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Slices from Life

Serve the People

By Danielle Legault Kurihara

My father-in-law’s passing, when I was pregnant with his grandson, served as a sort of personal consecration. The Japanese family entrusted me with tasks and responsibilities from the moment of his death to the moment, three days later, when we picked his bones out of the ashes. All differences of nationality and religion flew out of the window.

Being married to the third son of a Japanese family, you could say I’m very low on the totem pole. When my mother-in-law married the eldest son of this clan in 1947, she had prestige but she lived to serve. She gained some measure of glory by giving birth to all those boys in the tatami room, but she was still the last one to use the bath water after her parents-in-law, her husband and her three young sons had soaked in it. She laughs about it now but when I asked her about Great-Grandma’s antique hand-painted silk kimonos, she said she made a big bonfire in the garden after her death and burned them all.

We got the call in the middle of the night. Otoosan had passed. As soon as my mother-in-law stepped into her husband’s room at the Veterans Hospital, or Veteru as it is called in Japan, she put everybody to work. His body had to be washed and his face shaved. My husband took me to the other side of the curtain and offered a chair. “You don’t have to do this”, he said. I could hear my mother-in-law instructing her sons. They worked in silence. I sat in the dark.

Otoosan, an architect, a father of three sons and a former soldier and prisoner of war, lived the final years of his long life in the Veteran Hospital. I had only met him once before in his home where he was spending the day as an outpatient. This man, whose powerful physique held memories of a four dan black belt judoka, was strapped in a chair, being fed by his wife. My husband said in a loud voice: “Otoosan, this is my wife. She’s Canadian”. He looked up, showed no reaction on seeing my Caucasian face and the family giggled: all in a day’s work. His son, a three dan black belt himself like a chip off the old block, took over feeding his Otoosan spoonfuls of lukewarm miso soup, their knees touching, their eyes meeting.

First Task

For my first task, after the family finished taking care of Otoosan, I was asked to sit at his bedside and wait with him while the family filled out paperwork in the office. Before leaving, my mother-in-law turned to me and said gently, “He should not be alone, you understand”. They left in the wake of two black clad white-gloved funeral employees who had appeared on cue from the shadows. There we were together, and it seemed like a moment to reacquaint myself with Otoosan, now wrapped in a pristine white sheet, only his tranquil face showing. I stared at him for a long time and finally whispered domo. It can mean hello or thank you or a mix of both. I read once that this greeting was used during the Edo Period to express a feeling of confusion or unsureness about the person one was addressing.

Second Task

For my second task, to my great surprise, my mother-in-law asked me to accompany Otoosan in the van transporting him to the family home while the others went to the funeral support company. Why me, the foreign wife married to the third son?  But everybody had a part to play in this family event and at that moment, the responsibility fell to me. I climbed into the white van to do my job.

My father-in-law and I could never have imagined making this trip together. Not in our wildest dreams. Not only were we practically strangers to each other, but we came from vastly different worlds, him an elderly Japanese man and me, a thirty-something pregnant French-Canadian. Together we crisscrossed the empty streets in the cold white van, side-by-side, his body wrapped in a shroud on a futon near me. In winter, three am is a dark and deep hour but I was told Otoosan was still here among us, in the realm between two worlds. He had just begun his last pilgrimage. Knowing this, I somewhat felt less forlorn traveling through the winter night, so far away from my country and my own cultural bearings. But that’s beside the point. I had a responsibility to fulfill.

Third Task

The porch light was on, the house already wrapped in black and white stripped cloth swaying in the dark as Otoosan was carried inside his home through the front door. He was laid to rest on a futon in the tatami room, two decorative lanterns like fancy bookends framing his bed. A black-and-white photo of Otoosan looking strong and serious sat in the middle of an altar among candles, chrysanthemums and fruit. In the pale yellow light of the lanterns, we dressed him in his white pilgrim garb for his 49-day journey to the Pure Land, following a hierarchical order. His wife put a white cap on his head and rice in the small pouch hanging from his neck, his sons smoothed out the white coat folded in reverse, and I slid, as best as I could while kneeling on the tatami, white cloth slippers over his feet. This was my third and last task of the night. The wake would start tomorrow. My husband, looking sad and exhausted, said, “We will sleep here next to him. Go home to get some rest.”

Fourth Task

The next day I stepped over the rows of slippers now crowding the spotless entrance step of the family home like a military parade. My mother-in-law, in her formal black silk kimono stamped with the family crest on the back collar, glided between the tatami room and the adjoining kitchen on her blinding white tabi socks. A diminutive powerhouse, married to an eldest son. I looked down at my rather homely nondescript black maternity dress.

For my fourth task, she directed me to take down from the cupboards the fancy sets of dessert dishes and tea cups, wash them thoroughly, dry them rigorously and set them out on the table. “Don’t break anything!” she chided with a smile in her eyes. I also had to wipe clean the large decades-old bone china serving platters and stack them with oranges, the locally-grown fruit. I took a certain pleasure in displaying them in a Jackson Pollock style. One way or the other, I knew they would be rearranged.

