How to Be an American Housewifeby Margaret Dilloway
A mother-daughter story about the strong pull of tradition, and the lure and cost of breaking free of it.
When Shoko decided to marry an American GI and leave Japan, she had her parents' blessing, her brother's scorn, and a gift from her husband-a book on how to be a proper American housewife.
As she crossed the ocean to America, Shoko also brought/b>… See more details below
A mother-daughter story about the strong pull of tradition, and the lure and cost of breaking free of it.
When Shoko decided to marry an American GI and leave Japan, she had her parents' blessing, her brother's scorn, and a gift from her husband-a book on how to be a proper American housewife.
As she crossed the ocean to America, Shoko also brought with her a secret she would need to keep her entire life...
Half a century later, Shoko's plans to finally return to Japan and reconcile with her brother are derailed by illness. In her place, she sends her grown American daughter, Sue, a divorced single mother whose own life isn't what she hoped for. As Sue takes in Japan, with all its beauty and contradictions, she discovers another side to her mother and returns to America unexpectedly changed and irrevocably touched.
Reviewed by Michelle Green
A strong-willed Japanese war bride, Shoko Morgan tries to run the perfect American household but only alienates her native-born children. Not until Shoko’s life is fading does her grown daughter Sue travel to Japan and learn who her mother really was. This radiant debut pays moving tribute to the power of forgiveness.
Shoko Morgan is a Japanese-born woman who marries an American GI and moves to the United States post WWII to be an American housewife. Her daughter, Suiko (Sue), is a divorced, single mother of a 12 year old girl named Helena. Sue is struggling with life and trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be. When Shoko becomes gravely ill, she asks Sue to travel to Japan to reunite with Taro, Shoko's estranged brother. Sue readily agrees and during her journey discovers more about her mother, her own life, and who she is as a woman.
I loved this story. Shoko and Sue really tug at your heart strings and take you along on their journey of discovery with them. This story is told in three parts. The first part is told from Shoko's POV and describes her time growing up in Japan and how she came to marry her American GI husband. Part two is told from Sue's POV and recounts her visit to Japan and the discoveries she makes while visiting there. Finally, Part 3 is told from both Shoko and Sue's perspectives, with a satisfying and tender conclusion.
Familial relationship novels are right up my alley so it is no surprise that I loved this one. The writing is beautiful and sucks you right in. I am not at all familiar with the Japanese language so I was very pleased that the author weaved in the English translation seemlessly [sic]. The novel flowed well and left me with a good feeling in my heart. Shoko and Sue's story will stay with you for some time to come.
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Table of Contents
PART ONE - Jacaranda Street
PART TWO - Butter-Kusai
PART THREE - Tokidoki
An Exciting Preview of SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
Publishers Since 1838
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright © 2010 by Margaret Dilloway
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
How to be an American housewife / Margaret Dilloway.
1. Mothers and daughters—Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
FOR MY MOTHER, SUIKO O’BRIEN, 1932-1994
Once you leave Japan, it is extremely unlikely that you will return, unless your husband is stationed there again or becomes wealthy.
Take a few reminders of Japan with you, if you have room. Or make arrangements to write to a caring relative who is willing to send you letters or items from your homeland. This can ease homesickness.
And be sure to tell your family, “Sayonara.”
—from the chapter “Turning American,”
in TAMIKO KELLY AND JUN TANAKA, How to Be an American Housewife (1955)
I had always been a disobedient girl.
When I was four, we lived in a grand house with a courtyard and a koi fishpond. My father worked as a lawyer and we were still rich, rich enough to have beautiful silk dresses and for me to have dolls with real hair and porcelain faces, not the corn-husk dolls I played with later.
We even had a nanny to help my mother. One day, Nanny told me she was taking my baby brother and me on a picnic. We walked for what seemed like miles, until my small feet were blistered. In those days, people expected more from a four-year-old than they do now.
“Where are we going?” I asked Nanny.
“To rest from the heat,” she said. “By a pond.”
I did not like Nanny. I didn’t trust how she eyed my brother, Taro, like he was the last bowl of rice. She always hugged him tight, so tight he wailed, like she wanted to absorb him into her body. She had never had a son of her own, only daughters. Sometimes she called Taro “my little peach,” like he was the peach boy out of the old fairy tale, granted as a wish to the old woman.
I told my mother that Nanny made me uncomfortable. She dismissed it as the whining of a spoiled child. “You don’t like Nanny because she makes you behave,” Mother said. “Now go with her. I have business in town, and your father is busy, too.”
Nanny was old and had a crippled leg; she moved slowly. We stopped by a tree-shaded pond to play and have lunch. Afterward, in the high-noon heat, she took us under a willow tree to nap. Day turned to night. I awoke with a start to see the moon rising above the fields. “Where are we?” I asked.
