The last few Sundays have been grey and monotone. Feeling under the weather or staying under the covers there had been no need for me to get up and face the music, however, on Sundays I usually call my Obaachan in Japan. This time two years ago (three if you’re counting the Japanese way) my Ogiichan died. He was my grandfather and Obaachan doted on him even though she mildly complained and sometimes jibed at his inadequacies, I remember she used to often follow it up with ‘I am grateful for how hard your Ogiichan worked in his day’. They were an old couple like any other, they annoyed each other and couldn’t imagine life without one another. Then he passed away. One cold February morning, there was still snow piled up on the roadside; you could see your breath inside the house. The cold wooden corridors left condensation marks after your feet. I always forget about February and how harsh it can be and so darn draining, even here in England, and especially here in London. It is a time when sane creatures hibernate.
‘Moshi moshi?’ Comes from my speaker - it’s Obaachan’s inquisitive kind voice.
‘Moshi moshi.’ That’s me - saying that it’s me to her.
‘Today I went to a laughter-show at the local centre. Held for children, parents and old people of Hamakawado. The man had grown up here, a Hamakawado resident, and the woman had been at school here until Year 6. They were very funny and made me laugh a lot. Afterwards, we played wa’nagé.’
Old age and community are done differently in Japan. I think being old means you are just another category of human being who is treated in a certain way like children, and you have a definite position to fill in the community who see it as common sense for old people to be included. They aren’t old and separate. They are old and present. I like it. I ask is a laughter-show some sort of comedy/entertainment/stand-up/pantomime and she replies yes, and I wonder some more about the different sorts of people who were there today but first -
‘What is wa’nagé?’
‘You have ten long sticks in the ground and you try and get the wa’nagé in between them.’ It must be like cricket and wickets I think.
‘So wa’nagé are balls?’
‘Circles that are balls?’
‘No they are more like circles.’
I then remember that the Japanese for hay is possibly ‘wa' so I ask: ‘Are the balls made of hay?’
‘The wa’nagé have to go over the sticks.’ She sounds miffed that she can’t communicate to her granddaughter a very simple game she had played today, ‘the more sticks that you get the wa’nagé caught on the higher your score.’
‘The wa’nagé go over and around the sticks?’
‘What do you win?’ There was a pause. Perhaps she was coming to terms with the comparison between wa’nagé and doughnuts or it was the sense of relief she felt after I had finally understood the basic mechanics of the game.
‘You win… the game.’ She said frankly.
’No prizes then.’ I say more to convince myself that this was in fact fine.
‘You win the game. The person who scores the highest wins.’
And I realise that my whole concept of having fun in a community was sort of like a fairground where you win soft toys and tack that you don’t need and I felt a bit tacky myself for having asked.
‘During the show they give beer to the parents, sweets to the children and then there’s tea for the old people.’ Obaachan held back one of her laughs, ‘I took home quite a lot of rice crackers. It was fun.’
‘All for free?’ I am so pleased with this whole idea of a Sunday fun day with kids and beer and comedy.
‘Of course for free. We pay money in to our communal pockets every month so when they have enough money they hold these shows or similar things. Last time it was a talk about cherry blossom gardening but only for the old people.’
I am going back to Japan relatively soon after I had left it this Christmas. I notice each time the enthusiasm with which Obaachan greets me and takes up the activities such as shopping for groceries or cooking or gardening whilst I am there, but I worry that she will overdo it and make herself ill. One holiday I remember we went with the whole family to a bath-house in the mountains. All the meals were included and laid out beautifully in wooden lacquer boxes and filled to the brim with delicious things. Obaachan with her olden days philosophy, or it could have been her World War mentality (or both) hates the wastage of food so preceded to eat everyone’s leftovers from their boxes after the meal. After that she got ill and caught a fever because her stomach was so tired from having overworked at the bath-house. A hard-worker by nature a hard-worker by nurture, it doesn’t suit her to sit still and be patient, she wants to get up and clean things, cook things, fix things, and so old age I imagine doesn’t suit her at all.
‘I walked all the way to the Post Office the other day. I was pleased with myself when I got there because I had walked a long way and I still felt fine, so, then I walked to the super store. But once I had walked there I had got very tired. Very tired so I sat down on the bench just inside the entrance.’
