NORTH KINGSTOWN–Noriko Whittaker is a tiny woman with an enormous voice, as anyone who heard her soaring, heartfelt vocal rendition of “God Bless America” at the Lafayette Band’s May 21 “Salute to the Armed Forces” concert can confirm.
“I was born with this big voice,” says the native of Hokkaido, Japan, laughing. “My mother said she could hear my voice from blocks away. She would say, ‘Don’t talk so much outside.’”
When she sings, as she does with the Community Chorus, the St. Bernard’s church choir and the Lafayette Band – where she also plays flute – Noriko thoroughly studies the songs she’ll perform.
Take “God Bless America” for instance.
“I was asked to sing only a week before the concert,” she says. “It was so much responsibility but I loved it. I went on the computer and learned about Irving Berlin” and why he wrote the much-loved anthem. “I think about the words more, as I do at church. I have to articulate.”
Noriko says her research indicated that “America has the capacity to [include] many varieties of race, just as there are many types of cooking here.”
She finds American sushi different and interesting but her favorite thing is nature, especially the national parks.
It was cooking that helped Noriko with English (although she agrees that Rhode Island-ese is a separate language unto itself.).
“I took English in school but I couldn’t speak it,” she explains. “I learned English through cookbooks and by watching TV.”
Noriko, 55, is married to James Whittaker, an employee of the Navy Underwater Warfare Center in Newport.
“We met on a bullet train,” she recalls. “He was traveling and I was traveling. We exchanged letters; I came to see him and returned to Japan. Then I came back and he asked me to marry him. I said okay.”
Other than living in Newport for their first three months together, the Whittakers have been North Kingstown residents throughout their marriage, settling in a beautiful home in the Annaquatucket area, surrounded by flowering shrubs and, as of last week, beds of vegetables planted by Jim.
A gourmet cook, Noriko will put the produce to good use.
“Lately I’m into the Caveman Diet,” she notes. “It’s less processed food, no sugar, more protein and lots of vegetables and fruits.”
Noriko has pursued her love of music while raising two sons. John, 20, is a sophomore at Yale studying computer science. He has a fellowship to study abroad and has chosen Japan. He’ll begin his studies after spending the summer months with his grandfather.
Thomas, 18, is graduating from Bishop Hendricken and has been accepted at Brandeis University. He has not chosen a major.
“I started piano at seven and began singing at 15,” she says. She took up the flute at the relatively advanced age of 24.
Six years ago, Noriko suffered significant injuries when she was struck by a car while crossing Tower Hill Road. She was en route to St. Bernard’s for early Mass.
“It was just before Christmas. I was in the crosswalk but there is very poor visibility there,” she says. “After the accident I learned not to plan ahead. I try to enjoy ‘now’.”
The accident left her with a broken leg, shoulder, hip, ribs and both sides of her pelvis. The shoulder was the worst, she says, requiring nearly eight months to heal.
“I’m getting older. When I could [live] a normal life, I was satisfied with that. Last January, I had high cholesterol so I changed my diet and exercise. I developed more shoulder and hip mobility. I could do better than ever before. Now I feel great; I’m gaining strength.”
She goes online looking for new exercises to add to her regimen. At the moment she does high-intensity yoga every day, weight training three times a week, takes a yoga class in Wakefield once a week and works out to TV exercise programs. She also rides her bike through the neighborhood.
With her role as a stay-at-home mom concluding in the fall, Noriko, who taught math in Japan, is contemplating – with some trepidation – working part-time. “I graduated more than 30 years ago!” she says in mock horror.
Next on her music agenda is the Lafayette Band’s busy summer concert season with nursing home appearances and outdoor sessions scheduled for locations throughout town.
Noriko will be singing.
“I look forward to the band concerts,” she says. “I like to see the faces of the audience.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .