Top Memoirs on My Summer Reading List

I love books about inspirational women who stand up for themselves, who speak up even when living out of their comfort zone, half way around the world from where they were born. With this in mind, I searched for memoirs that dealt with the themes of most interest to the Wagamama Bride, starting with falling in love, marriage, birth of children, raising the little buggers, making peace with in-laws, and finding a solid community of friends, teachers, mentors who become the surrogate family till the endof time.

Then there’s religion. And spiritual guidance. And mostly there’s God to illuminate the zaniness of a life well lived.

These memoirs on my list all take the reader on a journey to wholly different worlds that few of us have access to. Books that take us behind closed doors, behind curtains, behind gates and into forests and up mountains we couldn’t ordinarily reach.

Here goes….

Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris by Sarah Turnbull Published by Avery Press August 2004 320 pages

This book came highly recommended, a hilarious read about a topic close to my heart–the culture clashes that ripen into deadpan humor when an Australian woman meets the man of her dreams and follows him back home to Paris. While reviewer described the book as pointless, whiny drivvle that perpetuates the love-hate stereotypes that strong a reaction increases my curiosity even more. One woman’s drivvle is obvious another’s barrel of laughs.


An American Bride in Kabul by Phyllis Chester Published by St. Martin’s Press 256 pages

The title is misleading because the author, Jewish American from Brooklyn, only spends ten weeks in Afghanistan at the start of her marriage to Muslim in Kabul in 1961 and the rest of the book is an exposition of how the author comes to appreciate Western values after all. She returns to the US, becomes an academic and human rights activist, and shares with her readers a wealt of insights about how women are valued–or undervalued in so many other parts of the world.


Good Chinese Wife by Susan Blumberg Kason Published by Sourcebooks July 2014

The author fell in love with the Chinese culture before she met her Chinese Romeo, who she marries, has a child with, takes back to the US with his folks too, and then ultimately divorces. What went wrong? Of course I’m curious. Marriage to an Asian, as I know first-hand, is no banquet. One reviewer wrote: “a true cautionary tale for any romantics abroad who believe that exotic intrigue is enough to sustain an interracial marriage.” I haven’t even read the book and I’m nodding my head.


Learning to Breathe: My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life by Priscilla Warner   Published by Atria Books Sept 20, 2011 288 pages

Oh the irony of it! A book to bring calm published 8 days after the World Trade Towers crashed to the ground! Priscilla Warner, one of the co-authors of the wildly successful “The Faith Club,” took a year to face a problem that had been following her for years–debilitating anxiety and panic attack. Set in New York–I think–in a post 9/11 world, Learning to Breathe came well timed to bring calm back to Warner’s life. This memoir chronicles meditation, spiritual retreats, teachings that range from the Dali Lama to Jewish mysticism–closer to her own Jewish background.


The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman Published by Simon& Schuser August 2015 371 pages

While not technically a memoir or even a biography, I couldn’t resist adding this acclaimed work to the list. Marriage of Opposites is a work of historical fiction set in St. Thomas in the Caribbean in the early 1800s where a small Jewish community of refugees from the Spanish inquisition hundreds of years earlier, led their children to ill-suited matches and devastating marriages. This is based on the  true story of Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro’s Jewish mother– who is married off to man much older than her, produces a trio of kids, becomes a widow, and then falls for her nephew.


My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew by Abigail Pogrebin Published by Fig Tree Books March 2017 326 pages

Pogrebin, daughter of the co-founder of Ms. Magazine, grew up in an orbit of impassioned feminism even stronger than her own Jewish roots. In this memoir she designs a yearlong quest (these yearlong quests are getting pretty much the rage, as you’ll see further down this list more of them). A year just about covers all the major holidays in the Jewish calendar. But can it lead to meaningful self-transformation in beliefs and practices? Stay tuned. Or please join me in reading and discussion of what it takes to lock in step with Judaism when you weren’t raised to do so.


The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell Published by Icon Books May 2015 354 pages

Denmark is officially the happiest nation on Earth. Or is it Bhutan (see below). The British author lights the long winter with lots of candles and finds many other things to appreciate during a life-changing yearlong adventure with her husband.


