Accidental butter


From the age of 3 on, or so my mother says, I would always hang around the kitchen asking questions, tilting containers to my level, getting underfoot and in everyone's way. After about age 5, I was reluctantly given some small, low-risk things to do, like making panko from day-old bread, or filling the salt and pepper shakers.

My father's company transferred him to England when I was 4, and a year later the rest of the family followed him - my mother, my one year old baby sister, and I. My mother barely spoke a word of English. Being a child, I grasped the new language much faster than she did, so I helped her to figure out the puzzling instructions on food packages. Once, we didn't know what to do with a box of concentrated fruit jelly and ate it out of the packet in the chilly, depressing kitchen of our New Malden flat, pulling at it with our teeth, wondering why it was so chewy. We'd never seen jelly like that before, since the fruit jelly mixes in Japan were in powdered form. A neighbor lady later showed us how to melt and dilute the concentrated jelly chunks in hot water.

Years later as an adult, I too moved to a country where I barely understood the language. Only then did I start to fully comprehend what my young mother must have gone through in those early years - especially with two small children. Somehow she managed.

By the time I was 9, we were living on the outskirts of a small town in Berkshire called Wokingham. My mother had gotten a lot more used to English cooking by then, and on this Saturday afternoon she was making a fruit trifle for some guests who were due to come to dinner. She needed some cream whipped, and I eagerly volunteered.

I ignored the balloon whisk my mother pointed out and went straight for the eggbeater - the contraption with two whisks and a handle that turned round and round. You don't see them much anymore, but to me it was a fascinating bit of machinery. I dumped the cream in the bowl, planted the whisk part firmly in the middle of it, and got to work.

Whirl, whirl, whirl. My arms ached, but the rhythm was fascinating. The cream rapidly got thicker, and thicker. It was plenty thick now, almost too much so, but still I kept turning, and turning, in a total groove.

My mother, who had been occupied elsewhere, came around to see how she was doing. She took one look in the bowl, and shouted, Why did you add water??

Puzzled, I stopped and peered into the bowl. Sure enough there was a pool of murky liquid in the bowl. And the cream, which was so beautifully white and peaky just a moment ago, looked clumpy, ruined. I was horrified.

I didn't add water! I didn't! I wailed. (You have to imagine this in duo-language: my mother always spoke to me in Japanese, but I talked back to her in English.) I jumped off the stool. I didn't add water!! My mother looked again, suspiciously, at the bowl, and back at me. You must have done something. This is useless. You're not help to me.

But I didn't do anything wrong!! I screamed, tears now running down my face. She ignored me as I yelled and stomped my feet. My whole body was shaking with indignation. I didn't! I didn't! Finally she paused whatever she was doing and grabbed me by my arms. Shut up! Go up to your room. You're in the way! she yelled. My father, who was reading the paper in the living room, came in. I could hear you all the way over there. The neighbors must have heard you. You're embarassing us. Go upstairs! He may have smacked me, because he did that a lot. I don't quite remember that part.

But to this day, I can still remember the indignation, the helpless anger at the injustice of it all. I remember rushing up the stairs, whose wooden treads were open and uncarpeted in typical 1960s-70s style, and almost falling and slipping through the treads because I was in such a hurry I remember sobbing all evening as I listened to the guests laughing and talking downstairs, my stomach growling with hunger.

I seethed with anger for weeks. How dare she. How dare she. The next Monday, I looked up the mystery of the watery, clumpy cream in the school library, and - of course - I discovered that I had whipped the cream so long and vigorously that it was turning into butter. Evidently, my mother was as ignorant of this phenomenon as I. She didn't grow up with cream or butter in postwar Japan. But I didn't know that at the time of course, nor did I care. My 9 year old being was simply consumed by the feeling of having been wrongfully accused.

It did recede to the recesses of my mind, eventually. But I never totally forgot it. The day of the Great Cream Incident may have been when I stopped being a small child and entered adolescence. I was only 9 for sure, but that's when started to stop regarding my parents purely with awe, never questioning them. Especially my mother. My father left for work early in the morning and returned well after we were asleep, and we barely saw him on the weekends either unless he was angry at us for something. So my mother was the only parent my sister and I really knew.

We moved to suburban New York for a year when I was 10, where my youngest sister was born, then back to Japan for 6 years. It was not an easy time. My parents' marriage had never been that solid, and it deteriorated year on year during my teen years. As much fighting as there was between them, there was as much or more fighting between me and my mother. Our house was a constant battlefield.

In a bid to make things better, my father got a new job in New York and we moved back there again. The move didn't work. Within less than two years my mother was gone, leaving all of us behind. We knew that she was right to leave, but we still resented it, especially my youngest sister, who didn't really remember the really bad times. At first I tried to be my mother's replacement for my sisters, but that wasn't going to last long. It took another 5 years for the divorce to be finalized.

Time passed. I left my father's house too, and grew up a little. My mother and I became friendly again. I got along with her second husband, my stepfather, a lot better than I did with my real father. That helped. Besides, I was now an adult. They had their hands full, all three of them in various ways, with my youngest sister, now a rebellious teenager.

The Cream Incident did come up again, once or twice, especially if my middle sister was around, and we embarked on a dangerous session of Let's Talk About Our Childhoods. Whenever it did, I was always surprised anew at the anger and resentment I felt, still, after such a long time. Sometimes, we don't choose our memories. The memories choose us, clinging onto us as tenaciously as burrs.

What would also hurt was that my mother would claim she didn't remember the incident. Maybe she didn't. Once, she snapped at me, calling me shitukoi - stubbornly clinging to an old grudge. I didnt speak to her for a while after that.

I moved away from New York to Switzerland, far away from my mother as well as my father. I got married. The distance made my relationships with both my parents improved markedly. Whenever my mother came to visit me, or vice versa, we were almost like friends or sisters rather than parent and child - though we soon discovered that after more than 6 weeks together at a time, things would deteriorate rapidly.


Things have been tough for my parents in the last few years. They have both grown older, and both suffered serious illnesses. I especially notice the changes in my mother. After retiring from her busy job in New York, she thought that moving back to Japan for her retirement would make life better, but it hasn't quite worked out that way. She's now living with a chronic, painful illness, ulcerative colitis. She used to be so strong and bossy, but now she is slower, weaker, much more timid. But she's still interested in life, her mind is still razor sharp, and she still manages to whip up beautiful, intricate sweaters in no time, and she still tries to manage the lives of her husband and her daughters, though she would deny it vehemently if you asked her if she did.

I can also now spend much longer stretches of time with her, without getting to the shouting-match stage. And we genuinely enjoy each other's company. I guess we have both mellowed.

One of the last times I was back in Japan, I was in her kitchen making a cake at her request. Over the years I've somehow gotten better than her at that sort of cooking. As she watched me work, whipping some softened butter with sugar, she suddenly touched my arm and said, Gomen ne. I'm sorry. Puzzled, I turned to her and said, Why? What for? Without looking at my face, she said softly, For the cream thing. I didn't know that could happen. But I'm sorry I was so mean to you. Gomen ne.

I laughed, inexplicably embarassed. Turning away from her back to my bowl, I said Iiyo. Nani, imasara. It's ok. Why bring it up now? But inside, I was so glad. So glad she remembered. So glad that she still cared enough to say those words, gomen ne. My eyes got very blurry.

I'm sorry.

It's OK.

Happy 70th birthday, Mother. お誕生日おめでとう、お母さん。

Add new comment

Filed under: