Tuesday, 12 February 2008

After Midnight in Kawasaki

Long ago in what seems like another lifetime, a friend and I ended up missing the last train from Tokyo to Yokohama. Missing the last train to Yokohama was a specialty of mine; having done this twice in one year, I'd spent much of the evening fussing over the likelihood of doing it again. Now, I was beside myself.

We'd tied one on but good, she and I, but I sobered up fast as I watched her study the train schedule.

"Oh no!" wailed Toyoda-san, confirming my worst fears, "we’ve just missed the last train!"

This was the last thing I wanted to hear. I gritted my teeth and resisted the urge to say I told you so! Because I had.

Toyoda-san stood there for a few moments, her brow knitted, then nodded. "Right. No problem. I know what we’ll do, come on. We’ll have to walk a ways to the next station, but you’re okay with walking, aren’t you?"

I did my best not to sulk. I reasoned that a brisk walk in the night air would take over where the strong coffee had left off: it would sober us up.

When we got to the next station, there was a train already waiting there. "Come on," yelled Toyoda-san, "we’ve got a minute or two before it leaves but I don’t want to take any chances!"

Neither did I. I broke into a clumsy run, cursing my stupid high heels. Once we were on the train, still panting from the run, I commented that I'd never realized the line we were on went all the way to Yokohama.

Toyoda-san looked guilty. "It doesn’t. Not at this hour anyway."

I turned to stare at her. "What?"

"It only goes as far as Kawasaki at this hour."

Kawasaki is closer to Yokohama than Tokyo, but it is a good, long train trip away. It was all I could do not to shout. "So what are we going to do?"

"Relax! You worry too much, Mary! We’ll be fine. We’re staying with someone I know."


"Somebody perfectly nice – don’t worry!"

"Who? Come on, tell me!"

She smiled. "My obaachan, Mary. My grandma."

"You're kidding!"

Toyoda-san gave me a look. "I'm not."

"Please tell me you're kidding!"

"Relax! It’ll be fine."

I could not believe her. I tried – and failed – to picture showing up on my own grandmother’s doorstep unexpected, unannounced, at midnight, drunk, and hoping to spend the night. With a friend. Someone she’d never met before. Who was a foreigner!

"Toyoda-san, I’ve got just enough money for a taxi back to Yokohama. Why don’t you go to your grandmother’s and I’ll – "

"Forget it, Mary – a taxi’ll cost you a bundle!"

She was right, but even parting with a bundle seemed preferable to showing up at a strange grandmother’s house at midnight, still drunk enough that running in a straight line and staying vertical had been a challenge.

As we walked along the street toward her grandmother’s house, I just knew what was going to happen. We would be met at the door by a grumpy, indignant eighty-year-old in a hairnet and pajamas. Who almost certainly remembered her house being fire-bombed by the Allies during the war -- as it had; I'd heard Toyoda-san's stories. She’d be madder than hell to be dragged out of her bed and find us on her doorstep – of course she would. She’d give us a good bawling out then and there. Toyoda-san would be embarrassed, I would be mortified, and the whole situation would be just horrible.

Toyoda-san acted like it was all a real hoot. "She’ll still be up!" she said breezily. "Just you wait and see. She never sleeps, I swear."

I shivered and tried to make myself look as innocent, respectable and contrite as possible. The door opened a crack. I heard an elderly voice. "Hai, donata dessho ka?" Polite language for Who is that? A good start.

Toyoda-san grinned. "It’s me, obaachan! Akiko! And I’ve got a friend with me. We need to crash!"

The door opened wide, letting out a blast of kerosene-scented heat. "Akiko! And a friend! Lovely!" She looked at me with curious eyes.

"She speaks Japanese, Granny. She’s American – her name’s Mary! We work for the same company."

"Well, don’t stand there, then, come on in, the two of you! You’ll be freezing out there! An American, eh? Ha-ha-ha!"

She held the door open for us, and looked me up and down as though I was the most interesting thing she’d seen in ages. "Nice to meet you," she said rather shyly, given that her dentures were probably in a glass next to her bed. I mumbled the same back.

Toyoda-san’s grandmother was easily eighty. Maybe older. But she moved with the grace and energy of a thirty-year-old. "So come on through! Have you eaten? Are you hungry? Wait – I’ll go and put on some tea."

Toyoda-san elbowed me as we were ushered into the warm, well-lit sitting room. "See? What did I tell you?"

I couldn’t answer her. I could have tripped over my jaw, it had dropped that far.

After a few cups of hot tea, Toyoda-san and I climbed into the warm, fluffy futons that her grandmother had put out for us. We slept a good eight hours each and woke up to the smell of roasted fish, miso shiru and rice. After a decent breakfast and a friendly chat – and many expressions of thanks from me – we left.

