Honorable Gift

Honorable Gift

From Chicken Soup for the Military Wife's Soul

Honorable Gift

Love is a choice you make from moment to moment.

Barbara De Angelis

“Mama-San, stop working on your lists. I bring you a cup of coffee. The obi screen is finished so I have story to tell,” Mura-San, our Japanese maid, said.

We only had six weeks left in Japan. Time to clean out, pack up, rush to see all we’d missed and begin to say our good-byes. Terry’s three-year tour at the Naval Hospital, Yokosuka, had flown by. In June 1972, we would leave for San Diego and his retirement from the navy.

Three years ago, I was warned, “Don’t buy anything the first year. Take time to learn what you really like.”

I found I loved the fabrics used to create kimonos and their wide sashes called obis. Old fabric was a treasure, since, being flammable, most did not survive World War II. I told Mura-San to let me know if she ever heard of any antique obis for sale.

Weeks later she brought me a tissue-wrapped bundle. It contained a lovely cream, peach and pale-green floral obi. I loved it. “What do I owe you for the obi?” I asked.

“I give to you. A friend owe me a favor. She gave me her obi. You will have a screen made from it to honor the obi,” Mura-San said.

I was busy attending a university, with three teenage children, a husband and military social obligations. I put the obi in the rosewood chest and procrastinated. One day, exasperated by my dawdling, Mura-San announced that we were taking the obi to Yokohama’s Motomachi Street to visit the screen maker’s shop.

The screen maker didn’t speak English, and my Japanese was barely basic, so Mura-San haggled, explained, discussed dimensions and timing. It would cost about seventy-two thousand yen (three hundred dollars) and would be ready in a month.

Now, on this May day, the screen stood, in the corner of the dining room, wrapped and packed for shipping.

I sipped my coffee and watched Mura-San glide gracefully as she carried her cup and a box of tissues to the table. Japanese women her age, trained in childhood to walk in wooden geta, walked like swans skimming a pond. She was short, solid with middle age and wore her gray-streaked black hair in a simple pageboy cut. She could read and write English as well as speak it. I knew very little of her life; she had never married and she lived alone in a small house on a narrow, winding lane near downtown Yokohama.

We often sat together discussing menus, shopping lists and the children’s schedules. She knew the details of our daily lives while I knew little of hers. I depended on her to help my husband and me keep our lives running smoothly. I could not have attended Sophia University in Tokyo, two nights a week, without her help at home.

She wiped her eyes, sipped the coffee she loved, took a deep breath, and began: “I was sixteen years old and still in school when my father decided it was time to arrange a marriage for me. He chose a twenty-year-old man named Yoshi. Our families were friends. My father would not have forced me into marriage, but I liked Yoshi. Girls were expected to marry and have grandchildren for their parents. We were taught that love and devotion came after marriage.

“Yoshi and I became engaged, which pleased both families. My mother and aunts spent much time shopping for new clothes for me to wear to all the parties and dinners planned for Yoshi and me. We made many trips to kimono makers and obi shops. There were elegant silks for dress up and cottons for everyday. We wore kimono whenever we went out. My favorite outfit was the one I wore to the formal engagement party. It was in mid-August 1941. I was very hot in those layers of clothing, and I was so nervous I perspired. I was afraid I would ruin my new kimono and obi. The wedding was planned for the next spring at cherry-blossom time.

“Yoshi was called to join the air force in February of 1942. When I told him good-bye, I knew he might not return.”

Tears welled in her eyes and her hand trembled as she took a sip from her cup. “Maybe you would like to tell me the rest later,” I said.

“No, I have to tell it all now,” she replied. “When the bombing planes started coming over Japan, my father decided to move to an old farm in the country that had been his parents’ home. He told each of us that we could bury some treasured things in a cave at the bottom of the bluffs of our property. I chose my favorite obi. It was woven in Kyoto and was cream color with coral and green. It had some sweat stains and a small tear, but it reminded me of Yoshi. I rolled the obi and squeezed it into a large glass jar with a screw-on top. In the night, as the bombers roared overhead, Father and my two elder brothers took our treasures to the cave. They rolled rocks and dirt over the opening.

“We lived on the farm for two years. When the war ended, we returned to Yokohama. One of my brothers was killed on Okinawa. Yoshi’s plane went down during a sea battle. We learned the Americans had leased our land to build housing for their people. The land right under this house will someday be returned to my family. Father had to get permission from authorities to walk on his own land.

“One day, I went with Father to the cave. Our treasures were there. I cried when I took the obi out of the jar. I cried for all the young women who would never marry and have children. I never again wore the obi. Now that you have honored the obi by having the screen made, I tell you its story. I will miss you, Mama-San. I will miss Tracy and Duncan and Kerry. They are like the children I never had. I will miss the commander. He is a good husband and father. I send the obi to America so you will still have me with you.”

We stood. She bowed from the waist, “Sayonara, my friend.”

My arms ached to hug her but I knew I must not invade her dignity. I bowed in return, “I am honored. I will remember you every time I look at the screen, and I will carry you in my heart. Domo arigato gozaimusu, Mura-San Matsuzaki.”

Marilyn Pate

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