Married to Bhutan, By Linda Leaming Published 2001 by Hay House

The U.S. author falls in love first with a remote Himalayan nation–Bhutan, then with the Buddhist artist she marries. This memoir offers a total immersion in the culture of these insular mountain people and their simple and happy way of life.


My Father’s Gardens by Karen Levy Published by Homebound Publicaitons April 2013 April 2013  248 pages

A memoir set in both Israel and the US about taking years to lay down roots on foreign soil. Levy, who returned to Israel to serve in the army, had finished high school in Los Angeles after her parents divorced and hop-scotches back and forth as her parents make new lives following their divorce.  Struggling to find her place and her home in the world, I identify here so strongly… and I haven’t even opened the book.


Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert’s Search for Spiritual Community by Enuma Okoro Fresh Air Books Published 2010 181 pages

The author makes it clear from the start that this memoir is going to be about her world, her mindset, her passions, her grief, and her relationship with Jesus. I’m intrigued that it’s described as a laugh-out loud, no-holds barred account of a woman who prays to savor God’s goodness and is never satisfied. That does sounds familiar. One reviewer praised the spiritual insights drawn from the ups and downs of life.


Unstill Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction by Gabrielle Selz W.W> Norton Company May 5, 2014

A summer reading list would not be complete with a bit of high art to add color. Selz’s memoir about her father, the chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, reds like a who’s who in American late-20th century Art-until divorce strikes. Selz’s mother moves with her children to a utopian artist community. I’ll be reading Unstill Life as much for Selz’ stories about the giants of the art world as for the intimate revelations of her unstill family.


And although not technically a memoir…here’s one I can’t resist!

Almonds and Raisins by Maisie Mosco Published by Harper Paperbacks January 1991  480 pages

Even if the first in a trilogy about a Jewish family who flee Eastern Europe and settle in Manchester, England in the early 20th century hadn’t a 4.5 star rating by, I’d be reading it anyway. My maternal great grandparents fled Latvia in the 1890s, came to England, settled in Manchester, and to this day I have no idea about what their lives were like that prompted them to not only leave Latvia behind, but many of the Jewish traditions that had kept their faith strong in the old country. A powerful read for anyone curious about why Jews abandoned faith once they got to a country where they were free to actually keep it.



What the Go-Betweens Know

Dais with our Nakodo
Dais with our Nakodo

Marriage go-betweens traditionally offered advice — not rubber stamping. I regret that I didn’t do more to ask for advice. Our Go-between was largely ceremonial and added a definite touch of impressiveness. But what I needed more than anything was a primer in Japanese marriage—what would be expected of me. And through soul- searching to ask myself whether I could live up to what was expected of me. Aki’s self-made illustrious grandfather had spun flax into gold — or at least rice husks.

But as I look back on the potential of these nakodo to have offered something in the way of advice, I am wistful. I didn’t ask for it. They didn’t offer in return. The concept of a nakodo may be antiquated and charming, but its main function is to prevent unhappy if not downright disastrous marriages. My nakodo had been married a long time. They’d raised children. They’d weathered the ups and downs of married life–like living under the nose of a harsh matriarch.

I’ve poured over photo albums at countless dinners at their home hearing their stories about weddings, exotic travel, the years when my nakodo studied as a Fulbright scholar at Columbia, our shared alma mater. Based I think, on that rather handy Columbia connection–the pride of his life that he went there in the 1950s—they are joining us on the wedding dais today. I feel honored. I feel somehow assured that though words go unspoken between us, they would never have consented to this marriage if they didn’t half believe in the chances of its success. Still, I can’t help but feel something is out of sorts. The other half of my nakodo cancels at the last minute He isn’t here. The Columbia connection is in a hospital bed wasting away from cancer. The man at the dais is Aki’s uncle Susumu.

So these nakodo didn’t give us advice. But how could I blame them? What do they know about foreigners living in their own country? This is a wild experiment for all of us. Add to that the fact that they are from very sheltered families. They’d never taken the subway trains. They had never been exposed to society’s riff-faff, unless you count John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono. Yoko was a close relative of this nakodo, a tradition breaker on a grand scale, telling the world its not only okay to marry into Japanese culture, but its pretty hip.

