a stitch in time: “the grammar of silk” by cathy song

 

Ran across this Boomer Girls anthology a little while ago, and it’s all coming back to me now. As Rita Randazzo says in the opening lines of her poem, “The Sixties,”

I remember them/which proves I didn’t/ fully participate.

I may be slightly partial, but I think Baby Boomers are the finest generation. After all, we had the Mickey Mouse Club, Barbie, Beatlemania, bell bottoms, princess phones, saddle shoes, hula hoops, Woodstock, the counterculture, the civil rights movement, and were generally associated with individualism and social activism. ūüôā

Since it’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, thought I’d share a poem by boomer girl Cathy Song, a native of Honolulu. Until I read her poem, I had almost forgotten about a special summer.

 

 

THE GRAMMAR OF SILK
by Cathy Song

On Saturdays in the morning
my mother sent me to Mrs. Umemoto’s sewing school.
It was cool and airy in her basement,
pleasant — a word I choose
to use years later to describe
the long tables where we sat
and cut, pinned, and stitched,
the Singer’s companionable whirr,
the crisp, clever bite of scissors
parting like silver fish a river of calico.

The school was in walking distance
to Kaimuki Dry Goods
where my mother purchased my supplies —
small cards of buttons,
zippers and rickrack packaged like licorice,
lifesaver rolls of thread
in fifty-yard lengths,
spun from spools, tough as tackle.
Seamstresses waited at the counters
like librarians to be consulted.
Pens and scissors dangled like awkward pendants
across flat chests,
a scarf of measuring tape flung across a shoulder,
time as a pincushion bristled at the wrist.
They deciphered a dress’s blueprints
with an architect’s keen eye.

This evidently was a sanctuary,
a place where women confined with children
conferred, consulted the oracle,
the stone tablets of the latest pattern books.
Here mothers and daughters paused in symmetry,
offered the proper reverence —
hushed murmurings for the shantung silk
which required a certain sigh,
as if it were a piece from the Ming Dynasty.

My mother knew there would be no shortcuts
and headed for the remnants,
the leftover bundles with yardage
enough for a heart-shaped pillow,
a child’s dirndl, a blouse without darts.
Along the aisles
my fingertips touched the titles —
satin, tulle, velvet,
peach, lavender, pistachio,
sherbet-colored linings —
and settled for the plain brown-and-white composition
of polka dots on kettle cloth
my mother held up in triumph.

She was determined that I should sew
as if she knew what she herself was missing,
a moment when she could have come up for air —
the children asleep,
the dishes drying on the rack —
and turned on the lamp
and pulled back the curtain of sleep.
To inhabit the night,
the night as a black cloth, white paper,
a sheet of music in which she might find herself singing.

On Saturdays at Mrs. Umemoto’s sewing school,
when I took my place beside the other girls,
bent my head and went to work,
my foot keeping time on the pedal,
it was to learn the charitable oblivion
of hand and mind as one —
a refuge such music affords the maker —
a pleasure of notes in perfectly measured time.

~ from Boomer Girls: Poems by Women from the Baby Boom Generation, edited by Pamela Gemin and Paula Sergi (University of Iowa Press, 1999).

 

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friday feast: my favorite picture bride

My 1st birthday party with both grandmas behind me (Grandma Yang, wielding chopsticks with her left hand, Grandma Kim, plate on her lap). Naturally, I’m sizing up the cake.

Grandma Kim lived in a small, tidy house right across the street from Grandma Yang. A row or two of baby pink carnations lined her front walk and she had a papaya tree and banana plants in the back yard.

She spoke slowly in broken English while winding her long gray hair into a tiny bun, and phoned us whenever she made a fresh batch of kimchi. Many mornings during the summer, my brother and I visited Grandma Kim for breakfast, even though Grandma Yang was our official babysitter. You see, we loved Grandma Kim’s food.

Loved to watch our eggs gently simmering on the stove, loved the way she sliced a freshly picked papaya in half, making sure to remove every single seed, and most of all, loved the way she made toast. White bread, lightly toasted, generous layers of fresh butter and guava jelly spread evenly all the way out to the edges, and then the slice folded neatly in half. When you bit into it, it was a little chewy, the butter and jelly so melty good — the perfect complement to a soft-boiled egg.

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friday feast: the home within

They say you can’t go home again.

I¬†believed that until I found this poem — “Leaving,” by Cathy Song.

It begins:

Wahiawa is still
a red dirt town
where the sticky smell
of pineapples
being lopped off
in the low-lying fields
rises to mix
with the minty leaves
of eucalyptus
in the bordering gulch.
(Rest here.)

This may well be the only poem ever written about my hometown of Wahiawa.

All I wanted to do thirty years ago was leave it.

Leave the red dirt and pineapple fields
the mildew under the eaves
the GIs from Schofield Barracks
the Filipino men clapping when I sang
the¬†“Unchained Melody” in the saimin restaurant.

Before I could read, Wahiawa was just fine with me.

I didn’t know about snow
or seasons
or overcoats and boots;
didn’t know it was possible
to drive from state to state
or that I lived on a tiny dot
in the middle of the Pacific.

After I opened a book,
real life, exciting life, worthwhile life
seemed to exist somewhere else.
Hawai’i was just too limited, too remote,
too forgotten by the rest of the country.
I read so many books,
but never saw myself in any of them.

In “Leaving,” the narrator¬†talks about being “kept under cover” by her mother.¬†In their¬†small, dark world, the children knew mold, mildew, and centipedes,¬†building “houses within houses,” depending on National Geographic for a glimpse of the outside world.¬†They were “squeamish and pale.”

This made me remember why I left my family and friends and moved to England after college. My destiny just seemed to be very far away from where I was born. I refused to become part of the undergrowth.

Now, I’ve seen a little more of the world, but whenever I sit down to write anything, I’m still writing from Wahiawa. I guess you can take the person out of the place, but you can’t take the place out of the person. I keep wondering if I’ll always think so small, so limited, so confined.¬†Writing is my way of trying to break free.

Cathy Song also grew up in¬†Wahiawa,¬†graduated from Wellesley College¬†and Boston University. So she left, too (but eventually returned to Hawai’i where she lives now). As children, we¬†lived five minutes apart, but never knew each other (I did know her older sister, though). ¬†All these years later, I’ve met Cathy¬†through her poetry. I know so well of what she writes.

“Leaving,” from her first collection, Picture Bride (Yale¬†University Press, 1983),¬†has taken me back home.

Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is at Big A little a.

 

“Life’s a voyage that’s homeward bound.” ~ Herman Melville