Authors: Lucinda Ruh
I had several ballet teachers. One of my first came to our home to teach me. She started coming when I was about five years old. I was so frightened of her. She was from Paris and was incredibly tough, viciously strict, and never smiled. She was mean to me, calling me a pig and other names; I'm not quite sure why. However, I was not flexible at all when I was young, and I do not think I ever would have been if it weren't for her. People look at my skating performances and think I was naturally flexible but this could not be farther from the truth. I looked forward to ballet classes because of the bar exercises, dancing to the music, being a little kid, and expressing my emotions, but she would not let me do any of that until I became flexible. So for almost two hours once a week for almost two years we would be in my parents' bedroom on the floor with her sitting on top of me, in all possible positions to force my body to become flexible while I cried nonstop in pain.
The other days it would be my mother sitting on me. I guess it worked and I did not get injured from it, so she must have had a method to her madness, but oh boy, was it painful. I hated these classes and I used to cry before she came but I knew it had to be done to be a good skater. If my mother said it was all right then it was. I trusted whatever my mother said. Also it has to be understood that kids will do whatever they are told to do. They look up to authority and want to be directed so I knew I was making my mother proud by doing what she said.
Although the training was tough, my mother made sure she made me happy every day. The little things she did for me were huge and I loved being with my mother. I cannot stress enough how my mother was everything to me. No matter how tough anything was, being with her and feeling how much she loved me was the best. I wanted to be the perfect child for her. I would have died for her.
For some reason I never felt then or now the need to talk much, and going to Japan and with the stress of skating I started speaking even less and less. Maybe there was less and less time to speak or maybe to me it felt like there was not much use in talking since what I said didn't count. I also now spoke four different languages but still didn't feel I could really express my emotions in any of them. I felt I could only express my emotions on the ice with my movements where no one could say I was wrong, at least for that moment. That would change, especially now that I am putting all my emotions on paper. It seems after all the years that I kept all my words bottled up inside of me, I now finally have a chance to be heard. Before my words were seen with my skating; now they are to be heard.
My mother never, ever, missed a practice and she was my constant protection and tree trunk of support. If she did have to go to my school for a meeting or for a company dinner with my father I would lash out at her in tears. I was starting to fear not being with my mother and not having her with me twenty-four hours a day. I started to need her like never before. I felt so lost and so incapable of taking care of myself without her. I felt I had nobody but my mother and without her I was nothing. I was nonexistent and I was only complete with my mother by my side. I was only complete when I had my mother telling me what to do, what to wear, what to say. I remember sometimes my father asked me a question and my mother would reply for me. It was as if I was my mother's puppet. My mother did not realize it at that time and I, not knowing anything different, wanted to live for my mother.
I remember so vividly thinking that if my mother died I would definitely not be able to survive. There would be nothing for me to do without my mother. This is how close and yet how isolated we had become. It was to bring much tragedy in both our lives in the years to come but at that time we were oblivious. We were so busy trying to be perfect for each other to attain a goal that even to this day I am puzzled as to what our goal was â other than to be the best you could be at everything you touch, and nothing could disrupt the energy of that.
My coach conducted a skating camp every summer for a week and only my coach's students were allowed to attend. It was always in Karuizawa, which was a couple of hours drive from Tokyo and we all went by bus together. The first time I attended I was eight years old. I had never slept anywhere without my family, not even a sleepover at a friend's house, never had tied my own skates or had done my own hair, so the first few times I went to this camp all I did was cry and cry for days. It was a mess and the other girls would unwillingly have to help me with my hair and skates and they made fun of me for it.
At that time we didn't have cell phones and at the camp house there was a coin telephone. I would lock myself in the cupboard next to the phone with the phone cord pulled through the crack of the door and have a jar filled with coins next to me. For at least two hours I was on the phone with my mother, crying, huddled in a fetal position, feeling like I was going to die and never see my mother again. It was torture being away from my mother. It felt like someone had pulled my heart and my lungs out and I couldn't breathe. I could not bear not seeing my mother's face every day and I could not bear my mother not seeing me skate and train. I could not endure the pain I felt when I was on the ice and did not see my mother's silhouette from the big, never-ending frozen pond. I felt I was taking away my mother's joy by not being with her and by not letting her see me skate, which I thought she so much loved, enjoyed, and needed. I felt guilty that I was away from my mother by leaving her and going to camp. It was terrible. I was so convinced that I was to make her happy in this world and in this life and that I was the one to make her smile. It was my responsibility and I couldn't forgive myself if I couldn't do this.
On top of that the training session was always the first week of August and my mother's birthday is on the third of August. For years to come I would not be able to be with her on her special day, and it tore me to shreds. I never could forgive myself for doing that to her. I might have been feeling this way because unconsciously as kids we take upon ourselves other people's hurt and pain. Her hurt and pain could have been all in my imagination, but to me at that time her feeling of this was so real. I could touch it, smell it, and feel it. It was living inside of me and there was no way of letting it go.
Years later when I was bedridden and my whole life had seemed to collapse for me, these memories would become alive again and I would relive every single detail of them. However, I did change as I grew older as I started to enjoy the camps more and more. For me it was a change from my daily life and home in Tokyo. The food was home-made Japanese style, and my favorite was Japanese curry and the onigiri rice balls. Since it all was not what my mother cooked it enticed my taste buds. The onsen, hot steam baths, were soothing and sleeping on bunk beds gave me great joy. Also we were in the wilderness, so the bugs and little creatures were my friends. I was known to be the one to call when someone saw a bug and I would save it from its death by bringing it out of the camp house.
