Mitsuki Katsura, a Japanese woman in her mid-fifties, is a French-language instructor at a private university in Tokyo. Her husband, whom she met in Paris, is a professor at another private university. He is having an affair with a much younger woman.
In addition to her husband’s infidelity, Mitsuki must deal with her ailing eighty-something mother, a demanding, self-absorbed woman who is far from the image of the patient, self-sacrificing Japanese matriarch. Mitsuki finds herself dreaming of the day when her mother will finally pass on. While doing everything she can to ensure her mother’s happiness, she grows weary of the responsibilities of a doting daughter and worries she is sacrificing her chance to find fulfillment in her middle age.
Inheritance from Mother not only offers insight into a complex and paradoxical culture, but is also a profound work about mothers and daughters, marriage, old age, and the resilience of women.
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|Publisher:||Other Press, LLC|
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About the Author
Juliet Winters Carpenter studied Japanese language and literature at the University of Michigan and the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies in Tokyo. Carpenter’s translation of Kobo Abe’s novel Secret Rendezvous won the 1980 Japan–United States Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature, and her translation of Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel won the same prize for 2014–2015, making her the only person to have won this prestigious award twice.
Read an Excerpt
Inheritance from Mother
By Minae Mizumura, Juliet Winters Carpenter
Other Press LLCCopyright © 2012 Minae Mizumura
All rights reserved.
THE LONG TELEPHONE CALL IN LIEU OF A WAKE
"So how much do we get back from Golden?"
Before answering, Mitsuki, on the phone with her sister Natsuki, glanced once again at the numbers. On this late-fall night the window by the desk was closed, but instinctively she lowered her voice in reply. "Around seventeen million yen."
"What?" said Natsuki. "You mean they keep a whole ten million even though she was there such a short time?"
"Looks like it."
"Golden" was the private, exclusive nursing home where their mother had been living. Its full name was Golden Years, but everyone always called it Golden. The home had charged an initial deposit of 27 million yen, far more than their mother's dwindling savings would have covered. Funds for the deposit and the high monthly fees had come from selling the land in Chitose Funabashi, the Tokyo suburb where the family home had been. Their mother had actually lived in Golden just four and a half months before coming down with pneumonia. They had kept her room throughout her three-and-a-half-month stay in the hospital, making a total of eight months.
Once she saw that her mother's death was imminent, Mitsuki had taken to opening Golden's pamphlet and studying the page with the refund scale. Residents forfeited one-third of the deposit on moving in and the rest on a monthly basis over a seven-year period. She checked her calculations repeatedly, punching in the numbers on a desktop calculator until she was sure.
"I spent all that money, thinking she'd live another ten years," said Mitsuki. "What an idiot."
Pleated French lace curtains embroidered with a delicate floral design, two and a half times the width of the window: that had been one folly. Their family was particular about beautiful things. Whatever mixed feelings about their mother Mitsuki and her sister may have had, they took pride in this inclination that was theirs by birth and upbringing. Mitsuki had poured herself with zeal into decorating her mother's final home, a tiny room of just twenty square meters, and her sister had supported her in her every whim. Still, looking back, Mitsuki thought her zeal had bordered on the pathological.
Natsuki comforted her. "Yes, but back then we were positive she'd be there a long time."
Based on the average lifespan of women in Japan, who enjoy greater longevity than women anywhere else in the world, their mother in her mid-eighties could have expected to live another eight years. Plus she came from a line of women who lived long, even for Japan.
"Besides, compared with how much she's leaving us, you didn't spend all that much."
People whose parents are indigent must provide for them in old age out of their own pocket. Their mother had had enough laid by to provide for herself and also leave them each an inheritance which, although surely below the amount that would require them to pay inheritance tax, would still be a tidy sum.
In addition to the pamphlet showing the refund scale, on the desk in front of Mitsuki was a heap of items from the filing cabinet in a jumble of colors and shapes: savings passbooks, new and worn, decorated with stripes or gradations of different hues; bank seals of black lacquer or ivory, some round, some oval; documents from securities companies; a memo pad covered with scribbled figures; and various notes, sorted by denomination. On top of them all was an estimate from the funeral home.
"I wonder how much she left us altogether," Natsuki said, as if to herself.
Natsuki's relationship with their mother had been strained. At one point their mother had washed her hands of her elder daughter, often taking obvious pleasure in rubbing it in, and ingratiated herself instead with Mitsuki, the previously neglected younger daughter, entrusting her with everything, including her finances. Natsuki was never good at managing money anyway and, while resenting their mother, had used this treatment as an excuse to sit back and do nothing. As a result, she had little grasp of the flow of their mother's funds.