“Shush,” Nanny said soothingly, smoothing my bangs back. “We’re going on a trip to my hometown.” She looked down the road as though waiting for someone, or something. Her eyes glittered black onyx in the dim light. Taro began wailing and Nanny stuck a bottle into his mouth. “Go back to sleep, Shoko-chan.”
Something was not right. We had missed supper. Mother didn’t allow us to stay outside past dark. I stood. “You take us home right now!” I screamed.
“Sit down, sit down,” Nanny said, trying to push on my shoulders. “You bad girl, listen to Nanny.”
“No!” I kicked her in the shin as hard as I could, then pushed Taro’s pram back up the road. I knew the way home, even though it was far.
Nanny’s hand grabbed my arm and she lifted me up. Now she looked like a terrible witch, her wiry white hair free of her scarf, her jagged teeth bared like a wolf. “We’re going on a trip. You must listen to Nanny!”
I bit her hand, bearing down hard in desperation. She yowled and dropped me. I stood up and pushed Taro away again.
This time she didn’t follow. I looked back once and saw her standing in the middle of the road, holding her hand. Taro wailed.
Mother and Father were outside the wall of our house, looking left and right. They’d sent servants out looking for us. When they heard Taro, they ran to meet us. “Where have you been?” Mother cried, sweeping me up. Father cradled Taro to his face. Taro quieted.
“I told you she was no good!” I said, and recounted what had happened.
Some mothers would have not believed their child, but mine did. Mother said she had tried to steal us. Or, at the very least, steal my brother. Who knows what she would have done with me.“If it weren’t for Shoko,” Mother would retell visitors, shaking her head, “Ai!”
I was a hero. All because I wouldn’t listen.
WITHIN A YEAR OR SO AFTER THAT, Father tired of dealing with bad people in his business. “Too much cheating,” he told my mother. “All anyone cares about is money. Money is God.”
He was always so busy. Perhaps he felt guilty that a nanny had almost made off with his children. He decided to sell the house and his practice and become a priest in the Konkokyo, the Konko Church.
In 1859, there was a Japanese village where people feared a god called Konjin, who brought misfortune. One farmer named Kawate Bunji had a streak of bad luck. Once when Bunji fell very ill, he was visited by the god Konjin, who told him that people shouldn’t fear him, that he was good, and that his real name was Tenchi Kane no Kami, “One True God of Heaven and Earth.” When Bunji became well, word of his visit from Konjin spread. People came to the farmer Bunji for help, and Tenchi Kane no Kami would speak through him. Bunji’s name became Konkokyo Daijin, and he became a god, too. The Konko Church was born.
Mother never made a word of complaint when Father became a priest. Instead, she sold the house and all of our fine possessions, bargaining a more than fair price—“It goes to the church and brings you honor, what more could you wish?” she told the buyer. She let me keep one doll, my Shirley Temple with curly hair Father had bought in Tokyo, the one that melted later when I left it too close to the fireplace.
We moved to a tiny house with dirt floors covered by tatami mats. It was near the church in Ueki where my father would serve as priest. My sister, Suki, who was born that year, never knew a different life. I think that was why she was such a happy person. Or maybe it was because our parents never acted differently, rich or poor. Mother always made arrangements of flowers to brighten the room. We celebrated the festivals, with a little less feasting. Only I, with my memories of dolls and dresses, felt resentment.
Taro and I always played together. We were good friends until it began to bother Taro that I could hit a ball farther than he could, or climb a higher tree, or beat him in every race.
When Father decided I was too old to be a tomboy, around age thirteen, he made me take dance lessons, like all young ladies did. I did what my father told me to do. I was disobedient, not foolish. I learned how to flip open a fan with a flick of my wrist, peering over it at the audience. I also learned the shamisen, which was a little harp. The teacher said I was a beauty, and very talented. I didn’t quite believe her until I saw how the men watched me at our talent show.
I came onstage in my beautiful silk kimono and red lips as my teacher played her shamisen. The bulbs shone in my eyes, but I would not squint. I lowered my gaze and snapped open my fan as I launched into the dance.
I heard an intake of breath from the men. I looked up and saw their admiring gazes fixed on me. I blushed, and kept on, knowing that wherever I went onstage their stares would follow. The other girls became invisible. I had more power in dance than I did at baseball.
I understood then that my skills in school or in sports would not make my life come about in the way I wished. I took my bows at that recital, vowing I would learn what I needed and make the best marriage possible.
THE WAR HAD CHANGED my life’s direction from East to West. I heard about Pearl Harbor from my father. I was in third grade. Father, a priest in a religion that believed in peace, was worried. “America is so big,” he fretted. “They will destroy us.”
Mother reassured him. “If the Emperor says we will win, it will be fine. Japan is mighty.”
Father seemed to be the only one around who questioned the Emperor. Everyone else thought we would triumph easily and show the West how strong we were. Even Father dared not bad-mouth the Emperor in public. The Emperor was supposed to be a god, and to say anything to the contrary could land you in prison.
