When Hiroshi Onada and his wife Ayano first arrived in the area, their daughter Monono, was a toddler. Hiroshi had been assigned to work for the next several years at the American branch of his company.
Left behind in Tokyo were his daughter's grandparents, as well as the family's neighbors and friends. Everyone and everything that had always been familiar was on the other side of the world.
But although their English was limited, their enthusiasm was not.
"We came in springtime," Ayono recalls. "There were many, many beautifully colored trees and the air was so fresh!"
My own daughter was a toddler then as well. Ayano and I first met in a local park, two moms pushing their strollers amid a sea of moms pushing strollers.
I was struck by how carefully Ayano watched after her little girl. Whenever she spoke to the child (in Japanese), even to admonish her, it was done in a soft voice, with a distinct undercurrent of kindness that required no translation.
Our daughters instantly became fast friends. English was irrelevant to them; both were just learning to talk. Many playdates followed, as well as jaunts to , , dinner at the and trick-or-treating at Halloween.
Together the girls teetered on either side of Santa's lap at the annual town tree-lighting, eyeing a suspiciously slim Mrs. Claus. On a frigid winter afternoon we all squeezed into a photo booth at the because there was absolutely nothing else to do; and nothing else could have possibly been as much fun.
The Onada family inspired me enormously, especially Ayano.
She gave birth to her son, Kota, while living here. She drove herself and her children wherever they needed to go without a moment's hesitation. Ayano was determined to experience her American life fully and did so, without apprehension or excuses. Gradually her English took on a more confident richness.
Sometimes as I walked up the path leading to the house they were renting, I would glimpse her through the window, sitting at the kitchen table and studying English.
While our children played Ayano and I would talk. She showed me pictures of Japan, talked about her parents and the job in Tokyo where she had worked as a publications editor for a large company.
When I asked her what she thought her daughter would take away from the experience of living in RiverDell, Ayano said, "In preschool she played with many children from various countries. Maybe she will always remember and respect that there are so many different people in the world."
Ayano also told me that because Japan is primarily a "homogeneous nation, I understand all the cultures, customs, religion and taboos. I can guess what other people are thinking." But here the signals are mixed and many, so while it was wildly confusing, it was also an incredible learning experience.
Now, thanks to the magic of Skype, despite the distance and the years, our families remain close.
Almost every week we Skype together.
Usually our day is done and we are nearly ready for bed.
But in Japan it is already tomorrow.
Often the Onada family is wearing their pajamas and eating breakfast, while we have yet to sleep. Still, the children sing songs together, wish each other "Happy Birthday" and giggle inanely at nothing adults can possibly comprehend. Sometimes they eat ice cream together, a dish of vanilla for my daughter, strawberry for Momono (even though for her it is breakfast).
I feel fortunate to have friends who live each day in tomorrow. Maybe somehow that makes me believe, with the irrationality of a child, that tomorrow will definitely come.
But tomorrow can be a dangerous place.
"Contact Ayano," my husband urged. "This is bad."
I tried. And tried. But nothing. Finally, an email appeared in my Inbox whose subject said simply: WE ARE OK.
For all the thousands who are not, please donate to The American Red Cross.