On the train back to Yokohoma, Toyoda-san yawned and stretched. "See, Mary, what did I tell you? My granny loves having visitors -- even late at night!"

"You really did tell me. But I couldn’t believe you until I’d seen it with my own eyes."

She laughed. "Not all grandmas are like that!" she agreed. "Especially not in Japan! But my granny’s special."

She was absolutely right.

Decades have past since that late-night visit to Toyoda-san's grandmother. I’ve got my own family now, including a couple of teenagers, and although I try, I often feel that I can never live up to her incredible example of hospitality.

Recently we had a post-midnight visit ourselves from a couple of teenagers, friends of our eldest. They'd been to the local festival and foolishly managed to get locked out of their respective houses. Neither of them dared to wake up their own parents, my daughter told me sheepishly; could they please stay at our house overnight?

Bear in mind, I'm not like Toyoda-san's grandma. I'm grumpy and grouchy and even though I may be an insomniac, I still prize what little sleep I can get around here. But such was the power of Grandma Toyoda's kindness and generosity that even after all these years, I could picture her welcoming face, hear her telling us to come on in and get out of the cold.

"Tell them to come on in," I told my daughter, stifling a yawn. "And ask them if they're hungry."



debra said...

What a lovely tribute to a kind woman. It is good to remember folks like that --- their actions and their words---and the spirit behind them.
And when our kids come home late---with or without friends---we can be glad that they feel safe enough to come home.

Eryl Shields said...

The horror of a child not feeling they can go home!

I want to be that sort of granny but I'll make sure all my grand children have keys so they don't have to wake me.

The Anti-Wife said...

Mary, what a wonderful story and a great lesson.

Katie Alender said...

I struggle with hospitality (I think because I'm so territorial), but it's true that even the smallest gestures are so meaningful. Especially when you aren't expecting kindness! What a lovely story.

Charlie said...

Ah, the wisdom of grandmothers--in the case of this story, eighty years of wisdom.

And just think: you're putting that wisdom to work at half (or less) the age of grandma-san.

Mary Witzl said...

Debra -- I ought to start blogging about all the awful people I met at some point -- I can think of dozens! But for some reason, the good ones are more fun to write about lately. What is wrong with me? You are right: it is great to have kids who feel good about coming home -- with or without friends.

Eryl -- As much as I value my sleep, I am glad that my kids would wake me up rather than neglect to come home for fear of making me angry. They know I value their safety even more than a good night's sleep. Yes: the best of both worlds would be kids who tiptoed around late at night -- with their own sets of keys. But then I also want World Peace.

Anti-wife -- Thank you. I do worry that I'm getting a little too gooey here, blogging about only good people. Pretty soon I'll run out and have to start blogging about all the jerks I've known over the years. Boy, that'll keep me going for ages!

Katie -- You are right: it was the fact that I was expecting a nasty, suspicious old lady who might turn me away or offer me, at best, a cold room to freeze in until the trains started running again that really made this so wonderful. I will never forget what a pleasant surprise this was.

Charlie -- I wonder how I'd cope with drunken grandkid crashers in my eighties; I like to think I could come close to grandma Toyoda's example ('Arita' was her actual name, but I'm paranoid about using real names!) I may never find out; few in my family have lived to a ripe old age.

Kanani said...

Well, I think that grandma must've had a lot of things going up in her head. Obviously, she was interested in life since she was up all hours of the night!

I had a neighbor who was like that. I'd go to bed, and she'd be watching Letterman. Then at 6:30 a.m. I'd hear her sweeping her driveway! She was a peach. A wonderful lady.

Carole said...

You have the best stories. And then you respond so well to them.

Kappa no He said...

Ahhh, missing the last train. How nostaligic. I remember many times being stuck in Roppongi all night at the Gas Panic or the Deja Vu.

That is a very sweet story. I love how hospitable and energetic a lot of the elderly are here. Although the ones I know go to bed at seven PM.

Mary Witzl said...

Kanani -- I aim to be this sort of granny some day -- staying up late at night, sweeping up my driveway at 6:30 in the morning -- when I'm less seething with angst over teenagers and their various escapades.

You're right: my Kawasaki granny obviously had a lot going on in her head. At the time, I saw her mainly as the provider of my well-being, but now I suspect we could have a proper chat.

Carole -- Thank you for the compliment, sweetie, but I'm not the one who responds well to them!

Kappa -- I've been overnight in Roppongi myself, including one long, hot night with lots of screaming and sweating -- even sex and drugs! Actually, I had a baby there.

