Read A Thousand Stitches Online

Authors: Constance O'Keefe

Tags: #World War II, #Japan, #Kamikaze, #Senninbari, #anti-war sentiment

A Thousand Stitches

BOOK: A Thousand Stitches


a novel

Constance O'Keefe


Text copyright © 2012 by Johnnie Johnson Hafernik
Text illustrations copyright © 2014 by Henry Li
Map of Japan copyright © 2014 by Eiji Kanno
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America

ISBN 978-1-56474-786-0

The interior design and the cover design of this book are intended for and limited to the publisher's first print edition of the book and related marketing display purposes. All other use of those designs without the publisher's permission is prohibited.

Published by Fithian Press
A division of Daniel and Daniel, Publishers, Inc.
Post Office Box 2790
McKinleyville, CA 95519

Book production: Studio E Books

Distributed by SCB Distributors (800) 729-6423

O'Keefe, Constance.
A thousand stitches : a novel / by Constance O'Keefe.
pages cm
ISBN [first print edition 978-1-56474-565-1 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. Pilots and pilotage—Japan—History—Fiction.
2. Marriage—Fiction.
3. Reflections—Fiction.
4. Emotions—Political aspects—Fiction.
5. Autobiography—Fiction.
PS3615.O394T46 2014

To Isako Imamura


A Thousand Stitches
is a gift from Constance O'Keefe, the ­author, to Isako Imamura, the widow of Professor Shigeo Imamura (Shig). Shig and Isako had a great impact on Connie's life, beginning when she was a graduate student working with Professor Imamura at Michigan State University. After graduation, Connie obtained a teaching position in Japan thanks to Professor Imamura. Thus began her lifelong love of Japan: the country, its people, its history, its language, and its culture.

When Shig died in 1998, Isako asked Connie and two of Shig's other graduate students (Stephanie Vandrick and me) to help her see his memoir published. Isako was committed to telling Shig's story—an anti-war story of a Nisei, Japanese American, who moved with his parents from San Francisco to Japan in 1932 at the age of ten. After serving in the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II, Shig spent his life promoting peace through international education and cultural understanding. We three quickly agreed to help Isako and began work on what we called the “Shig Project. “

In 2001,
Shig: The true story of an American Kamikaze: A memoir
by Shigeo Imamura was published. Anyone who knew Shig hears his voice in his memoir, a straightforward recollection of his experiences. About this time and with Isako's blessings, Connie began working on a fictionalized version of Shig's story—
A Thousand Stitches
. In the novel two stories are tied together by a
, a belt of a thousand stitches made by a thousand female hands given by wives and sweethearts to Japanese men on their way to war as an amulet: one the main character's story, largely based on Shig's life, and the other a fictionalized story of his high school sweetheart who gave him a
. Connie's work began as an extension of the Shig Project. This time, however, she was not the coordinator of the project; rather she was the sole creator.

Connie threw herself into writing the novel with the same intellect, enthusiasm, patience, and attention to detail that she gave to all her work, professional and personal. Building on her extensive knowledge of Japan and its culture and her research for the memoir, she began. A voracious reader since childhood, she read anything she could get her hands on about World War II–era Japan, about fiction writing, and topics closely and peripherally related to the content of the novel. She researched every detail, amassing books on such topics as Japanese cranes, Japanese poetry, the Zero plane, memoirs of Japanese and U.S. soldiers, stories of Japanese civilians, and World War II history books. She joined and built writing communities, in person and online.

When she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2008, she had a draft of the novel and had already sent parts out to several people for comment. She continued to work on the novel as long as possible: checking details, adding and rearranging material, and polishing the prose. During times when she was feeling well, she would walk to the nearby public library several days a week to work there. She was committed to her dream of publishing the novel for Isako and telling Shig's story. She was able to complete the novel before her death on March 19, 2011. During her illness, she asked me if I would see that her novel was published. I was honored and quickly gave her my promise. We agreed that any profits from the novel would go to the Shigeo and Isako Imamura fellowships that Mrs. Imamura endowed: one at Michigan State University and the other at the University of San Francisco.

I am pleased that Connie's dream and her gift to Isako are now a reality. In her acknowledgments, Connie graciously thanks many people and notes the joy she found working on the novel and the Shig Project. I add my thanks to those who knew and supported Connie. Also I thank the many, some of whom never met Connie, who have supported and encouraged me on this journey to fulfill my promise to her. With her request asking me to see her novel published, Connie gave me a wonderful gift. I am forever grateful to her for this and much more.

