A Vignette by Henry Scott Stokes
“You’re like a little bird!” I told the Old Bean the other day.
“And what might you mean by that?” she asked.
“You’re like a little bird in a nest, waiting to be fed,” I said, arching my back and pointing my mouth upward to the sky.
“Oh,” she responded, “if that’s the case, is breakfast on the way?”
“Okasan (Mother).” I exploded, “it’s four o’clock in the morning. Breakfast in this house is at 8, not 4.”
The Old Bean is my 91-year-old mother-in-law. She and I are living together while my wife, Akiko—her daughter—is staying at our country home in England. Akiko loves the countryside in England, and she has left her mother in my care. My wife wants a taste of life on her own in a space of her own.
The Old Bean is a bit deaf, so on occasions like this, whether 4 a.m. or not, we must sound as though we are having a shouting match. Not a bit of it, says her bright smile.
“So, breakfast is coming along?”
Four a.m. or not, I am going to have put on my skates and serve an early breakfast, followed by “real” breakfast at 8 a.m.
The “early” breakfast will consist of toast with chocolate spread—the Old Bean is mad about chocolate, and she is partial to coffee (instant is acceptable). The “real” breakfast will be a banana sliced in milk, yogurt and maybe some All-Bran to keep her going.
“That’s how it is in this neighborhood of Tokyo,” says our family doctor, Dr. Inamura. “We have the highest concentration of old ladies in the world, statistically. A great number of them are in their 90s.”
I am 72.
Dr. Inamura is a young man, half their age or less. He does that lovely old-fashioned thing of coming to the house. No lining up in a crowded hospital corridor, hour after hour, for us. Instead, we await our family doctor in state. Twice a month he comes and does his duty, culminating in an injection of a transparent liquid, whatever it is.
“And when is your wife coming back?” asks Dr. Inamura. He casts a quizzical look over his shoulder as he pushes the plunger on the syringe, and Fumi (that is Old Bean’s name) heaves a sigh. She loves her medical supplies, does Fumi-san.
“Hmm, I am not sure.” I stumble over this one. “She loves the countryside, we have these deer that gambol about on our lawn… badgers come out, squirrels… foxes…”
Nowadays the Old Bean is all bent up and fossilized, and afflicted by a back injury, but she was a potent looker, a honey-pot when we first met 35 years ago.
For the first 10 of the 33 years we have lived under the same roof, we hardly exchanged two words in a day, just a morning greeting. She waited on me, hand and foot. Now it’s the other way around. Is this all strange? Not in the eyes of our neighbors in ARK Hills. For years my neighbor and old friend Gerry Curtis of Columbia University took care of his late mother-in-law in Tokyo while his wife lived mainly in New York. It is not as if my case is unique. Far from it.
We live in an aging society in Japan. This is the cliché of all time. Along the way, we learn surprising facts about each other. Fumi says she was a star of the Ginza bar where she worked after World War II, prior to meeting Akiko’s father.
Her single greatest feat though was to survive the war. She took risks working in a little quantity surveyor’s office in Tokyo. She was right there through the heaviest firebombing in March 1945.
Did she breathe one word of criticism of that indiscriminate U.S. bombing of Tokyo, costing hundreds of thousands of lives on one day in March l945? Not a word. Instead what she recalls is the stark physical beauty of destruction. This, you understand, is not the reaction of some marginal fin de guerre aesthete, rejoicing in evil. It is the way the Old Bean saw things, as a young woman— a plum of a Tokyo fashionable Ginza lady in her time.
Now, while Akiko is away in England, the old lady comes into her own again. She emerges as the daikoku-bashira, as the Japanese say, the center of the family.
She makes unreal demands. Take the day, some years ago, when, all of a sudden, she announced a new project, just as I was about to take a bath.
“Why don’t you let me scrub your back?” the Old Bean called after me, as I was about to disappear. I gulped. No one around here is going to scrub my back, was my instant thought. And that included the old lady; I was having none of it.
“Sorry, Okasan,” I said, “that won’t be possible!”
“Oh but I assure you it will do you any good!” she cut in.
Visions of the Occupation floated before me. The big fat white man having his back scrubbed by his oh- so -delicately-boned geisha.
“No, thanks, but absolutely no!” I told the Old Bean. “We just don’t do that, where I come from.”
I was about to shut the door in her face, but she wasn’t giving in.
I could see her plump face looming up in the steam from the bath like the pure embodiment of goodwill. Who was I, a son-in-law, to question the laws and practices of ancient Japan? What was my latter-day Puritanism worth, set against centuries of mixed bathing in Japan?
“No really,” said the Old Bean thrusting her way forward.
I prevailed on this one, but, morally, I was the loser — but I usually can’t say NO to Fumi-san.
Bio: Veteran journalist Henry Scott Stokes works for the Institutional Investor of New York, a monthly magazine. He is the former Tokyo bureau chief of the Financial Times, the Times, The Economist and the New York Times.