Thanksgiving Day - 1962
“We’re almost there,” Nick Chapman said. He could tell Michiko was nervous. She’d spoken not a word for the last ten minutes. She gazed out the car window overwhelmed, he was certain, by the new world in which she found herself. Twenty-four hours earlier they had still been in Japan. Now, after an energy-sapping trans-Pacific flight and a quick break in Seattle, they were headed for his parents’ home in Spring Valley, Minnesota in an airport rental. Nick had called from the terminal to say they were on their way.
A slim, well-scrubbed Navy lieutenant, for five years Nick had served on destroyers or at bases in the Western Pacific. On his way to a new assignment in Norfolk, he had worked it out so that he and his new wife could stop over for the Thanksgiving holiday.
His chestnut hair clipped close, his eyes somewhere between blue and gray, Nick had a pleasant although not a particularly handsome face. He came across as serious and good-hearted, albeit a bit naïve. Despite his twenty-six years, outfitted in a crew neck sweater and chinos he still looked very much like a college boy.
Sharing Michiko’s nervousness, Nick was on the defensive. His family had not reacted well when they learned he had married a Japanese girl before leaving his Yokosuka base. In most respects decent people, they held in common the prejudices of their friends and neighbors. They lived in a time and place where people who were different were not easily tolerated, let alone accepted. Japanese were clever, yellow people, not to be trusted. Who could forget Pearl Harbor?
Surely, no one would have characterized Nick’s family as cosmopolitan. They were people for whom the trip to Chicago on the Milwaukee Road’s Four Hundred constituted foreign travel. Chinese food meant chow mein brought home in little paper containers with wire handles.
Nick sought to reassure his young wife. “It’s just my parents; my sister, Corrine, and her husband; and my Aunt Gwen and her husband. And probably my grandmother. She is my mom’s mother. Oh, yeah, and my kid brother, Frank. He’s still in college.”
“So many. How can I remember their names?”
Don’t worry. They’re going to love you.”
How could they not love her? he thought.
Wearing a simple blue sweater and modest gray slacks, Michiko was a slim, almost pixie-like Japanese woman of twenty-four. She had short cropped black hair, an innocent face with narrow, attentive eyes, and flawless skin. She possessed an inquisitive nature and pretty good English, spoken in a soft, precise school girl way. She might have been described as a Japanese Audrey Hepburn.
Michiko made a small sound Nick couldn’t interpret. “The houses are all big,” she said, almost in awe. “So much space. Everything in America is wide.”
“You’ll get used to it.” He wondered if at that moment she believed him. “Anyway, we’re almost there. I expect the men are watching football and the women are in the kitchen helping Mom with the dinner.”
Nick turned onto a street flanked on both sides by large, comfortable homes, all with well-raked lawns. Like sentinels bereft of uniforms, bare-limbed trees lined the street. The mid-day sun shone brightly and the air felt crisp with autumn. Nick hoped the smiling weather was a good omen. So far there had been no snow, although it lurked in the forecast.
“How do you know which one? They look much alike.”
“Gee, I never thought of that. Anyway there it is. The one with the green shutters. Home sweet home.” A red brick structure, featuring dormers jutting from the roof and a modest portico, it exhibited a vaguely colonial ambience. The house was well maintained; Nick’s dad saw to that. They hadn’t always lived in such a fine neighborhood. Michiko could learn about that earlier life another time.
Two cars occupied the driveway and another parked on the street. His parents’ Buick must have been in the garage. “Well, here we are.” Nick pulled up to the curb and killed the engine. “Looks like were the last ones.” He delivered an encouraging smile.
A middle-aged man walking a chocolate lab waved from across the street and called out. “Hi, Nick. Heard you were coming back today. Also heard you were bringing somebody with you.”
“You got that right, Charlie. This is my wife, Michiko.”
“Well, so you’re the new girl. Guess I’ll be the first to say welcome,” the man said. He waved again and continued on down the street.
Nick took his wife’s arm while she followed the man and his dog with her eyes. “Come on. Let’s go in. Remember, you don’t have to take your shoes off.” He knew she considered wearing shoes that had tracked through who knew what into the house to be an unclean, indeed disgusting, habit. It would take some getting used to.
Nick’s mother, Phyllis Chapman, a fiftyish woman in a patterned dress, waited in the doorway. A former kindergarten teacher, she was a severe looking woman of medium height with brownish hair piled into a bouffant. She embraced her son and called out, “They’re here, everybody. They’re here.”
Mrs. Chapman extended her hand, hesitated, and then wrapped her arms around her Japanese daughter-in-law. Michiko looked suddenly vulnerable, uncertain of how to respond.
“Come on inside,” Mrs. Chapman urged them. “Everybody wants to say hello.”
Two more women hovered inside the entryway. Gwen Briggs, a heavyset older woman, was Nick’s aunt. Double-chinned, suspicious of the world and all those in it, she had on one of her Godawful flowered dresses. She was as full of herself as the dress was full of her. She surveyed Nick’s wife and then declared to the others, “She’s so cute. Just like a China doll.”
The second woman, said, “Hi, Michiko. I’m Nick’s sister, Corrine Morton. Morton is my married name.” A thirty-year old blonde, she wore a skirt, blouse and cardigan. Corrine worked hard at trying to look pretty, but never quite attained the desired result. Not particularly bright, she benefitted from an amiable disposition; people liked her.
Michiko smiled and nodded. “How do you do.”
“You might have known,” Mrs. Chapman said. “The men are all downstairs in the den. Watching some stupid game. Probably didn’t even hear me say you were here.”
“It’s okay, Mom,” Nick said. “We’ll see them in a minute or two.”
“I’ll bet you want to freshen up,” Corrine said to Michiko. “I’ll show you where the bathroom is.”
“Bath room?” Michiko appeared puzzled.
“It’s fine,” Nick said. “Just go with her. You’ll see.”
When the two women had gone, Gwen said, “What was that about?”
“In Japan bathrooms and toilets are separate, that’s all. She was a bit confused.”
“She seems really sweet, Nick," Mrs. Chapman said. “Just like I imagined.”
Nick could not be certain what she imagined. She had sobbed when Nick called from Tokyo and broke the news he intended to marry a Japanese girl. Nick could tell his mother was striving hard to conceal her disappointment.
“Let’s go in the living room,” Mrs. Chapman said. “Your grandmother is in there waiting to see you.”
But before they went in Mrs. Chapman pulled Nick aside. Dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief, she said in a low voice, “We’re trying to understand. We really are. It’s just hard. We need some time, Nicky.”
“Sure, Mom, I understand. But Michiko is my wife now.”
“I know. But she’s not one of us. During the war there were all these awful stories. I guess you’re too young to remember.” Mrs. Chapman smiled sadly.
“I know, Mom. It was bad for everybody.”
Nick’s parents had furnished the living room in the best 60’s style; sofa, chairs, lamps, and inexpensive art reproductions--everything in what Nick teasingly referred to as “motel modern.” The room even featured a shag rug—burnt orange. Flanked by pieces of bric-a-brac, a collection of Readers’ Digest Condensed Books stood in ranks in a tall book case. Nick’s mother loved this stuff.
Dappled sunlight beamed in through the tall windows. A fire hissed and crackled in the fireplace. It all remained as Nick remembered it during other homecomings. Only then he had been alone. And while he’d been eager to describe his overseas adventures he’d encountered waves of familial indifference. Family members seemed more interested in how the Twins were faring, who’d been married, and which neighbor was fooling around. He suspected, with Michiko along, it would not be the same. Wondering how they would respond left him with a feeling of unease.
Ensconced in a large easy chair, Evelyn Prescott, a well-preserved woman in her early seventies, flung open her arms. “Nicky, come here and give your grandmother a hug.” Nick dutifully complied.
“Now where’s that little wife of yours?” With the tip of her finger, she manipulated the gold-framed glasses that had slipped down her nose.
“She’s freshening up,” Mrs. Chapman said.
“She’s not little, Grandma. She is as tall as Mom. You’ll see.”
“Nick, it’s just an expression. Anyway, as far as I know, they are little people.” She looked puzzled. “Did I say something wrong?”
“No. That’s okay, Grandma.”
“Well, they even have those little trees; the bonsai ones. To tell the truth, I prefer a big tree.”
