September brings the excitement of a new season. A sandwich board sign on the side of the highway invites potential students to watch a Karate demo. Afterwards we hope that they will be intrigued enough to join the Dojo. An elderly lady approached me after the demo to talk. I greeted her with a smile and asked if she was there to register a grandchild. She spoke with a thick European accent but it was easy to understand “No”. With an insulted look in her eyes she stated that she wanted to join herself. Caught off guard, I asked her to try the class out and we could talk afterwards. With much trepidation I watched her struggle. The average age was probably one third of hers. After the workout, I expected her to give a polite thank you and tell me that she would think about it. Her words were short and to the point. “ Can I pay now?”
Senpai Julie started her karate training at the age of 60. She was a war bride
from Belgium who worked a farm in Saskatchewan. Hard work was no stranger to her. Senpai Julie raised the bar for everyone in the Dojo. Her steady determined attitude encouraged the rest of the class to do their best. If anyone thought of stopping during an exercise, they would just have to look over at Senpai Julie sweating. Students gravitated towards her. Not because she was friendly because she really wasn’t. The other students were courteous. The courtesy changed to curiosity. “Why was she doing this?” The curiosity turned to admiration and then turned to a kinship of similar goals and aspirations.
Senpai Julie was mysterious. She had secrets. Each summer we would travel to Canmore, Alberta for a week of training with guest instructors. Senpai Julie’s husband came home early from a hunting trip to discover his wife was missing. One of the young students would pick Senpai Julie up three times a week to bring her to our classes. Apparently I was teaching dancing. Her husband phoned this student’s home to discover that she was at a karate summer camp. It was probably the first time he had heard the word karate and Julie in the same sentence. At this point she was an Orange belt so had probably been training for well over 3 years.
Senpai Julie traveled the world with our karate club. She spoke 5 languages and was very independent. In Japan “kanpai” is typically said before consuming alcohol and one time she delivered an equivalent European salutation. Unfortunately “chin chin” would indicate a male’s private part in the Japanese language. I would often joke with Senpai Julie. She had big bug glasses. If she had eyeballs above her eyebrows they would have had clear vision. When I would put them on my head she would smirk and say “ Oh, Sensei”
Senpai Julie reached the rank of 2nd degree Black belt. She competed in many tournaments performing her kata in the masters division. When she was in her last stages of battling cancer, we encouraged her to come to Japan for a tournament. While practicing before the competition, she needed to decide which kata to perform. The determining factor was if it would be too painful for her to balance on one leg to kick. Her results were the same as always. Not the Gold medal but the only standing ovation. Senpai Julie was an example that made us all proud to say we trained beside her.
Senpai Julie sold her Silver Anniversary corvette before she died. It was an acknowledgement that she would no longer need it. Senpai Cheryl and I helped with all the funeral arrangement. At the church the Father asked us which person was her husband. Two interesting events happened during the service. As the Father was swinging the smoking incense around the casket some ashes spilled out. It may have burnt him, as the words that came out of his mouth are probably not in the Bible. Senpai Julie always had a sense of humour. The 2nd incident happened spontaneously. At the end of the service everyone came to the casket to have a final moment with Senpai Julie. Each person from the Dojo stopped to say their goodbyes and then solemnly bowed. You could tell that the Father had never experienced this before. He and the other family members could see the respect that was felt with each bow. Senpai Julie chose us as her family and we were very grateful. All of us had learnt lessons from this woman.
At the end Senpai Julie’s memory was affected. The last time we saw Senpai Julie alive her best friend warned us that she might not recognize us. Her friend took care of her everyday and said there were days when Senpai Julie did not know who she was. When I sat down beside Senpai Julie she looked right at me and smiled and said “Oh, Sensei.”
Oh, Senpai Julie