Kuniko Katz's essays,
articles and letters to the editors
Scarsdale Inquirer, April 17, 1997
Our daughter is leaving for college next week. She is so excited about her
new life that there is not even a touch of melancholy in her voice when she
talks about leaving home. “Sweet heart,” I asked her jokingly when she was
packing, “how can I live without you?” She rolled her eyes up as if to say
here we go again.
“I know I’m so irresistible,” she said nonchalantly, “but you’ll just have
to get used to it.” It seemed just like yesterday that I asked the same
question when she started nursery school and I asked the same question. She
hugged me tightly and told me with a concerned look, “Mommy, don’t worry.
I’ll be back.” When the class was over, she came running toward me with a
huge smile and said to me gently, “See, Mommy, I’m here. You didn’t have to
worry about me.”
Now at the sophisticated age of eighteen, she has no such compassion. So
eager to move on, she doesn’t seem to realize how her mother feels watching
her packing. Standing next to her, I couldn’t help but remember the time I
When I told my mother that I was leaving home right after graduating from
junior high school, she didn’t believe me at first.
“Stop talking such nonsense,” she said picking up a salted mackerel from
her plate with her chopsticks. “Eat your supper. You 're not eating
anything.” She pointed at my plate. There was a bowl of rice, a mackerel and
a few pieces of pickles on my side of the table. “Eat while the rice is
hot.” Mother urged me again, but I had no appetite that evening. "I’m not
joking Mommy,” I told her meekly. “I discussed this with Mr. Nishimura
today. He said he will talk to you if you like.”
“Oh, you’ve discussed your future with your teacher before even informing
your own mother, have you?” She put her chopsticks gruffly on the table and
said to me, “What kind of a mother am I to have a child who talks about such
an important matter with a stranger first.” Then with a big deliberate
sigh, she poured green tea into her tea cup and sipped it noisily.
“But Mommy, Mr. Nishimura is not a stranger,” I protested. “You know he’s a
nice teacher. The hospital in Nagoya he recommended sounds so good I really
want to go.
“You can’t go to Nagoya,” Mother said shaking her head violently, “or any
place for that matter. My, you are nothing but a child! How could anyone
even suggest a young one like you leave home!” I knew by the tone of her
voice, Mother was now angry at Mr. Nishimura, too.
“Don’t blame Mr. Nishimura‚” I begged her. “He’s just helping me. I’m the
one who wants to go. Besides, I’m not a child anymore. Don’t you know I’m
fifteen years old now.”
“ I know how old you are!” Mother shouted. Then her face became distorted
and I saw tears fill her eyes. “You are still a child to me!” she said
wiping her tears with her hand.
“But do you know why I want to go to Nagoya?” I interrupted her quickly. I
didn’t want to see her crying face. “Because the hospital there will pay me
three thousand yen a month! Can you believe it? Not only that, it will let
me go to an evening high school and a college!” I spoke to her as
enthusiastically as possible, “When I get my money, I can send you a lot so
you don’t have to work so hard anymore. You will probably be able to afford
a much nicer place.” I smiled at Mother proudly and looked around the room.
We were sitting in a tiny tatami room, about 12 by 9 feet, that contained
almost no furniture except a family altar and few beaten up old dressers and
cabinets for dishes. There was no TV, no telephone, no refrigerator. The
only electric appliances we had were a radio that constantly crackled and a
bare light bulb hanging down from the ceiling by its wire.
The room was our living room during the day, our dining room when we ate,
and by spreading the futon, it became our bedroom at night. There was a
small kitchen area on the dirt floor next to the entrance. For cooking and
drinking, water had to be carried in a bucket from the well that was located
behind the house. Several neighbors whose houses surrounded the well shared
the water. At the well, we also did the laundry by kneeling down and
scrubbing the clothes on a washboard.
An outhouse, located on the opposite side of the well, was also shared by a
few neighbors. We all knew who spent the longest time there, since there
were only two stools and one urinal for all the people. Every two weeks or
so, a farmer came to pick up our waste in a dung cart. The whole
neighborhood stank when the waste was thrown into the “honey bucket” and the
odor was particularly offensive during the hot summer.
We lived there ever since our original house was burned down by fire caused
by B29s in 1945. Mother, who became a widow shortly after the war, couldn’t
afford a better house no matter how hard she worked. Until my sister and
brother left when they started working in a nearby town, four of us huddled
together in this tiny house with very little money.
“Mommy, I promise. I’ll send you lots of money,” I told Mother again. The
prospect of leaving and earning money gave me an overwhelming excitement.
“Who said I need your money?” Mother wasn’t impressed and sneered at me. She
sounded a bit insulted at my suggestion. “Before you think such nonsense,
think about finishing high school here.” she said angrily.
What is she talking about? I wondered. To go to high school meant that we
had to pay tuition for the next three years.
“We’ll manage it somehow. We always have.” Mother said as if she read my
mind. But I knew it would be an impossible task for her. She’d been working
so hard just to make ends meet, there was no way for me to let her work
harder. That was why I asked Mr. Nishimura, my homeroom teacher, to find me
a job. I told him that I wanted to leave my hometown, too. Knowing that I
was the only one among my friends who couldn’t go to high school, I couldn't
bear the thought of seeing them in their high school uniforms. I wanted to
be far away from them. It didn’t matter where I went. It didn’t really
matter how much money I made. I just wanted to leave home.
After a moment of hesitation, I took a deep breath and said to Mother, “I’m
sorry, Mommy, but I have already made up my mind. I’m leaving.”
“So,” Mother screamed. “you are not asking me if you can leave home or not
but telling me, aren’t you? Who am I? Doesn’t Mother have any saying in this
matter?” Her voice became louder and louder and cracked with emotion. “No,
no, you can’t go. You are too young to go to such a big city alone.”
Afterwards, I had to endure a few more days of Mother’s anger and nagging.
Finally she realized that no matter what she said or did, I wouldn’t change
my mind. She said with tears streaming down her cheeks, “Oh, what is the
world coming to? My own child won’t listen to me anymore.”
Unlike my husband and I, who went to see many colleges and universities with
our daughter before she decided on one of them, Mother had no idea about the
place where I was going, for she’d never left our home town. Nagoya, which
was then about eighteen hours away by train, was a completely unknown city
for her. Now that our daughter is leaving, I understand more than ever how
awful she must have felt when she realized she had no choice but to let me
go. Even though our situations are completely different, I can certainly
share her anxiety. I wish I could tell her that but I can’t. She died
eighteen years ago, a few months before our daughter was born.
Maybe someday, our daughter will realize how I feel now. She may ask me when
her kids leave home, “Mom, was I that cool when I left ?” Then I
will probably chuckle with the thought that we are finally sharing
“separation anxiety” with each other, and say to her, “Uh huh, you were.”