from Sandy Needham

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Essay: Chocolate and Cigarettes

Chocolate and Cigarettes

I’m sitting on my veranda taking tiny stitches. Some are smaller than others because back when I cut out these squares of Japanese indigo cloth, I made some squares crooked and must shore up random tiny seam allowances with tighter stitches. I still had no dining room table then, so I spread the various indigo fabrics out on a bed sheet on the uneven stone floor. The fabric moved; the sheet moved; some of my 10-1/4” squares are barely 10” in some places.

I am sewing this quilt by hand on my front porch after moving to a beach in the northeast of Brazil. My Brazilian husband and I chose this tranquil habitat because he can work from anywhere as long as he has internet access, I was ready to take a breather after decades of working, and we needed to live more cheaply in order to repay our children’s college loans. I can picture my portable sewing machine sitting there in the storage unit in New York. I thought I’d try renting a machine here in Natal – a city in the state of Rio Grande do Norte – but there are none available for rent. The kind woman at the Oficina de Costura who hemmed my dress offered to let me use her heavy industrial sewing machine in the mornings over there. It occurred to me that hand stitching one hundred squares together in the breeze on my veranda sounded just right. I have no deadline. We don’t need a quilt – it is hot here. Whenever I want nothing more than to inch my way across these indigo fields, I sit out in front and practice the heart of craft: patience and presence.

I think of my father often while I stitch. He would have understood this effort of stitching for stitching’s sake. Besides, he’s the one who brought back from Japan in 1945 the most beautiful posessions we owned: a huge rice paper umbrella, which my sisters and I grabbed whenever a summer rain started up back in Tulsa so we could enact “Singin’ in the Rain” on the driveway; two of the most beautiful kimonos imaginable – one, a child’s with blocks of cream, persimmon, marigold, and blue violet, and the other an adult haori jacket with red spider web-like fretwork on a cream background, which eventually hung on my living room wall in New York; a wood and bone abacus that became a little warped, but never lost its mathematical mystery; and a portion of embroidered silk ribbon with the carriage wheel motif in bright jade on a field of fuchsia, which my mother framed and hung on the wall. I am convinced I saw this hanging by my crib as soon as I could see; my affinity for the Japanese aesthetic goes way back. There was also a quilt of kimono silk with a heavy black and spicy orange plaid edge which haunted me almost as much as the jade and fuchsia ribbon. My father bought these with Navy rations of chocolate and cigarettes in Tokyo Bay after the Japanese surrender.

My father died in 1990. All four daughters and our families later came to help Mother clear out the house by keeping the old things that called out to us. There happily was no contention that all remaining Japanese prizes that I had not already ‘borrowed’ went home with me. Mother sold the house to a man who bought up houses for renovation. She became friends with him in her inimitable way. After some months, this man brought her a box that he discovered in our attic crawl space that I never knew existed. It contained the letters my mother and father exchanged during the war. My mother wrote every day and my father wrote every other day. She had accompanied him to San Diego, awaiting his orders from the Navy to ship out. He sailed away while my mother watched his ship disappear over the horizon from the shallow waves by the shore. She told me this story sitting in shallow waves together on the São Paulo coast soon after he died, when she accompanied my family on a visit to my husband’s relatives in Brazil. I knew that my father became the Payroll Officer on the U.S.S. Cleveland, a light cruiser that made its way to the Philippines and on to Tokyo Bay by the end. After two months of reading the copies my sister sent of all the letters from the box, I knew much more about his wartime experiences. My mother’s letters were full of the routine she shared with my aunt, tending my two oldest sisters and twin cousins – all four years old and under – and selling Realsilk hosiery door-to-door. My uncle was in the army in Europe. My father’s letters reported the miserable and monotonous life on the ship, eased by playing bridge with the officers and watching the nightly Hollywood or propaganda films. He included reviews of these. Part of his job was censuring letters, so he found a glimpse into the musings of fellow sailors fascinating. He had to keep strict ledgers of expenditures and take shifts to stand watch. The ship was involved in some action and my father was terrified on occasion, but actually sustained only a scratch from cleaning his gun. He wisely sought the services of a military psychologist upon return for more insidious damage. Perhaps we can attribute the lovely poetry he later wrote and the oneness with creation he diligently sought to the sensitivity that endured. The letter most significant to me recounts his disembarkation in Tokyo Bay on September 26, 1945. On this day he unknowingly anticipated my birth exactly four years later. The Japanese people themselves, bartering their treasures for Navy rations, presented initial confusion: all he had heard for months was that one must hate them, but then he saw the absurdity of feeling anything but common humanity as he selected the precious artifacts of my childhood. Not understanding that the narrow widths of woven silk were intended for kimono but marveling at their beauty, he bought several lengths.