"Altogether, including the money due back from Golden, I figure it should come to about thirty-five million apiece."
For Natsuki, who had married into wealth, this probably wasn't a lot of money. As Mitsuki was about to mention this, her sister sighed and said with feeling, "That's a lot of money."
To keep her husband and daughter from overhearing the conversation, Natsuki was undoubtedly calling from the soundproof piano room where she liked to retreat with her two cats.
Earlier that evening, after leaving the body at the mortuary, Mitsuki, her sister, brother-in-law, and niece had all gone out for dinner at a nearby chain restaurant specializing in shabu-shabu hotpot; they had parted at around eleven. Even after returning home, Mitsuki had remained exhilarated, knowing that her mother was finally dead — and Natsuki must have felt the same way, for before going to bed she had called, wanting to talk to the one person she knew would fully share her excitement and listen to her with infinite understanding. The sisters each had had a very different relationship with their mother, so they felt liberated in different ways, but their excitement was identical — keen and palpable.
Mitsuki's professor husband was on sabbatical and had been in Vietnam since the end of March, ostensibly to do research. Natsuki could therefore call late at night with the assurance that she would disturb no one. The phone had rung just as Mitsuki was in the midst of recalculating how much their mother had left them.
"It's hard to believe I've suddenly got so much money," Natsuki said. "For the Shimazakis that might not be much, but for me it is."
The Shimazakis were Natsuki's in-laws; her husband, a cellist, was their second son. Yet even after decades of marriage, even after her falling-out with their mother, Natsuki remained at heart a Katsura. As did Mitsuki, for that matter. But a woman marrying into wealth was somehow under greater social obligation to become steeped in the ways of her new family. Despite this pressure, Natsuki had remained stubbornly herself.
"What'll you two use the money for?" she asked.
Natsuki uttered the words "you two" with complete innocence. She meant Mitsuki and her husband, Tetsuo, but the words gave Mitsuki momentary pause. In her reply, she ignored the "two" of "you two" and spoke only about herself.
"Not sure. First off, I want to get my strength back. Go for all the acupuncture and massages I want, soak in a hot spring. If I can, I'd like to quit teaching, too."
"That sounds good. Tetsuo will be happy too, won't he? Now he can afford the high-rise condo in the city center he's always wanted."
Tetsuo had never even been told her mother was in the hospital, but this her sister did not know. Instead of responding, she asked a question of her own. "What about you, what'll you use the money for?"
Natsuki and her husband, Yuji, owned a spacious apartment of more than 150 square meters in an exclusive old residential area in central Tokyo. Not only were they not saddled with a mortgage, his parents had built them a villa by the family summerhouse on the coast, next to one for his sister and her husband.
"I'm not sure either. I've always felt ... small, you know? I've never earned more than a pittance. It's such a relief to think that finally I'll have some money of my own. I could trade my Yamaha in for a Steinway. Hey, I could even afford a divorce!" After this bit of flippancy, she went on seriously, "You know what the best part is? Getting free of her while I'm still in my fifties. All those years, I struggled to put the idea out of my mind, tried not to think of anything so lucky."
"Watching her, all I could think was that I didn't want to live to be so old. Life lost its appeal in a way."
"I know what you mean."
Burdened by their mother's constant needs and wants, Mitsuki had felt the joy of life wither and fade. And then one summer night just when her menstrual cycle was becoming irregular, she had sat for hours with her bare back exposed to air-conditioning. Before she knew it she'd developed a syndrome known colloquially as "air-conditioningitis." Her nervous system was affected, and she developed what the doctor called "autonomic dysfunction," a kind of neuropathy that dragged on and on.
To top it all off, their mother had fallen and fractured her shoulder and hip just before New Year's, a catastrophe that aggravated the sisters' own ailments. Natsuki, though strong since childhood, now had a chronic and worsening eye condition, and Mitsuki, weak since childhood, suffered increasingly from her nerves. Then too, although her sister didn't know it, she had her husband to fret about.
As they continued to chat, Mitsuki thought of their mother's body lying in the mortuary — in a freezer, to be precise — turning steadily to ice from the outside in. Eventually the internal organs would freeze, every last one. Even the eyes, which had stayed wide open, staring, until a nurse had gently closed them, would freeze solid. What of her white hair, full and wiry to the last? What would become of it?
Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Today, mother died. The opening line of the first novel she had ever read in French, long ago.
By rights, this should have been the night of the wake. A night when, according to Buddhist tradition or still more ancient custom in Japan, newly bereaved family members would stay up all night, keeping candles lit and incense burning as they bade the departed farewell. Now that so many people died in the hospital, how many families took the body home to hold a proper wake anymore? Customs were fluid, changing year by year. What others might do she had no idea, nor did she — or her sister, she felt sure — much care. She felt no guilt about leaving their mother's body unattended in the mortuary freezer while chatting on the phone about how to spend their inheritance. She even felt no guilt about not feeling guilty. And she had no intention of revisiting the funeral home till two days later, when the body would be put into its coffin.
"Anyway, tomorrow we've got to get some rest."
Mitsuki hung up the telephone and switched off her computer. She wasn't going to tell Tetsuo that her mother was gone. The time difference between Japan and Vietnam was two hours. Right now, he might be setting out nightcaps and snacks for two. He felt at ease in the kitchen, and she had always liked watching him putter there. Now he was showing that homebody side of himself to some young woman. He didn't deserve to be told about her mother's death.
She prepared for bed as usual and slid under the covers. Light from the lamp on her nightstand fell on a French novel, the one she had started reading at her mother's bedside during those last few days, while waiting for her to die. She switched the light off.
Even in the dark, tears did not come. Her excitement was mingled only with fatigue from having sat all day with her dying mother. It occurred to her that long ago when her grandmother died — back when Mitsuki was a child — her mother, too, had not wept.
Only decades later did her mother show a trace of emotion. One afternoon as they walked along the beach at Atami, the setting for a famous scene in an old serial novel of tragic love, her mother had laughed derisively. Referring to the novel's hero and heroine, she'd said, "There never was any Kan'ichi in your grandmother's life. How silly ... her thinking she was O-Miya!" Her voice quavered as she fought back tears, perhaps at a sudden memory.
Mitsuki had walked on in silence, fearing her mother might turn maudlin.
Her mother had struggled to keep pace, jabbing her cane into the sand.CHAPTER 2
THE FLOWER-EMBROIDERED POCKET TISSUE CASE
Like many educated women, Mitsuki believed she had no call to consider herself unfortunate. Whether you looked back through history or around the globe today, human misery was so extreme and so widespread that the Buddhist term "a world of suffering" seemed truly apt. The world was awash in wretchedness. For her to think herself unfortunate was a sin.
Of course, a golden-haired, blue-eyed woman raised by nannies in the Sixteenth Arrondissement of Paris, say, or on Manhattan's Upper East Side, might well think it a great misfortune — even if she couldn't say so aloud — just to have been born in the rural wilds of France or America, let alone in the Far East. But Mitsuki had always thought that if she had to be born in the Far East in the latter half of the twentieth century, at least she was fortunate to have landed in Japan. She had been brought up in fairly privileged circumstances, and had even spent a year studying in Paris, thanks to her mother. Her husband was a college professor, and she herself taught college part time. Even now, her circumstances were fairly privileged. She had no call to consider herself unfortunate.
And yet one day she realized that she could no longer consider herself happy either. As the years piled on she had come to feel a sense of wrongness about her life, a sense that it wasn't supposed to turn out this way. Eventually that sense of wrongness had entangled her in heavy, sticky filaments that dulled her skin as well as her heart. Her step lost its bounce, her smiles grew infrequent, the luster faded from her eyes. She found it hard to believe that she had ever been a happy little girl who would burst into song at the drop of a hat and twirl on her toes.
Just when the change began, she wasn't sure. It wasn't the time she first discovered her husband's infidelity (looking back, she realized there had been ominous signs even midway through their honeymoon). No, she became aware of the sticky meshes of woe only after her father was consigned to an extended-care hospital far away. Or no, it was still earlier, when That Man first entered her mother's life and cobwebs began to show on the ceilings of their house in Chitose Funabashi, where her father was left to sit alone, hollow-eyed.
In these last few years, the heavy, sticky filaments had wrapped around Mitsuki with ever-increasing momentum — especially after she came down with that strange syndrome.
One evening, after sitting directly exposed to air-conditioning for hours, by the time she reached home she'd been ready to drop. After a night of restless sleep, she found that far from having recovered, she shivered with cold at the mere touch of her bedsheets. Her temperature usually registered on the high side, but that morning it was quite low.
