Back in Australia, we have loving family, but unfortunately, none of them live nearby. In Japan, however, we have struck grandma gold with an honorary Obaachan (Japanese for grandma) who lives down the street.
My daughter Grace, 7, never knew what it was to be picked up from afterschool care by anyone other than me, her father, or a paid babysitter. Now, in the wilds of Central Hokkaido, her Obaachan collects her three times a week.
We met Obaachan through her daughter, a very kind colleague of mine. She suggested the arrangement and said Gracie could ‘replace the cat’.
When I collect Grace from Obaachan’s I do see a child behaving like a cat, with lots of non-verbal communication in the forms of hopping on furniture, chasing balls in the house, and squealing and racing around. Obaachan is part of the fun, and is laughing all the while.
Obaachan is beautiful and I am not sure her age, but she’s probably somewhere in her 60s or 70s. She is petite, and when I see Grace hurtling towards her, or sliding on her bottom down the stairs at her full tilt, I do worry that she’ll bowl Obaachan over. Nearly every day Grace plays a ‘catch me’ game, refusing to be put in her coat, and she races past Obaachan repeatedly in the tight hallway.
But one of the things Grace seems to have learned through her afternoons with Obaachan is how to be playful without being rough. I have never seen Grace bump Obaachan or thump her with a flailing arm. Even their numerous pillow fights end well. And Obaachan is a master of kindness and care, while still managing to get a reluctant seven-year-old out the door.
For Grace’s birthday, Obaachan gave her a bag of savoury treats she had come to know were a hit with our daughter. She also gave her a birthday cake, complete with candles and singing, which was perfect since I had completely forgotten.
Some evenings, when I am perched in Obaachan’s doorway extracting my daughter, Obaachan’s sister toddles over from across the road. I have been lucky to travel and live in many countries, but this privilege has left me bereft of family support. How I envy somebody with a sibling nearby.
My Japanese language skills are coming on very slowly so Obaachan and I have simple conversations. Mostly they revolve around me thanking her from my heart, and her telling me nuances about what Grace did at school that day or what the afterschool care teachers have said. I think we each get our points across but I am not sure either understands the other’s gravity.
If Grace is indeed replacing Obaachan’s family cat, it is a great compliment. The cat is present in a ceramic effigy in the house. It’s a delicate piece that seems to fascinate Grace, to my worry, but she does seem to handle it tenderly.
On Saturdays, Grace has the option to go to childcare all day with her classmates. The centre is fantastic but she is usually not wild about a sixth day immersed in Japanese rules, structure and language. On the Saturdays she does attend, it’s on one strict condition.
“Only if I can go to Obaachan’s.”