The training was fun without parents present and it gave us a little bit of freedom, but I always reported to my mother how my practices went and made sure the reports would be stellar. We still painted those figures on the ice as we worked on demonstrating the language of skating, which was then called Compulsory Figures. I loved this practice. I would be lost in my own world and let my blade follow my paintings on the ice, one on top of another over and over for hours. Again and again we would trace figure eights and loops to ultimate perfection. We would draw our circles with our compasses making sure each skater had enough place on the sheet of ice. Each drawing was like a mathematical equation and as I was a thinker on ice, I was incredibly sad to see this practice later being thrown away by the skating union. This practice was like a meditation and a foundation for beautiful skating that is truly lost in present day skating.
At camp, when part of a group, I was jubilant that here I would have my little but precious social time. Evenings we would do the small hand-held fireworks and enjoy barbecues. My coach and his wife were more relaxed then and it was nice to see that they also had a more humane side to them. But I do have a sad memory of an occasion when I watched my coach washing his face one morning. He looked down at me, since I was so tiny, and in anger said, “You see, I even wash my face with intensity. You do not do anything with intensity!” Those words stung in my heart.
I did have one good friend growing up who lived by our new house down the block. He was of Japanese and American descent and like me working day in and day out for the love of an art. He was the same age as me and we met in kindergarten. He was a violinist and while I was feverishly practicing on the ice he was magically making music with his little hands on the tiniest violin I ever saw. He would attend my competitions and I would attend his recitals, I, in sparkly glistening costumes and he, in his tuxedo. We were friends for many years to come and his mother and my mother would emotionally tear up about the harshness of our arts in their both similar and different ways. When we had time we would build gingerbread houses together at Christmas time, or play on the block as all kids did, but we treaded carefully since he was not to damage his hands or me my feet. We were well aware of the consequences if we were to foolishly ruin our careers, or so we already saw our then meek accomplishments as a life-long job.
When we were very young and schedules were not so harsh, we both loved the bell that rang throughout the city at 5:00 p.m. every day. It signified it was time to go home. I had that song etched in my brain and when I left Japan I missed it terribly. It felt homey to know that for a few minutes everyone in the whole city was hearing the same tune at the same time. It gave a sense of unity. It is funny how the little things like these make such a magical impact on a person's life. I would even miss the plastic bags that foods from a grocery store were put in to take home. The noise they made and the feel they had on my fingers were unique to Japan. Oddly these were the things I would miss most about Japan.
My family always took wonderful trips together. This is when we could really all enjoy each other. I loved them and looked forward to them so much. Thailand, Hong Kong, and all the beautiful parts of Japan were frequently visited. The school summer holidays were three months long, so we always had a long vacation trip planned to go back to Europe, including Switzerland and neighboring countries to visit family and friends and then maybe visit a new place or an island on the way back. But with my training getting so serious and my level improving rather quickly on the ice my coach did not want me to be off the ice for longer than a few days, so our family summer trip when I was nine years old in 1988 would be the last.
My sister in the meantime had stopped skating at age sixteen to focus on her studies and she was not enjoying Japan. She graduated from high school with the International Baccalaureate in 1988 and would start University in Switzerland right after the summer. Her wish for her graduation gift was to ride the famous Trans-Siberian Railway. We took a train that included the Trans-Mongolian route to go from Beijing all the way through Mongolia and Russia right to Moscow. Her wish was granted. I was so excited and this was to be my most cherished vacation journey ever.
My skating coach was definitely not pleased that I would be gone for so long, but I am so happy that my parents stepped up to the plate, kept the family time together as a priority, and for this one last wonderful and magical trip they took initiative. We promised my coach that I would take my skates with me and skate when in Europe. We would be back by the middle of August and I had a competition right away, so my mother and I knew that the competition result would be the proof of how loyal we were to him and to his teachings.
That would mean off-ice exercises every day on the train, and skating every day once we were off the train. My mother read a quote from a famous ballet dancer and repeated it so often that we believed in it and lived by it, and it became ingrained in us: “An artist will feel it in their body when they have not trained for a day, the people around them will notice after two days, and the whole world will see it after three days.” So that meant I could not stop training for more than a day. It was all right for me to feel it, but once other people saw your weakness they would pounce on you. That was the fear we lived in. But at that time it was an exciting fear.
We flew to Beijing from Tokyo and spent a couple of days there. My father who had already travelled all over the region was accustomed to Beijing. An employee from the office helped my dad with translation as he showed us all around the city. It was fascinating, and my sister and I enjoyed all the nuances and the different festivals and foods. Our parents took us to many different concerts and Chinese performances. The Great Wall was impressive but I remember more the bugs and beetles on the ground as we were walking the Great Wall since they seemed to captivate me much more than a wall of war.
Turtles were and still are my favorite pet and so it was to my great surprise that as my family and I were waiting on the platform to board the Trans Siberian train, the secretary from the office presented me with a pet turtle in a glass jar. I was so thrilled and elated that this turtle was to be my friend during this trip. As we boarded and said our goodbyes, and as the train started to build with speed, we explored the whole train and especially our room. It was a moderate room, the biggest my father could get, with four beds, two on each side, one on top of the other and a table in the middle. I placed my turtle right in the middle and called my new friend, Xie Xie, meaning thank-you in Mandarin.
My father had talked about how the train's wheels on the tracks would make the repetitive sounds of “chuchu-chuchu, chuchu-chuchu,” and for months leading up to the trip that was what I would tell all my friends at school and what I was so excited about. My father always brought lightness to a situation and I loved not having to worry about anything with him. I wish my father had been more present as I was training on the ice so that he could have watered the fire burning inside my mother from all the responsibilities she had. My father also talked about how we could just look out the window to see the ever-changing landscapes as we went from China to Russia and that enticed me and I had high expectations.