By Rebecca F. Rikleen, a member of Get Your Wordsworth
We live on a mighty hill, Herb and I. It rises from a deep valley where a stream still runs under cobble stones and trolley rails paved over into 125th Street. The hill rises many stories for many blocks. Sakura Park perches on the very top, a small gem, a diadem on a rocky head.
It was there before I moved to the hill’s descending side in 1950, sixty two years ago, a sweet grassy leafy square between Rockefeller’s Riverside Church, nominally Baptist, and Rockefeller’s International House, a residence for University students from foreign parts.
On this square’s paths my husband and I pushed our first-born’s stroller. In a corner sandbox of this square our toddler shoveled sand into his pail. In this square’s small swings we pushed our precious son and gloried in his laughter.
There I sat with nursery school mothers as our tots played together.
As Sander, the first born, and his brother and sister grew they rode tricycles, we tossed balls for catch and throw; the boys graduated to baseball, ran bases, rode a two-wheeler round and round the outer paths. They could get to this park without crossing any roadways. Sander could take smaller brother Daniel with him. They could be independent.
One day Daniel came home in tears. A bully had taken his bike. A neighbor said he knew who it was; I should come with him. I did. He led me to the apartment of a big boy, and we retrieved the bike, no police.
A baseball mitt disappeared there. That was serious because we had no extra funds to replace it. Then the boys walked our dog there.
Daniel, showing off, leaped from bench to bench, just missed and tore into his shin, needing emergency patching.
Everything was more open then. We could freely enter International House, eat dinner in their cafeteria, buy notebooks in their store, watch the Friday night dances.
All those years we called our little park Cherry Park.
Then one day in October, 1960 a 10 foot tall pillar of stone appeared. A plaque explained it was a Japanese stone lantern sent from Tokyo to its sister city, New York, to accompany the cherry trees, gifts from years before. It explained the Japanese word for cherry was Sakura. 26 years later still there appeared a gazebo, a pavilion for family parties or small performances.
Now the children are grown, with their own families, all far away. The park has changed as well. The open space for a baseball diamond is now planted with carefully spaced trees blocking any open meadow. These graceful trees with snowy white cherry blossoms shade sprawling young adults. Old people sit on the benches that line the paved paths. Along the cast iron fences grasses yield to more and more low bushes and brilliant flowers.
Today is a balmy Sunday and Herb and I climb up the hill, pausing for breath, on our way to an Indian restaurant a few blocks away.
At Cherry Park, unexpectedly, there is commotion: folding chairs are improbably stacked in piles, loud music comes from Grant’s Tomb across Riverside Drive. I ask a woman resting on a bench if she knows what is happening. “It’s the centennial celebration of the first gift of cherry trees.”
Before our eyes two military figures march across Riverside Drive, one carrying a US flag, the other the flag of Japan, a circle of red on a white ground. With steady purpose they pass us and head for the pavilion.
Drawn in the web of drum beats we cross to the standing crowd at Grant’s Tomb. On a raised wooden stage a dozen young men and women swing their arms in long arcs to strike their black-padded stick heads against drums in intricate rhythms, small drums and shallow, keg size drums, barrel size drums, drumming drumming drumming till our bodies vibrate. Other young men and women, all in red and black tunics, leap and twirl and lunge, agile, energetic, war-like: a mesmerizing performance.
The performance is part of a daylong commemoration of our friendship with Japan. We were “Friends forever.” Thousands of cherry trees were given to the US.
Then suddenly we were mortal enemies. Long after the gifts of cherry trees, they sent bombers to drown thousands of our navy in Hawaii; we sent a new kind of bomb to Japan to kill thousands in their cities.
Now friends again, this special centennial observance is particularly between Japanese Americans and Harlem, our particular neighborhood.
After the Samurai dance, a young Black girl from Manhattan School of Music sings several songs. We have to leave, because we’re old and have limited energy, but the throb of the drums and the mixed memories stay with us.
International House is now sealed off for security from the casual neighborhood. My children are all grown and moved away.
And here we are still, enjoying the cherry blossoms, white in the park, pink outside the wall, lining the street. The petals drift down like gentle snow. The exquisite blossoms will be gone shortly, but they will remind me of the friendships of nations, the wars, the gifts, the transient nature of our lives. The blossoms will renew themselves, as my children renew me. My children’s own stories are for their children who are far away and don’t know Sakura Park.
Rebecca Rikleen ran an early childhood full-day program, used her spare time to create assemblages out of discarded children’s toy pieces, wrote, and finally worked hard at painting when she retired.She is a young painter and fledgling writer. She says, “Even though I am an old woman, and unfortunately, there is no short cut to honing skills. In my head I was always a painter and a writer. The eye and hands are trying to catch up.”