I’m trying to make sense of the obvious: my go-betweens couldn’t offer me advice because their marriage was based on a union of the most exquisitely overlapping family and business interests. It was the marriage of two zaibatsu, the union of industrial conglomerates, educational institutions, cement, life insurance, and high brow culture.

Ours was what? A marriage of chance. A journalist from New York of Jewish decent marries the grandson of the inventor of one of Japan’s most important postwar inventions, the rice polishing machine. I am not bothered that the man I am marrying has no college degree or ambitions to obtain one. What he lacks in credentials he makes up for in a wealth of knowledge about Eastern medicine. I find it comforting to know that I won’t live in penury and that he will know what Chinese herb to give me to combat a cold.  I feel it with all buy senses—this is going to be nothing short of an interesting life. Interesting. Yes. But a happy life? A peaceful union? A marriage of shares values and goals? How I wish that my dear nakodo had sat me down to think this through.

Moving Forward with my Mother

By Liane Wakabayashi
By Liane Wakabayashi

Shopvida Scarfy By Liane Wakabayashi


Yesterday I found it quite distressing the shedding of the leaves on this small lemon bush –a tragedy I thought. Today I see heaven’s hand in all of this. Without the leaves I could better see the butterfly engaged in reading.

Yes, reading! I couldn’t believe my eyes either when I saw the photo after snapping away madly to get one decent still of this butterfly in motion.

This was no ordinary butterfly as it turned out. This too I found mind blowing–that this was the offspring of a black and white butterfly I had painted years ago. That painting was and is still one of my favorites, and when ShopVida invited me to print some of my art onto scarves this was the painting I chose. The first person to have that scarf as a present was my mother.

It was one of my last gifts to her just in this season–when the butterflies appear, when the hydrangeas are just starting to get ready to bloom.

I would like to think that my mother wants to tell me that she saw the essay I wrote about her in today’s Forward, the newspaper she loved to read and discuss with me in our frequent phone calls half way round the world.

Happy Mother’s day sweet Mom. Wherever you are now.


Circa 1991
Circa 1991

It was she.

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Digging into My New York City Past

20170329_113502Since I’ve been in Japan more than half my life now–thirty years it will be this September–the New York City that I know comes with the baggage of being a jet-lagged mother of two randy children whose idea of a grand time in the Big Apple is playing on the  monkey bars in Central Park.  Now that they are teenagers, they remind me my own coming of age in New York City. A slim stack of manila file folders containing letters I’d written back in the 1980s take me back to the time when what I wanted most in life was to be a writer.

I’d almost forgotten that dream–because it came true in Tokyo, a city the other side of the world from New York City. So far from home, the uphill climb getting there got left behind too.

In 1982, I began this quest to become a writer in earnest. I had graduated from college the year before with a degree in art history, broken up with a gentle soul, a craftsman, whom I thought I would spend the rest of my life with. I spent half a year back in Great Neck at my parents house hoping for some healing but arrived instead to find their 26 year marriage in tatters.

I was determined to move out as soon as I could and by spectacular good fortune, I found a studio apartment Brooklyn Heights, a beautiful historic Brownstone community just across from Wall Street and the East River connected by the Brooklyn Bridge. The only problem was that the rent was too high on my entry level salary as a secretary for Fritz Jacobi. Fritz will be forever remembered as the PR director at the Museum of Broadcasting who taught me everything I know about becoming a writer. In three words: Just Do It!

“You’ll live in penury!” my mother shrieked into the phone, when she heard that I was forking over $495 to the landlord on a take-home salary of $1100 each month.

“So what? I said, thinking I’d cut corners and live simply. But under my breath I was planning to spend every spare second outside of my day job home in my studio tapping out articles for publication that over time would add to my income.

God, however, had other plans. One of my first articles for the Brooklyn Heights Newspaper was about a community of artists who were living in the refurbished Peak Mint Factory, a fantastic relic from late 19th century Industrial Brooklyn turned into affordable spacious and high-ceilinged lofts at affordable prices. I got $20 for that article which vindicated m mother. But I got something a lot more valuable — a friendship for life.

The artists at the Peak Mint Factory were having their first open house event, throwing open their studios to the  neighborhood. I happened to wander in with my notebook and pen, and shy as I was, saying I was a writer–a journalist- emboldened me. I made friends with  Anita Karl and Jim Kemp who were a good ten years older than me and ran their own freelance calligraphy and map-making business surrounded by my two passions — Anita’s elegant paintings and their wall to wall bookshelves filled with the great publishing houses of New York–all the books they had designed maps for over the years.

Together we spent hours at their sunny dining table in front of the giant antique windows of their loft talking about books, about writing, and the world of words that Jim especially was  drawn to. It wasn’t long before we were talking about writer’s group where we could read out loud and support each other’s fledgling articles. We would start small from down the block in my studio apartment.

To be a writer in Brooklyn Heights is no joke. The legacy of its most famous residents Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller, to name just a few, hang in the air between the leaves and specks of sunlight that reflect in pane-glass windows, cheerful grids of light flanking the top of each steep flight of brownstone stairs. Those charming Brooklyn Heights homes, even in the 1980s, exuded such welcome, but they were only for the spectacularly rich and successful.

I knew that Norman Mailer still lived in the neighborhood on the poshest street of all, Columbia Heights, which faces the Promenade, an oasis for strollers, dog-walkers and film crews who come to admire the breath-taking view of lower Manhattan from its bench-lined boardwalk.

The White Pages gave the name and phone number of a  poet –Norman Rosten–whom I heard also lived in the neighborhood, and I assumed was more approachable when it came to working with young writers. Norman Rosten answered my phone call on the first try and immediately accepted my invitation to speak at my studio a few weeks later.

I was so excited about this visit that I invited my mother to come. She brought her friend Norma Schlager and her famous apricot cake. Twelve people squeezed into my studio apartment, furnished with French Provincial hotel room suite rejects from the Helmsley Middletowne Hotel, which my mother’s brother, Uncle Graham, had kindly sent over seeing my fiscal plight and overing to rescue me from furniture penury–at the very least.

I put an announcement in the Brooklyn Heights Newspaper and the launderette and, thank God, twelve people came to hear Norman Rosten speak. I was so worried nobody would show up. Instead the group was so fired up by Normans encouraging words that he left us all with the challenge of writing  a collection of short profiles about Broklyn Heights people we had come to know. I was very excited about the idea. And so was Norman, who offered to collaborate even after letting us all know that his wife had passed away the wek before. My mouth dropped in disbelief. This man’s wife had just died and yet he was so committed to writing and encouraging young writers and he refused to back out of his appearance.

Until meeting Norman, I knew that writing was a commitment to myself, but I was so impressed by the discovery that evening that writing would require a profound commitment to other writers as well.

Not long after Norman’s visit, I received a letter from District Attorney Robert Abram’s office. What did they want from me? I was informed that  since I was living in a rent-controlled apartment … drum roll… the  rent would forever be $295.   And I would be refunded for excess charges on the $495 paid over the past several months.

“Lordie,” as my mother said when she heard the news. “Someone upstairs is definitely looking out for you.”

It was true. But who?


When Death is Like Rocket Fuel

April 7, 1991 Akihiko and Liane tie the knot at the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo
April 7, 1991 Akihiko and Liane tie the knot at the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo

What makes an epic memoir epic is the sad fact that people die. Here in my wedding photo the only man left is Akihiko in the front row. His uncle Susumu, his father Toshihiko, my father Carol, and my step-father Leon have passed. And now the latest and dearest family member, my mother, has gone to meet her maker as well.

In the Wagamama Bride, the departed who were very much here in the times I write about, help me make sense of the past. But with my mother’s recent passing, I’m experiencing something unimaginable, the outcome of years of connecting with Chabad and the kabbalistic wisdom inherent in the Hassidic traditions. I’m getting intense study in the sparks of  Torah that set the agenda in death.

For instance, it would never have occurred to me to hire a Rabbi to pray for my mother’s soul every day, three times a day, in a minyan of ten, for the 11 months following my mother’s death. But Rabbi Binyomin Edery’s message at the gravesite in New York was precisely that–to make sure that someone, a man, a Jewish man in the family, committed to saying the prayers. And if there was no one able or willing to do so, then he would take it upon himself to find a man to do so.

