Knitting a new life in America after a mother’s suicide, long ago in Japan
By Kyoko Mori
June 1, 2008
The first sweater I knitted for my husband, back in 1985 when I was married, was a denim-blue pullover with beige, white, and cream squares in the yoke. The pattern, called “Candle-Lit Windows,” came from Nova Scotia, where the average January temperature is 23 degrees, the expected yearly snowfall is 107 inches, and people live in fishing villages scattered along the coast. The muted colors were meant to blend into the winter landscape of early dusk and snow-covered shores.
Chuck and I were living in Green Bay, Wisconsin, his hometown, which might as well have been Nova Scotia to me: I had grown up in Kobe, a temperate metropolis in southwestern Japan. The blue pullover was the second layer (after a T-shirt) of the cold-weather ensemble Chuck put on when the temperature dipped below zero. It was followed by a hooded sweatshirt, a denim jacket, a down parka, and a scarf long enough to wrap around his face three times. The afternoon we walked to the grocery store to buy milk, he was wearing all of that plus long johns under his jeans, a ski mask, three pairs of socks, two pairs of gloves, and his grandfather’s sheepskin hat with the earflaps tied under his chin. The schools where we were teaching were closed, and our cars didn’t start. The wind chill was minus 60 degrees.
It took us 20 minutes to walk the six blocks we ordinarily drove. The sidewalks were ankle deep in snow from the last storm. As we stumbled along, the cold air made us lightheaded. No one else was out walking, but several cars were parked in front of the supermarket with their engines running. The dozen customers inside were buying the usual emergency staples—milk, bread, potatoes, TV dinners, canned soup, ground beef, iceberg lettuce.
On our way home, Chuck had to carry the gallon jug by its handle, holding it aloft like a camping lantern; we hadn’t thought to ask for a bag. The dry snow swirling around our boots resembled weird, radioactive sand. “We might as well be on another planet,” Chuck shouted through his ski mask and scarf. He was moving with the wobbly gait of astronauts in space. I imagined living on a planet where milk was an all-purpose energy source, both an illumination and a drink. Chuck was laughing. This was the kind of afternoon he longed for on the few days every summer when the temperature hit the 90s.
To accommodate the layers he wore on top, Chuck needed his sweaters to fit snugly. He was nearly six feet tall and only weighed 140 pounds. The blue pullover was perfect until he turned 35 and suddenly gained 15 pounds. Cashiers at stores stared at him every time he wrote a check. In the driver’s license photograph, his eye sockets appeared hollow.
“I wouldn’t take a check from this guy, either,” he said to the teenage clerk at a record store. He turned to me and added, “I can’t believe I looked like this and you actually went out with me.” We had met seven years earlier in Milwaukee, where we were students, and trained together for a marathon before we ever went out on a date. We both hated the color-coordinated outfits sold at running stores. “Real runners don’t match” was our motto. If he’d been better dressed or more handsome, I wouldn’t have been interested in him.
“This isn’t a very good picture,” I said. “I don’t think you were ever so pale.”
“But I was this thin?”
He shook his head in disbelief and assured the clerk that his driver’s license was authentic. “I wouldn’t have chosen such a crummy picture for a fake ID.”
I made another sweater for him and reclaimed the blue pullover. It hung off my shoulders and came down to my knees, but I didn’t mind. I, too, wore several layers of clothing—a tank top, a cotton turtleneck, a long-sleeved T-shirt, a short-sleeved T-shirt, and another, looser tank top—but they were all under my oversized sweater and down coat. My T-shirts and tank tops were red, orange, green, pink; my coat was purple. Even if I was only walking to my car, I dressed bright and big, as though I could scare the weather into submission. I didn’t understand why people described me as “petite” and “tiny” when, in my mind, I was a giant of strength.