At first, the war stayed far away, something we knew only from the radio. Then we began having blackouts and sirens. We built shelters in the hillsides to hide in when the planes came.
“Why would they bother with a countryside village, with no targets except chickens?” Father said.
But they did. One night, the alarms went off and we blacked out our windows so the planes wouldn’t have easy targets. “It’s just a drill,” Father told us. We didn’t bother to go out to the shelters.
But then we heard a great roar, the bombers overhead.
A blast rumbled the house. Something had been destroyed. At first light, I went outside. Our neighbor, Mrs. Miyama, and her little boy had been using their outhouse, and the light had been a beacon. Just like that, they were gone.
Another time, Taro, Suki, and I were walking to school. It was fall, the air just turning cold, the sky still gray. We had on our navy-blue-and-white school uniforms, our nice shoes that we could wear only to school. I remember that Taro’s hair was slicked down as flat as Mother could get it.
Our road went through farmland, a country road with country people, nothing of any significance. Nothing that the Americans should bother with. Suddenly we heard the roar again. It was deafening. Suki stopped and clapped her hands over her ears. Father had told me what to do.
“Drop!” I ordered, pulling my sister to the ground and falling on top of her. Taro fell, too.
There were popping noises and the brown dirt in front of us lifted. We were being shot at. Three little children. I put my head down and prayed that we would be all right. The plane flew past and I started to get up.
The noise returned as the plane turned around. “It’s coming back!” Taro yelled. He grabbed my arm, I grabbed Suki’s arm, and we jumped over an embankment into an irrigation ditch at the side of the road. I looked up and saw the pilot and the plane as it came low. It had a star on its side, a skull and crossbones on the tail, and a half-naked woman painted near the front. The pilot saw me and laughed. He had been playing with us, scaring us. If he had wanted to, he could have killed us. That was the first time I ever saw an American.
Suki’s face and body were muddy, and she was wailing. I took a chunk of mud out of her pigtails. Taro stood up and kicked at the dirt embankment, causing a slew of pebbles to fall down. He shook his fist toward the plane. “We will kill you all!” he shouted. “American fiends!”
I HAD NOT THOUGHT of this story for years.
I sat up on the couch in my San Diego living room, where I had been napping. Bright morning light made the room uncomfortably warm.
When I had told this story to my daughter, Sue, when she was still young enough to ask for stories, she had looked at me as if I were telling a grim fairy tale. “Why would they do that?” she had whispered, her eyes big.
“Those stories scare her,” my husband, Charlie, had said. “The past is past.”
He was right. And so I hardly talked about my past at all to my daughter. It was a lifetime ago. I had grown tired of my own stories, even of my old dreams. What good did dreams do me now? When you are young, dreams are the reason you pray for a new year and better luck.
Except for this. This one small dream of mine.
Taro and I together again.
I got a piece of tissue-thin airmail stationery and my husband’s fountain pen out of the desk drawer. Sitting down on the floor at the coffee table, I put the pen to my lips, thinking. From the garage, Charlie sang as he put laundry in the washer. One of my adult son Mike’s cats meowed at the screen door. I began my letter to Taro.
Many American husbands enjoy traditional aspects of Japanese culture, including the o-furo and the massage.
American husbands expect their Wives to be well-versed in massage as a Japanese tradition. Many men find that a small Japanese wife is an asset when she walks on his back after a long, tiring day.
Often when a Japanese person begins consuming Western foods, they become fat. Do not overindulge. It is important to keep oneself at a light enough weight so that the husband’s back is uninjured.
The o-furo may also be enjoyed by your husband. Offering to scrub his back as you would with a Japanese spouse is likely to be welcomed. It is a small piece of service you may offer to him.
—from the chapter “A Map to Husbands,”
How to Be an American Housewife
I carried the letter into my bedroom, pushing the door shut with my shoulder. We had lived here for over thirty years, and still this bedroom door was not fixed. I looked about for a place to hide the letter. Not that my husband, Charlie, was nosy, but he always thought of reasons to say no to me.
I stuck the note into my underwear drawer in the dresser. I met the eyes of the two Japanese samurai dolls in their glass case on top of the bureau. The man had a sword, and the girl had a tiny metal knife tucked into her kimono sleeve. A secret weapon no one saw. Underneath their case I had a secret of my own.
I opened the little glass door and lifted out the dolls, then lifted up a hidden compartment. Inside that was my hesokuri, my secret money. I’d been pinching pennies all these years. Stealing out of Charlie’s change jar, saving bits of our tax refunds and Charlie’s Navy retirement checks. Now I had a lot. Enough to go to Japan. I touched the cash and smiled.
Then I opened my closet to decide what to wear to see my cardiologist, Dr. Cunningham. Lately, I had been seeing him too much, getting tests and medications. My heart was giving out, and other things along with it. Last summer, I’d gotten Bell’s palsy, paralyzing my face’s right side for a week. I got a patch, like a pirate, so my eye wouldn’t dry out. People crossed the street when they saw me coming. Once, they would have crossed the street to look at me.