Death is like rocket fuel. Within minutes he found a rabbi affiliated with 770, the Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights Brooklyn and paid in advance a traditional donation–$1800 for the daily prayers. I paid him back immediately because in death, there’s no time to waste. This is a surprise to me, this sense of urgency, of not dilly-dallying.

The prayer recited three times a day is the Mourner’s Kaddish, which is believe to save a parent from certain judgment. What that judgment would be, Lord knows none of us are perfect. But the very idea that we can be saved by having loved ones pray for us struck me as a downright relief. So there is hope after all.

In my memoir, I write about my father-in-law’s recent death, and the more distant memory of father’s death,  not only because they were life-shattering evens, but because the experience of death when you are on the other side of the world is a hazy memory of a relationship that died a slow death years earlier.  For in truth, when you live so far away from a parent, there are the phone calls, the occasional visits, the exchange of gifts, but that feeling of loss, the empty hole created by a parent who is in your life day in and day out, who you sit down to eat with, who knows your every little habit and foible, this is a memory from so long ago, from a childhood stretching back through the decades, that the heart can’t quite place the feelings.

Maybe this is why saying Kaddish is so important. The rocket fuel not only goes up but takes me back to those memories of our interconnected fate on this planet. Nobody anticipates enshrining deaths  in a memoir. But in the Wagamama Bride, a tale that unfolds over three decades, it just happens. It simply happens. And the soul of the story is revealed.


Happy Hannukah from my mother

I’m just six weeks into mourning the loss of my mother and my approach, at least so far, is to think of doing things that would please my mother,make her proud of what she herself accomplished in her 84 years, and even to do things that bring resolution to what she left unfinished.

My mother was always my greatest inspiration to be a writer. The scene emblazoned in my memory comes from childhood, when my mother would sit at the dining room table typing up her English literature essays for the BA college degree at Queens College that she was slowly but surely working toward. It took my mother ten years but she did it and with honors! She loved reading and writing and thinking about those literary assignments, and though she didn’t share much with me about the contents, she gave me the strong sense that reading literature and thinking about it were powerful ways of rounding out a busy work and family life. My mother commuted to Manhattan to work as an executive secretary, came home to prepare dinner for my Dad and her two daughters, then plopped down in the dining room chair to read and write.

My mother was vicariously pleased when I started publishing shortly after completing my BA in art history. She loved to see my name in print, but was aghast when she heard how much my articles were fetching:  $20 for an article in a Brooklyn Heights newspaper in 1983 was still a pittance. But when she saw I was mad about writing, and wasn’t doing it for the pay, but because I had to, I absolutely knew that this was my calling–even if it meant taking secretarial jobs in Manhattan, working as a waitress at Jewish delis, anything to support the self-imposed task of teaching myself to write the hard way: by trial and error. So what if an article took 20 hours to write for $20 pay.

Eventually that persistence paid off. Japan Airlines flew me first class to Tokyo in 1987 to write about the Tokyo department store exhibitions based on my small press publishing activities. My mother took this news with amazement. On the one hand, she was happy for me. On the other, she knew instinctively that the lure of Japan had somehow pulled me out of the New York City orbit. And though she never said it, and I didn’t say it either. We both knew if I could make it as a writer in Japan — a step that would propel me out of the NYC secretarial pool  —  then it was going to be Sayonara New York.

Within a month of arriving in Tokyo, the Japan Times hired me as a copy editor. Writing headlines and photo captions wasn’t exactly a journalism dream job, but my mother’s work ethic came with me. I used every chunk of free time to write articles, which I then submitted to the Japan Times editors in charge of art and culture, travel, book reviews, and what was then called the people pages.

I worked at the Japan Times for two years, 1987-1989.  I freelanced articles for the next 16 years. I got busy with raising my children and stopped writing until 2012 when meeting supermodel Dean Newcombe, who dropped  his career to give priority to helping tsunami victims in Ishinomaki immediately following the devastating March 11, 2011 triple disaster in Tohoku.  When he approached me about writing an article about his tsunami relief efforts for the Japan Times, I couldn’t refuse.

