Thursday, April 8, 2010

A Night at the Peach Farm

Last week my wife suggested we go spend the night at her parents’ place. She does this every so often, usually buttressing the idea with a practical reason: she has to dig some clothes out of storage; her mother wants to discuss maternal instincts; we need vegetables. And as long as I don’t have anything in particular planned for the evening (and what are the chances of that anymore?) I nod and grunt in monosyllabic agreement and get back to the laptop. At present I am researching the correct spelling of Greenlandic towns, for a travel book I am going to be quite happy to finish. Who has never been to Aappilattoq yet knows how to spell it? Such is the turn my life has taken.
The thought of a night at the in-laws’ place tends to start my mind swirling. Not like a kid on Christmas Eve, mind you. More like an adult figuring out how to fudge a refund out of his federal income tax. Coming up on five years since I married into the peach farm, I see my returns becoming increasingly muddled.

The most recent sleepover was, as my wife put it, ‘practice’ for when she’s in the hospital and my son and I are staying with Grandma (the ostensible advantage being a week of free babysitting though I think this is my wife’s way of making sure our kid eats more than toasted cheese and hot cocoa for twenty consecutive meals). This particular night would be no different from any other night out among the orchards of Arai, so I don’t know where the practice bit came in. But I guess it made my wife feel better. Involves that maternal instinct stuff probably.

We really do score a lot of vegetables whenever we make the trip. They live on a farm after all. Yet this past Saturday, mere hours before we set out on the thirty-minute ride up winding Route 369 and into all that fertile land, my wife went to the local garden center and bought two 12-liter bags of dirt. This from a woman who persists in peeling off and reusing the twenty-yen discount stickers the supermarket passes out every Saturday. Tending to the potted plants out on our balcony did seem to take her mind off the hormone imbalance her pregnancy is tossing her so I’ll concede there was some value in that dirt there, for both of us.

The peach farm lies west of town, a couple hundred feet or so higher above sea level which makes for a rather surprising difference in air temperature. The unbending Japanese tradition of building houses with insulating properties approaching theoretical zero adds to the fun. ‘Konban-wa,’ I say to my mother-in-law as I kick my shoes off, my breath turning the air between us a milky white. She’s been in the kitchen cutting daikon and stir-frying gobo; I’ve long since stopped wondering why she has the hands of an Alaskan fisherman. They reappear as my breath swirls and rises and dissipates. ‘It’s warm in the living room,’ she says. I’m already stepping over my son to get in there.

The TV is on, and undoubtedly has been for a couple hours. A small group of currently-popular television personalities has been entertaining the empty room with the hilarity of saying ‘This fried eel and rice bowl is delicious’ in a hundred different nasally voices. The kerosene heater over there is doing its thing, and rather well thank God. I stand there on the straw mats, looking around as my son gets busy spilling his toys all over the floor. The room wears that proverbial Japanese mix of old and new, though not in the expected manner. The dusty VCR on the shelf under the TV stopped working sometime before I ever set foot in this house; the tapes my niece and nephew watched as little kids ten years ago are still there too. The books on the low shelf along the wide east-facing window are in the same disordered arrangement as the last umpteen times I’ve been here. Same with the forest of finery and knick-knacks in the huge glass and cherry hutch sitting in its custom-measured place on the north wall. The souvenirs we bring from Germany and Morocco and VietNam go directly onto a crowded shelf and are summarily disregarded or so it stands to reason. Even the garbage in the garbage can looks the same. Only the day’s newspaper on the low table and the fresh offerings of fruit and bean paste cake on the Buddhist shrine in the corner tell me anyone has been in here recently. That and the humming heater, bless his little coils. The TV, I am sure, turns itself on.

On the other side of the north wall the familiar kitchen sounds resume, and as my wife settles onto the floor in the midst of my son’s entropic pursuits I slip through the sliding door to ask my mother-in-law if she needs help with anything. I already know what will happen: my breath will turn white again, the kitchen as frigid as the front hall, and my mother-in-law won’t look up from her knife as she says she doesn’t need help but the hot pot is filled and waiting if I want to make some tea. Knowing this is the way of things, I wonder why I even bother. Maybe we both find small consolation in being able to understand each other, even if the conversation never changes. Hesitation creeps in though when it occurs to me to ask about the bath water.

For three years I watched my father-in-law slide out the back door after dinner, thinking he was sneaking into the yard for a quick smoke. It was only after a healthy yakiniku meal one night, washed down with an equally healthy amount of Kirin Lager, that I decided to step outside with him to continue our halting discussion of the respective talents of Hideki Matsui and Ichiro. And it was then I learned what he was really doing back there. ‘If it’s too windy we don’t heat the water; it creates a fire hazard…’ But on every other evening of the year he’d go out into the shed with the water tank, build and stoke a fire and heat up the bath water for the family. ‘It’s more economical than burning oil,’ he explained.

