Sunday, September 29, 2013

Japan Debrief 2 of 3: What's WAS It All About


Yesterday would have been my dad's 86th birthday and after pondering what to do for most of the week, I ended up doing nothing special. I still have too many specific regrets as regards Dad, I don't like to think about them too much lest I get bogged down and curl up in a fetal position, figuratively speaking. But I did have one lovely experience just before I left.

I have a cousin who lives in California and I hadn't seen her since late 1987; her sister lives in Tokyo and I hadn't seen her since 1995 until a couple of days after I got home. These two are my mom's older brother's daughters and we lived in two halves of a duplex until I was 10 when they built a new house two minutes away. They are two months my senior and 1.5 years my junior, so they were more like my sisters than my own, 6.5 years my junior, until I had less contact with my cousins and my sister grew older.

Spectacularly luckily, the California cousin came home during my last weeks there, so we had lunch, and later they came to visit Mom. Among other things, the elder cousin, without prompting, said Dad was a smiley guy, (I'm still struggling with this, but so many people whose first comment is his smiles can't be wrong,) but as kids we could never show him our weakness lest he'd dig his heel in. Beautifully put; in some sense he treated everybody alike, adults and kids, so everybody was fair game.

This is what I've been wanting to express, but much less eloquently, and which Mom took as evidence of my paranoia; then Lovely Cousin went on to say exactly what I had been telling Mom; Mom had an adult-to-adult relationship with Dad, we a kid-to-adult one. What a confirmation that in spite of what my mother tells me, I was right all along, from our perspective.

* * * * *

A couple of days ago I embarrassed my brother on his Facebook page and he was irate as he claimed it was not the first time I did it; I thought I was being funny. Dad said a lot of things he thought was funny but offended us, me in particular, and he knew when we didn't like something. Anyhoo, in a funny twist, I recalled how different Dad was before my brother came along, and how our family changed entirely with the birth of The Boy. 

I often recall one morning in Minneapolis, perhaps a few months after Dad, Mom and I moved there, when Dad looked up from the stairs, (we lived in a second-floor apartment,) and sang out: "By the time you grow up, even girls will have to work, and when you do, if you are only as good as boys you won't be recognized, but if you're better than boys, you will be seen as a valuable member of the workplace." Like that. And he went to work. Not preachy as he tended to be, no "therefore, study hard," at the end. 1961; he would have been 34, me 4. This stood me in good stead in my work ethic, in school to some extend but definitely in the workplace, but also made me more competitive and abrasive than desirable of a Japanese female person.

He practiced emancipation, too, in his way. I don't remember instances of his actively promoting women or a specific female staff, he didn't tell us, but he really struggled whenever he had female candidates for his lab. (He was a chemistry professor and during the last year of BSci, all chem majors must belong to a lab lead by a professor and publish jointly with that prof.) As a professor he wanted to encourage all students, but as a Japanese man of that era and perhaps as a dad to one, and later two, daughters, he didn't want girls in his lab because experiments in his labs were dangerous, (they had the occasional explosion,) if not "bad for the complexion," and should something happen to any daughter, he wouldn't know how to face the parents. (I didn't have the gumption to ask about the sons.) Earlier in his career, he debated this with Mom for days and then explained to each candidate why he was declining them and recommended less dangerous labs; later, after the late 70's?, he accepted female candidates and had at least three or four I'm aware of. So in the workplace, he improved as he aged.

At home, however, it was a totally different story. The Boy was born in 1971, weeks before I turned 13. First it started with Dad telling my sister and me to, "help Mom with the baby." Reasonable enough, and what little girl doesn't want to help with a baby, yes? But then it became, "Your brother would love it if would..."and then, "Do ... for your brother," (even if it was really for him,) then finally, "Do it."

I think, hope, at the start he was ordering us in a tongue-in-cheek way, a typical Dad-with-a-glint-in-his-eye, "There, I said it; whatchugonnadobouthat," mind frame. But as he kept repeating this, either the Neanderthal in him awoke, or he convinced himself this is the way he should be, or he took the easiest way out. At any rate, by the time my brother knew what's what, he was saturated in Dad's sexism, easily dismissing his sisters' impotent protests. And it wasn't just sexism.

When I was young, there was a very clear distinction in what/how a person does something and what they are, that is, their physique. Dad was ruthless about the lazy/stupid/unethical, ergo digging his heals in any soft spots. And he never suffered fools. But then he never commented on people's physique. He had a very old acquaintance who was physically disfigured, I think, and he felt so sad for him but he refused to comment about it so we never learned much about the man. We only leaned of him because years later Dad bought a wonderful leather couch and two chairs through this man's connections.

It started with Mom commenting on suits donned by men on the telly. Because her dad is still the biggest clothes horse we know, Mom and her sisters know a lot about fabrics and tailoring. Then tthe critique expanded to include actors' and news casters' faces around the time we got our first big screen TV. Actors, well, their physique was part of the package so we felt free to like or dislike. And this was in the 80's when pretty folks started to front shows retelling serious news without the training of a journo; they read news off paper, and without the scripts some couldn't even speak proper Japanese. Remember when that was new?

