Chapter One: Yellow Mittens
The yellow mittens I made in seventh-grade home economics proved that I dreamed in color. For the unit on knitting, we were supposed to turn in a perfect pair: two hands held together palm to palm with no extra stitches sticking out from the thumb, the tip of the fingers, or the cuff. Somewhere between making the fourth and the fifth mitten to fulfill this requirement, I dreamed that the ball of yarn in my bag had turned green. Chartreuse, leaf, Granny Smith, lime, neon, acid green. The brightness was electric. I woke up knowing that I was, once again, doomed for a D in home-ec.
I don't remember what possessed me to choose yellow, my least favorite color, for the assignment. In an all-girls school in Japan in 1970, home-ec. was a yearly requirement. Our teacher, Mrs. Amasaki, was a mousy woman with grey hair tucked behind her ears. The previous semester in her class, I made a skirt with the zipper sewn inside-out, and our cooking team had baked a sponge cake that resembled volcanic rock. But knitting involved no sewing machine to mangle my fingers in, no gas stove to burn down the model kitchen. As I finished one misshapen mitten after another that didn't match, I was surprised by how bad I was.
Mittens, as it turns out, are just about the worst project possible for a beginner. Each hand must be knitted as a tube, with the stitches divided among four pointed needles that twist and slip unless you are holding them with practiced confidence. The pair won't be the same size if you drop or pick up extra stitches along the way, skip a couple of decreases in shaping the top, or knit too tightly in your nervousness and let up in relief as you approach the end. You might make two right mittens or two lefts, because you forgot that the thumb should be placed in a different position for each hand. I ended up with two right hands of roughly the same size and three left hands that could have illustrated a fairytale:
Once upon a time, there lived three brothers, each with only one hand — large, medium, and very small. Even though the villagers laughed at them and called them unkind names, the brothers could do anything when they put their three left hands together.
The perfect mittens a few of my classmates had managed were folded together on Mrs. Amasaki's desk. The girls who'd made them sat near her, working on a second pair with pretty ruffled cuffs. When Mrs. Amasaki got up and walked around the room, I kept my head down. The majority of the class eventually came up with an acceptable pair. Mrs. Amasaki lined up these mittens — not quite perfect — in a separate row on her desk and gave the students an easier project, a scarf, to complete for extra credit.
On the last day of the knitting unit, I had a revelation. One of the two right hands, turned inside-out, became a left hand. I submitted my project with a note explaining the advantage of my design: even in the dark, I could tell the right mitten from the left whose inside-out stitches had tiny bumps like Braille. Mrs. Amasaki gave me a D-. At parent-teacher conference, she told my stepmother, Michiko, that I was a smart but undisciplined student. By then, my mother, Takako, had been dead for a year.
Unlike most Japanese couples of their generation, my parents had married for love. They met in 1954 in Kobe at Kawasaki Steel, where Takako was working as a secretary and Hiroshi as an engineer. Her parents opposed the match, because they thought Hiroshi was flashy and arrogant. His parents were lukewarm about my mother as well. Hiroshi's father owned a paint company whose business was prospering, but Takako's family had lost all but a small portion of their land — their main source of income — in the farm reform that followed World War II. Takako and Hiroshi got engaged anyway. Soon after, he was hospitalized with tuberculosis and spent a year in a sanatorium. Takako quit her job and sat by his bedside, working on whatever needlework she could take in to send money to her parents, younger brothers and sisters. She wove ties on a miniature loom, embroidered flowers on handkerchiefs, and knitted socks and scarves for a wholesaler. My uncles and aunts would tell me later, Takako was clever with her hands and resourceful: as a young woman, she believed that hard work could reverse any misfortune. After Hiroshi recovered, both families relented. "What choice did your grandparents have?" my uncle, Shiro, said. "Your mother was determined to marry your father. No one could stop her."
Takako must have been remembering the year she'd spent by Hiroshi's bedside with her needlework when she chose "Six Swans," a tale about a knitting princess, for my bedtime story. By then, my parents had been married for five years. I was four, and my brother, Jumpei, a few months old. We still lived in the small house in Kobe where my parents had been newly-weds, but Hiroshi no longer came home every night. While Takako was pregnant with me, he had started seeing another woman.
Once upon a time, the Brothers Grimm story went, a king who had lost his wife was tricked into marrying a witch. Afraid for the safety of his seven children, the king hid them in a forest, but the stepmother found them and turned his six sons into swans. His daughter escaped and wandered through the forest until she discovered the hut where her brothers rested for a few hours at night when they were able to resume their human forms. They told her that the only way to break the spell was to knit a shirt of nettles for each of them; she had to finish the task in seven years, and during that time, she was forbidden to speak or laugh.
A king from another country saw her knitting in the forest, fell in love with her, and married her, but when his jealous mother accused her of being a witch, the girl could not speak to defend herself. The day she was to be burned at the stake was the last day of her seven years' silence. As she was led to the public square, six swans flew out of the sky and landed at her feet. She threw the shirts over them, all but the left sleeve of the smallest one finished. Her brothers turned back into human beings, and the king learned what a devoted sister his wife had been. After a big celebration, everyone lived happily ever after.
Everyone, that is, except the jealous mother-in-law. She was burned at the stake for her lies. Nothing remained of her except a handful of ashes.
Excerpted from Yarn: Remembering the Way Home by Kyoko Mori. Copyright 2010 by Kyoko Mori. Excerpted by permission of GemmaMedia.