Last February I watched him as he split and stacked wood. ‘This is about four years’ worth,’ he said, motioning to the neat rows and stacks under the tin roof behind him. Four months later he went down with an aneurism.

‘We have hot water for tonight,’ my mother-in-law will usually say. Once in a while I find myself hoping she’ll ask me to go out back and check the temperature gauge, her subtle way of telling me she’d appreciate it if I could build and light a fire for her. Much like heading to the gym or going for a run, once I step outside and get moving I’m all right. It’s nice to feel productive once in a while. Having to remember to push a button when I want a hot shower at home seems not such an inconvenience either after this.

My father-in-law used to put a few bottles of beer in the fridge whenever I was coming over. They’d be chilled and ready by dinnertime and we’d tip a glass together. A simple act on the surface, though underneath I think he was celebrating finally having a son he could have a beer with. I suppose I enjoyed having a dad again too – even if it was hell trying to understand his Japanese, cryptic enough when he’s stone cold sober. In the colder months we could just keep the crate of beer in the corner of the kitchen; it’d keep just fine. Now it’s in the small shed where they used to store konyaku potatoes, a crop that a few years ago ceased to be profitable. Today that musty shed is a halfway house between their home and the trash heap. Except for the beer, which has become all mine by default.

We stayed at the peach farm for a month after our son was born – common practice in Japan, and a big help to first-time parents like us. My mother-in-law cooked and cleaned and otherwise coddled tirelessly. I did whatever I could to help out in return; this consisted mainly of doing the breakfast and dinner dishes. Do something once, it’s a favor; do it twice it’s your job. So goes the saying. It is now a sort of family custom that when we go over and eat, I do the dishes afterward. I suppose this is another reason I tend to ask if there is hot water in the tank out back. On the peach farm I’ve learned to take nothing for granted. Except, of course, the cold.

In winter all meals are eaten in the living room, on the floor. The typical low Japanese table, called a kotatsu, has a sort of blanket that spreads out beneath the tabletop and hangs down like a skirt. Everyone keeps their legs covered and warm this way; it’s effective, and really quite nice. There’s even a heater built into the floor down there. The lifesaver for me though is the fact that the floor under the table is sunk two feet, so even though we are hunkered down on the tatami mats it is just like sitting on a bench – with no back but I take what I can get. Even after eight years I have yet to develop the flexibility to sit cross-legged for an extended period of time. Like five minutes. I hate tea ceremony for this very reason.

With my father-in-law still hospitalized, I am given his seat at the table. My mother-in-law is at the head of the table, back to a world of neglected art. My wife and child sit across from me – in those rare moments the boy is seated. Dinner is inherently communal; we share from the various dishes arranged in the middle of the table. There is always plenty to go around. I fear I am getting used to the idea.

My wife puts our boy to bed at nine o’clock or whenever he’ll let her. Half the time she falls asleep with him. My mother-in-law goes to bed rather early too, leaving the warm living room and its air of stagnation all to me. If I plan ahead I’ll have the laptop with me; I’ll never get to all the writing projects I have in mind, even if I learn someday to type with more than two fingers. There’s no Internet connection in the house, which I deem a blessing. Without that distraction I have a chance of getting something done. The TV does not count as a distraction either; even if the aerial antenna is getting any reception the chances of something interesting being on (more unfunny ways to say ‘This fried shrimp is so goooood’ not qualifying) is only slightly better than there being any ice cream in the freezer.

Sometime between midnight and two is when my eyes and my brain have had enough. The more wiped out I am the better; dulled senses make stripping down to my boxers in a six-degree room slightly more bearable. But if the chill doesn’t rouse my senses the half ton of blankets and futon covers certainly gets my attention. Staying warm is important in a room that could keep a gallon of milk fresh, but all those thick layers start crushing the living breath from my lungs. I swear it feels like that X-ray chest thing they drape over you at the dentist.

I don’t have an alarm clock. I have my son. He stopped taking naps many months ago, so he tends to sleep well at night. But when he wakes up, he is up. And so is everyone else in the place. Same as with any other kid I’m sure. Small consolation though when he starts yanking your covers off, immune himself to the cold. I pull my clothes on as fast as possible, cursing myself once again that I left them out on the floor exposed to the cold night instead of keeping them warm under my X-ray blanket. ‘Let’s go play cars!’ he says, pulling on whatever part of me is closest. For just a brief moment I think I’d rather have the living breath crushed from my lungs.

Outside I see pine-covered hills and new daffodils, and the stumps of the peach trees that provided my wife’s parents with their hard-earned livelihood for forty years. They aren’t sure what they are going to do from here.

My mother-in-law is in the kitchen. The heater in the living room is humming once again. Breakfast will be rice, vegetables and miso soup. I am trying not to think about doing the dishes once we’ve all eaten.

Watching my son from my father-in-law’s seat, I ponder my fear of getting used to this.