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Saturday, Feb. 9, 2002


Ueda-san: busy staying home no more

On our island, the passage of time is measured in lives. With the passing away of my neighbor Ueda-san, I feel like a part of Japan has gone with her.

Ueda-san was often sitting outside in the early mornings, peeling shrimp out of a large bucket that the fisherman had just brought in. I'd rush past her in my high heels to catch the ferry, yelling over my shoulder, "Please take care of my cat while I'm gone!" It seemed like she was always taking care of my cat and that I was always gone. But this time, I'm not the one who is gone.

Ueda-san's generation represented old Japan, a time when everyone was busy staying home. At 78, she still tilled her garden by hand and used her own compost as fertilizer. She worked in her garden every morning, and in the afternoons brought wheelbarrows full of vegetables back home -- even though no one else was still living at home to eat them.

Just last week I had visited her in a hospice, bringing wildflowers to remind her of those blooming in her garden. She lay in bed, decked out in Hello Kitty comfort: pillows, blankets and quilts. In the West, we bring in the priest when someone is about to die. In Japan, they bring in Hello Kitty.

A few days later, her daughter-in-law (with whom it was said she had never had an argument) made phone calls to relatives and friends. When I received the call, I was off the island. "She died at 4:08 this morning," Kazuko said.

By the time I arrived home on the 12:40 ferry, the island people, busy staying home, had already finished the first round of prayers before the funeral. I was ushered into a room beautifully decorated in white and black, with large bouquets of flowers from friends and family. Ueda-san lay in a futon on the floor, her face covered with a square white cloth.

The island's old ladies, so comfortable around the dead, sat on the tatami mat next to Ueda-san, talking as if she wasn't there. They showed no emotion. They were merely doing what they had been doing for years, sending their friends off in the proper way.

I, not so used to death, was afraid to look at Ueda-san's face. But when they removed the cloth, she looked beautiful and at peace. They helped me light an incense stick, place it on the mantle above her head and with chopsticks, feed her water from a leaf.

The funeral should have been the following day, Sunday. But that day, according to the Chinese calendar, was "tomobiki." Once something is started on a tomobiki day, it is said that things will continue in that direction. If there is a funeral, someone else might be pulled into death. So the funeral was set for Monday, when I had to work. That Monday, as I gave final exams to university students, I longed to be busy staying home.

The following Sunday, I went for "kanki," prayers. The same old ladies were there, this time gathered around a picture of Ueda-san. We chanted sutras, and the ladies served tea and sweets to all the guests. Upon parting, everyone received a bag containing sugar, cooking oil and tissues, a token of appreciation for the envelopes of money we had brought, each containing 5,000 yen to 200,000 yen.

Now that Ueda-san is gone, there will be no one busy at home. I'll have to remember to bring in my laundry when it rains and I'll have to empty my own compost. My plants will die without her magic touch (water), and my house may vanish now that there's no one to watch it while I'm gone. And my cat? She'll be busy staying home.

Even now, I sometimes hear Ueda-san's old rotary phone ringing next door. No one is home to answer it. It just rings on and on, ringing for a part of Japan that is gone.

E-mail: amychavez2000@yahoo.com Web page: www.amychavez.com

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