Love Story Silver Winner: The Kimono

by Jeanne Stark

A story of war, lost love and hidden keepsakes.

Her name was Michiko Araki and she was my father’s girlfriend.  That’s all I know, but here is their story.

My father was 25 years old when the USS Talladega sailed into port in Honshu, Japan in October, 1945.  Hiroshima was a pile of rubble.  He wrote that it had been a long, hot trip from Zamboango, Mindanao.  He was more than 6,500 miles from his home in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.  The ship had been through a typhoon, had nearly run out of rations and had no water for showering.  He was more than ready set foot on dry land, even if it was in Japan.

My grandmother saved his letters, most penned on paper embossed with “American Red Cross” at the top of each page.  She bundled them neatly and tied them with twine. He had rescued those letters from his parents’ attic years ago when the homestead was sold and stuffed them in his army trunk in our attic.  And now, I am cleaning out my own parents’ house.  My father died a decade ago and my mother has now packed up her favorite belongings and moved into a continuous care “resort” where she dines on white linen, plays ping-pong with the available gentlemen and hops on every bus trip available.  She left behind 60 years of clutter and walked away.

Their house holds more tiny flashlights on key chains than fireflies on a summer night.  There are trinkets from trips that were never unpacked from their shopping bags.  And there are boxes of buttons that have accumulated over the years – spare buttons, matching buttons, wooden buttons, leather buttons and even military buttons off of one of my father’s army jackets.  To me, it is junk.

But, the army trunk is not junk.  It is the story of my dad’s history and at the risk of cluttering my own house, I grab the handles, struggle to get it down the attic steps and bring it home with me.  I snip the strings that held his words silent for more than 60 years and settle in to hear in my father’s own voice, the stories about his travels and being in Hiroshima during World War II.

His letters spoke of setting up barracks and fixing the doors and windows to keep the cold out, a relief from the heat he had complained so bitterly about from the Philippines.  He wrote that they had arrived during a raw, rainy period and that homesickness was setting in.  He wanted nothing more than to be home for Christmas; but it wasn’t to be.  Discharges were ranked by order of “points” a soldier accumulated based on length of stay in the military and other qualifiers; he was too far from the target so he resigned himself to being there until the spring.  Mail from the US had been chasing his battalion across the Pacific since August, not catching up with them until they settled in Honshu.  He was desperate to hear from his sweetheart, Ruth.

He was assigned to a detail to deactivate munitions in warehouses still standing on the fringes of Hiroshima, but his spare time was spent in Kaitaichi where the “Japs” were happy to see American GIs and quick to buy cigarettes and chocolates.

“I’m not sorry I came overseas but I’ll be damn glad to get back,” he wrote.  “It’s something I’ll always remember and tell my kids about.”  I found this passage in his letter dated November 30, 1945.  I was born ten years later, in November, 1955, the first born of two daughters, and our father never spoke of the war.  We would ask from time to time and he would say he didn’t remember, or “you don’t want to hear about that,” and he’d change the subject to something that would distract our young minds.  As adults, we just knew not to ask.  Now I want to know what he wanted to tell “his kids,” but never did.

His time in Kaitaichi came to an end by mid-December and he moved on to Nagoya, Japan.  He wrote to my grandparents: “Here is something you won’t believe.  In Kaitaichi I had been visiting a family quite frequently. They were very nice people.  I suppose that sounds like a strange thing to say and don’t get the idea I am sticking up for the Nips because I’m not, but these people acted different and treated us very nice.  When I told them I was leaving, they told me to come back that night for dinner.  Well, I did, and what a layout they had.  They had a table which set about a foot off the floor and on the table was steak, fried oysters, fried eggs, oranges, Saki and of course rice.  After supper we sat around and talked and then they brought in a small organ and played some songs for me.  They have the same song ‘Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot’ that we have.  For some reason they liked to hear me sing it; when I was finished the whole darned family was bawling.  They said they were going to be at the station the next day to see me off and sure enough they were there. I had my big heavy duffel bag and a small handbag and I didn’t even have to carry it on the train as one of the men carried it for me.  Everyone else was struggling and puffing trying to carry their bags and I was walking along without a thing in my hands.  Then they gave me a big bag of tangerines to eat on the train.  When the train pulled out from the station they started to bawl again.  Who would have ever thought that a bunch of Nips would cry because the Americans were leaving?  They didn’t even want me to go back to America.  The old man is a draftsman too, and when he found out what I did in America he was going to give me a job with him.”

Dad, a draftsman by trade, had kept a small, green leather-bound book in which he wrote the phonetic spelling of Japanese phrases in precise block letters.   This pocket-sized book was tucked in the army trunk with his letters.  He added to this primer over the course of the six months he spent in Japan, ever increasing his vocabulary.  But it was what was stuck behind the last page of this dictionary caught my attention.  She had a bashful smile on a round face and a thick braid of beautiful black hair wrapped around her head.   Her name was written at the bottom of the picture.

