grandmother knew 14 languages fluently by this point, having learned while avoiding capture in Europe.)  My family hated Ohio so much they went to the nearest consulate to find out how to go back to the displacement camp in Germany. The consulate told them that, because they were people with no home and no country, they couldn’t leave. They were stuck in the USA, and they hated it.

They eventually moved to Chicago, and that’s where my mother was thrown into public school for the first time, around age 10, and the first time she had to learn English. At the same time, away from the German family, my grandparents switched back to speaking Russian, further confusing my poor mum!  My grandparents were incredibly poor; they lived in a terrible neighborhood (Humboldt Park) and worked as janitors. They worked very hard, all their lives.

My grandfather died when I was very young, and I don’t remember him very much. He used to cheat my father in card games, and drink Vodka like it was water. I remember he always smelled like cigarettes and his eyes were as bushy as caterpillars. My grandmother just passed away a few short years ago. I often tried to get her to talk about the past, but because so much of her past were filled with bad memories, she kept them to herself. I tried numerous time to get her to tell if she was Jewish or Christian, but she absolutely refused to share that information. She suffered from a constant fear of government all her life.  However, she loved people. Oh, I mean she LOVED people. She would talk with anybody and everybody — which was easy, considering she knew so many languages. She told me hundreds of times that the German people as a whole were the kindest and most loving people she’s ever met.

My grandmother wasn’t a great cook, but I’ll tell you what, she made the most amazing salad you’d ever meet in your life.  My salad dressing is similar, but it won’t ever be the same as Grandma’s.  She had her own vegetable garden and oh, somehow my memories of grandma are synonymous with fresh veggies!

And that woman could eat! She wouldn’t let anything go to waste. She’d even eat fish bones. Even if there were leftovers on someone else’s plate, she would eat them, too! My mother used to slap her wrist and tell her, “Ma! It’s not the war anymore! You can get more later if you want some!”

I eventually learned a few Russian words, and I’d say things in a low man’s voice like, “Shut up you old hag!” (in Russian) that would make her absolutely HOWL with laughter!  When she was in the nursing home, she used to tell us old jokes, basically comparing Hitler’s mustache with a big smear of poop. Oh, how Grandma loved her poop jokes! She’s laugh so hard and for so long that she’d cry and get the hiccups.

I always keep a photo of my family, the day they arrived in the USA, to remind me where I come from and just how far the family has come. I try to use it as a reminder that when I’m having petty problems in my life, like if I’m feeling fat and ugly (I can guarantee you that my grandmother never sat around wondering if she was fat or ugly), that my family has overcome real obstacles. It helps put things in perspective sometimes.

I miss you babushka.  I’ll always be your “little Chrishinka.”

Two days ago I became a “Second-cousin.”  My cousin (from this side of the family_ had her first baby, a health boy named Seth! I’m thrilled! My brother doesn’t have any children, so this is as close as I’ll get to being an “Auntie.” I am so excited to have Seth in the family, and I am hoping to spend my winter putting together a memory book of old photos of our grandparents (his great-parents) so he can remember them and know what a strong family we come from. He will never have gotten a chance to meet to meet Grandpa Dmitri and Grandma Zena, but I want their memory to live on for a long, long time.

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Starving

by Christine on September 8th, 2010

filed under Christine's Life Updates, Eating Disorders, Short Stories

That was it. I had it up to here with being fat. Careful consultation with BMI calculators, nutritionists, doctors, and various attempts at fad diets just weren’t cutting it. Regardless of the plan, the steadfastness of my effort, it didn’t matter — the weight just kept pouring on. I was killing myself at the gym, going both at 5 a.m. before work and at 7 p.m. after work, but it didn’t matter. The weight just kept adding up, up, up.

I was 190 pounds and I could see the 200’s creeping carefully closer. I wasn’t piling on the weight quickly, but at an average of 2-5 pounds per month, it was slow but steady. I knew that unless I took drastic action, the weight would just keep piling on.

I decided that on Monday I would stop eating entirely. Surely THAT kind of calorie deficit would be enough to let my body know who was really in charge here. Oh, I had done a mini-fast before…maybe 10 days long…and I knew that it wouldn’t be an easy road, but it would surely be easier than the dieting + exercise + killing myself mentally that had been happening for months at that point. Surely anything, even outright starvation, would be easier than that.

I figured Monday would be the easiest day to start, because the first few days are the worst on any fast — the relentless need to eat, the real hunger, the pretend hunger, the obsession over food are always the worst. Weekends are the hardest times on any diet because of the temptation lurking in every social event. Work days were structured, rigid. I could do it, if i could just get past the first five days.

