It’s morning and I am about to open the refrigerator when I see my mother squatting on the floor, shaking a thin line of white powder along the baseboards. Her face is furrowed in concentration, her forehead slicked with sweat. I’m ten, it’s the first day of summer vacation, 1967, and a long stretch of pleasurable nothingness billows ahead of me, making me feel uncharacteristically expansive and chatty.
I crouch next to her, “What’s that for?” My mother is young and pretty, but she looks irritated, frowning at the yellow box in her hand. Her short black hair is held back with a bright pink headband. The screen door is propped open and it’s not even 8 o’clock but we are both sweating through our pastel cotton blouses and matching stretch elastic shorts.
“Baking soda. For killing mu-shi,” she says. We are living in Hawaii and there are puh-lenty of mu-shi to torment us, including termites, centipedes, mosquitoes, ants, spiders, and fruit flies that rise in protest whenever you picked a banana from a bunch on the counter. But what my mom means by “mu-shi,” are cockroaches.
It was hard to avoid them in the tropics since there are roughly twenty billion roaches for every human who lives there. Supposedly, even big houses belonging to rich people had them and we were pretty much the opposite of that so of course we had a lot of them. Roaches not only flourished in the moist heat but, unlike people, who became sweaty and limp and hopeless as the humidity deepened, roaches seemed to get more energized, livelier. Our decrepit rental house in Wahiawa was full of roaches, small ones that made your skin crawl as well as giant ones as large as baby mice, like something out of an early-morning nightmare.
During the day, you might see only one or two roaches scurrying around, looking like they had an important appointment to keep. But God forbid that you ever came home after dark and had to turn the light on so you could get to your bedroom without tripping over something. You would be greeted by a virtual arthropod festival. Crowds of them twitching their feelers, muttering to each other in anticipation, gathering to hear music and to smoke pakalolo. It was a rave scene before rave scenes existed.
Back then, I learned pretty quickly to keep my head averted for a few strategic seconds whenever I came home in the dark and turned on the light, just so I didn’t have to see them. I had no problem killing a stray roach here and there, if the need arose, but there were just too many of them late at night, and I was not up for that. And I needed a shoe or at least a newspaper to get the job done and I was not about to go rooting around for roach weapons in the dark.
My mother, on the other hand, had no problem killing bugs with her bare hands. It was stomach turning but those guys were fast, so you had to act fast. Once, she picked up the telephone sitting on the counter and about fifty of them poured out of the bottom and started heading for the hills. BAM! POW! SQUISH! My mother was on those roaches like a 12-armed alien predator out of a movie. They bit the big one before they knew what hit them. I felt a thrill watching her do that but, at the same time, slightly sick. Those same hands would be making our dinner soon and it made me queasy trying to square those things.
As a kid, I could never figure out where all those roaches went in the daytime and what they did all day and questions would bubble up as I tried to sleep. Were they all sitting around waiting behind the walls? How did they get in and out? How did they know we were no longer at home and what made them come out at night? If they were behind the walls, it was probably dark anyway so how did they even know it was night? Did they assign a roach as a sentry who would listen for the silence and then give the others the all-clear?
But that didn’t make sense either. Sometimes there would be silence for hours in the daytime when all of us would retreat into our respective corners so I didn’t understand why they didn’t all come out then. My dad might be getting ready for his late afternoon shift at the alarm company with his head in his hands, a picture of pure misery after another night spent with Mr. Jim Beam and a pack of Winstons, and my mother might be sewing something in her lap, stabbing furiously at the fabric. I might be reading on my bed, happy for the moment that no one was forcing me to clean the bathroom or go outside. It made sense that they disappeared when they could hear we were all at home but if it was quiet, why didn’t they all come out then? Maybe they slept in the daytime, like my dad. It was a mystery I couldn’t solve.
While the smaller roaches had the power of invisibility, the larger ones possessed the power of flight. While I was in college, I worked as a waitress for several years at a glamorous restaurant in Waikiki with an entrance that opened onto a huge, black lava wall containing pots of orchids. Sprays of purple and white vandas and dendrobiums tumbled theatrically towards the floor while streams of water trickled alongside them into a small pool below.
One night, an older man, a famous singer, came in half an hour before closing time with a young girl wearing a lot of glittery eye make-up. They were ushered to a table in a dark corner near the piano bar, a cave-like area lined by lava rocks. The waitresses, a cynical bunch of mostly older Japanese ladies, played a round of “date or escort?” while smoking and counting out their tip money, and then left me with the table since it was my turn for finishing up. Michiko good-naturedly waved good-bye, calling out, “Good luck! They’re never leaving!”