“That’s just a kind of hobby, Grandma. Quite a few Americans grow them too.”
“Small,” she said with satisfaction. “As far as I can tell, they’re small.”
Nick let the subject drop.
“We thought she might be wearing a kimono or whatever it’s called,” Aunt Gwen said.
“She has more than one,” Nick said. “But nowadays people just wear them for special occasions, holidays and so on.”
“Isn’t this a special occasion? It’s Thanksgiving for goodness sake.”
“Sure, Aunt Gwen, but we just flew in and . . .”
“You know, Phyllis,” Nick’s grandmother said, “when your son went back east to college, I said ‘Nicky, don’t you marry one of those eastern girls.’ Well, he just didn’t listen. He married a Far Eastern girl.”
The women all laughed. “That’s a good one,” Aunt Gwen said.
Coming up from the basement den, Arthur Chapman said, “Why didn’t anybody tell us they we're here?”
“You probably had the game on too loud,” Mrs. Chapman said.
A square faced, broad-shouldered man, Arthur Chapman boasted a distinctive flat top haircut. A hard worker and hard drinker, Arthur Chapman had risen through the construction ranks to ownership of a successful contracting business. He had a gravelly voice, and you could tell he was accustomed to giving orders.
He pumped his son’s hand and patted him on the shoulder.
The other men trooped in and they, too, shook Nick’s hand.
“Where’s the blushing bride?” Frank, a crew cut, sweet-faced university junior, punched his older brother on the arm. “Or are you the one blushing?”
Nick punched him back and the two launched into a sparring match.
Corrine and Michiko showed up in the midst of this mock combat. Michiko initially appeared worried and then mystified by the horseplay.
“Just fun,” Nick said. “Just having fun.”
Nick introduced Michiko to his grandmother, dad, brother-in-law, uncle, and brother. They all tried mightily to appear nonchalant. But Nick could tell that, like a committee of zoologists encountering a new species, the family members were all sizing her up. Michiko sensed it as well.
After an uncomfortable silence, Arthur Chapman said, “We’re really pleased to have you, Michiko. You’ll like America, and I’m sure you’ll fit right in. We’re real open-minded.” Everyone smiled and nodded. Nick smiled, too; open-mindedness was not one of their distinguishing traits.
“I have to go back to getting the dinner ready,” Mrs. Chapman said. “Michiko, why don’t you help Corrine arrange the flowers? I hear all the Japanese ladies do that; part of your upbringing.”
Eyes lowered, Michiko said, “I am sorry. I never learned.”
“Oh, but I thought all of you . . . anyway, come on out to the kitchen. Maybe you and Corrine can help me there.” To the others she said, “We’ll sit down in about fifteen minutes.”
“Let’s go, Nick,” Arthur Chapman said. “We can catch a few more minutes of the game, before the girls call us. Your grandmother and aunt can stay here and gab.”
“Unless they want to watch the game,” Frank said.
After the other men left, Nick overheard his mother say to his father in a hushed voice. “Now, Arthur. Don’t forget. You don’t say Jap. Even if you don’t mean anything by it.”
Before they started down to the den, Mr. Chapman stopped Nick at the top of the basement stairs. He had a serious look on his face.
“You feeling okay, Dad?”
“You bet. I’m like that old Oldsmobile out in the shed; parts a little rusty but still running pretty damn good.”
They both smiled. But Mr. Chapman quickly reassumed his serious demeanor.
“Nick, you sure it’s going to work out? You and this girl?” He leaned close, speaking deliberately, sincerely.
“Why do you ask?” Nick asked the question sharply, his irritation evident. The strength of his reaction surprised him. He’d readied himself for questions like this; promised himself he wouldn’t respond this way.
“It’s not me, Nick. It’s your mom who is worried. Thinks maybe it isn’t even legal. What are people going to say? That sort of thing.”
“That’s their problem.”
I have to tell you. She was hoping you’d marry a white . . . I mean a local girl. She worries a lot. What about grandchildren? she says.”
“Look, Dad, I know you mean well, but we’re married. It’s a fact. She is my wife. I hope you can accept it. It’s not going to change. Give her a chance. Give us a chance.”
“We’re trying our best. You have to give us a chance, too.”