The plan? Eat nothing. Nothing at all, save 100 calories or less of liquids per day, such as watered down juice. I could have all the 0-calorie soda I wanted. The plan would make a huge calorie deficit, and surely my body would either lose weight or collapse.  At that point, I was A-ok with either outcome. If I collapsed, maybe the doctors would finally take me seriously.

Day 1 came. I woke up and went pee. Standing naked I logged my starting weight. 190 pounds. I went into the kitchen. Grabbed some water, filled up a few bottles to take with me. I looked at the food on the counter, saw the remaining veggies on the counter. Knowing that my husband wouldn’t eat them, I threw them out. I went to work, avoiding the free donuts and bagels. I took a diet soda and nursed it. My stomach growled. I looked at the clock, mentally checking to see when lunch would be, out of habit. I’m stronger than this, I told myself, and sipped my soda some more. For lunch I went rollerblading, thinking every second of the way about all the food I would not allow myself to eat. The afternoon was torture. My stomach was shrieking, but I told myself that it was all worth it in the end. I went home and gave my bathroom scale to my hubby, telling him to “hide it good” and not bring it out until this time next week.  He shrugged, knowing that I was on yet another crazy diet, and agreed. For dinner I had some watered down apple juice, maybe 20 calories. I smiled, knowing that I was beating it this time. I went to the gym.

Day 2 I turned into a raging, angry psycho beast. I glared at everyone, avoided the phone and restrained myself only to emails. I shut my office door and spoke to as few people as possible. I bit all my nails off. My stomach continued to shriek, and I continued to drink Diet Pepsi. I could nurse a regular 20 oz bottle all day and still have some left over. Lunch involved rollerblading for distraction. When I got home I went through the refrigerator and cabinets and threw everything away that hubby wouldn’t eat. Not a thing remained. I went to the gym.

Day 3 I was so tired I could hardly keep my head up at work. For lunch I slept in my car instead of rollerblading. When I got home I went to sleep and didn’t wake up for the rest of the night.

Day 4 my stomach stopped grumbling nearly entirely, and I realized somehow of the brilliance of my Day 3 happenstance “plan:” If I could just sleep, I wouldn’t have to worry about eating at all! I was lethergic and tired, but not quite as cranky. For lunch I went for a walk at the nearest mall. When I got home I popped 2 sleeping pills and fell asleep before dinner.

Day 5 my brain was completely incapable of stringing together two coherent sentences, but a sense of calm came over me. I was fatigued, and that was easily remedied by taking more sleeping pills when I got home. Still not food. Five days and not a thing to eat.

Day 6 and 7 were the weekend. I slept as late as possible, then tried to clean the house, read a book, or something. I asked hubby if we could NOT go to dinner, but I agreed to a movie. Both days I took sleeping pills. Seven days and not a thing to eat.

Days 8-12 were work days. The manic adrenaline kicked in. I couldn’t sleep at all, and I was incredibly hyper, like I had just injected pure caffeine into my bloodstream.  Enblazoned with a sense of hope that this was the energy blast I needed to lose the weight, I spent every non-waking work moment scrubbing my house, diving into my autograph hobby, and going to the gym (yay for a 24-hour membership).  I didn’t sleep a wink for five nights, and I didn’t eat a bite either. My stomach stopped talking entirely. I wasn’t hungry at all. It was perfect. At one point I realized that I hadn’t pooped in a week or so, so I took some laxatives. I was doubled-over with cramps and agony, but I was incredibly happy that I eliminated something. Surely that was another pound or two of weight lost! Victories!

Days 13-14 were the weekend again. I asked hubby to go camping with me. Out of house, no chance for temptation! I survived two more days of not eating, but the lethargy was starting to come back.

Day 15 I called into work sick. I took sleeping pills and slept all day. Fifteen days and I didn’t eat a thing.

Day 16 my body seemed to normalize a little bit: I wasn’t frantic, and I wasn’t too lethargic either. I wasn’t bursting with energy though. I could think a little clearer. I settled down to work, but the habits of eating at work were hard to break.

Day 17 I cheated by eating one-quarter of one slice of ham at work. It was there staring at me. I wasn’t hungry; I ate out of habit. 30 calories. I nearly called the whole starvation diet off, but decided that 30 calories wouldn’t ruin the entire “plan.” I went to the gym to work out for 2 hours of heavy cardio in retribution.

Day 18-19 were normal, if there’s such a thing as “normal” when you’re not eating a thing. Water started to get too boring, so I threw in a squeeze of lemon. I had tea for one “meal,” and although the smell was wonderful, the taste was vile.