In spite of the harsh winters, Green Bay was my refuge from Japan, and sweaters and blue jeans were my favorite garments. Sweaters started out as work clothes for fishermen in the Channel Islands in the 15th century and were adopted by American athletes in the 1890s. Women didn’t wear them until 1917, when Coco Chanel introduced the jersey dress: a machine-knit pullover worn unbelted, draping straight from the shoulders to the hem instead of fitting tightly around the corseted hourglass figure. “In inventing the jersey dress,” Chanel remarked, “I liberated the body, I eliminated the waistline.” Marcel Proust lamented how “ordinary” women looked without their corsets, but Chanel was undeterred. In 1926, when she was asked to design costumes for Jean Cocteau’s play Orpheus, she dressed the hero in a sweater and slacks. A few years later, she put women in slacks and sweaters to promote a unisex look. Ever since, sweaters have been a staple in a woman’s wardrobe—a sporty, no-nonsense garment.
Chanel was born in 1883 in a small town in southwestern France. Her father was a peddler and her mother, a shop girl. After the death of her mother, when Chanel was 11, her father abandoned his three daughters to an orphanage, and Chanel never saw him again. At age 18 she went to work as a shop assistant, a seamstress, and a music-hall performer. The first man she lived with, a former army officer and racehorse breeder, installed her in a big house in the country; the second lent her money to open a millinery shop in Paris. She bought hats and retrimmed them to sell—making them smaller and simpler because she considered the huge hats of the time to be ridiculous—before she started designing the casual, elegant, loose-fitting clothes she became known for.
Though Chanel had many admirers, including the Duke of Westminster and the Grand Duke Dimitri of Russia, she never married or had children. She insisted that she didn’t want to settle down, that even rich women needed to work instead of sitting idly at home. The romantic partners of her youth, before she became a famous designer, wouldn’t marry her because she was a peddler’s daughter raised in an orphanage. Arthur Capel, the Englishman who helped her start her business, was already married when they started living together. Though he died in an automobile accident in 1918, Chanel considered him her true love—the person who “made me what I am, developed what was unique in me, to the exclusion of the rest.” Her story had something in common with that of Okiyo-san, my father’s longtime lover.
I didn’t know much about Okiyo-san until after my father, Hiroshi, died in 1993, when I returned to Japan for the second time in 16 years. A woman called my aunt’s house, where I was staying, and asked to speak to “Hiroshi-san’s sister.” I was immediately suspicious: strangers do not address each other by their first names in Japan. The caller should have referred to my aunt as “Mori-san’s sister” or “Mrs. Tone.” I had left the country at 20 to get away from my family, but a few hours after I landed in Osaka, I was already judging other people’s manners like the ojosan—a rich man’s daughter—I was raised to be.
After they talked, my aunt, Akiko, said, “That was Okiyo-san, your father’s girlfriend.”
“Which girlfriend?” I asked. Long before I learned the “facts of life” at 13, I’d understood that the women who called our house late at night were Hiroshi’s girlfriends. My father was known to be a heartbreaker: even waitresses and shop girls giggled around him and commented on how handsome he was. I pictured him walking under the neon signs downtown with lipsticked women while my mother, Takako, sat in our living room with her embroidery. From their voices and local accents, I could tell there were several different women. A few cried when I said my father was not at home.
According to my aunt, Hiroshi had met Okiyo-san at a bar he went to with his friends a year before I was born. Okiyo-san was the bar hostess there, and her husband, who was a sailor, was seldom around. Hiroshi encouraged his co-workers to patronize her bar because she was his “special friend.” He eventually lent her money to buy the bar from the man who owned it. When Takako found out about the loan, Hiroshi assured her not to worry—he would never leave our family to marry a bar hostess. “He can’t be completely serious about her,” Takako said to Akiko, her sister-in-law and close friend. “Other women keep calling him, too. They all sound pretty desperate.” My aunt later wished she had understood how upset my mother had been. Takako killed herself when I was 12.
