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Reflections on Mother's Day in Japan

May 9, 2016

So in the middle of a sleepless night I start reflecting on spending “Mother’s Day” or Haha no Hi in Japan. It’s not a big holiday here but you can find candy and sweets in beautiful packages that have cards that say things like, “For the Wonderful Mother” or “Thank you to Mother” …

 

It occurred to me as I lay in the dark room under my futon, that when I first met Shoko, sometime in the fall of 1985, it was about a year before my mother died. I met her on a sightseeing boat on Lake Chuzenjii where she had taken her mother-in-law for a birthday outing. By the time I first visited her home, my mother had passed away.

 

Memories starting flooding back about that visit, and subsequent ones, when I spent time with her mother-in-law. Obaachan, as she was called, spoke no English. I had only begun to study Japanese. And yet we spent hours together and, somehow, we understood one another. She was responsible for putting a kimono on me for the first time. When Yukiko and I talked my first evening here, we remembered the picture of the two of us taken at that time … she was wearing her junior high school uniform, I was in full kimono regalia.

 

A particular strong memory of time with Obaachan was of a very grey, rainy day when we sat on the floor in the tatami room. With the potsu potsu of the rain as a background, she showed me how she made Japanese dolls out of paper. With gestures, nods, and a much laughter, she got the point across. We may not have understood each other literally, but we understood each other. She offered to give me two of the dolls. I chose one that represented the mother figure, the other a young woman (which I was at the time!) When I got home I made a special stand for the two of them. I still have them.

 

I didn’t meet Shoko’s mother, Okaasan, until many years later when Yukiko got married. I was invited to the wedding and afterward to accompany Shoko, her mother, and her friend Keiko to Kagoshima, where her mother still lived. It was a wonderful trip. And I learned where Shoko got her endless energy from. At the time her mother was already in her 70’s but a force to be reckoned with. It's when I learned the term akiramete --- I give up!

 

My favorite memories of that trip include a visit to a spa at the base of Sakurajima volcano. It was outdoor, under the roots of a huge overhanging tree, and open to the sea. It was coed so we were all wearing white cotton kimono. Okaasan wandered out into the sea and was picking mussels from the rocks. I have a picture that’s still in my office. 

 

We visited another onsen on that trip ... this one a hot sand onsen … on a beach on Kagoshima where the volcanic activities warms the black sand. You lay down in a shallow indentation in the sand and are covered with more hot sand. All that is uncovered is your head … except for Okaasan and I who were laughing together about “ashi wo sasete” … sticking our toes out too.

 

Ten years ago, she moved to Shoko's house and she has been my Japanese mother whenever I've visited. On my last visit to Japan, two years ago, one evening I went in to Tokyo to meet a friend for dinner. I didn't get back to Shoko's until late evening after Okaasan had gone to bed. At breakfast the next morning she gave me a stern motherly lecture about not letting her know when I had come home safely.

 

Now she is 94 and failing. Shoko is preparing for the end. And has gone so far as to suggest this may be the last time that I see here. I will miss her, as I miss my own mother, and all the other substitute mothers who have helped me along the way.

 

To all of them, and all of yours, happy haha no hi. And somehow, in the wee hours of the night, the fact that the Japanese word for your own mother is "haha" seemed fitting.

 

 

 

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