From a young age, my dear grandmother, Obaachan, often had to gaman, which is commonly translated as “to endure with self-control and dignity.”
Obaachan was from a large, upper class farming family in Japan, that originally had live-in servants. However, due to World War II, she had to gaman and help her family in the fields and take care of her six younger siblings.
Obaachan had loved going to jyogakkou (girls’ secondary school), but the war forced her to stop going there as well.
“I never got to finish my English class,” she often shared sadly.
After the war ended, it was arranged for my grandmother to marry my grandfather. Ojiichan was the eldest of four children in a fisherman’s family. As the bride of the eldest son, Obaachan dutifully moved in with Ojiichan’s family.
My grandmother was grateful that my grandfather was kind and majime (serious and hardworking). No matter how badly she was treated by her mother-in-law or Ojiichan’s siblings, Obaachan had to gaman and make sure she was the best daughter-in-law she could be. Ojiichan’s siblings eventually moved out, but Obaachan continued to take care of her parents-in-law, her husband and her own children.
My family moved to Japan when I was 11 years old. We moved in with my grandparents into the same house that Obaachan had moved into as a young bride.
Being too Americanized, I had a difficult time adapting to my new life in Japan. One day, during our walk to school, my second cousin and classmates started whispering to each other and leaving me out of their conversation. Before I knew it, no one willingly talked to me at school. The nickname they used behind my back was “shingai,” which meant “new foreigner.”
Shortly afterwards, I started walking to school by myself. The only thing that I looked forward to was coming home to Obaachan’s snacks and home-cooked meals. Although I hid in my bedroom when I cried into my pillow, I pretended that everything was fine as I sat with Obaachan and Ojiichan at the kotatsu (Japanese heated table). Nonetheless, it wasn’t long before Obaachan found out that I was being bullied. It must have been her sixth sense and her alertness about what was happening in the neighborhood. She was furious when she discovered that one of the bully leaders was my second cousin.
Obaachan decided that she did not want me to gaman any longer.
So, my grandmother walked to my school, without my knowing, and talked to the principals and my teacher. It must have been quite the scene because my classmates suddenly started apologizing to me. They also stopped placing tacks in my indoor shoes and putting trash in my desk. After this happened, I knew that Obaachan had my back. Once I stopped caring about what my classmates thought, one girl became my friend, and it had a ripple effect from there. Even my second cousin and I eventually became good friends.
Now in my mid-thirties, I often think about Obaachan and how she saved me from my bullying days. She had to gaman throughout her life, but did not let her loved ones gaman. I wonder if this is one of the reasons why Obaachan developed a severe case of Alzheimer’s. After all of her children and grandchildren moved away to pursue their own careers and have their own families, Obaachan was left with only Ojiichan to take care of. And every day, she made sure that my grandfather was well-fed, dressed, and had everything he needed, while she kept the house clean and orderly. After Ojiichan passed away over seven years ago, Obaachan must have felt that there was nothing left for her to take care of. She was even hesitant about letting her son (my father) and my mother help her cook and clean the house. As time passed, Obaachan’s Alzheimer’s got worse, to the point where my parents had to make the difficult decision of placing her in a nursing home.
Obaachan is now in her late nineties and still at the nursing home. She is living her life day by day, as much as she can. She is living every moment through gaman.
As I continue to grieve the end of my ten-plus year relationship with my ex-fiance, I think about Obaachan and her constant gaman. If this heartbreak/betrayal had happened to me in Obaachan’s time, would I have been able to gaman and forgive my arranged marriage partner?
I believe that Ojiichan is looking down from heaven protecting Obaachan, as a way of thanking her for taking good care of him and his family.
I hope to see Obaachan again soon, in person, amidst this COVID-19 pandemic that is still making it difficult for us to travel and see our elderly family members. I suppose I have to gaman a little longer, before I can see her again.
I hope that Obaachan continues to have the inner strength to keep living, day by day, which inspires me to keep going, too. Like Obaachan, I need to continue to gaman, to help me get through this dark period, with self-control and dignity.
Megumi Ito was born in Southern California and moved to Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan as a child. She currently teaches Japanese at a public high school in Pierce County.
Omoide is a local writer’s group.