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Losing a Generation

January 2, 2013

By Ruthie Iida

My mother-in-law Michiko is a tiny bird of a woman, with a sprightly step, a straight back, and a penchant for bright colors. We share the same house, she and my father-in-law living on the first floor, and my husband and I upstairs. Michiko’s living room is what she always dreamed of in her younger days: spacious, clean, and adorned with western-style furniture. The furniture, however, is largely ignored, as both she and my father-in-law Kiichi prefer the floor to the sofa. On occasions when Michiko does sit on the sofa or a chair, she’s usually kneeling in the “seiza” position, as if ready to whisk up a bowl of green tea. Although it would never do to live in an old-style Japanese house (more fashionable to have the western look), the truth is she’d be more comfortable in a smaller place with more tatami rooms and fewer large items of furniture.

On the other hand, Michiko is a cleaner, and more items of furniture mean more things to be cleaned. With Japanese New Year less than a month away, she has begun the ritual housecleaning already. These days when I leave for work in the morning, giving my little knock on the kitchen door and checking in to say “Itte Kimasu” (literally, “going out, but I’ll be back”), her kitchen is a whirlwind of activity. She and Kiichi are emptying cupboards, re-washing their already clean utensils, taking apart the gas range and scrubbing the inside of the refrigerator. Next week, they will start on the windows, inside and out, and the final week of December will be spent buying ingredients and beginning the preparations for cooking special New Year’s dishes. Working together, they treat themselves to a pot of green tea and some pickles or an umeboshi plum when they need to rest.

Many Japanese women of Michiko’s age (she is 75) have turned over their housekeeping duties to their oldest son’s wife, known as the “oyomei-san”. Feeling they have earned their leisure, they formally abdicate from all work and enjoy being served, being driven into town for shopping, taking naps in the daytime and spending long hours in front of the television. Michiko may have secretly longed for this lifestyle, but she knew very well that it would never work. Her first and only son brought home a foreign bride (myself) who does not take housekeeping seriously and has very little interest in cooking. From the start, her oyomei-san was a worker rather than a home-body, and since Michiko herself worked as a young woman, she cannot criticize. Besides, I gave her two adorable grandchildren. In gratitude for the grandchildren and the good company, Michiko agrees to my working full-time; she and Kiichi cook for themselves, do their own shopping and clean their own apartment. To be honest, Kiichi (who is almost fanatically clean) will sneak about and clean parts of my place as well.

Michiko does not seem to be unhappy at this point in her life, but these days she appears wistful, and tires easily. She was happiest when my children were living with us. In fact, she was in her element seventeen years ago, when my daughter was two years old. Tiny Michiko (known as “Obaachan” or “Grandma” to the family) would take tiny Ellen on her back every evening and go outside and “see the moon”. Listening to Michiko’s Japanese lullabies and contentedly sucking her thumb, my daughter would drift off to sleep after a few turns about the neighborhood. When the children reached school age, Michiko saw less of them, but they still looked forward to an afternoon treat at Obaachan’s kitchen table every day. At family meals, my son always got the biggest portions while she took what was left over, and at card games Obaachan outright gave him all her high-scoring cards, happy to lose to her clever grandson. If either of my children ran a fever on a day when I needed to work, Michiko would never hesitate to call her best friend and cancel their date for the morning. “I have to watch my grandchildren, you know,” she’d say with an air of importance.

For years, our big house was full of noise and bustle. Along with the kids came toys: large, complicated transforming robots with a million tiny pieces, all 151 plastic Pokemon figurines lined up around the bathtub, awful yapping dogs with remote control buttons, boxes full of the very noisy battle tops called Bey Blade, and of course the ubiquitous Game Boy that morphed into Game Boy Advance that morphed into Nintendo DS and then to PSP. At least those things weren’t noisy. Grampa Iida (“Ojiichan”) was always finding tiny game chips under a cushion or stepping on some robot’s weapon; grumbling, he went about picking up all the intricate pieces when the kids ran off and got bored.

And there were living creatures as well: crickets, beetles, salamanders, skinks, frogs, shrimp, snails, fish, turtles, and a hamster all found their way into the house. One winter, a praying mantis egg my daughter had been keeping in a bug cage hatched overnight, and the house was overrun by thousands of miniscule baby mantises hopping crazily about while we stood with mouths agape, too stunned to act. My son created an equal amount of havoc when he went through a phase of “rescuing” stray cats and hiding them in his room. Michiko, who is not a pet lover, tolerated all this for the sake of the grandchildren, as Kiichi tolerated the robots with a million tiny pieces spread out over his nice neat floor.

These days, the house is quiet–the only pets left are two large turtles who mind their own business and require very little upkeep and attention.The toys, which I cannot bear to sort through and discard, have been boxed up and stuffed under the grand piano by Kiichi. Both children, possessed of dual citizenship, have chosen to attend college in the US, and my husband and I have taken on extra working hours to pay for the tuition. Michiko and Kiichi spend the majority of the day by themselves, adjusting to life in the house that is perfect for six, a bit large for four, and far too large for only two.

My husband and I have plenty of noise and bustle in our work lives, and although the house seems different without the kids, we enjoy the quiet. Michiko, on the other hand, seems to be longing to return to the era of happy chaos. She doesn’t need to make a box lunch for her husband going off to work, doesn’t need to make dinner for her own children, and doesn’t need to watch the grandchildren; in short, she’s not “needed”. Even Kiichi is unusually self-sufficient: he cooks, cleans, fixes, and putters, unlike many men his age who rely on their wives to wait on them.

What will she choose to do with her time in the coming years, and how will she transition? I watch her like a hawk these days, looking for signs of depression, confusion or physical change, and remind my husband to do the same. A three generation household has lost a generation, and I do my best to fill the void. I am a poor substitute for the energy and fresh air that a young person brings to the house, but I try to bring stories of my own daily life to Michiko every evening (“GUESS what happened today?” are the words she loves to hear) and to get her out of our closed-in neighborhood every now and again. I bring her problems to solve (“Can’t read this kanji!! ), ask for advice, and share emails from the kids with details of their college life. I hope it is enough. She is busy with another cleaning project downstairs even as I type, so for the time being, it must be. Keep cleaning, Michiko, and keep wearing those bright colors. I’ll join you for a cup of tea and a pickled plum as soon as I’m finished writing.


About the author: Ruthie Iida studied English in the US at Berea College, Colonel Sanders' alma mater. It seems therefore fitting and natural that she ended up in Japan, the country that welcomed the Colonel and his secret recipe so warmly. She now lives in a suburb of Tokyo with her husband Keisuke and his parents, in the family home. She is the owner and head teacher at the Rainbow Phonics (frequently mistaken for Phoenix) Children's English School, where she spends her days teaching small children the joy of self-expression in a foreign language. She is passionate about grammar; in particular, she loves semi-colons. She is also committed to a nuclear-free Japan and to the peaceful resolution of conflicts. In her free time, which is not plentiful, she blogs about post-disaster Japan at . She also commutes to Tokyo whenever possible to wave her placard at anti-nuclear demonstrations.
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