Johnnie Johnson Hafernik

January 8, 2014


Himeji, 1999

Everything was ready.
Tasty tidbits in small
plates ­covered the table. Akiko stood in the kitchen doorway, untying her apron.

Junko turned the angel around and caressed the blond hair cascading down her back. She turned her around again and touched her golden harp and sky-blue dress. She ran her finger around its hem and settled her back in place. She touched three more ornaments, a star, a basket, and a Christmas tree.

Picking the angel up again, she said, “This was always my favorite.” Still fingering it, her back to Akiko, she said, “You're going to put them away after the party, aren't you?”

“Yes, after tonight,” said Akiko, remembering how Sam had insisted on unpacking and arranging them in December even though he hadn't felt well. Just before the hospital. And Christmas Eve, when she left the hospital for the last time and came home to the ornaments and the emptiness.

“I'll put them away tomorrow,” she said. “It's time. Time to do all the things I promised him.”

Junko put the angel down and nudged it back into place, but didn't say anything more.

“Thank you for helping me start with my promises tonight,” said Akiko.

the Maruyamas arrived, Akiko and Junko sat them down, mother and daughter, with Sam's colleague, Professor Inagaki, and his wife.

“Welcome to this unusual forty-ninth-day commemoration. You all know how adamant Sam was about no priests and no temple ceremonies. Thank you for helping me do what he wanted—raising a glass in his memory. With the holiday being celebrated on Monday we'll have two full days to recover, so let's eat and drink!”

“To my brother-in-law,” Junko said.

“To Imagawa-san,” said Mrs. Maruyama, the professor, and his wife.

” Harumi said.

After the toast, Akiko refilled glasses. “Please try the fried chicken,” she said. “His mom learned to make it in their San Francisco days, and his friend Shirley taught me when I first got to the States. He always loved it and was still asking for it in the hospital.”

In response to Mrs. Maruyama's question about the cards stacked next to the ornaments, Akiko said, “The one on top arrived this morning from a former student who lives in Atlanta, where she's the president of Fullman College. Harumi, there's a typed note inside the card. Would you please read it and translate for everyone else?”

Harumi began. When she stumbled, Akiko helped.

Dear Akiko, I just learned that Sam passed away at the end of last year. He opened the world for me when I was a kid who had never before been out of Chicago. He challenged and inspired me, and gave me the courage to apply for my first job abroad. And he accepted me, as he accepted all his students, no matter who or what we were or where we were from. I only hope that someday some of my students remember me the way I know hundreds remember him—and you—because you were always there, for us as well as for him. I will never forget the first time I came to your house. I had never seen anything like your kokeshi dolls, and I had never ever eaten anything like sukiyaki. I owe him, and you, so much. Oh, I have to stop now because I'm in tears. God bless you.

Your friend, Katherine.”

Mrs. Maruyama broke the silence by asking quizzically,
” Her question pulled Akiko back more than fifty years to a hot afternoon in Ukawa. The work in the fields was finished for the day. Akiko had helped her mom carry the spinach they had picked to the home of the village chief. Her mom had sent her home so she could stay and have tea and a good chat with the chief's wife.

Akiko was happy to have the house to herself. She lay on her stomach on the
, kicking her heels in the air. Her stomach wasn't full—lunch had been barley gruel and the hated grasshoppers her mom insisted she eat in order to have a bit of protein—and the work in the fields had left her hungry again. She had carefully saved a piece of the candy her dad had made for her. Her mom had sighed when Dad made the latest batch, reminding them both that they were lucky to have the local
mandarin oranges when they wanted something sweet. But Akiko still dreamed of chocolate, and indulgent Dad made her sweet potato candy whenever he could. She always made sure she saved a few pieces for special occasions. This was one.

Extravagance is the Enemy.
The oft-repeated wartime motto of the radio and pompous official adults, like Principal Mochizuki, echoed in her head. She smiled at her piece of candy, set it by her right hand, and flipped the pages of the magazine. They went quickly, and she settled at her favorite page: the
and the pictures from the town far away in the north where the graceful, cylindrical dolls were carved. One picture of the town, two of the carver and his son, and three of the dolls. Fifteen dolls in the pictures. Each different. Each wonderful. Her favorite was the second tallest. The best. Not the most decorated. Not the most memorable face. But the best: beautiful, perfectly contained,

Is elegance an enemy too?
She pictured herself standing in front of Principal Mochizuki. With just the right tone he would think she was stupid rather than insolent. If she could pull it off, he wouldn't be able to punish her. He would have to conclude she was a dolt rather than a disrespectful farm girl who dreamed of both extravagance
elegance. Akiko linked her ankles together, popped the candy into her mouth, rested her chin on her hands and gazed at the
in the picture as the candy began to melt.