But this year was supposed to be different.   I think I knew in my heart that my mother’s life was coming to an end and everything I took on had that shadow of awareness. I wanted to write about things that were meaningful to me. And in to my mother. And so I put my energy into the Wagamama Bride. 

Well, my mother took a turn for the worse in the Fall. She passed away in November. Then she immediately got busy from the Other Side. No sooner had I returned from her funeral to Tokyo, then I got an unusual request from the Japan Times to write about Hannukah for the newspaper. I was stunned. With so few Jews in Japan, it would never occur to me to approach the newspaper from my side. I seriously do believe that my mother’s heart and soul wanted me to write this.There was no way to say no. I am deeply thankful to the newspaper for giving me this opportunity to share the Hannukah tradition that my mother passed down to me…

Get the latkes out for Hanukkah in Japan

Farewell to the Mother of the Bride

Liane in wedding hall dressing room with my mother Adrianne and Aki's mother Hiroko
Liane Wakabayashi, the bride, with mother-in-law Hiroko Wababayashi in kimono. Adrianne Lebensbaum, mother of the bride is on the right.

My mother Adrianne Lebensbaum’s  lifelong habit of voracious reading gave weight to her astute comments about everything I’ve ever written. The Wagamama Bride’s progress — and what was holding up its completion — peppered our trans-Pacific long-distance conversations to the point where she jokingly said to me over the summer, “Liane, I sure hope it’s done before I die.”

She laughed. I laughed. But the truth was she had lung cancer and we didn’t know how long she had to live.

On November 13th, my mother Adrianne Lebensbaum, who was a young and life-loving 84 years old, and probably the one person on this planet who most eagerly awaited the completion and publication of the Wagamama Bride, very sadly passed away.

Her struggle is over. And in a way mine is too. Throughout the five years I’ve been working on the Wagamama Bride, I was hesitant to talk too revealingly about my mother in a memoir that would expose a woman who was– to all appearances– the most extraverted, live-wire imaginable, always on the go, always with a draw full of theatre tickets and plane tickets to amuse her for the next half a year. Yet at the same time my mother was so private that she  passed away when nobody was in the room.

There is a prohibition in Judaism — called lashon hora — against speaking ill of anyone, especially your own parents. Of course these are the people who present us with the greatest goldmine of not very flattering memories. And writing juicy negative tell-all stuff about a parent just happens to sell more books.

Luckily, I won’t because I don’t have to. There’s so much good to write about my mother that it would fill a book in itself.  I feel less shy now about telling my mother how awesome she was. She had the capacity to love unconditionally this older daughter who fled 7,000 miles away from New York to reinvent herself in Japan. From the start of my marriage  in April 1991, my mother made a courageous decision not to interfere in the teensiest way.  If she missed me much she kept it to herself. Not once did my outspoken and very direct mother tell me that the only sane thing would be for me and the grandchildren she adored  to come back to the US to live near her. She didn’t do it because she respected the traditional idea that you marry “into” the husband’s family. So even though her heart ached for us to be together, as mine did too, Mom found her own way of bringing us close. She brought us all to the US every year. And came six times to Japan. 

This excerpt from the Wagamama Bride shows my mother in her glory, as a staunch realist, a champion and challenger of my decision to create my life in Japan.


“What’s cooking?” Mom asks with the morning news blasting on the kitchen TV set.

“Mom, can you turn the TV set down. It’s almost bedtime in Tokyo and I have something important to talk to you about.”

“Go ahead,” she says as I hear the kettle whistling shrilly.

“I’m having a hard day Mom. It’s one of those days I just feel Aki and I are at such odds.”

“Well, dear. You should have realised that your different background would always be a source of conflict,” Mom says.

“Why didn’t you warn me?” I demand.

“Because you’re an adult. You wouldn’t have listened to me anyway.” She turns the kettle off. 

“I’m looking for comfort! How about something besides ‘I told you so?” I say as I reach for a swig of my own nightcap of peppermint tea.

“Well dear,” Mom says, “I like Aki. I like his parents. They’re menches–good people, with their hearts in the right place. It’s just that they think different than us.”

