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My International Life

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

My first communion in São Paulo, Brazil at age seven...I remember this moment when I stood so still with great focus in the courtyard of our residence as the photo was being taken.

My International Life

Someone mentioned recently what an international life I have led. And, yes, this is true.  And, you could say, it came largely unbidden.

I began this life’s journey is Tokyo Japan, on August 14, 1955.  Apparently, I came two weeks or so early.  My mother had been on bed rest for much of the duration of the pregnancy, per her recounting.  And she had done the same with the sibling that preceded me, my older brother John.  

She attended mass on that Sunday, the 14th,  in the morning and I arrived not long after; that very night.

We left Japan a couple of years later, now a family of six; four children and my parents. (My two other siblings’ births had preceded our Japanese sojourn. )

My father’s job, as you might have guessed by now, took us to various parts of the world.  Each time we would move to a location abroad, we would then return stateside for usually three years or so to our home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. And this is exactly where we were headed, post-Japan.  

I don’t remember that much about my time in Chevy Chase before we left for São Paulo, Brazil.  It’s funny how memory works. I do have a clear recollection of something that happened when I was an infant, probably all of 6-8 months old. This was due to the startling and actually very traumatic nature of the event.  ( I did ask my mother if this happened, and she verified it.) And I remember playing under the dining room table in Chevy Chase, alone and very content with that aloneness.  I also remember sitting out in our back garden one day, again alone and very still. My mother came up behind me and asked, “Annie, what are you doing?” I responded that I was watching the grass grow.  And I think I was!

Our back garden did sport a swing set that I very much enjoyed. And a most magnificent Cherry Tree occupied the front right area of the back garden. Every spring, the ground would be blanketed in profuse, falling pink blossoms, a magical scene.  

Soon we were headed to São Paulo, and those years I remember much more clearly. I was probably 4-5 years old when we arrived there. I remember our house and our neighbors across the street from us; a prominent political family at the time - and the twins who were about my age, a boy and a girl.  We all became friends and we had so much fun!  The twins and I would play dress up and act out first communion, as we were all Catholics, and even at one point - a marriage scene. I’m not sure who played which  role, though boy must have played the groom!  It as all very innocent and fun. 

One particular comical event does stand out...The twins invited me to their birthday party which was to take place at a television station on the Pao Pumen Show. Now, Pao Pumen was, what I considered, a rather dry and tasteless sort of pound cake. And the show was centered around the advertising and consumption of this cake. It was all quite a lot of fun, the festivities, and at one point folks came around and offered seconds. I politely demurred, saying, "No, obrigado." Well, this did produce a reaction. I was suppose to act the part and love the cake! I remember being surprised at this response, as I was being polite and honest. Oh, well!

I, as did my siblings, attended a local Catholic school, Maria Immaculata.  I remember the first day of boarding the school bus with my siblings, a very significant day. I have this clear memory of sitting on the bus, at some point thereafter, and counting up all the years of education that I had left.  And of course this included four years of college. I did not include the two years of graduate degree as I did not assume that would happen way back then.  Still, it did seem like an awful lot of years as little me sat and calculated all this on the school bus that day as it rumbled along…

Brazil was many things…We would have summer vacation at a beach called Santos, usually for a month in duration.  My father probably would visit when he could.  I would spend from dawn to dusk by the seashore, collecting shells and entertaining myself in other ways. And I would get these amazing sunburns and then peel like crazy. But I don’t recall it ever being painful,  though. Odd.

One of many things that extensive travels does, especially when introduced at a young age; it creates the ability to enjoy all sorts of foods.  I recall eating a halved avocado one morning for breakfast, with a vinegar and oil combination in the area where the seed had been.  I just thought this was delicious!  That, and other foods like artichokes and Hollindaise sauce  became sone of my favorite food choices.  

Recently I came across some schoolwork my younger son, Paul (Full first name Paul-Anthony, but it's been shortened to Paul.) had done when he was probably nine years old. I guess the assignment was to write a number of sentences describing ones mother. Some were really hilarious, including the last sentence which read, “My mother eats everything.” I think he was noticing how I was not a picky eater at all!  I can attribute much of this to the array and variety of foods that came my way growing up. 

Also, each country where we lived would offer the opportunity to become fluent in that language. And, as a child, this happens very quickly.  It seemed seamless and in no time I could speak the language with ease. Though I didn’t learn Japanese during our Japan stay, as I was so young, I must have heard quite a lot of it.  This introduced my brain, my being, to other sounds which probably helped in my ability to pick up languages easily later on. 

