The most valuable lessons in life I’ve learned from my Mom:
Go out of your way for people.
Never go anywhere empty-handed.
Pay attention to the needs of others.
For years I’ve been formulating a theory based on my mother’s life and the lives of my baachans, aunties and older friends who have showered me with love, gifts and care over the years. My Dad frequently writes about my Mom, Marion. She recently celebrated her 80th birthday! So I’m taking the occasion on Marion’s 80th birthday to finish getting my thoughts on paper.
I’ve observed that many Japanese/Japanese American mothers are super nurturing mothers, and this has created giving, healthy people. I’ve been curious how the thinking of my Meiji-era foremothers shaped the Issei generation and how the traits and mindsets have been passed down.
I shared my theory with my aunt, Akemi Kikumura Yano, and she suggested I read Julie Otsuka’s book, “The Buddha in the Attic” (Anchor Books, 2011). It’s a great book — I really enjoyed it. She follows the lives of a group of picture brides from their voyage by boat from Japan to the end of the war. She compiles accounts from personal memories, historical accounts and newspapers to present the stories of a collective “we.”
I appreciated “The Buddha in the Attic” because it collects stories from a broad array of sources. The Issei generation, on the whole, did not have the opportunity to do very much writing. A lot of first-generation immigrants to the U.S. from Japan were farmers and domestic workers. Women were busy cooking, doing laundry, taking care of children, working … Who had time to write? But Ms. Otsuka notes that the picture brides were writing letters to their moms and sisters. In the midst of their crazy busy lives, some were trying to share glimpses.
However, the notes that Ms. Otsuka shares attempted to shield family members and friends from the harsh realities of life. From the chapter titled, “Whites,” Ms. Otsuka writes:
“Most of them took little notice of us at all. We were there when they needed us and when they did not, poof, we were gone. We stayed in the background, quietly mopping their floors, waxing their furniture, bathing their children, cleaning the parts of their houses that nobody but us could see. We spoke seldom. We ate little. We were gentle. We were good. We never caused any trouble and allowed them to do with us as they pleased. We let them praise us when they were happy with us. We let them yell at us when they were mad.
We let them give us things we did not really want, or need. If I don’t take that old sweater, she’ll accuse me of being too proud. We did not bother them with questions. We never talked back or complained. We never asked for a raise. For most of us were simple girls from the country who did not speak any English and in America we knew we had no choice but to scrub sinks and wash floors.
We did not mention them in our letters to our mothers. We did not mention them in our letters to our sisters or friends. Because in Japan the lowliest job a woman could have was that of a maid. We have quit the fields and moved into a nice house in town, where my husband has found employment with a family of the first rank. I am putting on weight. I’ve blossomed. I’ve grown half an inch. I wear underwear now. I wear a corset and stockings. I wear a white cotton brassiere. I sleep in until nine every morning and spend my afternoons out of doors with the cat in the garden. My face is fuller. My hips have widened. My stride has lengthened. I am learning how to read. I am taking piano lessons. I have mastered the art of American baking and recently won first prize in a contest for my lemon meringue pie. I know you would like it here. The streets are wide and clean and you do not have to take off your shoes when you walk on the grass. I think of you often and will send money home as soon as I can.”
I think our baachans’ and moms’ lives are written in the values and lives of their children and grandchildren. Our mothers taught by example. Each meal and act of kindness added up to mountains of love.
I’ve tested my theory with Nisei and Sansei women. I sense lots of agreement. Fuyo Arimoto, who is a Shin-Issei in her eighties, says she still often thinks about her mother and tries to emulate the little things her mom did for her, as she has cared for her five stepchildren and her grandchildren.
Here is a picture of my Mom looking through her wallet (above) on a recent trip we took. She always wants to make sure that people are treated generously. She felt terrible for one of her tour guides because my Mom noticed that others in the tour group did not appear to be giving a tip.
I do not know anyone who remembers more people than my Mom. She even gives money to the postman at Christmas!
My son visited my Mom just before her birthday. He told me he felt like it was his birthday because she gave him back half the cake he brought and a lot of kozukai (spending money).
When the elements of a good life and a good society are broken down, I think a great deal boils down to generosity, thoughfulness and love. Of all the lessons my Mom has taught me, that’s the most important one.
Is my theory right? What do you think?
The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly