Donut Shop Aunt
There is a small donut shop in Hachinohe, Japan. This is a place that can be described as either a large town or small city. Hachinohe sits on the far northern coast of Japan's main island, Honshu, a location well suited to the commercial fishing center that it is. Summers here are warm, not hot. Winters trend cold and white with snow.
The donut shop encompasses the full downstairs of a house located on a quiet street of an otherwise purely residential neighborhood. The building's prettier days are behind it. For the first ten years of its existence, the little shop produced a variety of baked goods. The 40 years since have been devoted exclusively to donuts.
A Japanese donut does not, in appearance, resemble its American cousin. There is no frosting, cinnamon, or icing; there are no Bear Claws, Long Johns, or Elephant Ears. These Japanese donuts come in two shapes, and I do not believe either has a fancy name. One is in the shape of a small saucer, a tad larger in circumference than a silver dollar and perhaps three quarters of an inch thick. The other is in a shape best described as a short and chubby cigar. Red bean paste occupies the inside of both and it is encapsulated by magnificent dough. Once rolled and filled, the silver dollars and the cigars are placed into a deep fryer and removed when perfectly crisp on the outside, yet superbly creamy within. They are delicious.
The very elderly husband and wife owners of this bakery have lived in the rooms above the donut shop for the 50 years they have churned out baked goods on the ground floor; they are the aunt and uncle of my wife. My wife has been visiting her donut shop aunt and uncle since before she was old enough to walk, just shy of 40 years. As a little girl, my wife did not like the red bean paste filling, so donut shop aunt made a few of dough alone for her niece. That then little girl would sit in a chair meant for adults and eat donuts and drink local apple juice from a can. Her legs were unable to reach the floor and swung contently; a double pony was tied in her black hair and hung from just over each ear. All in her world was right when visiting donut shop aunt and uncle.
Grown now, my wife no longer lives in Japan. She's thousands of miles away in the United States, and distance has rendered visits to the donut shop much more sporadic. She and I last visited the shop eight years ago. We snapped photos and chatted, we drank local apple juice from a can, and we ate donuts.
Eight years later and on a recent visit to Japan, my wife, my mother-in-law, and I stopped into the donut shop to say "hello." Though I do not know the real name of either, they've always just been "donut shop aunt and uncle," and though they and I do not speak a common language, I know they are lovely. Hunched over and hobbling from their years, a smile is ever present on their faces as we visit. Again, we snap photos as we chat, we drink local apple juice from a can, and we eat donuts, lots of donuts.
At the end of our visit and time to leave, donut shop aunt and uncle walk us to the door. Communication, verbal and nonverbal, commences once more. It is clear they do not want us to go. As the Japanese chatter comes to a close, a bow, a wave, and we walk out into the sun, turn right and walk down the middle of the quiet street towards our bus.
As we walk I cannot help but glance over my shoulder several times to see donut shop aunt still positioned in the street, watching intently as we walk away. I frequently return her gaze until we have progressed to the far end of the block. All the while I can see the sadness in her aging maternal eyes, as though she knows she will never again see her niece; the little girl who used to brighten her day munching donuts and slurping apple juice. And as my wife and mother-in-law converse oblivious to the surveillance from behind, I make sure to walk a stride ahead of them both, so they do not see the tear making its way down my cheek for the sadness on the face of our donut shop aunt.