“I ugly now,” I said to Charlie more than once, just to hear him tell me I was beautiful.
He didn’t disappoint. “You’re beautiful still, Shoko.”
“Why this happen?” I asked.
“No one knows,” he said. “Only God.”
Only God. I prayed to kamisama, not God, as my parents had raised me. I sighed and took out a pair of slacks I had worn the previous week, wondering if Dr. Cunningham would recognize them.
Unlike many of the new doctors at Balboa Naval Medical Center, where the doctors who just graduated from medical school go for training, Dr. Cunningham seemed to know what was going on.
I liked Dr. Cunningham. He looked just like Tyrone Power, a movie star I had loved when I was young. And he was single! If I had been young and single, I could have gotten him for sure. When I was in my teens, I’d been the prettiest girl around. High defined cheekbones, Cupid’s bow of a full mouth, shiny blue-black hair, and pale white skin, like a baby’s. I had an hourglass shape even with no girdle—a full bust, tiny waist (twenty-two inches), and womanly bottom. Men chased me from the time I turned twelve. And I enjoyed it, though being a nice girl, I shouldn’t have.
My own daughter was as enchanting, if not more so. She didn’t have short Japanese legs like I did. Her limbs were long and lean, her neck and fingers graceful. Eurasians were exotic, and men liked that, too. Sue could have had anyone, if she’d only waited for college before finding a husband, instead of marrying the first boy who came along. Which did not last, as I knew it would not.
I said to Dr. Cunningham, “My daughter could marry anyone, you know. Rich businessman love her.”
And then Dr. Cunningham said, “If she’s half as lovely as you, Mrs. Morgan, I’m missing out.” He was so nice!
I picked up the phone by the bed now and dialed Sue’s cell phone, hoping she wouldn’t see my number and let it go to voice mail. I held my breath, waiting. She picked up. “What’s up, Mom?” She sounded artificially cheerful. I imagined her sitting at her desk, twirling her dark brown hair around one finger, her pale face greenish in the light from her computer screen.
“Suiko-chan. You wanna take me doctor today?” I asked. “Got appointment after lunchtime.”
I heard her carefully repressed sigh. “Is Dad busy?”
“Don’t know. Maybe so.” I couldn’t tell her that Charlie had taken me yesterday and the day before that. I didn’t want to worry her.
“I have a meeting, Mom.” Sue was a manager at a financial services firm. Her voice turned brisk. “Are you still trying to get me to meet your doctor?”
I was glad she couldn’t see the surprise on my face. If I could have, I would have chosen a husband for Sue. Sue needed someone already established, who had done all the hard work already. She needed someone to take care of her, so the dark circles under her eyes would go away.
Dr. Cunningham would be perfect. But in America, they find husbands themselves. I had found Charlie myself, almost American-style, and maybe I would have done things differently if I could go back.
“He’s not interested, Mom,” Sue said, her voice so flat it made my heart ache even more. “He’s being polite. What’s he supposed to say? Don’t bother the man.”
“But you need see this guy. If I you, I grab him up! Single doctor won’t last long.” I tried to keep my voice light, but my daughter didn’t understand. A single doctor really wouldn’t last long.
Sue snorted. “Mom, please. I can find my own man.”
But she couldn’t.
I heard what she was saying. Stay out of my life. I sat for a moment in silence. I am writing a letter to your uncle now, I wanted to tell her. I am going to Japan. Don’t you want to know? I wanted to tell her so much more.
Dr. Cunningham had told me my heart was getting flabby, which meant it wasn’t working well. He wanted me to have surgery with a specialist. They would cut a wedge out and make it smaller. “It’s risky, but not as risky as a transplant,” he had said.
“Fine,” I had said. It took them months to schedule anything. I’d be to Japan and back before the first pre-op appointment.
“Is there something else, Mom?” Sue was trying to sound patient but not succeeding.
I tried to think quickly of something that would make her want to come with me. My daughter was too sensitive, too fast to hear criticism. Perhaps it was partially my fault.
I did not have the knack of subtlety. When she was a college sophomore, Sue had come to me while I was in my bedroom one afternoon. She squeaked the door closed, her face so pale, even in the golden light coming in from the west, that I thought she was ill. She sat on my side of the bed, next to the photo of my parents. “What’s a matter you, Suiko-chan?” I asked her.
“Craig and I are going to move in together,” she whispered.
I was shocked. I shouted at her. “You do that,” I said, “and we no pay college no more! You bring shame on us.” In my town, my family would never have been able to show their faces again if I had done something so scandalous.
Sue had looked around. “Shame from whom? We don’t have any family here. The neighbors don’t care.” The afternoon sun made her hair glint red. “Besides, you’re hardly paying anything. I have a ton of loans.”
“I no can hold my head up.” I was really hoping this would make her ditch Craig.