“You’re right. You’re absolutely right. Thinking differently doesn’t mean they’re evil monsters,” I say, putting down the receiver gently, strengthened by my mother’s words and feeling the wave of warmth penetrate me from afar with my best interest in her heart.

I will miss those phone conversations. The lifeline to my mother’s heart has been severed by her passing, but now that she’s gone “up” I hear her all the time, maybe more so than before. I hear my mother when I’m washing the dishes, when I’m walking the dog, when I’m frittering away time on Facebook rather than focusing myself on editing my memoir. Mom is waiting for the book we spent so many years and conversations planning together and I can’t wait to see her reaction when I can wave Wagamama Bride up at the sky.

When a First-Born Japanese Son is Unlikely to Move Overseas

Wakabayashi wedding at Imperial HotelAFWJ is the acronym for the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese, of which I’m a member, even though – as the old Woody Allen joke goes: I would never join a club that would have me as a member.

Despite my reluctance to join the AFWJ, I did finally break out of my introverted shell a few years ago when Louise, a new friend, chided me for missing out on the best part of being a foreign wife in Japan. Friendships with other foreign women. I told her that I had foreign friends and that none of them were members.  As we are both writers, Louise reassured me that the AFWJ could be a creative outlet, or whatever I wanted it to be. And so joining the AFWJ became an outlet for me to vent, ponder, kvetch and overall write about family life as the Wagamama Bride for the rather pleasant AFWJ quarterly magazine.

Occasionally I go to AFWJ meetings too and learn interesting things like the fact that the majority of us are married to the eldest sons, the chonan.

This shouldn’t be surprising, considering that the eldest son-if he’s a good boy-is going to reside close to his parents, or at the very least, take care of them in old age. When they pass, he will light incense daily in the Buddhist altar and take care of the grave with monthly visits. Or he’ll consign his foreign wife to monthly graveyard duty.

So where, you may ask, are the foreign wives married to jinan, second born sons?

They’re living back in their home countries with their trailing Japanese husbands! Jinan tend to be much more flexible. They can pick up and reroot in their wives’ country and leave it to their older brothers to mind the homestead and take care of future graves. Jinan tend not to have reserved places in the family cemetery if they remain in Japan, so why not?

Marrying the Chonan And Simultaenously Going House-Hunting

We don’t like to admit it–too blunt for words. But the truth be known, the first sighting of our in-laws in their own homes offers a wake up call. For foreign wives who choose to marry the chonan, you’re looking at some day inheriting the house of  in-laws and the security that comes with living rent free for the rest of our lives. That’s the upside. The headache that comes with living in a house or a neighborhood you would never voluntarily choose to consign the rest of your life probably won’t occur to you if your are head over heals in love with your chonan.

Nobody told me that when you first set eyes on your future in-laws house, do a visualization exercise and fast-forward through the decades. Inhale the tatami flooring, see if the kitchen has 3 burners and adequate ventilation, a room with southern exposure and good sunlight pouring onto the dining room table,  or whatever it is that gives you a feeling of home. Or to ask yourself: “Can I live with this?”

If the answer was yes. Ask the question again a new way: “Can I live with this forever?”

Nobody told me to do this, and so I nurtured another fantasy. That one day, once we were married, I’d somehow convince my chonan to move away, to buy a house of our choosing, in a country of my choosing, even though it wasn’t very realistic given that Aki would remain the chief breadwinner, or the chief bread-baker, as he fancied calling himself.

If I was going to get my wish, I’d have to do so another way. In the meantime the challenge would be to relax and enjoy the life I had chosen. . .


A Wagamama Menu


I swear, with all my heart, that I did not name my memoir after London’s wildly successful Japanese noodle restaurant chain by the same name.

But I can’t help but admit that this past August while in London for a family reunion we did sneak in a decent bowl of stir fried rice down by the London Eye at a Wagamama Restaurant along the Thames River.

As we were reading the menu, one of my kids asked why this restaurant was called Wagamama. It’s like opening a British tea shop in Tokyo and calling it “Selfish.”

Having grown up with Japanese as their first language, my kids know wagamama to mean one who disturbs the peace. The nail that stands out, the disrupter, the one who dares to have an opinion that differs from the rest. Or, to quote my dear friend Nourit  in this excerpt from “The Wagamama Bride”…

My friend Sho says I’m  wagamama,” Nourit explains.