In the tradition of her pioneer heritage, my grandmother made the quilt I still treasure from this cloth. She artfully composed the narrow lengths of silk into diagonal stripes, backed them with batting and red wool, and stitched fancy stitches along the diagonal edges with bright embroidery thread. My mother and her twin brother’s real mother died the day they were born in 1914 on the Oklahoma City homestead claimed by my great-grandfather in the 1889 land rush. Their father married the quilt maker when the twins were two years old. This Oklahoma/Japanese quilt also ended up in my New York home on a wall. I think of it particularly as I fudge seam allowances and piece some squares together on my indigo quilt, as those diagonal lengths of silk ran out at opposite corners and had to be pieced by my grandmother to approximate a rectangle. The Japanese would approve of this imperfection, their requisite tradition of craft. I am able to accomplish this imperfection in my craft by way of uneven cutting and heavier wind some days on the veranda.

I was given a beautiful book in the 1970’s about the Living National Treasures of Japan. The first honoree in the book is a little old woman who was the country’s master indigo dyer. I remember there being many steps between gathering the plant and ending with permanently blue hands. The romance of it all was absorbed into my Japanophile repertoire. Later in the ‘80’s my husband was sent on assignment to Japan by his computer software employer…well, I encouraged him to volunteer for the year-long post. We rented out our little house on a New Jersey lake as a weekend retreat for a Manhattan couple. We actually owned only one piece of furniture worth concern – an exquisite dresser by the Japanese-American woodworker, George Nakashima – but our luck was providential enough to leave it in the hands of a tenant who was a woodworker by avocation and a Nakashima devotee.

We landed in Tokyo with our three-year-old daughter and our eight-month-old son. While my daughter attended preschool, I could sometimes leave my son in a nursery during those morning hours and make shopping treks to stores with used kimono and bolts of kimono textiles. Among my keepsakes was yardage of hand dyed indigo batik prints.

I found two more bolts of Japanese indigo in the Hudson River village where we lived before moving to Brazil. There was a store owned by an American Japanophile who had thoroughly internalized the Japanese aesthetic. The store was always serene, as the quieting design and the gently running water in small stone fountains had an effect on the customers. The deep yet vibrant blue of the indigo cloth has this effect on me, as well. The color is alive with the essence of the plant and the human intention in the dye. Sometimes the sky over the ocean in Natal turns this inky blue in the evening when it appears to be illuminated from behind.

I had a 27-year career as a textile designer for the home cotton print industry, which hardly exists anymore in the United States. My specialty was coloring the designs in various combinations on painted colorplates and going to giant printing plants to supervise color matching. There is no color formula that produces anything near the range of hand-dyed indigo blues. One just can’t get a color that rich and alive. The limits of this mechanized process drove me to my passion for folk craft hand prints with their vegetable dye colors and human imperfections. Sometimes I have to scrape tiny bits of batik wax left behind on the off-white designs as I sew my indigo cloth. This did not roll off a machine.

I will continue to stitch. I have found some cotton in Natal for a border the red-orange color of persimmon. Japanese laborers brought this fruit to Brazil in the early twentieth century, which is why it is called “kahkee” in both countries (caqui in Brazil, kaki in Japan). It is a color evocative of Asia, especially in combination with indigo. I will back the quilt, knot the two sides together at intervals, and attach this delicious border.

What I imagine as I sew is a child holding this quilt someday. It will be faded, though the blues will remain unmatchable; it will be frayed, especially where the seams are too small. But I do dream of a child who will cherish the old thing, imbued as it will be with Japanese tradition, South American ocean breeze, and an old woman’s stories.

On a recent trip, a contingent of Japanese senior citizens disembarked right behind me after our plane landed in São Paulo. They had come to participate in the city’s commemoration of 100 years of Japanese immigrants in Brazil. The group was all wearing yellow hats like a swarm of school children in Tokyo! I was telling the little old man with a perpetual grin who was beside me in the immigration line about how I came to acquire my love of Japanese art by way of my father’s bartering in Tokyo Bay in 1945. The man’s face lit up as he exclaimed: “Oh! That was our first chocolate! We always think of chocolate as American.” The world is surely round.

- Sandra Needham, 2008

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