She had sighed. Nineteen years old, she was at the peak of her beauty. She thought her beauty would go on forever. The way I thought mine would. She needed to find someone better while she still could. “Then it’s Plan B. We’re getting married.”
“Marry?” I closed my eyes and changed my tactics. My lovely daughter could not marry this person, the first boy she’d ever kissed. I had told her that you should only kiss if you were going to get married, but that was to keep her from being a slut. I never thought she’d take it so seriously. “Why you gonna marry same guy you drag around high school? That’s why we send college. Find good man marry.”
“There’s nothing wrong with Craig.” Sue’s voice rose in anger.
She was right. There was nothing wrong with him. Except he would make a lousy husband. Too flighty, too artistic. High-maintenance. Maybe in twenty years he’d be ready. “Sue,” I pleaded.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be out of your hair in a week,” she spat, leaving the house. “I won’t shame you anymore.” The next weekend, she was in Vegas. Too young to drink but old enough to get married. And to have a baby.
I never said a bad word about Craig again, no matter what he did or how he acted.
Sue thought differently than I did, and I didn’t understand her. Sometimes I thought I had chased her out of the house too soon, been too hard on her the way I had been too easy on her brother. It seemed both parenting methods had failed.
On the line with my daughter, I heard another beep. “Mom, my boss is calling me,” Sue said. “Is there anything else you needed?”
It wasn’t the right time to tell her everything. Not on the phone. “Go, then.” I hung up. I suspected her boss wasn’t on the phone, that she was simply tired of listening to her old mother. But she couldn’t keep the honcho waiting.
I got dressed. In my bedroom, I had crammed pieces of Japan everywhere, all covered up. There was a hand-painted folding screen by the closet, wrapped in black trash bags. Scrolls and fans were in boxes in the closet. I didn’t want anything to be ruined by the light, not until I could take them out again. When the kids took their junk out of the other bedrooms, I would make a Japanese room.
These things used to be displayed, treasured. When Charlie first brought me from Japan to Norfolk, I decorated our home to the best of my ability, with my Japanese furniture that Charlie and I had taken equal delight in picking out and that the Navy had shipped over: the Japanese screen painted with a waterfall and peacocks; ink-painted scrolls; statues of badgers and lions; and silk satin floor cushions I’d made. We had a sofa, too, but no one used it. With Mike a baby, the floor was more convenient.
Once a week, I’d go to the park and clip whatever foliage and flowers I could find, arranging them in the Japanese way on the sideboard. A tall piece, a medium-size piece, and a small, all designed to suggest nature.
We had lived in a small two-bedroom town house with floors so crooked, you could roll a Coke can from one end to the other. Charlie was getting ready to ship out for at least a year, and it would be just me and the baby.
Charlie’s relatives lived in Maryland, and they came to visit a few times. His mother, Millie, a stout woman who had borne eight children in ten years, was so encouraging that I thought all Americans would be like her. “Don’t you marry her and then get rid of her like everybody else,” she took Charlie aside and warned. Many Japanese women who married servicemen got abandoned when they got to the States and they found out how hard it was to live in a biracial marriage. Even more got left back in Japan, pregnant and unmarried.
“Don’t worry,” Charlie said.
“You call if you need anything, and I’ll get someone to take me here,” his mother said every time she left.
“Yes, Mother.” I knew I would never bother her.
When she visited, she would bring me practical things, like boxes of tissue or a frying pan. I was grateful, but not when she looked around our small apartment.
It was different from her house, where nobody took off their shoes and they would rather use bricks and boards for shelving than spend money on furniture, and the only decorations were pictures of Jesus. If she had flowers, she stuck them all in a vase so big you couldn’t see the other person at the table.
“This is all so fancy,” Millie said every time she visited, trying to understand but not succeeding.
This way of living was the only way I knew. I couldn’t live in a space without having something lovely to look at. Even when my parents were poor, they could still trim a pine bush outside into a bonsai. I imagined Millie went home and talked about how Charlie’s wife spent all his money on unimportant clutter.
Charlie enjoyed Japanese art, though. I tried to teach him sumi-e brush painting, but no matter how much he practiced, his paintings looked like rudimentary stick figures. “How you get a few strokes to look like a deer—you’re a genius,” he said to me.
I only knew what a “genius” was from his awed tone. “Try again.”
“There’s only room for one genius here.” He had three of my paintings matted and framed, and they hung in a trio on the wall.
Adjusting to the U.S. was difficult in other ways for me, especially in the beginning. If I borrowed an egg from a neighbor, I returned two, the Japanese way. They didn’t understand; why did I give them two? It made them angry, like I was insulting them. When you “borrowed” an egg or a cup of sugar in America, you never actually returned it. Charlie had to explain: “It’s her tradition.”
“Never heard of a tradition like that,” our neighbors said.
