With Cedar

Mary’s husband ordered her in the mail and years later, she was still getting ordered around.

“Leonard ordered me in the mail from Japan,” she confided once during a fitting.

When she married Leonard, a Korean War vet, she changed her Japanese name, Mariko, to Mary. They lived with their two teenaged children, in the tiny town of Hanover a one-hour bus ride from Minneapolis and a 15 minute drive from The Last House on Park Street. Leonard worked at the flour mill between the Rum River and the Hanover dump.

I have no doubt that after we left Edith’s shop that night, Mary continued following Edith’s orders and sewing under the meager light of her machine. At the end of her workday, she would dress in her wool coat and boots, hat and scarf, and step out into the snow on Nicollet Avenue to take the bus home.

For all her apparent timidity, Mary was a participant in our adventures. I never knew if Edith was aware that Mary worked for Mother “on the side.” Besides being a good seamstress, over the years Mary had become a very skilled designer. Two years earlier, she made all the clothes I wore on a trip to Japan.

I was attending the University of Minnesota, living on campus in a rooming house with my sister, Acey, and experiencing my first taste of independence. Mother called to tell us her exciting news.

“I’ve arranged for the whole family to go to Japan for the summer,” she said. “Won’t that be just wonderful?” Without waiting for a response, she continued emphatically, “It’s all set. We sail from San Francisco in June! Now, can you come home for the weekend and Mary will decide what clothing you’ll need for the journey?”

Of course Mary would know just the right clothes for a summer in Japan.

The next Saturday when I arrived at Mary’s, her husband, Leonard, was slouched down in the sofa. His usual greeting was barely more than a grunt. But this day, he didn’t as much as ruffle the newspaper in front of his face. Maybe, he disliked the extra work Mary had taken on with the Cutter girls. She was after all still working five days a week for Edith. And now the idea of clothes for this trip to Japan might have taxed any patience he had.

I tiptoed through the living room to the kitchen table where Mary eagerly waited with her pad and pencil. As I described Mother’s plan, first flying to San Francisco, where we’d board a ship to Hawaii, then on to Japan, Mary began to draw.

“This will be a beautiful trip, Charlie. Maybe even magical. You will see,” she said as she sketched out a three-piece evening dress.

“Here’s one for dancing on the ship. . .in the moonlight,” she laughed. “I’ll make from three colors of shantung silk. Lime for the scalloped accent on the neckline of the bodice, light blue for the bodice, and black for the skirt. You see?” She showed me her drawing. “You like this, Charlie?”

I loved it, and from this simple drawing Mary would create a precise pattern. “Mary, you have a talent, a gift. You’re an artist!”

“This is what I love to do,” she said. “You know, my own designs. . .to create clothes from beautiful fabric for people I care about… that is what makes a difference in my life. I am most happy doing a job like this.”

“Why don’t you start your own business, right here, Mary? You wouldn’t have to ride the bus.”

“I don’t have enough customers and I need the money. Someday I’d like to see my family in Japan, but right now I can’t afford that. So, I stay with Edith.” Mary lowered her voice, so Leonard couldn’t hear. “Even though,” she said, “I don’t like the way she treats me. But,” she added with resignation, “she is the boss, isn’t she? I ride the bus and put up with it.”

Our trip to Japan was magical, just like Mary predicted. When I returned I told her the stories of our journey and how and where I wore the clothes she designed for me.

I brought her a gift, a hand-carved wooden Kokeshi doll, designed and autographed by the artist, especially for Mariko. She seemed to appreciate the symbolism. The doll’s kimono and obi were intricately painted with red and yellow chrysanthemums representing youth and joy. The obi, or belt, was painted a brilliant purple, for hope of safe returns and reincarnation.

A month after Mother and I visited Edith’s Wedding Fashion shop to plan my wedding dress, I returned, alone, for my first fitting. After parking the car in Dayton’s ramp, I walked the two blocks down Nicollet, breathing the cold air in deeply and slowly blowing out steaming clouds.

When I opened the door at Edith’s shop, the bell jingled over my head and Mary met me with a hug and a happy announcement, “Edith is out tonight, so I will help you into your wedding dress.”

In the tiny dressing room Mary pulled yards and yards of satin over my head, fitting the bodice tightly over my chest. I thought I would suffocate under the weight of so much satin.

“I’ll add all the lace, sequins and pearls when I do the finishing,” she said kneeling down in the doorway. She lowered the skirt and began to measure for the hem. Still kneeling on the floor in front of me, Mary stopped measuring and sat back on her heels. She studied my face for what seemed like a long time. Finally she said, “I think, Charlie, we have the wrong design for the skirt.” She turned me around to face the mirror.