She went to the hospital, where a young doctor in his thirties unsympathetically informed her, a middle-aged woman struggling to endure the hospital's air-conditioning, "People don't die even with a temperature lower than yours." He didn't write her a prescription.
After coming home, she did some checking online and learned that the Western medical establishment dismissed sensitivity to the cold as "poor circulation." The word and indeed the concept of air-conditioning it is seemed not to exist in the West. Yet on the Japanese Web, any number of women reported suffering from exposure to air-conditioning: their hands, feet, and lower abdomen turned to ice; their shoulders and back stiffened; they felt chronically fatigued. By far the most complaints were from women her age. Whether the syndrome was uniquely prevalent among Asians she didn't know, but she began to take an herbal remedy prescribed by a woman specialist in traditional Chinese medicine, and she also started acupuncture treatments. She discovered that if she saw a specialist in psychosomatic medicine, she could get prescriptions for anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, and sleeping aids.
As a child, whenever Mitsuki got a checkup at school the doctor would say she had a weak constitution. She had frequently caught colds and run a high fever, and as an adult she tired easily; still, she had always retained her youthfulness, and with it a measure of strength. Now there was never a day when she felt well. On top of that, her aging mother, whose treatment of her late father she found impossible to forgive, was increasingly a burden. Meanwhile, she went on dealing with her wayward husband as if nothing were wrong, trying not to think of her marriage, even as emptiness spread inside her.
Her small misfortunes had resonated together like notes in a symphony, quickening and surging in a crescendo that reached a climax late last year. Or, to use the jo-ha-kyu terminology of the Noh master Zeami (she was, after all, Japanese), her troubles had built up to the frenetic kyu pitch.
From the end of the year until her mother's death eleven months later, life had been something of a nightmare.
Wretched: as the nightmare progressed, Mitsuki had begun to think of herself this way. She remembered reading a fairy tale as a child about a princess who never laughed. A semi-invalid middle-aged woman who rarely laughed anymore should be allowed to consider herself wretched.
Excerpted from Inheritance from Mother by Minae Mizumura, Juliet Winters Carpenter. Copyright © 2012 Minae Mizumura. Excerpted by permission of Other Press LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 The Long Telephone Call in Lieu of a Wake,
2 The Flower-Embroidered Pocket Tissue Case,
3 Portable Toilet,
4 A Husband Sipping Aged Sake,
5 Finally Selling the Land,
6 Frontal Lobe Meltdown Begins,
7 "O-Miya's Blood",
8 Living Ghosts,
9 Mother Sitting in a Withered Moor,
10 Remnants of Fragrant Dreams,
11 Gmail Exchanges with the Woman,
12 The Time of Cherries,
13 Stone Broke,
14 Lessons at "Yokohama",
15 The House on the Hill,
16 The Family Register,
17 A Word of Thanks,
18 Under a New Sky,
19 City of Miracles,
20 The Proposal in the Garret,
21 The Sisters' Contrasting Fates,
22 The Katsura Family Disintegrates,
23 A Man Somehow Lacking,
24 Seasons of Life,
25 A Proper Thank You,
26 Fatal Sashimi,
27 Low-calorie Infusion Solution,
28 The End Postponed,
29 Bones under Gravestones,
30 A Sleepless Night,
31 Don't You Love Me?,
32 Dreams Wandering Desolate Moors,
33 The Undertaker's Menu,
34 Romance Car,
35 The Lake Sunk in Darkness,
37 Rows of Numbers,
38 A Chance Encounter,
39 An Evening of Long-term Guests,
42 The 72.3-Square-Meter Apartment,
43 A Rather Nice Offer,
44 Tetsuo's First Fling,
45 Television and the Eye of God,
46 Husband-and-Wife Rice Bowls,
47 Gazing into the Flames,
48 The Golden Demon,
49 Damn Fool,
50 Grandpa's Tears,
51 Slide Show,
52 Everyone Is Suspect,
53 Papa Aime Maman,
54 Poetry Cards,
55 Two Possibilities,
56 Husband or Poverty?,
57 The Night the Sky Rained Stars,
58 Atami Beach,
59 Not Fit for a Novel,
60 The Storm,
61 Lights at the Bottom of the Sea,
62 Crossing the Rubicon,
63 The Next Morning,
64 Back from the Realm of Clouds,
65 A Makioka Sisters Day in Ginza,
66 The Day the Cherries Bloomed,