I stubbed out my cigarette and went down to check in on them, hoping that they were almost done. They were seated together, and their hands were nowhere to be seen, which I guess was the point of their date. At my approach, the girl straightened up and began looking over the pupu menu while I shifted my weight to one side, trying not to look annoyed. I still had an English paper to cobble together before morning and I really didn’t have time for this. The singer was obviously drunk and lazily turned his gaze towards me.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkened room, I caught a slight movement just above my line of vision. I glanced up and realized that about a half dozen giant cockroaches were flying about a foot above their heads, gracefully dipping and somersaulting into the crevices of the lava rock wall. It looked like a scene out of a B-grade horror film. The only things missing were a menacing soundtrack and a bowl of popcorn. I smiled sweetly at the happy couple. If I had to stay late, this was well worth it.
Not surprisingly, my mother’s attempt at natural pesticides did not work so she managed to procure the good stuff, meaning DDT, from a helpful next-door neighbor who used it on her rose garden. A couple of weeks later, I found my mom painting the stuff around the kitchen from a bottle that had a skull and crossbones on it and a label that blared,
NOT FOR USE AROUND THE HOUSE!
FOR OUTDOOR USE ONLY!
I grabbed the bottle from the counter in a panic and screamed, “Mommmm! You can’t use this IN the house, it says OUTDOOR use ONLY and that means OUTSIDE!” I was pointing towards the door with a frantic finger, convinced that we would all be poisoned and that it was up to me to stop it. But my mother just eyed me coolly, and said, “Uh uhhh. You don’t know.” In her aim to destroy all the roaches that dared invade her home, it seemed that my mother would stop at nothing, including poisoning her whole family.
The smell of that stuff was pungent and stayed in my nostrils for a while and I remember feeling terrified that the poison would end up in our food. Most of the roaches yielded to the enhanced chemical warfare and even stayed away for a while. But they eventually returned. My dad would shake his head when he saw one and say, “Those things will survive an atomic blast.” That didn’t sound right to me, but I got what he meant.
In the meantime, I waited nervously for my early death from poisoning. I thought that our only hope was that the amounts that we ended up eating with our dinner might be too small to kill us. But there was always the possibility that if my mom kept painting that stuff in the kitchen, more and more of it would end up in our food and eventually those small amounts would slowly add up over time, killing us later.
Once, when both my parents were out, I saw a movie on TV where that very thing happened. A woman sprinkled a little poison onto her husband’s breakfast every morning and, when he’d had j-u-s-t the right amount, he dropped dead. One of the detectives on the case, the smarter of the two of them, suspected foul play but the wife still got away with it. I tried telling my mom that even small amounts of poison could eventually kill someone but she just laughed and said, “uh uhhhh!”
But that was just like my mother. She was always right, and no amount of arguing could convince her that she wasn’t. Like the time I told her I needed a swim cap for swimming class at the town pool and she handed me the pink, poofy shower cap from the bathroom. She obviously didn’t believe me when I told her that it was the wrong kind and that people would laugh at me. But when I tried to do a dead man’s float and my pink cap floated off my head before I could catch it, the pool erupted in laughter. The swimming instructor tried not to laugh but she couldn’t help it. I don’t blame her; I looked ridiculous.
And when I tried to tell my mother that she couldn’t use just any spoon in the drawer for measuring a teaspoon of salt, she looked at me like I had just arrived from Mars. She had never baked before coming to America and didn’t know that there were standard sizes for measuring spoons but she still knew best. It didn’t matter what the topic was or what the stakes were: public humiliation, salty brownies, death by insecticide, she knew what she was doing. She never believed me, which probably makes sense since I was just a kid, but then she never believed my father either.
The fact that she always disagreed with my dad seemed crazy to me back then. She could barely read and didn’t know a lot of English words so why wouldn’t she depend on my dad to help her? Neither of my parents had finished high school but my dad was an American, had more years of schooling under his belt, and had taken math and electronics courses while in the military. He had been an army sergeant, responsible for training soldiers for war and to help keep them from dying, for Pete’s sake. It stood to reason that he might have learned a thing or two about how to make our lives run okay. But try telling that to my mom.
Yet, while my mother lacked knowledge or sophisticated language skills, she was still an expert at getting her way. Even with a limited vocabulary, she could locate the words that would silence my dad, piercing straight into him and finding the soft, uncertain center lying behind his tough military exterior. I was drafted to play the part of my mother’s confidante early on, a role that I proudly took on, yet I was ashamed when she criticized my father and I hated hearing her do it. He was never right, he didn’t know anything, and was stupid, cuckoo. He was always crying, by which she meant that he was always complaining.
