My Mother and The American Way of Housekeeping
I found the book nearly untouched, its spine still uncracked. THE AMERICAN WAY OF HOUSEKEEPING. The cover featured rather lurid illustrations of a ‘50s era meal: a coral salmon wedge surrounded by a ring of peas, accompanied by deviled eggs.
“What’s this?” I asked my father.
“I thought it was a book for housewives.” my father said. “But it’s for maids. Your mother never needed it.” He and my mother had met in post-war Japan, he a sailor, she as a Japanese employee for the Occupation. Mom had died a couple of years before. We were finally going through some of her things.
I flipped through the book. Written in Japanese and in English, it told the employees of the new American occupying forces how to properly keep house, cook, and care for children. With recipes and appliance illustrations, it certainly had not gotten the play her big green Culinary Institute cookbook had gotten, a tome so well-used and flour-stained it was disintegrating. I imagined my mother tossing it aside in disgust. She was never one to let anyone tell her what to do better.
“Interesting,” I said. How sad, and telling, that the only book available was for housekeepers, not wives. I put the book back, and never saw it again.
My mother and I had never gotten along. Like those “tiger mothers” in the news, she was a gold medalist in the sport of extreme criticism. I would never be thin enough, pretty enough, or bright enough; and because I wasn’t, I was unlovable. One laundry day when I was about 13, I remember her hanging up one of my B-cup bras and snorting derisively. “Your boobs gonna be like Grandma’s soon,” she said, referring to my paternal grandmother, who had nursed six kids. She limited her shows of affection to providing me with meals and clean clothing.
Yet I desperately wanted to please my mother. She had been sick for longer than I had been alive, with an enlarged heart we would later discover was genetic, the condition making it impossible for her to do more than a half hour or so of work at a time, unable to run a vacuum without needing a long rest. She often told me she would not live to see my children. She would get out her jewelry and show me what pieces went to whom.
By the time my mother died, I had gotten married to the first boyfriend I’d ever had and was pulling in adequate grades in college. I wanted her to see that I was a good girl, that I would be okay. Mom pulled me to her hospital bed and told me, in classic Hollywood movie form, “You are the best. You work hard. I just want you to be happy.”
I thanked her, but I didn’t know what to think.
Unlike the movies, this one phrase could not undo a lifetime of me learning that I was the opposite of good, of always fearing that her love hinged on what I did, not who I was. If you’re taught you can’t be happy unless you’re number one, you won’t know how to be happy very often.
I struggled with problems I was careful to hide. I excessively dieted, not eating much besides vegetables and Slim-Fast. The semester before I got married, I literally talked to no one except my professors, sure no one wanted to talk to me. After graduation, I got divorced, and, drifting, began doing some acting. I was a substitute teacher, and, with the idea of paying off major student loans and saving money quickly, I worked as an exotic dancer. Though I told myself I was wearing more clothing than a typical European at the beach, complete with bodystocking, the experience just reinforced what my mother had told me my whole life. I felt essentially worthless, a failure, alone.
Eventually, I met my second husband, an Army Ranger, and immediately clung onto him in ways I would not recommend to my daughters. Fortunately for me, it stuck.
I began writing seriously, something I had lacked the confidence to do. Though all my teachers had predicted I’d be a writer, and I’d won various writing contests as a youngster, I hadn’t written much in college. Now I got a job writing for two weekly papers. One day, I saw a notice for a local play festival accepting entries for one-acts.
For some reason, I thought of THE AMERICAN WAY OF HOUSEKEEPING again, and its cooking instructions for Japanese women. I wrote a one-act about my mother, about our relationship. My mother was a pretend cooking show hostess, telling the audience how to make food the right way, her way. Though I threw in every mean thing I could remember her saying, it was hilarious when the actress read the lines. Like Archie Bunker. “How come your waist so big? Twenty-five inch? Giant. Mine only twenty-two inch when I your age.” And, “Woman most beautiful age 19. After that, downhill. You almost there.” And, “I only tell truth. That what mothers for.” To my surprise, I laughed like I’d never heard any of it before. Somehow, I had transformed my past.
When I had our first child, a daughter, at age 25, I began thinking about my mother even more. I tried to remember the good things my mother had done for me, too. She sewed tiny Barbie clothes for me, knitted me sweaters, let me get a beloved cat when she didn’t need the hassle. If there was a chipped plate, she set it at her place setting. If I whispered for her in the middle of the night, she appeared.
For the first time, I really considered what it was like for her, being sick and isolated, no car to go anywhere, where even thirty years later she still spoke with an accent. She had told me plenty of stories about Japan, about growing up during WWII, about seeing the atomic blast from Nagasaki while she jump-roped, about how there was nothing left for a young woman like her in Japan. She told me she brought her father a box of photos of all the American GIs she was dating, and asked him which one would make a good husband. “He said your Daddy have honest eyes,” she said. She told me she’d left her country for a better life, but I wasn’t sure she had found it.
I was ashamed to think I had never considered her point of view before.
I looked for THE AMERICAN WAY OF HOUSEKEEPING, but couldn’t find it. Instead, I decided to make up my own version—a novel called HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE. I imagined war brides like my mother, new to the United States, and what advice they might be given. “Once you leave Japan, it is extremely unlike you will return,” I wrote.
I imagined I was having a conversation with my mother. What had it been like for someone like her, coming to a country where, less than a generation earlier, she had been the enemy? What our relationship be like today, if she had survived? What kind of grandmother would she have made?
It wasn’t until a few years later that I finally found THE AMERICAN WAY OF HOUSEKEEPING on the Internet. The search term I’d missed was “Japanese.” I ordered the book immediately.
Inside the cover, there’s a sold stamp. MORIYAMA PX. And an inscription, “Christmas 1956. Darling -— This may assist in the keeping of the household on an even keel. –Russ.”To a woman like my mother.
The book was exactly as I remembered, only worse. It now seems an incredibly racist homage to the days of Occupied Japan, when the Americans believed the Japanese to be little more than hut-dwelling natives who wouldn’t know culture if it slapped them in the face. It’s filled with directives like, “Do not let children play with knives or play in the street,” as well as warnings on how, exactly, to clean your “mistress’s” entire house, top to bottom, daily.
So this was what my mother faced. This constant proving of herself to be as good as, or better than the white people. This was why, I thought, she so desperately wanted me to excel. After all, my parents’ marriage was still illegal in many states, and even today, many people believe that interracial mixing is wrong. If I succeeded in life, I’d demonstrate I wasn’t a mistake of miscegenation, but a triumph.
I had never felt the prejudice she had; I hardly look Asian, and I grew up in San Diego, where there’s a mixing pot of races, thanks to the border and to the military bases. If anything, she taught me being half-Japanese was something to be proud of. She was descended from samurai, from a noble family that worked for the Emperor.Perhaps, then, her method of parenting was not deliberately harsh, as I’d always assumed.
Perhaps she simply parented the way she’d been taught: to never show too much pride in a child, to always demand the best, that crying is for the weak and solves nothing.
Though I’ll never remember my mother for warmth or embraces, I like to think that, years after her death, I have reconstructed and reclaimed our relationship. And now, I can finally believe what she told me that day in the hospital.