Frank sang out, “The fourth quarter’s starting,” and so Nick and his father joined the other men in the den.
“You want a beer?” Arthur Chapman said to his son.
The men arrayed themselves in front of the large screen television set where the Vikes struggled on the losing end of a one-sided contest with the Lions.
Harvey lighted a Marlboro and Jake puffed on a pipe. As vaporous blue smog drifted about the confined enclave, Nick, a non-smoker, understood why his mother prohibited smoking upstairs.
Mr. Chapman retrieved five Buds from a small fridge. “Anybody want a glass?”
They waved him off; after all, these were men who drank their beer from the bottle or can. Mr. Chapman distributed the beers, and the men quickly demolished the bowl of chips he put in front of them.
Nick took a swallow of beer and felt a little better. But the respite proved to be brief.
Uncle Jake, a corpulent man in his sixties, tilted back in a recliner, arms folded across his Viking purple shirted chest. He had a florid complexion, dark eyes, thick lips and a pencil mustache below a hawk-like nose. “Now that the women aren’t here,” Jake said, “Come on, Nick. Tell us about those geisha girls. The boys down at the VFW say those geishas really appreciate a good man; if you know what I mean.
The men listened with anticipation.
”Yeah, I know what you mean,” Nick said. “But it’s kind of hard to explain. They’re really more entertainers than whores. I never actually met one, and I expect most Japanese people haven’t either.”
Disappointment at Nick’s answer registered on the faces of his listeners.
“I bet your girl treats you pretty well,” Harvey Morton said. “I hear that nothing makes them happier than serving a man.” A gangly fellow with slicked over hair, Harvey manifested all the charisma of the stuffed bass on the wall. And, his smirk contributed nothing to his persona as he sniffed around like one of his bird dogs.
“Jesus, where did you get that idea, Harvey? Doesn’t my sister treat you well?”
“What do you mean by that?” Harvey didn’t like Nick’s answer.
“Nothing, Harvey. I guess a lot of people think the way you do. And maybe there’s a grain of truth. But Michiko’s a modern girl and . . .” Christ, he thought, it’s like they’re competing to see who can dredge up the most stereotypes.
As with many images, he knew there often existed an embryo of truth, but accretions of hyperbole, misunderstanding, and flat-out falsehood rendered the images unreliable. In fairness, Nick thought, perhaps he shouldn’t react so critically, but it required discipline not to do so.
“Hey, no insult intended.” Nick’s father weighed in. “Let’s watch the Vikes.”
From time to time as the game wound down, Nick shared snippets and stories about his life aboard ship, storms at sea, misbehaving sailors, and more. But, while the others held themselves in check, he knew they brimmed with curiosity, eager to extract more information about the lewd Japan of their imaginations. He should have known it would be this way, he told himself. He should have known.
Nick poked his head into the kitchen where the women had all congregated. Aromas not savored since his last visit saluted his nostrils. The delicious smell of roasting turkey commanded the center of a hunger-inducing medley--garlic and bacon laced stuffing, rich brown gravy, cranberries, sweet potatoes, yeasty rolls, and pie, yes, pumpkin pie.
“I thought you were watching the game,” Mrs. Chapman said.
“It’s almost over. The Vikes are getting creamed. Just thought I’d see what smelled so good up here.”
In fact he’d come to rescue Michiko. Outfitted by his mother in a too large apron, she looked as if she needed rescuing. Nick realized the palaver of these American women confounded her. He experienced a spasm of guilt; he should have prepared her better on what to expect.
“You’re just in time, Nick,” Aunt Gwen said. “I was asking your wife about those Japanese baths. I don’t think she understood me.”
“Do you mean the public baths?”
“I guess. All those naked people together. I’d just be mortified.”
“Well, most of them have separate areas for men and women. People have towels and, well, they don’t have the same hang-ups we do.”
“I think I’d be uncomfortable, too,” Corrine said. “I bet those towels don’t cover much.” The American women giggled in unison.
“Anyway these days you’re not likely to find your way to a bath like that except maybe at a hot spring resort or a golf course. I think the people who go to the public baths, the neighborhood ones where you pay, are people living in apartments.”
‘I’m going to take the turkey out now, Nick,” Mrs. Chapman said. “I don’t think Michiko has seen one before. I let her peek in the oven.”