I could share so many more memories of Brazil…Carnival in Rio…Attending a soccer game where the filled-up stadium shouted  Pele’s  name followed by three claps in an ongoing thunderous chant, followed by chanting “Brazil” in the same way.   Pele was already recognized as a magnificent athlete at that time. Other memories…Visiting the Ilco Bookstore in São Paulo. (I’ve always loved to read.) Eating Brigadeiros - a chocolate treat - after school.  And the appearance of lights, of the subtle, swirling  lights  in my bedroom as I fell asleep at night….Brazil was many things to this one…

And, most notable of all memories…Toward the end of our stay, younger brother Paul was born in São Paulo. 

My mother had in mind having a child in each country we inhabited.  Starting with my sister Mary’s birth in Hawaii, my brother David was then born in Washington, D.C.  This was followed by my sibling, John, and then myself, both in Japan.  Paul would be the last of the siblings to arrive to the family.  

There is an eight-year age gap between myself and the youngest.  My mother had actually gotten quite injured with my oldest sibling’s birth. The birth was impeded because those helping were awaiting the arrival of the doctor.  I recall  learning they actually sat on her legs to accomplish this!  Having gone through labor twice myself, I can’t imagine how painful this must have been.  

This very wrongheaded executive decision on the part of the caregivers created injuries and, after my birth, it was deemed she could not have any more children. 

But Brazil had other plans!  This country is noted for its plastic surgeons. And my mother found out that the uterine repair needed could be fixed, allowing for her to carry a baby to term successfully!  

I remember my mother, quite large in the later stages of her pregnancy, being able to pursue normal activities.  She was ambulatory and fine.  Really, it was almost miraculous.

Paul’s birth was greatly anticipated by all of us.  Darling, tiny sweaters, booties, etc. were hand knitted in preparation. Yellow was the predominant color as that is considered a lucky color in Brazil for the newly arrived to this world. I still remember these and the set of drawers created complete with lavender sachets; the delightful and distinctive scent of new wood and those sachets.  Also, a gorgeous bassinet was prepared with the loveliest pale blue dotted Swiss draping down its sides from above.

The time came. My mother went into labor on her birthday, September 18, and was very much hoping that she and Paul would share this birthdate. That was not to be. Paul made  his appearance shortly after midnight on September 19th.

I do think it is well and good that they each had their own date, after all.

I shared a room with my sister, our beds across the room from each other.  During the night, my father came and shared the news. We both sat up straight in our beds and asked in unison, “Girl or boy?!” “Boy,” he responded. With that, we let out a disappointed sign and fell back on our beds to resume our slumber.  That was decidedly a bratty and silly response.

For, as it turned out, we were actually delighted.  Paul was a very welcomed addition by all.

My parents named him Paul after the city in which he was born, and after the Pope at that time, Pope Paul. 

Paul was still an infant, a few weeks old, when we returned to the U.S. We did this very much in fashion; aboard a ship liner - The SS Brazil.  We swam in swimming competitions and I remember winning one of the events as I was, I guess, the only one in that age group to swim! Even so, it was arduous. My parents looked on concerned and probably were wondering if they would need to dive in to save me!  I can imagine it was much further than I was use to swimming. We also attended a costume party, where I was dressed  as Pocahontas. (I already had the braids!) It was a vivid and splendid time. 

Back in the U.S., I started attending Lady of Lourdes Parochial School. We came back in November so we had left a sunny and warm Brazil to enter much chillier and darker climes. I just remember everything seemed grey and the days were short, nighttime falling sooner in the 24-hour cycle. 

The chilliness and darkness of the time were also exacerbated by the pall of sorrow that seemed to cloak the nation, really the world, at that time.  The assassination of President Kennedy had just taken place. I have this clear snapshot of watching our cook, who came back with us from Brazil, leaning forward and watching TV  as the black and white version of events flickered across the screen. (Color TVs didn’t exist yet.) I was standing out in the hallway at Alban Towers where we stayed for a month or so before our house was available; as I peered into the room which held this scene.  The sorrow hung in the air. It was palpable.  

Upon our return, I entered the third grade at Lady of Lourdes.  Thus began another adventure in a lifetime that had already had many.

My traveling adventures to be continued…

Annie Kiyonaga

September 29, 2023

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