Years later, when she first arrived in Tokyo, she found one just like that elegant favorite at an antique shop in Kanda. The
waited for her every night when she came home to her tiny apartment; the doll was an embodiment of her childish dreams of the exotic, and proof that she was an adult. She added another one after each month's payday, marking her time in Tokyo. The time typing and filing, smiling at the biology professors who couldn't remember her name but who were all too aware of her unfashionable country accent. The collection was warm and ­welcoming, the wood gleaming in the light when she threw the switch as she stepped into the
She imagined them calling “Welcome home”; they brightened her empty room and empty nights. Until the night Sam was outside her door when she arrived home. Until the end of the week of his siege, until she said yes, until he helped her wrap and carefully position them in the new suitcases he had bought for their move to the States.

herself back together, Akiko said, “Before I went to the States, I collected them. When I was a girl, I thought those Tohoku dolls were really exotic. I got rid of them years ago. I suppose they
the most exotic things ever seen in our town in Ohio.”

Junko proposed another toast, “To all those
students, and to all of Sam's students here. I know my exotic sister really loves to hear from them.”

“And,” Akiko added, “a special toast to Harumi, Sam's last student. He would be so proud of how good her English is.”

As they all raised their glasses again, Akiko remembered the last time she had seen Katherine and the other graduate students from Katherine's year at OSU. She could picture where everyone was seated in the restaurant in Japantown in San Francisco. It was already almost twenty years ago.

“No, I
have no idea, tell me!” laughed Pauline.

“Have you swallowed it all?” asked Sam.

She gulped and said, “Yes, come on! I'm ready for the news.”

“Did you like it?” he teased.

“Tell me!”

“Sea urchin!”

“It looks disgusting but isn't that bad,” Pauline giggled.

“Did you actually taste it?” Sam asked before he went on to describe the hard work involved in harvesting sea urchins from the ocean floor and in extracting them from their spiny shells.

“Can you believe that
has become as fashionable as it has, Sam?” asked Morgan.

“Yes, it's amazing, isn't it,” he responded. “That's why we have to make sure that sophisticates like Pauline are properly educated. Akiko's done her best with all those
meals, but we have to make sure this generation knows more about Japan.”

Everyone laughed, and Akiko looked around the large table as conversation broke into groups. Maxie and Claire were talking about whether Claire should stick with law school. Maxie's husband, Max, and Katherine were comparing their new administrative tasks, Max, the scientist, as Assistant Chair of the Biology Department at Bay Area State, and Katherine at the historically black Fullman College in the Atlanta suburbs. Pauline, Morgan, and Sam continued joking about
and Japanese cuisine.

Sam proposed another toast, “To San Francisco. Where I think my heart will always be. Akiko and I are so lucky that our visit here has coincided with Morgan's, as well as with Claire's and with Katherine's. And I'm especially happy that Pauline, Maxie, and Max have made their lives here, and that Pauline and Maxie are doing such a good job with the International English Center. It's a true pleasure to see all of you who are so dear to us from our days together at Ohio State at the same time as I get to see one of my oldest friends, Morgan, who grew up with me in Matsuyama.”

Glasses were raised, and more
tossed back all around. The waitress arrived to sweep the empty flasks off the table and replace them with fresh, warm ones. Sam leaned toward one, but Morgan reached it first and poured for him. “Do you think I've forgotten all my Japanese manners, my old friend?” he asked.

“No, of course not,” Sam said, smiling. “I'm so glad to see you tonight. I'll think of you next week when I'm standing on the grounds of Matsuyama Castle and looking at the Inland Sea.”

“Oh, Sam, I haven't been there for almost forty years. Do you remember climbing up there on my last day in Matsuyama in the summer of 1941? Everything was packed in boxes in the house, and my mother was concerned that we wouldn't get back in time to catch the train. But Dad was happy to see us go on our excursion because he had so many good memories of our hikes himself.”

“Yes, I remember,” said Sam, but didn't add anything before Morgan continued.

“Oh, I remember it so well. When we got back to our house, you didn't come in because you were on your way to see Michiko and didn't want to be late. That was fine, because it was sheer chaos, and Mother and Dad had said their formal goodbyes to you already.”

Akiko was watching Sam and suspected that he remembered the Michiko part better than the hike with Morgan. A funny time, just before and just after the war. Memories were buried, stretched, retouched, or just crumpled up and tossed to the wind.

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