In the bottom of his army trunk was a rag — a yellow, silk rag, disheveled and tattered.  I lifted it out, shook it to chase the dust away and it began to fall apart in my hands — a delicate lining separating from the floral print.  As it fluttered from my fingertips, it began to take shape, two squared off sleeves, trailing a dress with no zippers or buttons — a kimono.  But it was damaged.  The sash was missing; the part that would have created a border up and down the front was scissored off.

I had seen this yellow silk before; I had found it tucked under the paper lining when I cleaned out my father’s bottom dresser drawer.  It had Japanese calligraphy on it and I assumed it was a sash from some Samurai warrior — something similar to the belts my son earned in his teens as he advanced through the various levels of karate.  I had tossed it aside in a box of WWII memorabilia — old military jackets and hats, a bayonet and this yellow sash.   I brought the two pieces together, and they fit, inch for inch, the cut edge of the sash fell together with the raw edge of the kimono; a woman’s kimono.

I went back to the photo, stuck behind the last page of his pocket-sized dictionary, to see if Michiko was wearing this kimono, but the photo has faded and I’ll never know.  From the pages of this book fell a letter written in tiny Japanese calligraphy on yellowed paper.   It barely had the weight of a feather, and yet it weighed heavy on my mind – the photograph, the kimono, the letter written in Japanese began to haunt my thoughts.

But cleaning out the house was more pressing.  I became an Ebay-er out of necessity.  My living room erupted with “treasured” vases, figurines, old hats and piles of buttons to post for sale.   I spread the collection of buttons across a white sheet on my dining room table, uploaded a photograph to Ebay and listed the odd assortment for a $.99 starting bid.  I watched and waited for the price to soar, but it didn’t.  It sat there, listed in red, with no takers.

Midway through the week, the buttons still had no bidders.  It confirmed my belief – this “exquisite collection of buttons” as I had marketed it, was worthless.

The week wore on and when I logged in to check on my buttons, an Ebay-er had sent a message.  “Hello, I want to bid on your buttons, but will you ship to Japan?”

“Heck, no!”  I started to reply.  I’ve been down this path before.  A book I sold went to someone in England.  The shipping cost me more than I anticipated.  I lost money on the deal.  But, I had no other offers and shipping buttons to Japan would at least move a small pile of junk across the Pacific Ocean and far from my living room.

“I have an idea,” I wrote back.  “Can you translate Japanese for me?  I have a letter written in Japanese if you can translate it for me, I will remove the buttons from the Ebay listing and send them to you free.”

Her response was swift.  “Yes, I’ll do it.”  And so began our pen-pal relationship.  I scanned the letter, written on aging and delicate paper and attached it to an e-mail.  Scanning and e-mailing seemed out of place for something written before either was even thought of.  The tiny characters written in tight lines meant nothing to me, yet finding out what they said meant everything to me.  The scanned image was legible, but unlike a photograph, I didn’t know whether it was right-side-up or up-side down; whether the lines read from the left, or the right.  I sent it off with my apologies – “You might have to rotate the page to read this,” I said.

A day later, I had my answer.

Dear Megane-san (Dear Mr. Spectacles)

The day has come when we have to part.  After you go to Nagoya-city, I think there will be no happy days.

I will never forget we had many happy days.  I can just see your sweet smiling face.

I want to see you again, but it is just a hope.  It is not likely we will be able to meet any longer.

By and by it will become colder again, take care not to fall sick and enjoy your work.

I wish all the best with you.

Good bye to my Megane-san.

From Michiko

21stDecember 1945

P.S.  I wish for you to marry a nice beautiful lady in your own country, far from this country Japan.

Somehow, I doubted that last line.  I mailed the package of buttons.  The assortment contained two buttons from Dad’s army jacket.  It seemed fitting that they were returning to Japan.  Mr. Spectacles would have liked that.

My father is no longer here to tell me the stories he said he would someday tell his kids.  I suspect this was a story he would never have told me anyway, but the story had told itself.  You can see how she felt about my father when you look into her eyes in the photograph he kept hidden for 60 years.  And he had kept the sash with bold, black Japanese calligraphy close at hand.  I wondered how often he might have peeked under that drawer liner to see the sash of her kimono and whisper her name.

I have stitched the pieces of the kimono back together, just as I have stitched their story together.  The kimono is neatly folded in a box along with my father’s little green booklet with Michiko’s picture and the letters he wrote to my grandparents.  I have tied it together with twine — our own family time capsule.  Someday my children snip these strings, find the kimono and discover his story.

My next trip is to Kaitaichi, Japan, that suburb of Hiroshima that welcomed my father at the tender age of 25.  I want to feel the magic of being where he was, marvel at the beauty of a city that sprouted from the rubble that he saw and ponder the twists and turns of life.

Previously published in The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007. I live by the saying that “You have to go to know,” and particularly love to visit World Heritage Sites so I can check them off my list.

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