‘I know the entrance. You should use one of the old walking sticks that Ogiichan left behind.’ Obaachan concurred that she should, only, she didn’t feel she needed them because she doesn’t get tired often enough to require a stick. Stubborn as well old. How refreshing.
‘I sat down taking my time and having a rest. And I noticed that on the other end of my bench was an elegant old woman. Her hair looked very neat. I said to her: ‘Once you reach eighty years old everything you do makes you feel tired’; and she smiled, nodded and replied: ’Yes it is the same for me too. I am glad to hear the same applies for you as well. I get tired so easily now.’ ’
And the pair struck up a conversation inspired by mutual dissent of ageing and Obaachan had found one of her own. She had begun telling me the story with a hint of what was still possible but I didn’t realise that it was the story of how she had made a new friend who was also in her eighties and now lived alone. It strikes a note of pity in me when I think of Obaachan alone. She likes to tell stories and laugh and joke, you can’t very well do that in the evenings by yourself. The old graceful lady had moved to the town recently, precisely because the Post Office and the super store were at a walking distance from each other; she had lived in a city before where everything was further away and not close to her home. Now she lived in a high-rise flat and her daughter would come to visit sometimes and she liked it here. The pair ended the conversation inviting each other to their abodes, in the hope that one day they would meet again. No numbers were exchanged. But no lies were offered up either. It was a pleasant serendipity that passed my Obaachan’s day and the other’s too.
‘By the time I had said good bye -’ Obaachan this time let out a fire cracker laugh, ‘it was already getting dark and I knew if I went home then I would have to turn on the switch on the rice cooker and wait forty minutes for it to finish. So instead I went downstairs to the food court and bought myself two onigiri (rice balls). And when I got home I ate the two for dinner.’
She never liked leaving Ogiichan alone in the house after dark. I remember her rushing the final bits of grocery shopping to get home before five o’clock so she could bring in the washing and turn on the rice cooker incase Ogiichan had forgotten. She would buy her groceries in the day in preparation for the night and the meal she would lay out at home for the pair of them. It gave her a routine and a reason to be home by a certain time, to make her cadential apologies to her gathering of friends at the super store or on the street corner to get home in time to do the cooking. Now she has to be her own stopwatch and when you stop living even just a little bit for that other person, when ostensibly you stop being needed by someone, you slip up - a little bit like - over a frozen crack in the pavement. I was afraid she would lose her footing being departed by her husband like that, like so many old women of Japan where longevity is unnaturally great, but I worry just like her, a lot.
The two old friends were sat on the massage chairs on the fifth floor of the super store. If you slot a ten yen piece in to the arm of a chair then the machine turns on and gives you a massage for three minutes. The legs and the back. The local super store is a warm safe hang-out for the old, and my Obaachan and her friends often spend their whole afternoons there buying some little thing and then sitting and chatting. In the winters it is cheaper to sit with friends in the warmth of the super store than to have your electric heater turned on at home alone. And more fun, I suspect.
‘I was talking with Tabata-san on the massage chairs on the fifth floor and we didn’t notice then but I do vaguely remember now a tall woman passed us by. There was nothing familiar about her. She might have given us a nod. I don’t remember.’
‘Do you use the massage chairs often?’ They always looked so clean too, which was more my surprise than their existence.
‘We weren’t getting massages we were just sitting in them because they are comfortable’.
Obaachan wanted to speed on with her story this time her tone said it. I was always impressed by her stories, they never had non-sequiturs like mine or my mother’s, which always go off on tangents. There is something of the trained storyteller about Obaachan which is something I had always been drawn to like a bright light but only recently landed on, it is the reason for my enthrall when she speaks about the past and plays out scenes from her life over and over again with dutiful clarity each time.
‘Tababta-san and I conversed’ about their relatives and possessions they owned but no longer needed or friends who were ill I presume, ‘then the woman came back and handed us some tea. Green tea. She said: ‘Here you are, please have it.’ So the both of us exclaimed: ‘We can’t take this - it’s not our place to take it!’ but she insisted and said: ‘Please have them.’ ’
‘Who was it?’ I wondered. ‘How old did she look?’
‘About Mariko’s age’, who is my aunt and so I suggested she could have been one of Mariko’s school friends who recognised Obaachan and thought to buy the old women some tea.
‘I’ve kept the empty bottle on the table. To not forget it happened. It was an odd thing to happen.’ And so we mulled it over and passed it off as random kindness. I think of her in Japan and make sure to call next week.