A couple of weeks ago, I was horrified to find out that, as wife of the eldest son, one of my jobs would be to put make-up on my mother-in-law after she dies. (Also, if a loved one dies as the result of an accident, the bereaved get to wash off the blood.) I told my husband that I didn’t think I could bring myself to put foundation on a corpse, should it come to that, and he scoffed and told me that it was the last kind thing I could do for her.
This got me to thinking about the Western attitude toward death versus the Japanese one. In Japan, where worship of the dead is part of the culture, where my mother-in-law puts out a bowl of rice for my deceased father-in-law every day, where not putting out the bowl of rice might upset the spirits of the dead and bring about bad luck, people are more comfortable with death. After all, the dead are always with us.
On the one hand, I can appreciate this, but on the other, it seems like the dead have too much power over daily life. I remember how I once made the blunder of heaping too much rice in a bowl when I was helping prepare school lunch. One mother told me that rice is only heaped like that for the dead. Today, my mother-in-law told me that I shouldn’t hang the laundry facing in a certain direction because of the dead. To be honest, I cut her off before she could give me the details, but I’m guessing you’re not supposed to hang shirts, which are kind of the shape of a person, facing north, the land of the dead. I don’t mind if she follows these rules, but I really could do without the added stress of worrying about offending the departed (or whatever). I regret, however, that I cut her off. It sounds like something I could use in a story.
I’m happy to report that I have finished revisions on my novel, Losing Kei, over a month ahead of my deadline. I heard from Ira, my editor/publisher yesterday, and he seems satisfied with the changes I made. Yay! Meanwhile, I’ve been reading his first novel, The Kitchen Man, which is somewhat autobiographical. It feels sort of like reading one’s boss’s diary. I feel like I know so much about his marriage now (including his sex life) and the things that made him miserable in childhood. And Ira, having read my novel and probably other stuff that turned up online, no doubt knows quite a bit about me.
Lilia was born at 26 weeks, before her lungs had a chance to fully develop, so from the age of 2 till 3 or so, she spent a lot of time in the hospital with various respiratory ailments. She spent a lot of time in the ICU, the CCU, and the HCU, hooked up to IVs and C-PAPs. She was jabbed with many needles, confined to oxygen tents, pumped up with drugs that made her paranoid, and had her nose and throat suctioned several times a day. Believe me, she did not have a good time. Which is why I find it very strange that she now loves going to the hospital and enjoys watching medical dramas on TV. Today I took her to the doctor to see about this terrible cough she’s had since yesterday. As usual, she was a model patient, opening her mouth for the tonuge depressor without being told, and eager to use the nebulizer. After we got her meds, she wanted to hold the bag. She waited in the car when I went to get Jio after school, but I carried the medicine with me to make sure she didn’t do an Anne Nicole.
All I can imagine is that this is her way of dealing with her early trauma. At the time, I thought, “Well, at least she won’t remember any of this.” And yet, every time we see an ambulance, she perks up with recognition. To be perfectly honest, after all those years of having to pin her down and pinch her nose to get her to open her mouth for medicine, it’s sort of nice that she’s willing to take it now.
Yesterday my mother-in-law presented me with a couple bags of arare, round pastel rice snacks, for Lilia’s Girl’s Festival dolls. I think she was trying to tell me that it was time for us to put up the display. She’s the one who paid the thousands of yen for the dolls, so it’s hard to let the holiday slip by.
So anyway, yesterday, I dragged all of the boxes out of the closet and Lilia and I set up the dolls. When she was a baby, I used to get all upset when she’d touch them or knock them out of alignment. The plum blossoms had to be on the lower tier, angled just so, and the courtiers had to be on the second tier in just the right order. It all had to be exactly like the picture that came with the dolls!
I’m happy to say that I’ve lightened up considerably. This time, we didn’t look at any photos or diagrams. I let Lilia put the dolls where she wanted, more or less, and touch them as much as she liked. They’re hers, after all, and no one enjoys them as much as she does.
My husband is always nagging me to get rid of books. It’s true that they are all over the house, and I am always acquiring more, but I can’t bear to put them in the trash and there seem to be so few places around here willing to accept used English books. But here’s an idea – the Camel Book Drive! I have already put together a box of books that I intend to take to the post office later today. I will mail them to:
Garissa Provincial Library
For Camel Library
Librarian in Charge, Rashid M. Farah
P.O. Box 245
And then I will enjoy imagining children in Kenya reading stories about Japan.
You can also help by sending money.
I have been a bit remiss in reminding you, Dear Reader, to check out the fiction at Literary Mama. You’ll be wanting to read Miriam Fried’s hilarious story, “The Way Houdini Died,” in which a mother and father have very different ideas about how to deal with their daughter’s bully.
Also, check out Rachel Elizabeth Cole’s heartfelt “Caring for Lily,” in which a mother tries to find the perfect daycare center for her baby, and dig back into the archives to read about an expat Finnish mama in Tua Laine’s “Au Pair in Alabama, or The Legend of the Dog-Killer.”
Yesterday was my son’s happyokai, which means every class in the elementary school put on some sort of presentation. My son’s class did “Snow White” in English, so that all of the parents would be impressed by their kids’ newly acquired language skills. It was cute. The kids remembered their lines, danced well, and Snow White did some impressive fainting.
The second graders sang a few selections from “The Sound of Music,” and then after that the performances were increasingly high culture. The next class – the third graders – did a poetry reading in sort of a No mode, and the fourth graders played an avant garde musical composition. The fifth graders performed a story by Kenji Miyazawa in English, which had an off-off-off Broadway feel, and the sixth graders did a performance of kyogen, speaking once again in a highly stylized way, a la kabuki.
I kept thinking, “So this is the difference between public school and private school.” At a public school, we would have been treated to more mundane fare – the theme song to “Popeye, the Sailor Man,” for example, and dramatizations of folk tales that everyone knows. I couldn’t help thinking that it was all a bit pretentious. But then again, I went to public school. I’m the hoi polloi.
For some reason, Japanese educators think it’s a good idea for children to run around half-naked in the middle of winter. Thus, on Friday, my son had his school “marathon.” I showed up to cheer the kids on as they ran from their playground to a shrine down the street and back – about a kilometer. The mothers were sensibly dressed in long underwear and down jackets, but the kids wore just T-shirts and shorts on a day when snow was predicted. Several years ago the school was known for its hadaka marason – “naked marathon” – in which children ran in their underpants.
My daughter’s “marathon” was the week before. She did the course in a walker, and while wearing a track suit.
Happily, the kids were given warm drinks afterward.