My father was a veteran of the Korean War. A recent high school graduate, he served in the Air Force in the early 1950s. It was a time of his life about which I have almost no information. But I do have some mementos.
He apparently went to Tokyo once on R&R and that young American soldier took a shopping excursion. Completely out of character for the man I later knew as my dad: the one who preferred to avoid shopping and purchases of any kind.
I took possession of some of the fruits of that shopping trip almost 18 years ago after he died. One particular garment box that has been on the shelf of my closet all this time held two kimonos. One silk and one cotton. And a silk obi. I vaguely recalled the cotton kimono (actually, a yukata) because I remember him wearing it around the house on a couple of rare occasions as I was growing up.
In my ongoing quest to rid myself of possessions that are “stored” forever in boxes in the closet, I pulled out these kimonos last week. Besides the few times he wore them, they have probably not been out of the box since 1953.
As I opened the box, I immediately saw the cotton kimono’s cheerfully crisp navy blue and white ziggy-zaggy stripe pattern. Beneath was the silk kimono, a garment unfamiliar to me. I pulled it from the box to discover it was lined in white silk. The colors of the kimono were a somber olive and sandy brown. And the pattern was also somber: Japanese soldiers on foot, carrying caskets that held their deceased comrades.
I wondered why in the world my father had selected these two kimonos. More than likely, the shops that he visited were full of gorgeous silk kimonos in brilliant colors adorned with patterns of birds and blossoms. But then I remembered that he was purchasing the kimonos for himself, this young man of 20, not some hypothetical daughter who in sixty years' time would probably prefer flowers to coffins. So I honor it for what it is. And I decided to find a way to add this kimono to my daily life, something I could touch, see and enjoy in my home surroundings. I decided to make a pillow cover from this kimono fabric.
Because I did not want to immediately cut into the fabric of the main garment, I decided to detach one of the elongated sleeves, perfectly rectangular shaped, as the basis for the pillow. All I needed to do was pull apart the seam between the sleeve and armhole. My scissors cut the first thread in the lining and I nearly gasped in amazement – the garment was hand sewn. The stitches I cut were not made by machine. I continued snipping apart the stitches, imagining the needle in the hand of the person who sewed it, carefully crafted it into the lovely garment now before me on the kitchen table.
I sewed the sleeve back together as a pillow, using a hand needle and thread. I’d like to be able to say that I selected this process in reverence of the kimono’s original integrity. But the truth is, I don’t own a sewing machine. I only sew by hand. For about 3 hours on Sunday, I busied myself with this project. My pillow insert should arrive in a few days and I will place it among the collection of pillows that adds a touch of color, life and whimsy to our surroundings. This one will add more: a shade of toil, echoes of an ancient culture.
The more time I spend thinking about and pursuing the process of decorating our home, the more I am convinced that decorating is not about copying the elements from a picture of someone else’s house. At least not for me. It’s about arranging the things I possess with love and creativity. It’s about finding ways to maximize the use and beauty of everything.