CONTRIBUTED TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL
PUBLISHED MAY 3, 2022
ILLUSTRATION BY RACHEL WADA
I left Japan 26 years ago. Until the pandemic hit the world, I made biennial trips back to visit my family. During those visits, there was one moment I always dreaded, the moment I had to leave my mother. In the train station where we said goodbye, she always cried. Her tears tightened my chest and threatened to flood my sinuses. I had to fight my emotion, not wanting to make the parting more difficult for my mother. I smiled instead, as if to say, “I’ll be okay, Mom. So will you.”
Once safely alone on the train, I would finally let my tears flow. I was overcome with my mother’s love for me, remembering how she said, “Ohayo! (Good morning)” every morning, as soon as she saw me come down from my bedroom. The aromas of the miso soup, the fish stock, the freshly cooked rice filled the kitchen. The smile on her face said everything: “I’m so happy you are home!” She cooked and cooked.
She loved me. But I doubted she understood me. In her eyes, at least in that parting moment, I was a helpless child who was going to be alone again in Canada, “alone” meaning being without a family. She felt sorry for me. She was sad that she couldn’t take care of me in Canada. My father’s health was poor and she needed to be at home for him. Every visit, parting left me feeling sad and guilty.
Three years ago, however, everything changed.
I was born and grew up in a small village in Niigata Prefecture. Both my parents were born there, too. They met each other, married, had me and my siblings and stayed there long after their children left home. They were content living in their old way. Because they weren’t interested in having the internet, I kept my land line to talk to them long distance, dialling the same number that I had memorized as a child. They were happy as long as they had a big TV in their living room. For years, I was embarrassed by and resented their resistance to change. For my visits, I would bring my own WiFi and spend hours on my computer, with my earplugs in to block out the TV they were watching, or not watching. The TV was always on.
For this trip three years ago, just this once, I decided to immerse myself in their way of living. No WiFi. No computer. I committed myself to spending as much time with my parents as I could, doing what they enjoyed every day. I sat on the couch, squished between them, and watched their favourite TV shows one after another: a silly quiz show with Japanese celebrities, Doctor X season two, Anne of Green Gables translated into Japanese. My mother was so excited to show me the programs that she had recorded over the last year just so she could watch them with me. I donned her extra gardening outfit and worked alongside her in her vegetable garden. I cooked the harvest with her in her kitchen. I sewed with her in her sewing room, while catching up with a year’s worth of village gossip.
Every night, the three of us played a Sudoku puzzle, my father’s ultimate passion; he transcribed the same puzzle onto three separate grid sheets and placed each sheet on a clipboard. The sheet on the clipboard he handed to me had my name on it.
“How’s it going?” he asked me after about 10 minutes. “Do you need help?”
“No thanks.” I wanted to solve the puzzle on my own.
“Do let me know when you get stuck.” I was stuck, but needed more time.
“Do you want me to show you something?” he offered.
“No, I’m …,” I stopped. “Um, sure! Show me.” His face glowed when I let him teach me.
It was a few days before the end of my stay. My mother and I were in the kitchen; she was cleaning the taro potatoes in the sink and I was picking edamame from the stalks that we had just harvested. My father was snoring on the couch, the TV still on. Scrubbing the taro with her pink rubber gloves, my mother said, “I’m thinking about you going back to Canada. All alone. I used to feel so sorry for you.”
Used to? I caught that. I looked at her. Her eyes were still on the taro potato in her gloves. She continued without looking at me.
“But now I wonder if you are actually looking forward to going back to Canada.” She was smiling.
I was taken aback. Does she finally know that I’m okay, more than okay, alone in Canada?
“Okaasan (Mom),” I spoke honestly. “Of course I’ll be sad to say goodbye to you. But yes, back in Vancouver, there are many things that I do look forward to. You know that I have a life that I enjoy and a career I love. Besides, I have friends who have become my family.”
The scene of our last parting is still vivid in my mind. My parents and I are in the train station once again, 20 minutes early. We sit on the bench just outside the ticket gate and chat casually. There are hardly any people in this local station. We talk about how the interior has changed over time. Ten minutes before the train is due to leave, I finally say, “I better go now.” I smile and look straight into my mother’s eyes, which are … also smiling! I see no tears in her eyes. First time in the last 23 years.
“Genki-déné (Be well),” I say.
“Naa-mo-né (You, too),” she replies in her Niigata dialect.
I grab my suitcase and walk toward the ticket gate. I acknowledge the lightness in my chest. Past the gate, I look back and wave many times, to see my mother waving and still smiling.
Finally, she is out of sight. I wait for the train on the platform. The train arrives. I settle in my seat. The train starts gliding forward. Suddenly and unexpectedly, my eyes well up. I let the tears stream down my face and soak my soul with joy.
During the pandemic, my parents decide to invest in a computer and the internet. Although I haven’t visited them for three years now, I see them regularly on Zoom. My mother loves Zoom. She is doing well. She knows I’m doing well. When we part, we simply say, “Jaa-né(See you),” knowing that we’ll see each other again in a week or so.
Akiko Hara lives in Vancouver.