When Charlie wasn’t home to explain my odd ways to people, I went to the store alone, with Mike bundled up in a thousand layers in his stroller. I made sure to dress up. My favorite outfit was a pencil skirt, button-up black blouse with white pipe trim, and heels. It wasn’t the most comfortable thing to take care of a child in, but I was young and didn’t care. I wanted to look presentable, not like a maid or a Jap with buckteeth and wild hair, but an American girl.
As I walked the two blocks from housing to the store, people stopped and stared, whispering, “There goes that Jap wife!” I smiled and waved, even when mothers held their children against them. A few of them stopped me, said hello, wanted to touch my hair, so much coarser than theirs. “Like horsehair!” they exclaimed.
I reminded myself that the Japanese had done the same thing with Charlie and his fire-red hair. “There goes the demon!” they had whispered. Certainly I could take it.
I kept my head high and said, “Hello!” I had practiced my l sounds in the mirror before I ever left Japan. It didn’t matter whether people said hello back or not. I was holding up my end. What they did was their own business.
I SWUNG MY LEGS up onto the bed and massaged my ankle, wishing I could run for miles, like Sue could. I remembered how it felt not to get winded. When I was a kid, I had been a real tomboy. “Stay inside, Shoko,” Father had said to me. “Your skin will get dark.”
But I loved to play baseball, and I hit the ball better than the boys. I still loved baseball today. I watched every game I could on television, making Charlie grumble. He hated sports. I hated being indoors, but now allergies and the sun bothered me too much to spend time outside.
Once, when I was little, I sneaked out to the field where my brother played ball with his friends. “Go home and do the laundry, Shoko,” Taro yelled at me when he saw me. His friends laughed and Taro drew himself up taller than he was, which was still half a head shorter than me. His black hair poked out crazily from under his ball cap; Taro had an unfortunate double-helix cowlick on the crown of his head. “We don’t want girls messing up our game.”
I couldn’t let my little brother speak that way to me, especially in front of his older friend, Tetsuo, who always looked at me in a sly way and winked. I squared my shoulders. “I bet you your manju that I hit a home run.” Our mother was making the steamed sweet bean cakes. Treats were getting fewer these days, so this was a bet of the utmost seriousness.
Of course I did hit a homer. Tetsuo and the other boys hooted and hollered. And Taro ran home and told our father, who beat me with a willow stick. “For being better than a boy?” I had shouted at him as he did it.
“For disobedience,” Father had said, giving me an extra whack for talking back. Father, a tall and skinny scholar with glasses falling down his nose, hardly had the heart to give me a good beating. He did it only because it was the right thing for a father to do when a daughter ran wild.
Worst of all, he gave Taro my manju. But that night, after everyone had gone to sleep, I’d been awakened by a soft prodding on my cheek and the smell of sweet beans at my nose. “Here, Shoko-chan,” Taro had whispered. “I’m sorry.” He had given me two, his and mine.
“You better be sorry,” I had responded, stuffing both into my cheeks. “I’ll really fix you next time.” I punched his arm. Taro giggled, and we drifted to sleep, the manju beans making my lips sticky.
Was Taro even still alive?
If you are lucky enough to become a mother to a son, do not attempt to raise him in the American way. Raise him in the Japanese way and he will become a fine young man in the Japanese tradition.
This means treating him better than you treat your husband. Prepare all your son’s favorite meals, buy him toys when he desires them, try to accommodate all his desires before he can voice them. In this way, you will gain his respect and appreciation.
—from the chapter “American Family Habits,”
How to Be an American Housewife
Charlie interrupted my memories by coming in and patting my shin. “You want me to bring you Sanka in here?”
I sat up, then lay back down. How idiotic that the simple act of getting dressed had tired me out. Some days were better than others. “Please.”
“Okay.” He got up and left before I could mention my letter.
I stretched, thinking about how I would run after I got my heart fixed, then got up and applied my makeup. I only wore it to the store or to the doctor’s, really the only places we ever went anymore.
Loud TV came out of my son’s room, which was across from ours. I smelled cigarettes. My chest tightened. I went out and pounded on his door. “No smoke in house, Mike!”
He cracked the door open, his nearly black eyes rimmed with red. There were so many papers and trash and clothes on the floor you couldn’t see the carpet. At the foot of his bed was a big-screen TV, up too loud. “What?” he said, like when he was sixteen, me trying to get him to come out for dinner, when he’d rather eat in his room alone. This was Mike’s way.
Mike looked much more Japanese than Sue. He had sharp high cheekbones, eyes that turned up at the corners. His nose had a flat bridge like my brother’s, but was long like his father’s. Ever since he was little, wherever we went, people had stared at his Asian eyes, his sharp cheekbones, and his coarse black hair. He looked like the star of an old samurai movie, out of place in this time. I told him to stick his tongue out at them.
Maybe that was why he preferred the company of animals. Everywhere we moved, he had fish and a lizard. I wouldn’t let him have cats and dogs until after we were done with our overseas tours, so we wouldn’t have to give them up.
