On the train today two women sat opposite to me. One of them was perhaps in her 70s, a fragile looking Japanese lady with her off-white fisherman-type sunhat pulled deep onto her head. Next to her was sitting a beautiful woman who was roughly my age, or perhaps slightly older, i.e. in her 40s. The women sat very close to each other, which is untypical in Japan, given that the Japanese like their personal space. Thus, I can only assume they were a mother and a daughter.
The mother had her daughter’s hand on her lap and with her finger she was writing something on the hand. Every so often they looked at each other with their faces glowing and nodded. I assumed they were playing a game that I often play with my 7-year old son, in which I write something on his hand or on his back (with my finger) and he guesses what I’ve written. My son loves that game, and so do I.
From behind my sunglasses, I observed the women for a while and was thinking what a lovely mother-child relationship they had even at the age they were, i.e. when the child was no longer a ‘child’. They must have been playing that game for 40 years! And I wondered whether I would still play that game with my son (or daughter) when I was in my 70s and they in their 40s.
All of a sudden I wanted to call my mum and ask why we didn’t play that game, as, for some reason, I felt that the writing game was a determinant of a functional mother-child relationship. Since my mother and I don’t play the game, I felt like we had a problem. Perhaps the problem was the physical distance between my mother and I – I’ve lived in England and Japan for the past 15 years and she lives halfway across the world in Finland.
The scene of the mother and her daughter and the thoughts of my children and my mother brought tears in my eyes. I don’t quite know why I felt so emotional, but I think it was because I felt some people retain a similar relationship with their parents as what they had in their childhood and some grow out of it. Until now, I have happily belonged to the latter group. But sitting on that train, I realized that I wished that I was one of those who still played childhood games with my mother or cuddled next to her on a Saturday afternoon to have a nap – just like I did when I was little.
Then, in between my tears and images of Saturday afternoon naps next to my mother, it hit me – the women weren’t playing a childhood game! I had completely misunderstood what was going on there! The daughter was hearing impaired and the closeness I had observed was just a by-product of them using writing instead of sign language for communication. And my earlier thoughts of the writing game and mother-child relationships felt extremely inappropriate. In my defence, it seems to me that Japanese people often appear more naïve than Western people, possibly because they have much more sheltered lives than many Westerners. For instance, many of my (university) students state that their favourite film is ‘Toy Story’ or ‘Frozen’, and their assumption as to why someone is a vegetarian is because the person wants to lose weight. So, it was not completely bizarre from me to assume that two adults were playing the writing game.
The punch line is that the mother and daughter who sat opposite to me didn’t necessarily have any more special relationship than the one I have with my mother. For all I know, the mother and daughter were like most of us and did no longer resort to children’s games to kill time on trains or elsewhere.
But those few minutes on that train when I was falsely under the impression that the two women had a very special mother-child relationship made me promise to myself that I will try my hardest to retain that kind of a relationship with my children until I am 70, or even beyond.