Who Will Help You Raise Your Son? Or Toothpaste in the Sink

My family got some sad news this week. Mr. Cuffy passed away. You know how it is- someone who was very important to you, but your paths separated, time passed, you haven’t seen them for awhile. So when you realize you have lost that chance to see them again, tell them what they meant to you, you think and think.

My son has been absorbed with remembering Mr. Cuffy, his Aikido sensei (teacher). My son has been contacting so many other young adult men and a few women who were taught and mentored by Mr. Cuffy at Aikido Shobukan Dojo in Takoma Park, Maryland. He is longing for connection, reflection, the sharing we do when we are joined in love for someone. Our family has pulled out all the photographs we have, sharing stories we remember.

So, a small moment from our dinner discussion last night. Three memories. I remember the years I would drive my son to the dojo and would often sit in their small sitting area/library in a corner off of the large mat area. I loved being a fly on the wall, loved watching those gangly teens stumble in with big sneakers, droopy clothes and heavy backpacks. Enter the genkan and stow their stuff, take off dirty shoes. And then the miracle. As they stepped up to the clean white mat they transformed. They stood up straight. Became suffused with alertness. They took on a mantle of responsibility, as they knew that during their practice, whether they would be temporarily in the Uke position, attacking, or the Nage, defense, they had a responsibility to exert total self control. During their practice they had a duty to allow for genuine practice, but also to not incur injury. Uke must present an actual challenge for Nage to deflect, and Nage deflect without harming Uke.

This responsibility applies even to the actual application of Aikido in self-defense. Even though they learn they could break an arm, they wouldn’t. Just to do what they need, to keep themselves safe and convince a real attacker to change their mind. They learn to control themselves and to deflect an attackers momentum and weight away; to neutralize aggression.

Mr. Cuffy was tall and imposing, with a fantastic serious face and equally fantastic grin. When his bass voice broke out in laughter it filled the dojo with joy. When he was somber, all listened. And occasionally he lectured these kids. Thank you, Mr. Cuffy, for these lectures on character that my son would have never taken from me! I’ll never forget one where he talked about how character is revealed in small things. “Don’t be that person who leaves toothpaste in the sink,” he admonished. My mother’s heart soared.

Finally, a story my son related. The dojo was built with many natural materials and art. There were fresh flowers every week in two bamboo vases on one wall. There was a large polished branch hanging over the stairway the kids took down to the changing rooms. One day Mr. Cuffy asked what was the significance of that branch- why was it there in the dojo? To represent choices, he told them. As the branch lives its life it turns and bends. It adjusts to its circumstances. It survives and grows by being flexible. As we do in Aikido.

Aikido means “the way.” Sometimes it is called the way of unifying with life energy, or of harmonious spirit. Truly a way to live. I am so grateful to Mr. Cuffy for teaching my son and so many other young people a good, very good, “way.”

I didn’t want to share our photos because I don’t have permission from the people in them. But here is a practice in the Multnomah Akikai Dojo in Portland, OR from google search to give you a feel for the place and practice.

4 thoughts on “Who Will Help You Raise Your Son? Or Toothpaste in the Sink

  1. Thank you for introducing me to Mr. Cuffy and the impact he had on young people. I enjoyed your description of the gangly teens and could really see them in their big shoes stumbling around until, of course, they transformed at the white mat. I also learned about “the way.”


  2. Sending my condolences. What an amazing mentor whose teaching will live on. You put into words the significance of the branch so beautifully- “As the branch lives its life it turns and bends. It adjusts to its circumstances. It survives and grows by being flexible.” A life lesson for us all.


  3. Beautifully written, Fran. As always, you share with such grace. Our culture could use more “neutralizing aggression” and strong character shown through small acts. Thank you.


  4. I so appreciate you sharing how your family shared remembrances of this importance teacher. You weaved a slice that taught me so much about a kind of martial arts I know nohing about and it has such a caring, peaceful tone.


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