A return to roots

A son's rebellion becomes tender responsibility in a time of need.

Our only son, Yuki, lived with us and my husband's parents in their large old farmhouse at the foot of the mountains in Gifu, Japan. He always ignored his father and me even though we lectured him every evening that respect and a sense of duty were essential for becoming a responsible adult. His choice of clothes became increasingly wild, and he returned one night with an earring and orange hair. We were horrified, and let him know it in clear and loud voices.

We lay in bed at night staring out of the window at the crisp white moon, whispering our distress to each other until we tired of repeating the same useless worries. The jagged mountain horizon seemed to add to the pain in our hearts.

As soon as he had finished high school, Yuki left home to continue his life alone, which we were sure would lead him nowhere. He was swallowed by the large city of Nagoya and gradually our anguish turned to glum silence, not from lack of care but exhaustion. Sometimes at dinner, his grandparents would ask us if Yuki had telephoned, although we all knew that any news from our son would be sung vigorously to all corners of the farm the minute it arrived.

After several years, my husband's company transferred us to a branch more than 600 miles away in Kyushu. His father told us they would be all right, but we knew that his mother had become quite weak and that they were both nearing the age when they would not be able to harvest the crops and protect the cows. Gifu has very cold winters. Even keeping the house fire going and maintaining all the farm machinery is hard work. There was nothing we could do. We telephoned them several times a week from that faraway city.

One evening "Granddad," as he liked to be called, said that "Grandma" had taken a fall. My husband appealed to his company supervisors to send us back to Gifu to help his parents, but they said it was impossible at that time.

That weekend we called the farm with our disappointing news. A strong young voice answered the phone.

"Gifu Castle," it said, and we immediately knew it was our son, because that was the happy name he always used for the property.

"It's Yuki," I called to my husband.

"What's happened?" My husband rushed to grab the phone. "Son, tell me..."

"Everything's fine, Dad," Yuki said brightly. "Granddad and I have got things pretty well organized, and I carried Grandma upstairs to her favorite room where she can watch us working outside and call out orders to us, as she loves to do." He gave a loud laugh, and we heard Granddad and Grandma joining in.

Later we heard all the details. Our son had established an independent base at the farm for his computer consulting work. He no longer had time to dye his hair and the earrings were gone because they became tangled in the cows' hair when he milked them. He and Granddad always preferred to milk by hand than use the cold steel automatic equipment.

Thereafter, on every occasion we sat together in our Kyushu apartment, my husband and I were unable to stop our foolish grinning and sudden laughter. We reminisced about our "happy ray of sunshine."

On his fifth birthday, Yuki, which means "snow" in Japanese, had declared "Now I'm big enough to help Granddad," and the next morning he stumbled out of bed before dawn and went with his grandfather to the cowshed. It was the warmest place on the farm with all the animals steaming in the frost of autumn. A few minutes later Granddad came trotting back into the kitchen, where the rest of us were preparing the meals for the day, and beckoned us to follow him to the shed. There was Yuki, fast asleep slumped on the milking stool, with his cheek nestled against a fat cow's cozy belly. The animal had her head turned, gazing affectionately at her little friend, gently accepting that she wasn't going to be milked anytime soon.

It became a regular routine, the happy boy trudging through the mud in his oversized rubber boots, refusing to hold Granddad's hand, and within a few minutes he was fast asleep again cuddled against his favorite old cow, which regularly looked back to puff warm breath on Yuki's tiny neck.

Last spring, my husband was finally transferred back to Gifu in time for his retirement in three more years, and I have started to teach again at the elementary school in the village. Granddad has definitely regained his former sturdy stride, and Grandma sits at her window in every season, knitting her mufflers without taking her eyes off her "men." Yuki seems to thrive on just a few hours' sleep, and never loses that same wild grin he always had as a youngster, running after the owls with a handful of paper aeroplanes.

Respect and duty are inside us all. We don't have to make repeated lessons about them. You can't teach love or responsibility. Just provide the soil, the sun, and the water, and they will grow by themselves.

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