Also known as “The Story of the Aged Mother”, this is a Japanese folk tale by Matsuo Bashō. He was a Japanese writer born in 1644, who was famous for his poetry and is considered the master of the haiku. “The Aged Mother” is about the love of a mother and son in the face of a cruel order from the governor. Here’s a summary of “The Story of the Aged Mother.”
“The Aged Mother” Summary
A poor farmer lives with his aged mother at the foot of a mountain. They grow a little food and are happy.
The governor of the province, though a brave warrior, is afraid of weakness and sickness. He issues an order that all elderly people in the province are to be killed. The poor farmer loves his aged mother, but disobeying the leader’s edict is out of the question. Full of sorrow, he prepares to carry out the order in the most humane way he can.
After work at sundown, he cooks and dries some rice, then ties it in a cloth. He fills a gourd with water. He ties both into a bundle and puts it around his neck. He puts his aged mother on his back and starts up the mountain.
The road up the mountain is long and steep with crisscrossing paths—it’s not always clear which way to go. The farmer presses on, heading upward toward the summit of the mountain.
His aged mother notices the confusing pattern of trails and worries that his descent will be dangerous. She starts snapping off twigs as they go and then drops them into little piles at intervals.
They reach the top. Tired and heartsick, the farmer prepares a soft place with pine needles for his aged mother to sit. He says a tearful goodbye.
With love, his aged mother instructs him to be careful on the way down and follow the piles of twigs until he reaches familiar ground. Surprised, the son notices her old, scratched hands from the work. Moved by her concern, he breaks down and says he won’t leave her behind. He’s willing to die with her if it comes to that.
He picks her up and carries her back down the mountain to their small hut. He hides her in the little food cellar under the kitchen floor. He takes care of her, but worries she’ll be discovered.
After a while, the governor issues another edict—he wants the citizens to present him with a rope of ashes. Everyone is afraid, as no one knows how to make such a thing.
The farmer passes on the terrible news to his aged mother. She thinks for two days then tells him how to do it—make a rope of twisted straw, lay it out on stones, and burn it on a windless night. The farmer gets the people together and they carry out the plan, which results in a rope of ashes.
Pleased, the governor wants to know how the farmer figured it out. Moved to tell the truth, the farmer relates the story of his aged mother. After some thought, the governor realizes the province needs more than the strength of youth; it also needs the wisdom of age. He abolishes the law against the elderly. Only legends of this old custom remain.
I hope this summary of “The Aged Mother” by Matsuo Basho was helpful.