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Kuniko Katz's essays, articles and letters to the editors

Empty nest:
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 left home.

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.”

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