Monday, 7 May 2007

The Snobbish Mommy

When my husband and I moved to Japan with our baby, we ended up in a dilapidated house in the suburbs of Tokyo. We told ourselves it was for the best: you don't want to raise a toddler in a place where the floors are all unscarred blonde wood and none of the paper-paneled shoji doors have holes in them yet. A house with cigarette burns on the tatami mats, kerosene smoke-stained crumbling plaster walls and a tin-roofed gravel shed for the washing machine, we told each other, was actually ideal for raising a kid.

Every day we could hear the people from the nearby apartment house passing on their way to and from the station. Almost all of them were like us, parents with young children, and in a few months we had gotten to know a number of them from our trips to the park, grocery store, and local pediatrician.

Most of us mothers, whether we worked or stayed at home, tended to dress alike. Although some of the working and stay-at-home moms did go to the trouble of putting on panty hose and skirts, they were exceptions in our part of the neighborhood. For most of us, our days of suits, heels, and sleek leather briefcases were over and we favored interlock, polyester and comfortable shoes. That was okay, though: we had no pretensions. After all, it was silly to go to all the trouble of dressing up every day when you were just going to get spat-up milk on your shoulders and oatmeal on the hems of your skirts. The Snobbish Mommy, however, was different.

At first I assumed she was unfriendly to me because our house was so shabby and she and her family lived in a fancier apartment building. Then I wondered if it might not be because I was foreign. Most of the other mothers had gotten over their initial reserve and gotten to know me, but some people tended to be a little cool to foreigners.

Although I called her the Snobbish Mommy, she wasn't so much snobbish as she was indifferent, rarely returning greetings or smiles. And she wasn't indifferent to everybody, to be perfectly honest -- she always returned my husband's greetings, for instance -- she was just mildly cool to all of us other mothers. The Snobbish Mommy was always impeccably turned out in tailored suits, heels, and perfectly straightened hair. She was pretty, and she used make-up to good effect. I am sorry to say that a few of us took a dislike to her.

Katayama-san frowned as the Snobbish Mommy waltzed past us one morning, dressed to the nines as usual. Katayama-san lived in a track suit and her hair was never out of a ponytail. "Jeesh! Did you see her latest suit? Bottle green, not a speck on it. And she's never worn those shoes before, either!"

Morie-san nodded. "She never says hello to me. I live just opposite her, and the only time she's ever greeted me was once when I made a big point of saying good morning to her. Now I just can't be bothered."

I had to put my own two cents' worth in, of course. "She always says hello to my husband, but never to me!"

"Some women are just like that. They have no time for other women. I feel sorry for her kids."

In fact, the Snobbish Mommy seemed to take very good care of her two children. Whenever they walked past our house I could hear them; her voice was always low and gentle and she obviously listened to what they had to say. But I felt so irritated with her that I didn't bother to mention this. "I feel sorry for them too," I said. In a way I did. All of us other mothers networked with each other. Even I, a foreigner, networked. The Snobbish Mommy was a loner. Her children were bound to lose out, given that.

Not long before we left Japan, I saw the Snobbish Mommy in the local pay phone half a dozen times and I wondered if she might be having an affair. Her husband was an exhausted-looking man some years older than her. He always looked very serious and unhappy; given her beauty and style and her husband's generally dour expression, it was easy to imagine that she might be having a fling.

One morning, as the Snobbish Mommy passed a little group of us, one of the other mothers nudged me. "Have you heard?" she asked as soon as the Snobbish Mommy was out of earshot.

"Have I heard what?"

"Her husband died. Cancer, they say it was. He's had it for years, apparently. Went into remission for a while, then it came back. Poor woman."

I will never know whether the Snobbish Mommy was so aloof because she knew that her husband was dying and didn't want others to know, or whether she was just the sort of woman who didn't make friends easily. But I do know that I never once saw her chatting with another woman. At school functions, she always sat by herself and walked home on her own. You never saw her in any of the coffee shops on the last day of school when most of the other mothers got together, and she tended to sit by herself at the park when she went to watch her children play.

And to this day, I wish I'd seen past her aloofness and made at least one effort to get to know her.


Kanani said...

That's a very good story, and a lesson as well.

I think that some people are so afraid of what others will think of them, that they just won't link in. Maybe she had some bad experiences in her lifetime with female friendships, or relationships in general.
Perhaps the only time she got attention was from men, and so her willingness to say hi to your husband and not to you, to her, seemed natural.

Anyway, there's a good lesson. Saying hello costs nothing. Even if it's not returned, at least you've said it.

Mary Witzl said...

I tend to get along better with women than I do with men, possibly because I was close to my mother and have two sisters but no brothers, so it is hard for me to understand women who are more comfortable with men than with women. This woman was always so perfectly groomed and flawlessly made up that she struck us as a woman who lives to make herself an icon for men to worship; a mother, but one who managed to make all of us plain old mortals feel inferior.

In fact, I think she'd probably have blown me off if I had made a point of trying to get to know her, but I still wish I'd tried.

Eryl Shields said...

I am snobbish mommy! without the suits and heels. It comes from shyness. It takes several 'hellos' for me to be able to say it first, I always worry that I won't be remembered. Actually I'm much better now, but I remember the agony of being the only mother in the playground on her own. Wondering how all the other mothers got to know each other. My break finally came when one of Bob's class-mates 'borrowed' his favourite toy car and Bob insisted on tailing him all the way home. And, fortunately, Stevie had decided to leave work early and met us half-way. He then spoke to the child's mother and we became friends. She knew everyone and so introduced me. We've been friends ever since.

I suspect that your snobbish mommy wore stylish clothes in an attempt to make herself look more interesting. Hoping that that would make people talk to her. Crikey, hope that hasn't made you feel bad. We can all learn from our mistakes so making them can be a good thing.

eg(scotland) said...

That's a difficult situation and often it's only with hindsight that we really wish we'd made more effort. Maybe if she'd just given you a little something - a smile or an acknowledgement of some sort then it might have given you an in. But she didn't, so you shouldn't be too hard on yourself.


Brian said...

I grin , or nod , and say hello to all passers by -- or to all I myself am passing by. Rarely get a brush off-- be the recipient of my inanity Asian , Oz , generally European or whatever . Maybe I look harmless .

I do remember the absolute shit of a Principal of the college I was working at snapping at me once when I greeted him in passing -- but as I said , he was a real shit anyway .

And I got my own back , vengeful sod that I am , in other ways .

Fun it was , too


Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- I've been in Snobbish Mommy's situation, too, and you are right: when you are shy, it can be so hard to fit in that you come off as looking aloof and stand-offish. I now can see that this might have been the situation with the Snobbish Mommy. There was another mother in the area who really was pathologically shy, as was her husband, but she wore Peter Pan collars and schoolgirl skirts, so we judged her less harshly. Having children is usually one way to fit in as it automatically gives you a common focus, but it didn't work for this mother. And there is nothing like hindsight for helping you see a situation more clearly.

EG -- Where I live now there is a mother who won't mix or talk with the other mothers at all. In fact, she seems to prefer it that way, so I've left her be, but I know that at least I've made an effort. And if she ever does want to talk to me, I'm game. I think what makes me feel the saddest about Snobbish Mommy is that once her reputation as an unfriendly person was established, she couldn't break out of it.

Brian -- Ooh, you've just given me another idea for a blog entry! I'll have to change the man's name, of course, and hope that he doesn't get any better at English than he used to be...

I like the idea of greeting all and sundry in a friendly manner. In Japan, the schools try to instill this in kids by putting up posters that read "LET'S GREET EVERYONE!" and "BE FRIENDLY AND SAY HELLO." I never used to see the point of this, but it is surprising just what a difference it makes to pass a friendly, cheerful child in the street. In fact, it can be almost surreal...

Carole said...

Heart wrenching. Hard to connect with Snobbish mom, yet we all want to. We all want to find a good reason for her behavior. Perhaps because we want others to see our idiosynchrasies with sympanthy. And perhaps she was just snobbish. Good thought provoking post.

Mary Witzl said...

I certainly hope people will look on my idiosyncrasies with sympathy, as I've got a fair number of them. I used to be at pains to hide them, but the older I get the less inclined I am to do so. And the more inclined I am to appreciate other people for theirs, too. Like the little old lady who talks to her dog (I can hear her when I'm working in my garden) or the man who never matches his socks (what a great idea, and think of all the time he saves!), -- or your brother and his hat collection, for that matter! When I was younger, I might not have been so understanding about people and their odd habits; now I look at these people and say to myself that if they can do things like that, so can I.

Kim Ayres said...

I'll smile a friendly smile at anyone who looks at me, although with the missing tooth these days, it could be perceived as a bit threatening...

Mary Witzl said...

I think your tooth would only look threatening if you affected a particularly ignorant drawl, or perhaps if you left on the eye patch and kerchief and made a lot of references to nubile young maidens and grog...