This is my mother-in-law’s kitchen. The table is covered in clear plastic. There’s a framed crossword puzzle on the wall. The wallpaper has never been changed. The ceiling is dingy white plastic. The florescent light is very bright. There’s a map of the neighborhood and names of households and a plastic whistle hangs nearby, probably from the days long ago when Sam’s parents had to do some sort of community activity. I miss how in Kanazawa the neighbors took turns walking around in the evening clapping wooden sticks together to remind people to, I don’t know, make sure things were all turned off in the kitchen, to prevent fires. That is a very Japanese sound, like the sweet potato truck and the tofu seller’s whistle.
The bookcase contains Sam’s father’s books about plants and bonsai and Japanese history, and his mother’s karaoke tapes. A picture of the grandchildren rests on top. Above the telephone is a mess of pens, pencils, markers, scissors, rulers, erasers, a couple of fans. On the table is Sam’s mother’s box of calcium supplements. She’s still in the hospital with a bad back. She took to sitting with a rubber ball against her back, it helps her to sit up straight. Her apron is slung over her chair. This is where she spends most of her time. She sits in the kitchen practicing her karaoke with a tape recorder or watching TV. On windy days the old weather vane outside squeaks as it turns. Meals are eaten at the same time every day, the correct times. The rice and miso soup are made in the morning, rice kept warm in the rice cooker and soup left all day in its pan to be reheated. A fish is grilled for lunch. Hot water waits in the thermos for tea. Dishes are washed and dried and put away immediately. Every surface is wiped clean and dry. She wears her apron all day. This is the center of the world, the navel, her home.
Sam doesn’t lift a finger in the kitchen, he’s an honored guest. We women jump to serve him, up out of our chair, back down, up again. Even if we have bad backs and arthritic knees and move with the swiftness of an Alpine glacier, this is our job, we are women, this is our duty and our pleasure. More rice? A jar of nori for your rice? Time to heat up the soup yet? There are some pickles in the fridge if you want any, would you like some shaved fish on top of that? Another beer? Why, certainly I will wash off (thoroughly!) the piece of cucumber you have dropped on the floor. Here, let me take away this empty plate, lest it hinder your majesty’s access to the sashimi. After a day of this I want to kick Sam’s big flat head over and over and over and over.
When I put my own food in the refrigerator, when I take over the kitchen to cook, even when the mother-in-law has requested that I cook, I feel like I’m intruding, invading. It feels more intimate than the bedroom. I’m nervous about leaving greasy fingerprints on the fridge door, of neglecting to wipe up splashed water, of misplacing something. When I wash the dishes, she rewashes them after Sam and I leave the kitchen to do something else. When we have barbecues in the garden, we put the picnic table and grill close to the house so she can sit on the floor of the kitchen and eat. She doesn’t like to go outside. Animals eat outside, not people.
When I get back home to Nagoya on Sunday afternoons, it’s a great pleasure to slip back into my own kitchen and begin to make dinner. My messy kitchen. I look outside at the bamboo grove, the busy bus terminal, the other houses and feel happy.
From Rebecca Otowa’s At Home in Japan:
“The kitchen is the most emotionally charged room in the house for a Japanese wife. It’s her workplace, her arena, her sphere of creativity, her classroom. Here is where she stands at the sink, with a child leaning against her watching her chop vegetables. Here is where she washes dishes through a blur of tears after being scolded by her mother-in-law. Here is where she breathlessly arranges her piece de resistance on a beautiful serving dish before carrying it out for all to enjoy. And here is where she sits, a cup of tea before her, listening to the sound of guests in the from room who are due to leave soon, and will need to be bowed out.
“The kitchen is not a place for outsiders, not even the men of the family. In one of our more memorable arguments, my mother-in-law said it made her sick to her stomach to see my husband, or my two sons, Goke and Yuki, working in the kitchen. Since I had no daughter, it was up to me to perform the kitchen tasks singlehanded. As I ploughed through the daily round, I often thought of my dad, who regularly washed the dishes and often cooked, and wondered how my sons would take care of themselves when they went out into the world.”