Early evening, relatives and acquaintances arrived in black suits and dresses to whisper condolences to my mother-in-law who bowed deeply to each guest. The mourners filled the tatami room, all sitting seiza before Otoosan. Leaning in, they greeted each other quietly.

Suddenly there was a commotion. The priest strode in like the phantom of the opera, his magnificent black kimono robes and glitteringvestment swooshing around him. We snapped to attention, backs straight, holding our Buddhist rosaries between clasped hands.  He greeted us, kneeled in front of Otoosan and started chanting in a loud sonorous voice. I was sitting on a stool in the back. I could never sit seiza and being pregnant did not help my cause.

It seemed like the chanting lasted forever. Just as I started dozing off in the stuffy incense-filled tatami room, my husband began to heave. I realized with horror that he was trying to suppress what looked like a maniacal laugh. Eyes staring ahead, his mouth half-closed, he repeated several times in a strained voice, “Snoopy, look, Snoopy!”. From the ceiling lamp a small plastic Snoopy wearing a red fireman hat was dangling from a string just above the bald head of an old uncle. My husband left the room to bawl in the bathroom. I sat on my stool thinking about the Japanese character in the movie Snow Falling on Cedars, how his stereotyped stoic face had changed his fate.

Fifth Task

After the service I strolled into the kitchen to get a drink. There stood one of the elder female relatives, erect in her black kimono. She had now officially taken over duties while my mother-in-law was busy chatting with the guests. I had met her only once and this time she looked at me with what seemed like shiny panther eyes, ready to pounce. In a flash I was thrown into the deepest end of the hierarchical senior-junior relationship: Cinderella, the wife of the youngest son. Serve more tea! Boil more water! Offer sweets! Wash these dirty cups! I was learning humility on the spot, my only stunned response being a weak Hai! I began shuffling around in my black stockings, looking busy and alarmed, set on doing my duty.   A Mao slogan popped into my head: Serve the People, for I was living a cultural revolution of my own. I just could not imagine this scenario happening in my country.

The wake lasted two more days. People came and went, and we ate our meals together just two meters away from Otoosan. We re-arranged flowers, sat near him and chatted. He was never alone. Some family members talked to him. On the morning of the fourth day, the family lined up from the house to the hearse. Otoosan exited his home feet last to the mournful sound of the car horn. No birds, no wind.

For the ceremony at the large funeral hall, the priest recited the sutras in front of Otoosan’s photo and a magnificent flower display. So many mourners, in slippers, paid their respect with incense and prayers at Otoosan’s casket. Each person brought incense grains three times to their forehead before finally depositing them in the incense burner. After the eldest son gave the customary speech, we lined up in order of importance to receive condolences. I was last of course but wholeheartedly included. “You must be Yoshiro’s wife,” some of Otoosan’s elderly friends exclaimed, naturally mistaking me for the second son’s spouse, the one working abroad. 

We followed the hearse to the crematorium and, huddled together in front of Otoosan, we said goodbye to his earthly envelope before he was sent off for cremation. In the meantime, we all gratefully sat down to a feast of large bento lunchboxes filled with rice balls, potato salad, fried chicken and pickles. Relatives from far and near sat close to my mother-in-law, some lay back on the tatami, some loosened their ties and belts and others had loud conversations over the long low tables. I sat on a stool devouring my food. Pregnancy made me hungry.

Sixth Task

Finally, we were called in to pick Otoosan’s bones from the ashes and transfer them to an urn. As he handed me a pair of large chopsticks, my husband said, “You don’t have to do this”. But I wanted to do it. By that time, I had had four days to acquaint myself with Otoosan and with death while going about my tasks in the living family home. The family put Otoosan’s bones in his urn in a matter-of-fact way. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

On the 7th day of his passing, a sunny winter day, we stood in front of the imposing family grave while the eldest son placed Otoosan’s urn alongside those of his forefathers, under the heavy slab of rock at the foot of the stone monument. Only first sons and their wives are included. It looks like my husband and I will have to find our own resting place in Japan. 

I think my mother-in-law worries that her eldest son’s eldest son will not be able to carry on the tradition of caring for the family grave. He doesn’t have a son to continue the lineage, only daughters. But then again, my mother-in-law stoically goes with the flow of life and change. I was part of this flow. Twenty-three years after Otoosan passed on, she apologised for imposing on me the task of riding with him from the hospital to the family home. On the contrary, it was an honour.

I fulfilled my role as the third son’s wife the best I could to assist the Japanese family mourn Otoosan. On my next trip to the home country, it wouldn’t kill me to brush leaves or snow off the headstones of my loved ones, bring flowers or have a look at their urns through the glass. I might linger and tell them about me, my son, the Japanese family. I also need to discuss my resting place among them. Who knows, maybe my husband and my son will come from Japan to help me.

Glossary

Sieza – formal Japanese sitting posture (on your knees)

Hai—Yes in Japanese.

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Danielle Legault Kurihara, a Quebecker, lives in Japan. She writes about her expat life and her bicultural son. She writes for him.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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