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Saturday, Feb. 14, 2004

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Hi-yo, 'silver'! Home helpers to the rescue!


Most men have but one woman in their lives, yet I am an exception. For I have oodles of women. Right here at my house.

And these numbers do not include family members such as my wife and her mother, nor the most demanding female I know -- my dog, Tofu.

Who are these women? Beats me. I can only recall the names of one or two. The rest are just a blur of black hair and brown sugar eyes. When I return home and tug open the door, I have no idea what female face will wait there to greet me.

Something tells me I should explain. Like in many a twisted home, the twister is my mother-in-law.

Not that she can help it. Deep in her "silver" years, my wife's mom has lost most movement in her legs. All day she does nothing but recline on pillows, watch TV and . . . well, that's it.

Now, no one wishes to be in such a situation, and neither does she. Yet she refuses to do what, say, Tofu does all the time -- yip and yap for attention. Instead, she bears her condition as well as anyone could ask.

But attention is what she needs. With my wife and I both working and our sons away to college, this has wrenched up the pressure on our daily life.

Enter the government to the rescue. With its population wrinkling up like pickles in the sun, the Japanese government has established Nursing Insurance, which provides various forms of care to families living with the elderly. Much of the service hinges around "home helpers," women who enter our home and meet my mother-in-law's needs of meals and diaper changes.

So those are my gals. One or two breeze into our house almost every day. I bump upon them in the kitchen, in the hall and in our "genkan" -- young housewives with looped earrings, salty-haired grandmas in crisp bandannas -- some short, some round, some tall, some thin, some smiling like sliced melons, others as silent as shadows.

Yet, all share two features. First, they each have the rolled-sleeved spirit necessary for their demanding job. Second, none of them, in their wildest dreams, ever imagined they would one day be working in the residence of a foreigner.

A new home helper's first day goes like this. The woman slips through our door with her eyes shimmering like those of a schoolgirl out for autographs, as if she expected some other Tom -- perhaps Cruise or Hanks -- to come thumping down the stairs. Next, she blinks her way about as if touring a museum from Mars. You can almost hear her think.

"So . . . this is how 'gaijin' men keep their clothing -- draped over everything. This is how they dump their dishes in the sink. And this is how they wad papers and almost get them in the wastebasket. Fascinating . . ."

Fascinating, that is, until she realizes it's not at all different from her own boyfriend, husband, son. Then the blush is off the rose. Most home helpers are all business and -- at the same time -- all heart.

I have come to nickname the various ladies who show up the most frequently and hence add their own special flavoring to our mixed soup household. First is . . .

THE DRILL SERGEANT: The Drill Sergeant is a woman who marches about our house as if on military parade. Each time her heel strikes the floor, the entire house reverberates.

The Drill Sergeant is also obsessed with cleanliness. She extends her job description and washes every dish in our house -- even if they're not dirty. She then scrubs the floors, the walls, the windows, the bottom of table legs.

If I come home when the Drill Sergeant's on duty, I mouse off and hide in my room.

Unless, that is, she calls me out.

"Sir! Look at this! LOOK AT THIS!"

She shows me a white glove and almost sticks it in my eye until I can see the smear of dirt on her finger.

"I found this on top of the room heater! This filth was only 3.27 meters from the bed of an invalid!"

So I stutter my apologies and then drop and give her 20 pushups.

THE WEATHER LADY: The Weather Lady insists on speaking English with me. The problem is her vocabulary is limited to terms dealing with rain or the lack of it.

"Dillon-san," she prances toward me with her elbows tucked in and her hands framing her head like a vaudeville comic. "Today . . . is . . ."

I wait. Her smile quivers and her eyes flutter as her brain loses the word. Meanwhile, the Earth turns.

". . . Cloudy! Isn't it?"

"Why . . ." I glance out the window. "Yes, it is. Thank you."

She prances off with her hands still at her head. In a few minutes, she prances back.

"But . . . tomorrow . . . may . . . be . . . fine."

Yes, I tell her. That's what tomorrows are for. She doesn't get it and dives for a dictionary. At which point, I slide quietly away.

THE SINGER: The Singer believes music is the best therapy. So she sings. Not hums, sings. And not just bits of songs -- full-bloomed, five-star productions.

The Singer, you see, has this theory that if she can get my mother-in-law to sing along, mom's legs will somehow heal and she'll be able to walk again.

"Sing with me! C'mon now! Belt it out! SAKURA! SAKURA!"

It almost works -- for my wife's mom seems ready to leap from her bed and sprint for the door. But she's trapped, and there is nothing in the world like a captive audience.

The Singer's alto vibrates the windows. "SAKURA! SAKURA!"

Out in the yard, then, Tofu howls and howls.

Such are the women in my life. Warm and wacky home helpers. May God bless them every one.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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