If I tried to protest, she would cut in, “Uh uhh, you don’t know!” During their frequent fights, my dad’s low protesting burble would be cut by the rushing stream of her words, which would then hang in the air like glittering drops of acid rain. The words would pause for a second in the ether and then slowly dissolve into your consciousness where they would linger for days. My mother’s words were few, but they had been time tested for maximum effectiveness. My father was stronger in most of the ways that counted but my mother was more powerful.
With time, I saw that my mother’s insistence that she knew more than my dad was not just stubbornness but was her way of expressing her anger at him for not providing us more financial stability and an easier life. My dad tried but, after he left the Army, he couldn’t get his footing and worked a series of poorly paid jobs. He was susceptible to get-rich-quick schemes and what little they had saved up till that point would vanish, time and time again.
My mom was not a happy mother, except when she watched her programs on Japanese TV or I brought home good grades. On the few occasions that she bought something that she wanted, her guilt prevented her from enjoying it. I would have to wait until I had my own children before I saw a more tender side to her. Or maybe it was always there but it was hidden behind the messy chaos of our lives.
It took me a long while, decades, if I’m being truthful, before I even slightly understood her bitterness. It was simple for my dad. He met and fell in love with my mother while on leave in Japan and wanted to take her back home with him. He was a country boy from rural Mississippi and Japan was a place of mystery and beauty, a respite from his dirt-poor background with its small mindedness and ignorance.
He was also captivated by my mother. He mistook her quiet for depth but, for her, it was more transactional. Her own father had died from a mysterious stomach ailment and, like many Japanese who survived the War, her family didn’t have enough food. Times were hard, Japan had lost the War, and America was rich. My smiling, wise-cracking dad must have seemed like a beacon, a way out of that dark corridor, the end of being poor. He must have made my mother a lot of promises to get her to leave her home. Knowing my dad, I’m sure that he did. Promises fell from his mouth like rainwater from a gutter.
When those promises turned out to be empty, words that didn’t bind him in any way, but merely told of his intentions to get rich, my mother felt duped. She had no way to understand that striving to be rich is the mission statement of all Americans. It’s something we all learn around the same time that we learn to say the Pledge of Allegiance.
During their marriage, my dad held all the logistical cards. He was the only one who could navigate our lives since my mother couldn’t really comprehend most things that were more complicated than household matters. And when he suddenly decided, without consulting my mother, to leave the Army before his 20-year enlistment period was up, she nearly lost her mind with rage. We would no longer have his steady paycheck and all our military benefits were gone too. It would be just us scraping by in that worn-out house, filled with roaches and roach poison.
But my mother was resourceful. She still had a way to assert herself: her words and her piercing, angry voice that she wielded like a lance. Those words would crowd out whatever else was in my head and I was sure they had the same effect on my dad. He was also angry as a young man, like everyone else who feels like life has given them a rotten hand, but he craved domestic peace and that wasn’t in the cards either.
Uh uhhh. You don’t know. You’re weak. You’re soft. You. Don’t. Know.
Looking back as an adult, I couldn’t understand how my dad did it. How he avoided getting destroyed by those venomous words. I would have crumpled like a piece of used aluminum foil if my partner had spent decades telling me that I didn’t know anything, that I was weak, that I was a failure. I’m not sure I could have lived that way. But what I didn’t know then was that my dad managed his inner life better than his life in the real world, the one that we all lived in.
After I had my first daughter, my parents moved in with me and I realized that, in the years since I had last lived with them, my dad had managed to create a rich life of the mind for himself. An autodidact, he had taught himself basic Latin and Greek and read Japanese literature and popular science books for pleasure. He had retreated into his books, his studies, his collection of $1 CDs of Ella and Sarah. He tried drawing in charcoal for a while but was as bad in art as he was in making money.
He was an attentive and funny grandfather and became very skilled in the fine art of being satisfied with life. After nearly a lifetime of digesting small doses of my mother’s poison, it not only hadn’t killed him but had worked like a homeopathic treatment, making him immune to its effects. Like the roaches in our Wahiawa house, he had managed to live and even thrived.
In his final year, my mom and I would go together to visit my dad in his room at the nursing home. I would go in first and, if he happened to be sleeping, I would sit on the edge of his bed and reach for his hand. He would open his cloudy hazel eyes and, seeing me, say in mock surprise, “Oh! It’s you!” Then, while I held his warm and familiar hand, he would look just past my face and spot my mother, at that point in her life, an old woman in her late 70s. My dad’s face would soften as though he had just remembered a long-forgotten dream and, turning to me he would say, “Just look at her; isn’t she beautiful?”