My oldest friend from college, and a woman I wrote letters to for thirty years, died in 2008.
In 1972 I was a college freshman attending Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. I had been away from my Montana roots once before as an exchange student to Finland and had a bout with homesickness. Stanford was a piece of cake compared to being 16 years old in a country that didn’t speak English and whose entire population was northern Scandinavian. For the three months I was in Finland I didn’t see another person of color.
At least at Stanford everyone spoke English; it was the early years of integration so there were women and men of many colors. And while it seemed to be a hodgepodge of people, it was predominately white, male, socio-economically privileged and American.
One rainy fall day I was going between classes, probably on my second-hand bicycle, riding north on Lausen Mall between the Quad to the west and the School of Education on the east. Ahead of me and to the right I could see the phallic tip of Hoover Tower. As I neared the end of the Quad, I noticed the Stanford Art Gallery, a grey stone building with impressive columns framing the doorway with a sheltered archway around its perimeter. It wasn’t a large building. I stopped to get out of the rain and to sate my curiosity.
I walked up the steps under the archway and before entering, I took a left and walked around the outside under the eaves. Around the corner was a larger than life statue of the Leland Stanford family with little Leland Stanford Junior, the school’s namesake, included. Had it been today, I would have taken a selfie with the family, but this was the olden days, pre-cell phone for sure.
I walked into the gallery, just curious with time to kill. A lady with gray hair and a chrome colored clicker in her hand was sitting at a desk. As I walked by, I heard the clicker click.
I wandered around for a bit—it wasn’t a large gallery, and it still isn’t. I don’t recall what was on display, though years later I bought a poster of thistles by Daniel Mendelowitz from the gift store—it’s strange what the mind remembers.
As I was walking out of the gallery—I had been the only person there the whole time—the lady with the clicker greeted me with a, “Did you enjoy the gallery?”
I could have responded with a simple, “yes,” and been on my way back to my Laugunita dorm room, but I paused and said, “Yes! I had no idea this place existed. It’s been a great break from the rain outside. Do you get many visitors?” I’ve always been a talker…
Well, that opened the floodgates. This lady with the clicker knew exactly how many people came through the gallery. “Well, let me see.” She looked down at her clicker. “You are number seven today. That’s quite a few. Are you a student here?”
I said, “Yes. I’m new. I’m a freshman.”
“Why, how wonderful. You must be very bright. Where are you from?” She had a warm, smiling glimmer in her eye.
I get that question a lot. “I’m from Montana,” I said with a little twang for emphasis.
Her eyes widened in surprise. She asked, “Aren’t you Japanese?”
I said, “Yes! How did you know?” meaning, how did she know I was Japanese and not Chinese or Korean. Clearly it was easy to see I was something, although most people guess Chinese.
Then she said a string of words in Japanese that I had no idea what she was saying. I looked at her with a mixture of awe and confusion. I said meekly, “Sorry, I don’t speak Japanese.”
We looked at each other silently for a few seconds. Then she said, “You don’t speak Japanese? But you’re Japanese!”
I laughed and said, “Yeah, my parents are Japanese—Nisei—but I’m Montanan. My mom was born in Southern Cal and my dad was born in Wyoming.”
Then it was her turn to laugh. “My parents are Caucasian, but I was born in Tokyo, and lived in Japan and China!” She paused as we let it all sink in.
“I’m more Japanese than you are!?!?!” She exclaimed. “How can that be?”
And how did this little old lady (she was five years younger than I am now, but to a college freshman, she was OLD) who had the demeanor of an Audrey Hepburn, speak perfect English, Japanese AND Chinese? My impromptu stop at the Gallery turned into an hour and a half Discovery Channel. Her parents had been missionaries. Her husband was a retired US Naval officer. She had four children, her youngest the same age as me.
I finally looked at the clock on the wall and realized I had to go. She had to close the Gallery. We promised to continue our conversation. I told her my name, and she told me hers.
From that fortuitous meeting on, I would randomly stop in at the Gallery to spend time with Maribel. She was my respite from the challenges of being a college student, and she was a friend unlike any other college friend.
She supported me in many ways. I was a member of the Stanford Glee Club and she came with her husband to a concert at Tressider Hall. They won the door prize at the concert—a pair of water skis. What a strange prize. They were thrilled. I never met her husband, even though I know he was there in the dark as part of the audience.
I never went to her home while I was in college, but the gallery was the first stop I made at the beginning of the following three school years. We would catch up on what had happened the previous summer. And I continued to visit her on rainy/sunny/cloudy days at the Gallery. She heard the stories about my latest loves, classes and college exploits. Curious always, but never judgmental.
She came to my college graduation and I have a picture of us at the Political Science quad where the degrees were conferred. My mom was widowed just a month before. She and my brother Harry came to the ceremony. It was a scorching hot day, and Maribel was there with an angora wool sweater with a cowl neck. Sometime that year she was widowed, too, so my mom and she had that in common.
After graduation, we began writing letters. She had beautiful European-like handwriting that was sometimes difficult to read, but unique and always a welcomed sight. She supported me through my business career, boyfriends, break-ups, marriage, children, moves. She sent me these artsy black and white dessert plates for my wedding. When I returned to campus for my 30th class reunion, I stayed with Maribel. Her home was on Amherst Street, a block off campus. She was so gracious.
We shared a life experience beyond just friendship. We both had colon cancer and survived. Another form of cancer finally felled her, but she had ten more years after the colon cancer.
When her daughter Ceci married, she wrote to tell me how she pulled a dress out of storage, washed it and laid it out in the backyard to bleach in the California sun. Ceci used it as her wedding dress, she wrote. After she had been widowed for many years, she wrote that she was travelling with her long-time friend Ed Seidensticker, who was, she assured me, JUST A FRIEND. I was familiar with Ed Seidensticker—he was a noted translator of Japanese literature—to me he was famous!
She wanted me to meet up with her son Alan, and I have a vague recollection of meeting at the LAX airport, but that may be my imagination run wild. It wasn’t until years later I realized she had wanted some spark to ignite with Alan, but if we met, there must not have been any electricity in the air. She wrote about her brother Jish, so named because he was born in the great Tokyo earthquake—Jishin in Japanese is earthquake. I never met her daughters—Ceci lived in Berkeley, not that far from my sister, and Judy lived far away but I was never quite sure exactly where—but our paths never crossed.
I knew her health had been failing, and that the new cancer was taking its toll. After Maribel died, Judy sent me the obituary she had written where I learned even more about this wonderful woman. Judy wrote, “…[she] ran track on the Japanese women’s team, specializing in the 440-yard dash and high jump. She could have trained for the 1936 Olympics, but she was conflicted over her country of allegiance…” I wondered to myself, What countries was she conflicted over—Japan, China or the US?
Maribel died at 93. My own mother died in 2012, four years later at 91. Both women had been role models for me while a young girl making my way in life and now as a widow myself. They were independent, strong, engaged, athletic, bright and intelligent. They adapted and stayed relevant. I miss them both in different ways.
Maribel Martin Kilmartin.
My life is bigger because of her. Her absence is not a vacuum, but her influence has kept the balloon of my being inflated.