“It’s quite large,” Michiko said. She seemed less taken with the appearance and smell of the bird than Nick had hoped.
“Nick, didn’t you tell her what Thanksgiving is about?” Mrs. Chapman said. “She doesn’t seem to know anything about the Pilgrims and all of our traditions.”
“Or the Mayflower,” Aunt Gwen added.
“I tried to explain in the car coming over,” Nick said. “But I guess she had so much else on her mind that . . .”
Honing a knife on a whetstone, Mrs. Chapman announced, “I’m going to carve the bird right here in the kitchen. Arthur always makes a mess of it.”
Michiko averted her eyes. The sight of the bones disturbed her.
“I hope it’s not too crowded; we put the extra leaf in, but still . . .” Mrs. Chapman said when they’d gathered in the dining room. “Sorry about the chairs. We had to bring in a couple from the den.” She seemed troubled by having to use mismatched chairs with her best lace table cloth, to say nothing of with the good dishes.
“Michiko, you sit there by Nick’s dad. Nick you’re by me. Everybody else, wherever.”
Once all had taken their places, she said to Michiko, “I should have thought to get some chop sticks. I hope the knife and fork will do.”
“Yes. They will be quite fine.”
They all joined hands and bowed their heads. Mr. Chapman offered the prayer. “Thank you Lord for the food we are about to receive and for the blessings that have come to us throughout the year. We have much to be thankful for; especially for the return of our son Nick and his bride from the land of the rising sun.”
Everyone said, “Amen.” Mr. Chapman seemed to think the rising sun reference a nice touch.
The grace rendered, he rose and lifted a glass. “Welcome home, Nick. And welcome to America, Michiko. Here’s to the newlyweds. They’re staying the night in Nick’s old room. The walls are pretty thin. Hope we’ll be able to get some sleep.” Everyone save Mrs. Chapman laughed. “Well, down the hatch.”
Michiko simply smiled, not understanding the joke. She looked at Nick. “I’ll explain later,” he said.
Mrs. Chapman superintended the meal. “Okay everybody, we’ll pass to the left. Hope you like it. We’ve got plenty.”
As the dinner progressed Nick could see Michiko nonplussed by the large helpings of food mounded onto her plate and onto the plates of others. He’d forgotten; they definitely were back in America.
“Did you ever see Tea House of the August Moon?” Frank said.
“No. I did not see.” She had no idea what he was talking about.
“I’ll bet you’d like it. It was just on TV again. Marlon Brando really looks Japanese.”
“I thought Mickey Rooney looked more Japanese in Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Aunt Gwen
said. “Those buck teeth and squinty eyes and . . .”
She stopped as Mrs. Chapman drilled her with a spicy look.
To the evident irritation of his wife, Harvey Morton’s sole contribution to the table conversation was, “I hear you eat raw fish over there. I bet a lot of people have worms.”
“Geez, Harvey, that’s gross,” Frank said. But he could not quell an inclination to grin.
Trying to find a more acceptable topic, Corrine said, “I hear this really cute song on the radio all the time. It’s called Sukiyaki. The singer’s name is Q something. Have you heard it?”
“Yes,” Michiko said. “It is kind of a silly song. But fun. His name is Kyu Sakamoto.”
Polishing off a second helping of sweet potatoes and turkey, Uncle Jake said, “Nick, you know I was over there in ‘45. Got a flag. It has some Japanese writing. I’ll bet your wife can tell us what it says. I’ve always wondered.”
“Maybe some other time when we’re back.”
“It’s no problem. I brought it with me. It’s out in the car.”
“Like I said. Another time.”
“Please. Let’s not talk about the war,” Mrs. Chapman said.
Nick knew it was one of the things, so far untouched, bothering her about his marriage. Her cousin, Billy, had been killed on Iwo Jima.
She gamely tried to change the subject. “I bet you write poetry, Michiko. I read somewhere the Japanese people like to sit under flowering trees and make up poems.”
“Poetry. Yes, I tried sonnets for my English literature class, but I don’t think they were very good.”
“No I mean like Japanese poems.”
“No. I have not done those.”