Moving so much for the Navy had been hard for Mike. It took him about two and a half years to make a good friend, and three years was how long each duty station lasted. When we left Washington state, Mike was six. He had sat down in the doorway of our old Craftsman bungalow and held on to the doorjamb, rocking himself back and forth while the movers hauled off our belongings, while his little friend Jimmy came to say good-bye, and his father and I packed the car. Five hours total. Nothing would budge him. “I’m staying. I like it.”
I tried to pick him up. “Come on. We miss plane.”
His fingernails left grooves in the wood, and he screeched. It sounded like a bald eagle getting shot down. He banged his head on the doorjamb.
“You hurt self! Stop!” I tried to block him and he gave me a tremendous slap on the arm. I backed off.
“Cut it out, Mike.” Charlie put the last piece of luggage in the car and turned around, his face reddening in anger. “Get over here right now.”
“I’ll run away.” Mike looked up at me. His face was sweaty and tear-stained. A bright red gash and a purple bruise were starting to appear. I bent to touch it and he jerked away.
I looked at my husband. Charlie wiped his brow, then sat down next to him and put his arm around him. “Mike, Daddy’s getting time off after we move. I’ll take you fishing in Guam. You won’t believe the fish they have there. And the water’s so warm. You can swim every day.” Charlie always made the most of his leave time, taking Mike camping and fishing and giving me a break to be alone.
“But Jimmy’s not there.”
“You can write.”
He glared at his father. “I don’t know how.”
Charlie ignored that. “Listen. This is how life is, Mike, and you have to adjust.” Charlie stood up. “Get in the car.”
He held on to the doorjamb. “No.”
Charlie looked at Mike, then at me. “Fine. Get in the car, Shoko.”
Charlie turned the ignition on and drove away quickly.
“What you doing?” I cried, looking back at my son. Mike’s mouth was open in a wail.
“Teaching him a lesson for throwing a tantrum.”
I turned, wondering if Mike would run to the neighbor’s, if he would run down the driveway after us. Mike was still holding on to the house.
We drove to the end of the block, then turned around. Mike was still on the doorstep, his hands now in his lap, his face covered by new tears.
“I thought you left me,” he said, hiccuping.
“We never leave you.” I tried to put my arms around him. He pushed me off.
He stared. I saw that he did not believe me.
“You ready now?” Charlie asked him.
He went silently to the car, his head hanging down. Mike was too easily broken. What other children shrugged off, Mike could not. I shook my head at Charlie and got in the backseat next to my son. Charlie drove us silently to the airport.
Mike never complained about moving again. Instead he would sit in a corner, a blanket pulled over his head, shutting out us and the rest of the world, until I took him by the hand and led him to the car.
I stared at him now, an adult leaning against his doorjamb, seeing the little boy. “The smoke hurt my heart.”
“What’s the problem? I’ve got the window open.” He cleared his throat. I hoped he wouldn’t get lung cancer.
A black cat ran into the hallway. “Shoot.” Mike had just gotten a notice to get out of his old place. Over the years, Mike had moved out and back more times than I could count. This time, he moved back in with four cats. They peed all over the living room. I put my foot down. Now he kept them in his room, taking out the window screen so they could come in and out as they liked. But we were near a mountain, and coyotes had eaten two in the last week.
Mike slammed his door shut, chasing the cat. I leaned against the wall. He caught it in the living room and brought it back, cradled in his arms like a baby.
I crossed my arms. “You pay Daddy first month rent?”
Mike shrugged, pushing back his long hair with one hand. He went in his room and returned with a hundred-dollar bill, handing it to me without a word.
“How work going?” Mike had begun a new job at a pet store.
He shrugged again, and his eyes flicked back toward his closed door like he was missing his favorite show. “Fine.”
“Maybe you go back school, be a vet? You like that. Never too late.” I would go back to school, if I could. Grossmont Community College was only a mile away.
I knew he only said that to make me shut up. “No more smoke room. Outside only.”
“Fine.” He was barely listening, his head cocked toward the television dialogue.
I wanted to tell him more: that he needed to clean the filthy bathroom he used; that he should rinse out his dishes; that he should keep his room neat. It was no use. If he cleaned the bathroom, first I’d have to nag, and then he’d do a halfway bad job at it, so I would have to redo it anyway. It was easier for me or Charlie to do, even with our ailments.
“You have dinner with us?” I asked him.
“What mean? Say yes, say no. No shrug.”
“No, then.” He shuffled his feet.
“Yeah.” The cat in his arms purred. He put his nose to its nose.
“You not watch so much TV. Make brain Jell-O. Read book.” I scratched the cat’s neck. It licked my hand, sandpapery wet.
“Okay.” Mike opened his door and disappeared inside.
I wondered if we should keep letting him move back in. After all, he was fifty. But he still hadn’t married. And who would ever marry him?
I raised him like my mother had raised my brother. By doing everything for him. I knew no better. I had hoped he would still grow up to be a hard worker. Japanese boys turn out fine raised like this, but apparently not Americans. Or not my son.
