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In the nineteenth century in Europe, wearing a shawl gracefully was considered a mark of good breeding. Even rich women lived in poorly insulated houses, and the Empire-style dresses of the period were thin and low cut. In England, knitting lace shawls became a popular hobby among the leisured ladies who sat all day in their drawing rooms.
Lace is produced by deliberately creating holes in the fabric, by knitting two stitches together and looping the yarn over the needle to make another stitch. The holes are repeated at regular intervals to form scallop shells, frost flowers, trellises, peacock feathers, maple leaves, waterfalls, etc. Lace requires very fine yarn, and the yarn-over stitch is [End Page 37] not firmly anchored in the stitch in the previous row, so it’s easy to snag and tear. Only well-to-do women could wear lace shawls or knit them as a hobby.
Young English ladies were taught to hold their right-hand needle daintily and unsteadily like a pen instead of grasping it firmly under the palm. Laceknitting was supposed to show off their pretty hands and downcast eyes to any suitor sitting nearby. Like the flower arrangement and tea ceremony lessons my friends took in Japan in the 1970s, knitting prepared a woman for marriage. Downcast eyes were popular in our century, too. An article I read in a teen magazine said we should look at a boy’s throat while he was talking to us so he would be smitten by our modest, downcast eyes. This advice was accompanied by instructions—complete with a diagram—on how to put on mascara, eyeliner and eye shadow.
If I had to watch a boy’s throat instead of his face, how would I know when he was finished speaking? Even if his voice had trailed off, maybe he was only pausing to collect his thoughts. Without eye contact, a face-to-face conversation was no better than a phone call. I wondered how my friends could read advice like this and not feel hopeless. I gave up on the makeup because I couldn’t close my eyes and still see where the eye shadow should go. Short of making a life-size copy of the diagram and holding it up to my face like a stencil, the whole maneuver was physically impossible.
Since I attended an all-girls’ school in Kobe, my hometown, there were only two boys my age I ever talked to, the brothers who’d lived next door until the younger of them, Tadashi, and I were ten. We still lived in the same city, and our mothers had stayed friends beyond the move. Because their father, Mr. Kuzuha, and mine worked together, Tadashi and Makoto were among the few old friends I was allowed to see two years later, after my mother’s suicide and my father’s remarriage. Every time I visited the Kuzuhas’ house, the boys’ mother cried and reminisced about my mother, Takako. I listened to music, watched TV and played cards or board games with Tadashi and Makoto, who had grown up seeing my mother every day. At their house I was free to mention her any time I felt like it. “Remember that hike we went on when it got really foggy? My mother was sure she knew the way, but we were actually walking in circles?” I could ask, and the boys would nod. “When the fog cleared, we were standing almost exactly where we’d started out, and she was the first to laugh about it.” “Yeah,” one of them might answer. “We sure got lost a lot when we went anywhere with your mom.”
Tadashi had spent two weeks at my grandparents’ house one summer with my mother, my brother and me. Wherever we were, he was my ally growing [End Page 38] up. Makoto, three years older, tried to boss us around, but I sympathized with him, too, for being the older of two children. Between the brothers, I was an honorary middle child, a peacemaker instead of the...