By the time Mrs. Chapman served the pumpkin pie the men had gone back to talking about football and the women about the latest installment of The Beverley Hillbillies. They’d apparently run out of conversation topics for Michiko. She sat without speaking, seemingly entranced by the cornucopia centerpiece. Nick suspected she was acutely uncomfortable, but determined not to let it show.
He felt as if he had dropped a song bird into a nest of raptors, benevolent raptors perhaps, but raptors nonetheless.
Once the after dinner cleanup had been accomplished, everyone drifted back into the living room. As she always did on such occasions, Mrs. Chapman encouraged Corrine to play a few tunes on the piano. She guilted her into it. “Corrine, we can’t have spent all that money on lessons for nothing.” Corrine obliged with a couple of choppy selections from West Side Story and The Sound of Music.
“And how about you, Michiko? I’m sure you . . .”
“No, Mom, she’s not a poet, a pianist, a flower arranger, or, if you’re wondering, a singer,” Nick said.
“I’m sorry. Nick, I didn’t mean to . . .” Mrs. Chapman made a hurt face.
Taken aback at Nick’s retort, she then tried to promote a table or two of bridge but the idea stirred no enthusiasm. So she suggested they could just chat over coffee for a while before people had to leave.
“When I was a girl,” Nick’s grandmother said, “one night our neighbors hung these Japanese lanterns in their yard for a party. It seemed to me that Japan must be a kind of fairyland. Cherry trees and temples. You know, picturesque.” She paused. “But then there was the war and everything and . . .”
It surprised Nick she hadn’t brought it up sooner. Like his mother she had to be thinking of Billy, the cousin killed on Iwo Jima. “Wars are terrible, Grandma.” He looked for words to express himself but could not find them. “Michiko was only five or six when the war ended.”
His grandmother looked away, a prisoner of her memories. The atmosphere in the room thickened. Twisting a handkerchief in her hands, Mrs. Chapman said, “Let’s talk about something else, shall we? Has anyone seen any good movies lately?”
Prompted by her mother, Corrine said, “We saw the one about Helen Keller, the blind woman. It’s called The Miracle Worker. It was really something how she understood things by somebody touching her hand.”
“I thought it was boring,” Harvey said. “I liked The Longest Day. Plenty of action and John Wayne. Now there’s a great actor.”
The logs in the fire had crumbled into ashes; Mr. Chapman busied himself feeding in wood and restarting the fire. As color abandoned the sky, the prospect through the window had transformed itself from bright sun to murky gray. Dark-bellied clouds roiled in from the west and flakes big as blossoms drifted down.
The atmosphere remained heavy. Indeed, Nick discerned a perception on the part of his relatives that he had challenged all the strictures of his upbringing. No one articulated it directly. But it seemed implicit in their words and looks that, by going abroad and by marrying this Asian girl, he had rendered himself suspect. One of their own had deserted them and the way of life they so valued. Perhaps he exaggerated the notion, but that was how he saw it.
For a time the room was engulfed in silence as empty as a classroom on a Sunday in July. There was, then, a palpable sense of relief when the doorbell rang, signaling the arrival of the Gundersons, next door neighbors. Nick recalled he’d spotted Mrs. Gunderson monitoring their arrival from behind a pulled back curtain. The Gundersons deemed themselves the moral and social minders of the street and acted as if they embodied everything worthwhile..
“Michiko, the Gundersons have been our neighbors for years,” Mrs. Chapman said. “They asked if they could stop by and say hello.” And, Nick thought, check her out and satisfy their curiosity. Michiko had to feel like an exotic creature on exhibit in a zoo.
Standing at the living room entrance, Mrs. Gunderson, a thick-set woman in her late fifties, said, “We’ve known Nick all his life—or almost all. We were just so excited to come over and meet the wonderful treasure he has brought back to America.” Her voice oozed saccharine insincerity.
“Thanks. It was good of you to come,” Nick said. Michiko smiled and nodded.
“We surely hope you’ll like our town,” Mrs. Gunderson said. “Of course there aren’t many of your people here. Come to think of it, I don’t think there are any.”
“Well, Sally, you forgot about that Chinaman who has the little store over at that strip mall,” Arvid Gunderson said. Arvid was a lanky, near skeletal man, with protruding gold fish eyes.
