For the last two months the big thing around here has been the blue airplane cake. My eldest grandson, Rin-chan, had a birthday coming up, and age three is that moment when you realize that the birthday thing is ALL ABOUT YOU. This is a long time before you realize that the birthday thing is ALL ABOUT YOUR MORTALITY, which is different and not nearly as fun.
Every time I’d see Rin-chan, I’d ask him “What kind of birthday cake are you gonna have?”
“Blue airplane cake!” he’d yell. Adults don’t yell with that kind of joy, joy that is unhitched from worry, fear, implication, restraint of any kind.
“Can grandpa have a blue airplane cake?” I’d ask.
“Nooooooo! Grandpa has a pakowa cake!”
He is trying to say the Japanese word for “patrol car cake,” which is “patoka,” but he scrambles it up into “pakowa.” These little childhood word scrambles are the most beautiful and endearing things you will ever hear in your life, so precious and cute and redolent with emerging life that when you hear them they resonate in your head for hours, days, each repetition more beautiful than the last and each repetition varnished with a bit of sorrow because you realize that one day soon the word will be whole, proper, correctly spoken, conformed.
But for now I can revel in my pakowa cake, and it’s the best gift ever. So I’d continue, “But grandpa wants a blue airplane cake!”
“Nooooooooo! Grandpa has a pakowa cake!”
“No, a blue airplane cake!”
“Pakowa cake! Pakowa cake! Pakowa cake!”
I was pretty sure that I was gonna not be getting the blue airplane cake, but that was okay as long as he kept saying “pakowa.”
Gardeners in Gardena
Most people don’t know that the city of Gardena is a reverse transliteration of the Japanese word for gardener, which is “niwashi.” When the Japanese came to Los Angeles in big numbers, many of them worked as gardeners. Lots and lots of them, in fact. And in Japanese they have a handy way of taking any English word and Japanizing it. So the English word “gardener” became “gadena,” and because so many Japanese gardeners lived in the area, when it incorporated they Anglicized the word “gadena” back into English as “Gardena.” In other words, Gardener — Gadena — Gardena.
But we didn’t go there Saturday to fix up somebody’s lawn. We went because there is a nice cake shop that had made a big, blue airplane cake.
We picked it up and drove to the party, which was going full swing. There was a lady painting faces and making balloon art, and the kids couldn’t get enough of her. She had a very gentle and kind look, and spoke to each of the children as she fulfilled their requests.
“Make a flower!”
“Make a Mickey!”
“Make a airplane!”
“Make a pakowa!”
Only the pakowa request caused her to stumble.
A little girl came up. “Can you make me a poodle?”
“Of course, my dear.”
“How come you don’t have any hair?” the little girl asked.
“I cut it all off.”
“But it’s growing back.”
“Yes, in stubble.”
“What’s a stubble?”
“It’s this,” the lady smiled, pointing to the stubble.
“Can I touch it?”
“Of course.” She bent down and the little girl ran her hand over the lady’s head. A couple of other children gathered. They wanted to rub it too, and they did.
“Didn’t you like your hair?” the little girl asked.
“I love my hair.”
“Why’d you cut it off? Did your mommy make you?”
“Then how come you cut it off?”
“Well, I have a friend and she is very sick. And because she got sick, all her hair fell out and she had to walk around without any hair. How would you feel if you didn’t have any hair?” the lady asked.
“I love my hair! I’d hate it!”
“She hated it too. You know why?”
“Because everybody else had hair and they stared at her head and it made her feel ugly. So I cut off my hair too, that way when we’re together she has someone else who doesn’t have any hair and she doesn’t have to feel bad.”
The little girl stared at her head for a few seconds. “I don’t think you’re ugly. I think you’re pretty.”
“I think you’re pretty, too, my sweet angel,” the lady said, and handed her the balloon.
I stood there off to the side watching, enjoying my birthday gift.
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