Day 20 was Saturday. We had dinner plans with friends. I didn’t quite know how to handle that tactfully. “Thanks but no thanks, I’m on a no-food diet.”  Hmmm, not so much. I mulled over the menu online for hours beforehand. When we got there, I ordered a bowl of soup. I had maybe 3 or 4 sips of soup, and mostly pushed it around with my spoon.  Eating was, for the most part, avoided. Success! 20 days with only two “slipups” of a very small amount. For the most part, I had gone 20 days without eating.

Day 21, more of the same. Day 22, more of the same. I kept going, not eating a thing, sometimes sipping on apple juice, or, even better water with a little apple cider vinegar (known as an appetite suppressant).  I didn’t die. I didn’t have a heart attack. My moods evened out for the most part. My thinking went in waves: sometimes clear, sometimes foggy. My moods fluctuated from sleepy to alert, to a little frantic, but for the most part I just existed. I just kept going. And going. And going. It got easier, the longer I went without food.

Time kind of stopped and stood still. I was numb all over, mentally and emotionally. I was just existing, and barely, at that. I had this intense self-loathing that crawled over my skin and sucked the life out of my soul. I couldn’t walk past a mirror without looking dispassionately at my image, hoping and praying that the next day I would wake up looking some someone completely different. I wrote hateful things on my bathroom mirror, like “fatty” and “ugly” and “weakling.”  I would wear a rubber band around my wrist and slap it HARD when I thought about food. Eventually, after a few weeks of that, I was a little bloody around the wrists, so I started wearing the rubber band around my ankles instead. I would daydream about getting shripwrecked on a desert island or going on Survivor; I’d be FINE without food. I’d be the last one standing at the end of it all.

It’s no wonder to me that religious ascetics used prolonged fasting as a way to empty the mind and get closer to God. I’m not religious by any stretch, but there’s a period when your brain stops struggling with what might be and what was and, with its numbness, is content to be in the here and now. (This type of religious fasting is called anorexia mirabilis and has been around for centuries.)  All religious have used fasting to reach that point of, oh I don’t quite know what to call it — accepted clarity, perhaps.

For 70 days I didn’t eat a thing, except for five teeny tiny little slipups. At day 70 I thought I would finally weigh myself. I asked hubby for the scale.

187.0 it said. 70 days of not eating and only three pounds lost.

At that point I completely gave up on myself. I got into my car and drove to the corner store. I bought a handful of candy bars and ate them one after another. The sugar made me vomit. I cried some. Then I took a sleeping pill and slept it off. The next day I ate everything in sight, and the day after that, and the day after that. Until I was 225 pounds.

Weight loss surgery was the only option I had left.  Nothing else worked, not even outright starvation.

I don’t know why the weight loss surgery worked when nothing else I did made a dent in my weight gain. All I know is that I’m so grateful that it has worked.

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Visiting the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum

by Christine on August 12th, 2010

filed under Christine's Life Updates, General Information, Short Stories

I’ve already talked about my journey climbing to the top of the volcano, Mount Fuji. That happened on my second trip to Japan, when I was in college. When I was in high school, I went to Japan for the first time. I befriended an exchange student in my high school who was from Nara. She said to me one day, “You should come home with me for the summer.” I was 16 years old and live in the cornfields in Illinois. I thought, “Fat chance!”

But..nothing ventured, nothing gained. That night I asked my parents if I could go home with Aiko for the summer, and they looked at themselves, shrugged their shoulders, and said, “Sure, why not?”

Off I went to Japan for four weeks, for the entire month of July. In Japan, I think that’s the middle of the hot/rainy season. I remember it being hotter than I’ve ever been in my entire life. It was hot and wet, the kind of humidity that hangs on you and doesn’t let go. I was overweight, which means I was more suceptible to the heat than a thinner person, and it was really uncomfortable. I think I set records  in Japan for how much a person can sweat.

Going to a foreign country as a 16 year old girl was, in some ways, easier than I ever expected, and in some ways, harder than I ever expected. It was easy because I grew up in a family (my mother’s) that spoke Russian. I don’t speak Russian except for some basic words and phrases, and it didn’t phase me much to be around people jibber-jabbering in a language I don’t understand.  It was like an ordinary Saturday afternoon at my house. If I needed to convey any information, it came completely natural to me to use body language or hand movements. I never felt a struggle to communicate with the people around me, even though I didn’t speak a word of Japanese.

In some ways, the trip was harder than I imagined. I stayed with Aiko’s family, who were wonderful people. However, the moment we set foot on Japanese soil, Aiko decided to stop translating. She told me, “I’m on vacation. I’m taking it easy.”  I had expected more support from her, but because of my background, I didn’t find it too hard when she turned off the communication with me entirely.