Dissing folks' physique on the telly had become my parents' pastime, and they were scathing, to the point of assuming they know the person and even judging them. (And I admit, I do that with politicians, a lot.)

I don't know if Mom and Sister remember this transition. Or how much politer and spoke in better language before The Boy came along. I don't blame my brother if he couldn't possibly believe me, but cause it was always thus since he's been a cognizant human bean, after Dad lost that glint in his eye.

I have always been, and remain, forever grateful I knew my parents when they were young, energetic idealist. I may have problems accepting things/people as they are, as too often pointed out by my siblings, but I strive harder to make things, and myself, better, IMHO. 

* * * * *

So what was it all about? Ostensibly I stayed with Mom for four and a half months to help her clean the house and get rid of things to make her eventual move easier. In truth, I ended up being the biggest obstacle because every other step she tried to make I prevented her. I was dismayed by her unwillingness to recycle, (she's old, doesn't drive, and never looked up charities); I disagreed with her values about material things, especially about their use-by dates, (but there was so much stuff in the house compared to when I lived there), but most of all I was disgusted she was so ready to throw Dad's things and some of the photographs so soon after he passed, (she has to move house, not me).

I am more like Dad than Mom; we are tightwads except where it's important; Dad traveled, I accumulate books and yarns. Mom had a more comfortable upbringing, and perhaps as one ages, that comes back to the fore; she can help herself as much I can; not a lot. Suffice it to say, though my family tend not to be attached to material things, Dad and I measure by if something can still be used, whereas Mom would like it/us to look nice, in person and socially. I'm happy to report, however, that I got Mom around to think about recycling when we discovered a good friend of hers is very involved with a charity and her husband can come around any week and load up his car with whatever Mom discards.

I'm still puzzled by the kind of man Dad was, with the gap in my perception of him vs. his past students', colleagues'', neighbors', and relatives'. I think my view of Dad was colored by Mom's perception/interpretation/criticism of his character, and lament that in my adulthood I was unable to observe/judge him for myself. But then we saw him the way he was, too, after retirement, in his illness, as a physical invalid, with us in the caretaker role. And I do so lament treating him as one. He may have been physically frail, but he sure wasn't in the head, and oh, how frustrating it must have been to have his presence squeezed into a type by his daughter. And then we are all going through a continuous and rather vast revision of Dad, so it's too early to beat myself with strands of colorful cotton thrums.Yet.

* * * * *

As to how long I should have stayed home, I'll never know. Ben thought late June might be good, in late may; I thought late July-ish may be good then and afterwards I lamented not leaving much earlier. Mom would have preferred if I left in May. Or June. Or July. But the clincher was this: we had a truly hideously hot and humid summer and I was afraid to leave her amidst it; I could see she was making progress physically and emotionally but came July and the heat, and it was as if both Mom's and my mind and body shut down and every day became an urban survival game.

There were days when Mom was more than OK; there were days when we sat, by 8AM, heaving and panting in the heat and humidity watching the telly gives us all kinds of previously-unheard-of weather-terror warnings; and there were days I wondered why I was subjecting myself to Mom's tantrums, or worse, her to mine. A couple of times when the subject came up, I told Mom I'm doing this for my selfish sanctification, and I'd leave when I was read; what more was I to say, it was too hot to pack up and leave immediately.

By then I had started to go to exhibitions and art classes and I was making the most of my time in Japan and set my departure date so I could go to my last session of the Cubism class. And though it was a little longer away than either of us thought suitable, once decided we lived with it.

The weather started to give out hints of the autumn by the time I was packing. Mom was feeling better because she could see autumn approaching, and I felt better leaving her. Even though we had a tropical storm the day before I left and the heat was up again the day after.

Dad's illness gave us a temporary truce, but Mom and I never had a television-mother-and-daughter closeness. We've always been different people, and weaving was our almost-only common interest. But then I sense my stay didn't damage our relationship, either. My having been home make us veterans of the same war, and I hope that's going to count for something.

So I don't know what it was all about, I probably won't settle on one answer for a long time, but there, I did it. With a glint in my eye, I have to stop second guessing fate and myself, and declare, it was the right and only thing for me to do at the time the way I did it.

I should know by now life seldom gives us clear, television closures. 


  1. I liked this bit.
    "My having been home make us veterans of the same war, and I hope that's going to count for something."
    And I understand the kindred feelings that this would give rise to.

    Hugs, Meg, you're a survivor and, by anyones measure, an A1 daughter.

  2. You're right, no TV endings tied neatly in a bow at the end of the hour or half-hour. You did what you thought was best and right for both you and your mother. Please don't beat yourself up about it! I'm sure that in spite of the disagreements, she'll remember the time she had with you in a positive light, and you'll remember your time with her the same way. Give a hug to Ben, and be happy you're home.


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