“Mr. Gunderson, Michiko is Japanese, not Chinese,” Nick said with evident exasperation. An already long afternoon had gotten longer. Their voices differed, but they were all part of the same chorus.
“Well it’s hard to tell,” Mrs. Gunderson said. “The Chinese were on our side, weren’t they?”
“Yes, but they’re all commies now.” Harvey had an opinion on everything.
“Anyway, Nick, I baked some of your favorite chocolate chip cookies.” She placed a bag on a side table. “I can give your wife the recipe; maybe she can learn to bake them for you. I understand nothing makes Japanese girls happier than being good wives.” She delivered a big smile. “What a wonderful trait.”
Not that again, Nick thought. “Thanks Mrs. Gunderson. You’re very considerate.”
Burdened by nugacities and inanities, the conversation soon waned.
“I guess we’d better run along,” Mrs. Gunderson said. “Anyway, I expect you dreamed about coming to America, Mikoko or . . . sorry I have trouble with the names. I’m sure you will love it here.”
Mrs. Chapman saw the couple to the door, where, before going out, Mr. Gunderson yodeled in a contrived accent, Sayonara.
Nick cringed and Michiko giggled, her hand covering her mouth.
Soon after, the Mortons announced it was time for them to leave, too, and they agreed to deliver Nick’s grandmother to her apartment.
“It was good to see you, Nick, even if only for a little while,” Corrine said. “Don’t wait so long for the next time.” Then she turned to Michiko. “I guess this family is kind of hard to take all at once. But I’m sure everything will work out just fine.”
Michiko responded with a slight bow. “Thank you, you are very kind.”
Nick’s grandmother hugged him and then focused her attention on Michiko. “Pretty, I suppose, if that’s the way you see it. But small.” She could not conceal--and did not try--an expression of self-satisfied smugness.
Harvey already had slipped his coat on. “Let’s go, Corrine,” he said. “Snow’s coming down. Time’s a wasting.”
They exchanged quick hugs and farewells at the door. Outside a coating of snow covered the parked cars.
Gwen and Jake decided to leave soon after. Lingering briefly in the entryway, Jake said, “Nick, I meant to ask you about all those suicides. Hara-kiri and all that. But I didn’t get around to it.”
“Maybe next time.” Had they missed anything from their catalogue of Japan mind pictures?
Apparently they had. “I suppose it’s a dumb question, Nick.” Aunt Gwen said. “But do people still ride in rickshaws over there?”
“I didn’t think so, but . . . Anyhow, your little Madame Butterfly is cute as a button. See you next time.”
Watching the tail lights of Jake’s car absorbed in the falling snow, Nick said, “Dad, I think Michiko and I better leave, too. The roads could get worse, and we’ve got a seven o’clock flight in the morning.”
“Oh, you can at least stay a while. Your mom and I and Frank counted on having you to ourselves for a few hours.”
“I know, Dad,” Nick said. “But it will simplify things. We can check in at an airport motel. ”
“But Nicky, I have your room ready, and we can have a nice early breakfast.” His mother’s lip trembled and a defeated look shadowed her face.
Nick couldn’t bring himself to tell her Michiko’s audition for a place in the family drama had left them both drained. He needed to escape the stifling atmosphere.
“We’ll be back when I can get some leave,” he said.
When they finally did depart, his mother cried, Michiko cried, and Nick teared up himself. After more hugs, handshakes, and waves from the doorway, Nick pulled away and headed for the interstate.
Once in the car, Michiko could not hold back. “It is hard, Nick. I do not understand the way people do things. In the kitchen, the ladies kept touching food and dishes without washing their hands. And they dried dishes without rinsing. It feels very dirty.”
“I think they keep things clean. Maybe you just . . .”
“And, Nick, your old uncle blew his nose in a cloth handkerchief and then put that handkerchief back in his pocket. It made me feel sick. Don’t people here use tissues? ”
“I guess I’ve never thought about that, but . . .”
After a long, deep silence, Michiko said, “I don’t think they liked me.”
“Of course, they liked you. They just don’t know much about Japan. Weren’t certain how to act. It will be better next time.”
Michiko did not reply and peered through the flailing windshield wipers into the falling snow.