Aiko’s parents (especially her mom, Micky) were wonderful and took me to see many of Japan’s beautiful sights. Micky spoke very limited English, but did her best to explain to me where we were and what we were doing. She was eager to try to speak English with me, even though it had been more than 20 years since she had practiced her language skills.

One day she motioned to me to get dressed and get in the car. “Car trip,” she informed me, moving her hands like she was gripping a steering wheel.

Japanese cars are so cool. Even in 1994, which was the year I stayed with Aiko and her family, the cars were so much more advanced than the USA’s!  Their Mercedes had a build-in refrigerator in the back seat of the car, located between the two backseat car speakers. That way you could get fresh fish and produce and put it in the refrigerator and not worry about the food spoiling in the oppressive heat. Brilliant idea! One day we went to the market and bought fresh shrimp. The shrimp were still alive, and were wiggling around in their plastic bag! Micky put them in the back seat refrigerator. They made the fridge lid go “thump thump thump!” the whole way home. I kept turning around backwards, wondering when the shrimps were going to leap out and land on my head!

This day we put some water in the fridge and headed out on the road. It was a longer drive than usual. I couldn’t read the signs; I couldn’t speak the language. I had no idea where we were going.

We ended up at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. It was 1994, and unbenonced to me (I’ve never been very good with dates), it was the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing.  I only realized this fact as we walked in the doors, and the signs told me about the anniversary.

I never felt  more out of place, more humiliated, more utterly American in my entire life. The moment I walked through the door, I felt all the beautiful slanted eyes staring at me, staring at my white skin and blue eyes and overweightedness that clearly identified me as American. I fidgeted. I watched for the exits. I honestly didn’t know if I was going to get attacked for merely being there, on the 50th anniversary of the USA’s slaughter of millions of Japanese citizens.

Visiting the Atomic Bomb Museum was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, for multiple reasons. The biggest reason is because my grandparents on my mother’s side — both Russian — were concentration camp survivors.  Born in Russia, both grandparents were put into not one, but two concentration camps. They escaped from both of them and lived a life trying to avoid capture from the Nazis. My mother was born in a converted concentration camp (after the war these places were called “displacement camps”) in Germany, for 10 years until they were able to come to the country. I am a first-generation American, but I was raised hearing stories about my small family, where they came from, the horrors they faced during the war.

That day, looking at the photos lining the wall, there was so much horror and anger and violence. I teared up, my vision blurred. In every photo I kept seeing my grandmother’s face looking back at me. It didn’t matter that it was a different country, different people. They were human — they didn’t deserve what happened to them. My grandmother was there, in every photo. All of those faces were someone’s mother, father, uncle, brother, grandmother. The room started to spin, and I felt sick to my stomach.

I went outside to sit on the bench, in the 100 degree humid weather. It was a beautiful outdoor area, with a beautiful view of the temple post that had been halfway destroyed by the bomb 50 years prior (standing on one leg of the post).  The area was surrounded by trillions of multi-colored paper cranes, a symbol of peace, hope, and love. (If you don’t know about the history of “A thousand cranes,” you can start by reading here.)

I put my head in my hands and cried. I cried for my family. I cried for all the families that were hurt by the bomb. I cried for being American, for being a part of such a horrifying history.

As I sat there, a little old Japanese lady came up to me and made herself at home next to me on my bench. She was probably my grandmother’s age, not quite five feet tall, with a crooked back. She had a lifetime of wrinkles on her beautiful face. She sat down next to me and held my hand as I sat sobbing.  She sat patiently with me until I caught my breath, then she looked into my eyes. Speaking in very broken English she pointed to me.

“Peace starts here. Today. With me. With you.”

She reminded me so much of my grandmother. When I was younger and my grandmother told me stories about the War, I was always astounded when she said, “The German people are the kindest, most wonderful people I ever met.”

“How can that be, Grandma?” I would ask her. “They put you in the prison. They killed your family. They tried to kill you.”

She would shake her head and say firmly, “NO.  It was a poltician’s war. When I needed a place to sleep, the Germans gave me a bed. When I was hungry, the Germans gave me food. When I was lost, the Germans gave me love. The killers, those were politicians. The people, they are family.”

The Japanese lady holding my hand clearly shared the same ideology as my grandmother. I know this, even though we did not share the same language and could not speak to one another.

Love and compassion is powerful enough to transcend all cultures. All religion. All geographies. All prejudice.  All you have to do is open your heart and let the love come through.

Peace does indeed start today, and it starts right here, today, between me and you.

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