Okiyo-san wanted to divorce her husband and marry Hiroshi then, but Hiroshi chose another girlfriend, Michiko, whose mother ran a bed-and-breakfast in Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan, where he often traveled on business. Michiko moved into our house two months after Takako’s death, and she and my father were married a year later. Okiyo-san must have forgiven him right away. A few months after her marriage to Hiroshi, Michiko came to Akiko’s house and cried because Hiroshi was already spending too much time with Okiyo-san.
“I advised her to go home and be patient,” Akiko told me after his death. “I wanted to remind her that she, too, was once his girlfriend, but what good would that do?”
Hiroshi had fewer affairs as he got older, but Okiyo-san—he confided to Akiko—wasn’t just a girlfriend: she was practically his family. A year before he got sick, he gave Akiko a box of peaches Okiyo-san had sent to his office. “I can’t take these home,” he told her. “You eat them for me, but don’t say anything to Michiko.” Okiyo-san lived in a town famous for its peach orchards. When my mother was alive, Okiyo-san had sent the boxes to our house. That’s how I remembered her when Akiko said, “Okiyo-san was your father’s girlfriend even before you were born. She lives in Mizushima.”
“You mean the woman who sent us peaches every year?” I asked, and Akiko nodded.
When Okiyo-san called during my visit, my aunt thought she was trying to get information about Hiroshi’s final days. Hiroshi had been home till the morning of his death because there was nothing more the doctors could do for his cancer. Akiko assumed he and Okiyo-san had fallen out of touch as he had gotten sicker. But Okiyo-san interrupted her account and said, “I know. We spoke a few hours before he was taken to the hospital to die. He called me and said, ‘I don’t have a lot of time left. I know this is the end.’ He was breathing so hard he could scarcely speak.” Even bedridden, Hiroshi had called Okiyo-san whenever Michiko stepped out of the room. Okiyo-san knew more about Hiroshi’s final days than Akiko did, but she was calling to ask a favor. She hadn’t been invited to the funeral. She would never be allowed inside Michiko’s house to pay respect to Hiroshi’s spirit at our family’s Buddhist altar or to visit his grave on the anniversaries of his death when people gathered to remember him.
“He loved peaches,” Okiyo-san told my aunt. “When they’re in season, may I send a box to your house? Will you take a few to the altar at his house and offer them to his spirit?”
“I promised her,” Akiko told me. “She didn’t leave me much of a choice.”
“How would you manage that?” I asked. “If you took a bag of peaches to my stepmother’s house, wouldn’t she figure out who’d sent them? It’s not as though you could just sneak them in.”
“I don’t know how I’m going to do it,” Akiko said, “but I have to try.” She shook her head and made a face.
“You could take a few oranges and apples along with the peaches,” I suggested, “to avoid being conspicuous.”
“Your stepmother doesn’t get confused so easily, but I’ll think of something.” My aunt started laughing. She was going to have to lie for Hiroshi even after his death, but maybe she didn’t mind.
Coco Chanel’s first lover, the retired army officer, lived with her openly because both his parents were dead by the time he met her. He threw parties at his house and introduced her to his friends, but at the horseraces they attended every week, she couldn’t accompany him to the raised stands. She had to watch from the muddy, grassy area below. While the wellborn ladies perched on the stands in their white dresses and feathered hats, holding ruffled parasols in their gloved hands, Chanel stood alone on the grass in her small boater and long black coat. She came to believe that true elegance lay in simplicity because, as a kept woman, she could not display herself in public.
It was easy for me to feel sorry for Okiyo-san, who had to grieve for Hiroshi in private. Unlike Michiko, she didn’t wrong me directly by becoming my stepmother. Besides, what she told Akiko let me off the hook. Hiroshi had called her every day in the last year of his life—whenever he wasn’t being watched by Michiko. He could have telephoned me as well when she wasn’t around to discourage him.
