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Saturday, Jan. 3, 2004

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A long walk home with an 'o-baa-chan'


"O-baa-chans" in Japan never fail to surprise me. They are treasure houses of information. The other day, I saw 83-year-old Harada-san on the ferry as we were both coming home to the island. Harada-san and I are distant neighbors the way people are distant cousins. We don't see each other often, but when we do, we feel very familiar.

"Where have you been?" I ask her.

"I've been visiting my son in Fukuyama for 10 days," she says. "The city is so convenient."

Fukuyama is only three train stops from the mainland port, but compared to our tiny island, it may as well be an entire nation.

"I'm not an island person," she continues. "I wasn't born here. I never thought I'd end up living here." Harada-san came to this island the way many of the women did in her day: as brides. She married a fisherman who lived here.

I offer to carry Harada-san's bags, but in true o-baa-chan style, she declines any assistance.

"Are you walking all the way home?" I ask. She lives on the other side of the port behind my house. It's not far, unless you're 83 years old. "Would you like to ride my bicycle home?" I offer.

"Oh, no. I can't ride a bicycle. I tried once, but my husband got angry. That was a long time ago, you know, when women didn't ride bicycles." It had never occurred to me that there had ever been such a time.

I walk alongside her, pushing my bicycle, and this time insist on putting her bags in my basket while she continues talking about Fukuyama as if it were an exotic foreign locale. Just to our left, I see that a fisherman has set up shop on his boat. He deftly plucks the fish from a net attached to the side of the boat and makes a slit behind the gills with a knife. Blood drips from the knife. O-baa-chans are lined up holding plastic bags. They pay for their fish with 1,000 yen notes and receive change in bloodied 100 yen coins.

As we pass the public hall, halfway around the port, koto music drifts out of the open windows. O-baa-chan carts are lined up outside. "O-kaerinasai!" yells another o-baa-chan, riding past us on her new Suzuki motor-powered o-baa-chan cart.

"Did you go to 'hatsumode' this year?" I ask her.

"Oh no, I don't go to hatsumode anymore. It's not like it used to be, when everyone dressed in their best kimono for the first visit to the shrine in the new year. The men went on New Year's Day and the women went the next day."

When we finally approach my house, 20 minutes has passed -- a walk that usually takes me just five minutes. "Oh, here is fine," she says, indicating that she'll take her bags from my basket now.

"No, no," I insist, "I'll walk you home." I'm enjoying our walk. I'm treasuring our time together, because I know these moments won't last forever.

We pass Harada-san's vegetable garden, and she points with an open hand to the cabbage, "daikon" and onions she is growing. She has planted enough vegetables to feed her entire family, even though no one lives at home anymore.

When we reach her house, she pushes open the front door that has been unlocked for 10 days. From the "genkan," I can see inside her house -- pictures of the Emperor and Empress still gracing the walls next to a hologram picture of Snoopy and Woodstock.

Harada-san thanks me and gives me a bag of onions from her garden. I hesitate just enough to be polite, then accept them. But I'm the one who should be thanking her -- for being my grandmother for a day.

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


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