“Wagamama? A kind of mama? A mother?” I ask. 

“No! Not at all! Wagamama means self-centered,  egotistical, that I don’t show enough appreciation!

“Yes, I am wagamama. I say what I feel,” Nourit says, her flared cigarette making figure eights in the air. “Nobody will stop me because I speak the truth. People are afraid of hearing the truth in this society. But that’s their problem, not mine!”

 Wagamama was one of the first words I committed to remember in the Japanese language. I wrapped it around my tongue and blew it out whenever things were just not going my way. Just saying the word made me laugh out loud. Which was pretty much every day in the early years of culture shock and transition from New York wagamama-ishness, which might roughly be defined as a tendency to be strong, pushy and overbearing to a fault. These were traits that I suppose I tried to hone in New York for survival. But introverts don’t make very good wagamama-ists in New York. And when I got to Tokyo,  wagamama behavior looks so gaudy and theatrical that I gradually learned to save it for only my nearest and dearest.

A few months after discovering “wagamama” I met this man at Akahigedo who was giving me shiatsu. Bells went off in my head. I rolled the name around on my tongue.Wakabayashi. The name sounded so familiar.

The Wagamama Bride is a memoir in progress. Thanks for reading thus far. Feel free to leave a comment and subscribe for updates. Thanks for becoming part of my extended Wagamama family!


Mother of the Bride


Why is it that those last steps to the mountain summit are always the hardest? It’s the point you want to give up and turn back and say this is more than I can do. I’m out of air. I’m out of breath.

Well, that’s just about where I was in writing my memoir. I could see the summit but it remained as elusive as Mount Everest, a glacier to conquer, making these final months of writing and editing probably a lot more difficult than they need be.

Trying to stay optimistic under a daily bombardment of back-to-school family matters that come, I suppose, with raising teenagers, I lost my concentration. I lost my perspective.

So who comes along to offer me a very gentle nudge to keep going? None other than the Mother of the Bride – Japan’s pre-eminent bridal dress designer, an octogenarian who spends every moment of her life breathing love and life into the wedding ceremony. She is looking for a writer and I am looking for an angel. And somehow we find each other.

So here I am in the Mother of the Bride’s palatial headquarters commanding a seven floor view of Tokyo Midtown. We’re sitting across from each other in a French Provincial salon with bleached wood table and well-cushioned seating on elaborately carved legs.

Over the span of a few hours, we will discover we have much in common. The Mother of the Bride and the Wagamama Bride were both married in the Peacock room of the Imperial Hotel.  The Mother of the Bride and the Mother-in-Law of the Wagamama Bride both graduated from prestigeous Kyoritsu College. The Mother of the Bride has one eye trained on the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute. The Wagamama Bride did an internship fixing holes in 18th century Russian costumes of nobility at the Costume Institute.

At the end of our meeting she hands me a scarf decorated with a lovely long-necked black and white crane. And shock again. Another shock of awe and amazement when I see that this crane resembles those elegant long-necked birds of fortune that adorned the long-sleeved kimono I wore for my wedding.

Writing, like marriage itself, is a test of vows. The cranes. The scarf. The kimono remind me that writing a book is like marriage itself. First there’s the falling in love phase where you are so in love with the idea of writing a book that you’re positively giddy. Over time, the writing ripens into a routine of highs and lows, moments of doubts and reconciliation.

In Nitzavim, the Torah parsha that I read just days before meeting the Mother of the Bride, the haftarah begins by referring to the power of the oath that a bride and groom make by donning  gorgeous finery.

“I will rejoice greatly in God. My soul will be glad with my God, for He has clothed me in garments of salvation and wrapped me in a robe of righteousness: like a bridegroom who wears majestic clothing, and a bride who adorns herself with her jewelry. ..”

It never occurred to me until now, reading this passage, how the oaths that we make might even be elevated by the clothes worn:

When the Mother of the Bride handed me this auspicious crane scarf –symbolic of a happy married life–she gave me the strength to not give up on my dream. The mountain summit to finish this memoir just got a little closer. Wakabayashi wedding