When Mike was a toddler and we lived in Virginia, I’d take him to the park and try to meet other children for playmates. For both of us.
Children that young—Mike was a year and a half—didn’t care what a child looked like. Their mothers did. “He doesn’t look the least bit American,” one mother remarked to me as our sons dug sand near each other. “He really takes after you.”
The mothers varied from polite to downright cold. I couldn’t blame them. Some had lost their fathers in the war with Japan. But I felt they could afford to be a little forgiving, seeing as how we lost in the end. Especially the manner in which we lost.
Time did not make our way smoother. When Mike was twelve and playing Little League in Oakland, all the mothers had to make treats for their end-of-season party. Mike had told me about it as I sat on the bleachers watching the game, by myself, on the top row. “It’s tomorrow,” he said, throwing the ball into his mitt and not looking at me.
The other mothers sat a few rows down or clumped in groups of two or three. They wore button-down shirts in pastel colors and capri pants, like a secret uniform. “Why they no tell me?” I asked.
He shrugged and asked for snack money. I gave him a quarter and moved two benches down to Jackie, the team mother. Jackie had dark hair and a flip just like Jackie O, whom she resembled. She wore a giant floppy straw hat.
Jackie smiled politely and I back at her. “Hi, Shoko, how are you?”
“Very well, thank you.” I used my softest, most pleasant voice. “Jackie. I bring popacor-nu barus to party.”
“What’s that?” Jackie said, not moving her lips from the smile.
She blinked. “I’m sorry. One more time?”
“Popacor-nu. Barus.” I made the shape with my hands.
Jackie was silent, her head cocked to the side, the smile fading. The other mothers watched. Did they not understand, either?
Mike had come back and was standing in the dirt by the bleachers, watching. “It’s popcorn balls!” he shouted. “What the hell is so hard to understand? You people are stupid. This team is stupid.” He threw his hat down.
I never went to another game. But neither did I cry about it. Mike did not, either, or if he did, he did not let us know.
I sorrowed for Mike. He had not changed much from the little boy on the front stoop. Less fussy, yes. But still easily broken. No one had ever been able to understand him. Always, he was moody, a loner, smart as a whip but lazy. Often he was in his own world, amusing himself. Today, Charlie said Mike might have been called “mildly autistic,” but not when he was growing up. Back then, he was just different, and we had done the best we could.
I only hoped that Charlie would let Mike keep staying here after I was gone. He had nowhere else to go.
CHARLIE CAME DOWN THE HALL, a mug of Sanka in his hands.“You want to have spaghetti tonight?”
What People are saying about this
-Jamie Ford, author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
"In How to Be an American Housewife, Margaret Dilloway creates an irresistible heroine. Shoko is stubborn, contrary, proud, a wonderful housewife, and full of deeply conflicted feelings. I wanted to shake her, even as I was cheering her on, and this cunningly structured novel allowed me to do both. It also took me on two intricate journeys, from postwar Japan and the shadow of Nagasaki to contemporary California, and from motherhood to daughterhood and back again. A profound and suspenseful debut."
-Margot Livesey, author of The House on Fortune Street
"A triumphant debut novel. Margaret Dilloway gives us the most original, endearing, courageous and enduring narrator I've read in a long time. Shoko's voice is one of a kind, yet as familiar as advice from your own mother. Her unforgettable story of triumph, tragedy, disappointment and joy will stay with me."
-Susan Wiggs, author of Just Breathe
"How to Be an American Housewife is filled with dreams and lovethe kinds that come true and those that don't. Margaret Dilloway is wise and ironic. She has created wonderful characters who never, in spite of hardships, stop finding ways to love each other."
-Luanne Rice, author of The Deep Blue Sea for Beginners
"Margaret Dilloway has written a compulsively readable novel about the timeless, fraught, and ultimately powerful relationships between mothers and daughters, and brothers and sisters. How to Be an American Housewife confirms that redemption and happy endings are always possible."
-Patricia Wood, author of Lottery
"How to Be an American Housewife is witty, rich, layered, and so very satisfying. Dilloway's talent shines through from the very first page, and I was terribly sorry when it ended. This is by far one of the best books I've read in ages."
-Jane Porter, author of Easy on the Eyes
"How to Be an American Housewife is equal parts multilayered and beautifully nuanced - an enthralling debut told in an utterly original voice."
- Holly Kennedy, author of The Penny Tree
"Charming, poignant and life affirming. Dilloway reminds us of the triumph of love over geography, silence and misunderstanding. She makes us glad to be alive."
-Ann Hood, author of The Knitting Circle
"Dilloway is one of those remarkable writers that can completely transport you to a unique place in time. In How to Be an American Housewife I became both Shoko, the Japanese war bride, and Sue, the American daughter straddling two cultures. The richness of detail will have you reaching for your kimono before you realize it didn't happen to you."
-Kerry Reichs, author of Leaving Unknown
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