Saburo's father belonged to that generation which, having survived the war, rebuilt Japan from ashes, distilling defeat and loss into a single-minded focus with which they erected cities and industries and personal lives. Reflecting on this as an adult, Saburo felt it accounted at least partially for his father's stoicism. This was conjecture, of course. When Japan surrendered he had been only six, too young to remember what his father had been like in peacetime.
Saburo's memories of the surrender included his uncle Kotai being brought home, delirious with hepatitic fever, from Micronesia. He lived only a few weeks, unconscious the entire time and nursed round the clock by Saburo's parents. One of the visitors to their home was Uncle Kotai's sweetheart, a pretty girl of nineteen on whom Saburo had a crush. She wiped away her tears with a handkerchief patterned with cherry blossoms and announced brokenly that her life was now over. Saburo was impressed. “Big Sister really loves Uncle, ne!” he said later that day to his parents at dinner.
“The grief didn't hurt her appetite,” his mother said curtly. She was referring to the rationed tea she had served at lunch as well as to a certain fish cake that had been purchased, after two hours of waiting in line, for their own family dinner.
In a dispassionate voice, Saburo's father explained that the amount of energy you have is limited, just like your food, and that when you love a sick person you have to make the choice of either using up that energy on tears or else saving it for constructive actions such as changing bedpans and spoon-feeding and giving sponge baths. “In the long run, which would help your uncle more?” he asked.
Saburo supposed the constructive actions would.
- The beginning of Rationing, by Mary Yukari Waters. Published in Best American Short Stories 2003 (originally in the Missouri Review).