Hiroshi and I had seen each other only three times after I left the country—once in New York and twice during my eight-week visit to Kobe in 1991. He had never met Chuck or anyone from my adult life. In his last letter to me, a few months before his death, Hiroshi informed me that he and Michiko had sold their large condo and moved to a smaller one so that they could easily go to a nursing home in a few years. He said I was too selfish to help them in their old age. He wondered if I ever planned to have children instead of only taking care of myself. “What is the point of living such a selfish life?” he asked. I burned the letter without copying their new address so I wouldn’t be tempted to answer it. No, I’m not planning to have children, I wanted to say. Your legacy doesn’t deserve to be continued into the future. I had no idea he was sick, much less dying. He was 66.
Hiroshi wasn’t told about his cancer—as was the custom in Japan—so maybe he didn’t know he was dying. The doctors had reported their diagnosis only to Michiko, who told Akiko and my brother, Jumpei, and made them promise not to contact me. Hearing from me, she insisted, would only upset Hiroshi. Jumpei telephoned the day after Hiroshi’s death and asked me to come to Kobe for a week. On the flight, I kept wondering what Hiroshi and I might have said to each other if we’d known the truth. A part of me wanted to believe that Michiko had kept us from having at least one honest conversation. Okiyo-san’s story put an end to this sorry delusion. My father had plenty of time to say his last words to the people he cared about. I wasn’t one of them.
A couple of years before my father’s death, a friend from my high school had decided to get married at age 34. Nobuko had gone to college in Switzerland and gotten a job in Kobe as a regional manager for an international company. After she resigned her position, her full-time job was preparing for her omiai (arranged marriage). She and her mother went through the stacks of dossiers the marriage broker took to their house, met with numerous candidates, and, in the end, chose a widower who worked at a trading company. Her marriage made me wonder why my father had not gone to a professional matchmaker after my mother’s death. Every candidate available to Nobuko was a widower in his 40s or 50s; most had children. A woman in her 30s was considered lucky to marry at all. My father had been concerned about his reputation after my mother’s suicide. He bribed the police and the local newspapers to report that she had died from an accidental gas leak; he forbade my brother and me from telling the truth to anyone. Then, two months after my mother’s funeral, he started living with his girlfriend from a bed-and-breakfast.
Before I knew Okiyo-san’s story, I had assumed that Hiroshi had been too infatuated with Michiko to care what people thought. Between his shock about my mother’s suicide and his desire to be with Michiko—I’d imagined—he’d lost his head and chosen a hasty marriage. That didn’t explain how quickly he started staying out all night, leaving Michiko at home with my brother and me, but I concluded he was fickle. Now I wondered if Hiroshi had married Michiko so he could go on seeing Okiyo-san. Instead of losing his head, he had coolly calculated that his friends, who would shun him for marrying a divorced bar hostess, might tolerate his settling for a single woman whose mother ran a business. Michiko was in no position to object to his infidelity. If Hiroshi had married someone like my friend Nobuko and cheated on her, her family would have gotten involved. An educated woman who married late was likely to have parents who supported her no matter what. They might have advised her to divorce him and come home. He was safer with Michiko. With her, he didn’t even have to keep my mother’s suicide a secret.
My father must have been surprised when his new wife didn’t put up with his affair as easily as Takako had. No matter how upset she got, though, Michiko couldn’t stop him from seeing Okiyo-san or doing whatever he pleased once he was away from home. She couldn’t leave him any more than my mother could: she had nowhere to go. All the same, when he came home late from a bar or from a supposed business trip, Michiko was often waiting in our living room with her suitcase packed. She didn’t ask him where he’d been or with whom. Instead, she told him I had made her so miserable by talking back to her that she was determined to leave him. She complained and cried till he slapped my face in front of her, grabbed me by the hair, and pushed me down on the floor to beg her forgiveness. I knew, even back then, that I didn’t deserve to be treated this way: Hiroshi was sacrificing me to keep his freedom.
Kyoko Mori teaches creative writing at George Mason University. She is the author of the nonfiction books Yarn, The Dream of Water and Polite Lies, as well as three novels, the most recent of which is Stone Field, True Arrow.
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