We have a table of family pictures full of Randalls, Ewings and Steeles and Makiharas, and lots of photos of Caroline. The table is especially important to me because it helps define for us who is family. With us it doesn't all have to do with blood or marriage or legal adoptions: Mimi Oka and I went to Harvard together have called each other best friend for almost thirty years, but we're family, connected in ways that are unbreakable.
It is hard to choose a favorite Mimi story to tell you. There are so many good ones. As trips have been our joy and our undoing I will share pieces of three trips: Milocer in Yugoslavia, Patagonia, and Mount Olivieto. I will start with Mount Olivieto because the Christmas trip Mimi and I took to Italy was the trip on which I saw the Vatican gardens that play an important roll in the culmination of Rebel Yell.
We were in our early twenties. Neither of us was married and we decided to spend Christmas in Florence. The plan was to fly to Rome, spend a few days driving to Florence, then a few days in Florence, before driving back to Rome in half a day. We went to Assisi, Spoleto, Orvieto and Sienna and perhaps some other places I have forgotten, but I remember Assisi, Spoleto, Orvieto, and Sienna.
Our intent was to stay in monasteries .We didn't focus on the fact monasteries were for men and may not welcome young female guests. We didn't focus on the fact Christmas is a very important time in the church year and the monastics might be elsewhere or otherwise occupied.
We arrived at Mount Olivieto in the deep dark of night only to find every one gone for the holiday except two nuns and a priest who stank of garlic and who didn't speak English or French but who spoke a little Chinese. Mimi also spoke a little Chinese. It was arranged, after many assertions that they could not house women in the off season, and many statements that we were too tired to drive further, that we could spend one night on the place and be gone in the morning.
Moving through the exquisite shadows of the place, having all those lines of beauty to ourselves was extraordinary. The room where we slept had a beautiful marble floor and a cold water sink. I was reading The Marble Faun by Hawthorne and Mimi was reading Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose. A day later we would switch. We were so far from any place anyone would expect us to be, so far into exploring some fantasy of our own creation, that involved love and self-education, it did not surprise us to wake up and discover we had some of Italy's finest frescos to our selves.
A few days later we were lost in Rome. Mimi was at the wheel; I was navigator. My feet were up on the dash, I was wearing fishnet stockings, and the light was turned on in the car to facilitate my reading our map. Cars started following us and honking. We didn't know turning the car light on, in the neighborhood we were lost, signaled being an available prostitute. Ignorance protected innocence.
The sweetest moment of that Rome trip was finding a live Christmas tree for our bedroom and decorating it with lifesavers and chocolate candies. There's a picture on the portrait table of Mimi and Caroline and Kazuma and Me and Jun spending Christmas in Arizona. Somewhere in my albums is the Christmas we spent in Hawaii and there's the Christmas we spend in the little inn in Tennessee. Christmas in Tennessee Mimi Caroline and I wore the sweaters we had bought in Chile.
I love Chile, particularly Santiago and Tores del Paine. Santiago is about as far as you could go from Nashville in the shortest time. I never liked to leave Caroline for over a week when she was small. But once a year I liked to take a trip. The first year it was Yugoslavia. The last trip really away from her was Chile. We flew to Miami, then to Santiago, then somewhere very far south, Puenta Arenas. Then we took a boat out to an iceberg. And a jeep to the end of the earth. Somewhere along the way Mimi and I jumped into a rubber raft and a man rowed us across frigid water so that we could see inside an iceberg. Inside the iceberg was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life. Hand of God beautiful it was.
The first trip I took away from my daughter was the May after she was born and it was to Yugoslavia where Mimi and I feasted on havar, a wonderful roasted red pepper spread, and the faces of Serbian men.
We stayed in a hotel that was the former summer palace of the Yugoslavian royal family and situated directly on an Adriatic beach. I got up early one morning to walk alone by the water. I met a man standing by the water. He handed me a flower the exact color of the dress I was wearing . He said, "Young mother good mother." Then he said, "You may or may not be too young to die, you are too young to be afraid." Then he vanished.
I think Mimi thinks I've vanished. Sometime after Patagonia I stopped taking many trips. I had seen what I wanted to see. Mimi still travels. I think that she misses that I don't come. I love hearing her stories but I have become the country mouse. As I have gotten older, more and more, I have wanted to tend one garden well and know it deeply. My only regret is that it leaves my dearly loved traveler Mimi with out the constant companion of her youth. Fortunately she has many travelling friends. You can see Mimi and some of them at http://www.orph.us/
What keeps us family is all that unforgettable past. Friends are largely about the present. When you can't throw the memories away and still be yourself, when it's what you propel off of when you imagine the future, that's family.