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July 21, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Friends and helpers

Kiyoko Izuka with Mario and Lila

November 13, 1997

There have been times in my life when I thought I could be a great mother, wife, cook, baker, gardener, writer, housekeeper, dance teacher, dog walker, calligrapher, lecturer, knitter. Now, I look at that time as a period of temporary insanity.

Like a lot of women of my generation, I have to fight the urge act like Superwoman. I do this by reminding myself she’s a comic book character — and by getting help.

I haven’t done any house-to-house surveys, but I don’t imagine there is another family living anywhere near us that has outside domestic help.

Around here, women take care of everything in the house themselves. Although I have seen with my own eyes men hanging laundry, I bet you could count on one hand the men in my neighborhood who regularly participate in housework. Talking with my neighbor, who appeared incredulous my husband did a share of the housework, I said, “Well, after all, we’re about to enter the 21st century.” Her response: “Not in my house. We’re still in the Edo Period.”

It’s not easy to get help here but I’ve been fortunate and have had wonderful women work with me. I say “with” and not “for” because often we’ve worked side by side.

One woman, Izuka-san, was absolutely exceptional. We met when we were both active in a women’s group. When she heard I planned to move to town before my daughter Lila was born, she offered to help me in the house. When I arrived home from the maternity clinic, she was waiting for me. She came three mornings a week until Lila, my fourth child, entered nursery school at age 3.

At the same time she came to work in our home, her own three sons were in school. She had passed the stage of being a full-time all-hands-0n-deck mother, and working outside the home part-time was her way to prepare herself and her family for her move back into the workplace.

People who don’t do it don’t know that it takes nothing less than skill to run a household well. And in this, Izuka-san was absolutely accomplished. Aside from her general skill as a homemaker, she also tutored our second daughter Mie in mathematics. Like a lot of women who have managed homes, her organizational abilities, could place her at the top echelons of the business world.

Of course, too few Japanese women ever find themselves there. [In 2011 in Japan women represent less than 10% of management, and the country is rated near the bottom of the gender equality index.]

However, Izuka-san was fortunate and found rewarding work. I suspect she is considered indispensable in the municipal government office where she’s been employed the past 12 years.

After we built our house and moved back to the countryside, I inquired at the local Silver Center seeking domestic help. They soon found a woman who said she’d do it, but before she would agree, she wanted to see me and the house. “What’s to see?” I wondered. it turned out that since we were foreigners, she was concerned everything would be too high for her to reach. “I’m pretty small, as you can see,” she said, and indeed she was hardly taller than Lila, then a third-grader. She quit after a few months telling the woman who took her place that our house was “too clean and there’s nothing to do.”

So it’s been a challenge to try and keep the woman who comes now — once a month. She constantly complains and says that the other woman was right, there’s nothing to do. The only reason I have her come, she says, is so I can make a donation to the Silver Center. (This is not true.)

Itoh-san lives with her daughter, who is a teacher, her son-in-law and two grandchildren. She explained when she started that although she was willing to work, there would be days she would have to cancel if her grandchildren were home sick, or had school vacation. And we agreed that the elderly folks she regularly helps, who don’t have family living with them or nearby, would take precedence.

She is seemingly indefatigable. She was widowed as a young woman and raised her three children as a single mother. She harvests tea in season, and also occasionally works weeding public grounds. The last of 11 children, she nursed her mother, who passed away this year at age 99.

Another woman I was quite fond of quit. She told me her son and his wife, with whom she lived, said she was too young to do domestic work and that she could earn more working a regular service job. They’re right.

She was a good gardener and very curious about some unfamiliar seeds she saw me planting. “Collard greens,” I told her. “My favorite vegetable.” She’d never heard of them, and said if she liked them, she wanted me to share the seeds with her, I said sure, and that she was certain to like them because they were, in my expert opinion as an eater of green leafy vegetables, the best in that category on the planet.

Some time later she found me in the garden looking at some scraggly plants barely recognizable as my prized collard greens. Every plant had been totally destroyed, devoured by insects. “They ate everything,” I said, casting a forlorn look at the leaves that now resembled lace. “Hmm. Now I know they were as good as you said.”

I enjoyed her company and miss her conversation because she was so knowledgeable about plants and their uses. Every now and then when she’s in our neighborhood, she stops by to say hello — so I won’t forget her, she says. That’t not likely to happen. She planted something as ground cover that has now run all over the place. No problem, she tells me, it’s makes good tempura.



© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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