It was a few nights before our wedding, and Jo’s family had arrived in PA. I delivered them to the Joseph Ambler Inn along with some take-out Chinese for dinner. I entered their suite with the bags and prepared to sit down for a meal with them. Jo stopped me midstream and led me out into the hallway, explaining that his parents and brother could relax and enjoy their meal more by eating alone. “But we are about to become a family,” I protested. Yes, but to them, I was still more like a guest, he said. I left, bewildered and hurt.
They had never given me reason to question their acceptance of me. Yasuko, my mother-in-law, particularly made me feel wanted. While Jo and I were dating, we were out shopping with his parents one afternoon. As I walked through the store with Yasuko, we passed by an eyeglasses shop. She made a remark I didn’t quite catch, but it was something about eyes. From the grammatical construction I could piece together, in the context of the eyeglasses shop in the vicinity, I determined that she said, “It’s great that you don’t need glasses” (I recently had passed a routine eye exam). I nodded enthusiastically. Before I give you the punchline I will say this: Faking it is not a wise strategy in foreign language communication. Imagine my mortification when Jo came to me later with, “I heard Mama broached the subject of marriage.” Huh? What I had heard as me, the word for “eye,” actually had been yome, the word for “bride” or “wife.” It would be great for you to marry into our family, she’d said nonchalantly on our stroll, to which I had nodded enthusiastically.
Knowing her now, I don’t doubt her sincerity. But Yasuko has a tendency to fill in silences with words. She doesn’t run at the mouth, she just has a gift for oiling the social machinery with verbiage: apology upon apology, compliments all around. More self-deprecation. It is the way of Japanese women in her generation. I take myself down a few pegs in order to show you respect and honor, the code says, and she knows it by heart. The youngest girl of nine children, she was born into a family with a futon manufacturing business. My father-in-law took note of her when he ran errands to her family’s shop, and he started writing her letters.
She tells the story with a glimmer in her eye, but I don’t perceive that marriage has been a romantic journey for her. My father-in-law is not a bad man, but he too is typical of his generation. Belittling his wife was a matter of course. The Japanese have a plethora of expressions for the English “you,” each denoting a certain amount of honor or disdain for the addressee. He would use one of the lowest possible forms to refer to Yasuko. After work, he expected to be met at the door by wife in apron, a hot meal and hot bath waiting for him. With age he has grown increasingly hard of hearing, and Yasuko has had to endure years, possibly decades, of cupping her hands around her mouth and shouting everything four times. Now 78 years old and 13 years retired, Yoshinori reminds me of a defanged lion. When he needs something, he calls out for “Yasuko-san.”
She might be bitter about all of this, but we’ll never know. Yasuko doesn’t like exposing her true feelings, except when she laughs with abandon. She approaches each day with simple goals: do the laundry, eat, entertain drop-in guests, be at her grandsons’ beck and call. Anything more complex than that and she starts to itch. I allowed this facet of her nature to bother me during the years she and Yoshinori watched the boys while I went to work. It was an enormous gift they were giving us as a family: I could work and have the boys in a safe environment with people I trusted at no cost. But I was paying in other ways, because I couldn’t let go of control over discipline or feeding schedules or the upkeep of my house. I was insisting on a level of attention to detail that didn’t even register for her.
As far as I can remember, we have never embraced. It does not point to a lack of affection; the Japanese are not touchy-feely. She has told me numerous times that she has saved every greeting card from us and from my parents. Go to Yasuko’s house and you will see all manner of Americana on display, fifteen years’ worth of souvenirs from the U.S. of A. When I go there, I confess she still makes me feel like a guest. I used to take offense at this. How many years do I have to stick around before she stops offering me the fluffiest floor cushion, before she stops worrying that the miso soup is too salty for me?
The boys and I ate our evening meal there tonight. Yasuko flitted in and out of the kitchen, swishing aside the noren curtain to bring each rice bowl, each glass of water. I overheard her hurrying Yoshinori at the stove, where he was sauteeing the pork slices. She added a platter of yakiniku and salad to several savory dishes that were already on the table. We ate everything with relish, while she regretted that she had nothing to offer and wondered if any of it tasted good to me. She knelt, pretended to watch a few minutes of the baseball game on TV, and then arose again to pack up leftovers. A good time was had by all.