Way back when, I frequented Roppongi in a nervous sort of way, but it was never a big favorite of mine: I'm too much of a wimp. Gas Panic and Deja Vu were before my time, though Akiko and I did like one particular place with a hot samba band.

Danette Haworth said...

Wonderful story, warm and nostalgic.

Christy said...

Wonderful story! I really hope that if any of my kids' friends ever need a place, they'll feel welcome in my home. I'd rather have them safe and warm.

Anonymous said...

Aw, you're such a good mom. I love Toyoda-san's granny. I want to go crash at her place right now. (but don't worry, I won't).

Shelly said...

Hi Mary,

Just wanted to let you know that the first post for the book discussion is up, if you are ready to join in.


Benjamin Rubenstein said...

isn't it funny watching them push the empty wheelchair, or in your case, drive the empty stretcher? its like we ruined their day.

Mary Witzl said...

Danette -- Thank you. I keep thinking that I'll have to blog about things that aren't quite so Reader's Digest friendly pretty soon, but I can't help it: I've got teenagers now, and I need feel-good memories to sustain me.

Christy -- One of the best pieces of advice anyone ever gave me was to make friends with my kids' friends. This is not only a great way of keeping your eye on your kids, it is a way of hanging onto your sanity. Your own teenagers may dis you terribly, but their friends will see you as an ally -- a win - win situation.

Riley -- Oh no, I'm not. My eldest has a bedroom that is a proper fire hazard (wish I was joking) and my youngest, usually my buddy, went slamming out of the house this morning because her gym shirt wasn't dry. I'm just average. Still, even an average mother of teenagers is heroic... I could use a visit to Toyoda-san's granny too. I suspect she's gone to where the good grannies go, and I find myself wishing I'd had the chance to do something nice for HER.

Shelly -- You did a fine review on The Man Who Walked Through Time. I did my best, but you were a tough act to follow.

Benjamin -- They were pissed off that they couldn't use the stretcher all right, but they got their revenge by putting the siren on full blast and we roared through Tokyo in style. And I'll bet they'll be telling their grandkids about the spitting-mad spotty foreigner with the temperature of 105, so at least I left them with a good story.

Kim Ayres said...

That's great to know. Next time I'm passing through Moffat after midnight I'll know who to call in on :)

Susan Sandmore said...

Wonderful story! You had me right there with you. I'll have to remember this when I've got teens . . .

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Sure, why not? This family is like New York City -- there is always someone awake, no matter what the hour. Of course, you may find one or more of us grumpy or looking like the Night of the Living Dead.

Susan -- Years ago, when our kids were toddlers, I listened to the stories of my friends who had teenagers and could hardly imagine that their experiences would ever be mine. Now I am going through exactly what they described. Their tales and wisdom have stood me in good stead.

Ello said...

Oh Mary, I love this story! You tell the best stories! I bet you are just the most awesome Mom!

Mary Witzl said...

Ello, I wish I could accept that compliment, but given some of the brouhahas we've had around here lately, sometimes I think that the term 'dysfunctional family' is a gross redundancy. I'm a tough old battle-scarred Mom, perhaps a hair or two above average.

Even though my kids drive me wild, though, we can still say we're so glad we had them. Our childless friends cannot believe that, and there is no reason they should. Your average parent absorbs a slow, deep dose of insanity as they raise their kids. This leaves us actually convinced we're better off.

-eve- said...

Another good story! The lines you end with, 'But such was the power of Grandma Toyoda's kindness and generosity that even after all these years, I could picture her welcoming face, hear her telling us to come on in and get out of the cold' are especially moving, and wrap up the story so well. *your stories always have such a good flow!*

Carolie said...

Sorry for the long silence, Mary...I've been visiting and reading (and enjoying!) but more like stolen morsels of time from the avalanche that is life at the moment. So I've not been commenting, and for that I apologize!

But not commenting doesn't mean not reading, or not enjoying...and I enjoyed this one very, very much! Lovely story, lovely flow...I immediately had a visceral, happy reaction to that "kerosene-scented air," so welcome and warm! Hope I can offer that sort of hospitality (now to get a shovel, to clean out this horrible house!)

Mary Witzl said...

Eve -- Thank you for writing that. It is so nice to be praised for my long-winded reminiscences!

Carolie -- I'm glad you posted: I've been worried about you!

There is something about the smell of tatami mingled with slightly stale water, green tea, tangerines, and kerosene, that makes me think of Japan in winter. I love all those smells mingled together: they conjure up such a feeling of warmth and home. Add the smell of rice to that, combined with fish stock and soy sauce -- sheer nostalgia!

I can sympathize about the messy house, I am sitting here surrounded by drying laundry, someone's homework project, and candy wrappers. But I'm denying all responsibility...