“Hmmm,” she hummed as she tapped the side of her head, pondering something. “I know your mother imagined the traditional fit of a long gown. But… ” she thought a bit, “how would you like a different design? It’s called empire waist, made popular by a French Empress, Napoleon Bonaparte’s first wife Josephine. It’s really attractive, Charlie. With the waist gathered a bit higher just under the bust,” she explained, gently pulling the folds of satin together to demonstrate, “I think it would be very flattering on you and everything else can remain the same.”

It was almost more than I could absorb. I thought I would cry, but I’d come this far without truth or tears and at this moment, I was grateful for Mary’s compassion. “Yes, you’re right.” I held my hand over my mouth and whispered, “Thank you, Mary.” From that night on, Mary and I had an unspoken bond that went far beyond mere friendship.

After I was married, I had little money to spend for designer fashions. My budget went for maternity clothes. Three years passed before I saw Mary again. The occasion was a trip to Nassau in the Bahamas with my husband. I called Mary to ask if she could create one wowzer of an outfit for our trip. She was excited saying she had an idea, and told me to come pick it up in two weeks.

Mary rushed to meet me at the door in Hanover. “Hurry up and see what I made. I love it! You will love it too.”

I followed her into the kitchen. She held up the long pants made of boucle in a design of overlapping squares and triangles of green, chartreuse, hot pink and yellow. The material resembled a Picasso painting. The pant legs were wide at the bottom like calypso pants.

“And,” she said, “Look at this! Here’s the top—how about that?” The top had a low-cut neckline, long, fitted sleeves and was cut off in the middle.

“It’s a bare midriff!” Mary squealed. “You like? Just like Cher Bono! And, look what else! I made an evening jacket of chiffon, a kind of glittery sheer golden silk. It’s called Legacy Burnout.” Holding it up for me see, she said, “Look at that… trimmed in Mardi Gras sequins. Isn’t it wonderful?”

The transparent golden jacket with the radiant sequined trim was a work of art, an entire experience all by itself and Mary was thrilled and proud of her creation. She held both sides of her face like she was about to explode with excitement. She waited for my reaction.

I couldn’t believe my luck. All I needed was the courage to wear it. “It’s beautiful, Mary I love it! Thank you.” I gave her a hug. “I know I will have more fun than anybody in all of Nassau.”

“No charge for the jacket,” she said, as she dramatically lifted the collar of her creation to display her new label: Made by Mariko.

Mary had reclaimed her name and sewed it tightly to the jacket.

When I returned from the Bahamas, I went to see Mary. I wanted to tell her all about our trip and the amazing thing that happened when I was wearing my calypso outfit. We were eating conch on the beach at The Blue Paradise restaurant and Sidney Poitier was across the room. I got his autograph on my menu. But, as I glanced over at Mary, I could see that the mood wasn’t right. She was distracted, agitated about something.

“Mary? What’s wrong? Where is Leonard?”

“He’s running an errand; he’ll be back in an hour. I need to show you something. Quickly, follow me! Have you ever noticed my bedroom set?” She called over her shoulder, hustling me out of the kitchen and through the living room.

I’d never seen her bedroom set, or her bedroom for that matter.

She led me down a dark, narrow hallway.

“Please, come see what you think of it.” She opened the door and I stared straight ahead—in shock.

There, in Mary and Leonard’s tiny, crowded bedroom, were three pieces of astonishing furniture. A bed, a dressing table and a dresser—-all with hand-crafted inlaid pink and red roses wrapped in trailing white ribbons, created with several kinds of woods, from cherry and mahogany to rosewood and walnut and some woods I couldn’t identify. The flowers, from buds to wide-open blossoms, were so delicate and exact I could almost smell them. The entire edge of the headboard was draped in a garland of carved and inlaid roses and ribbons. Even the edge of the vanity bench in front of the three-mirrored dressing table was decorated with matching inlay.

“This furniture is stunning! Where did you get it?”

“I bought it at a garage sale with money my family gave me when I left Japan to marry Leonard. It’s so old fashioned now. I don’t like old things, Charlie. I told Leonard, I’m going to sell it all.”

“Where will you put your things, Mary, if you give up your dresser and dressing table? What will you sleep on?” It sounded like Mary was losing it. She’d always been so calm, so sure of what she was doing.

“Oh, I don’t have much anyway,” she said. “We can sleep on the mattress on the floor. I want to buy a hope chest. Do you know what that is?”

“Yes, well… usually brides have hope chests. You know… to save all the things they’ve collected for their own homes when they get married.”

“Yes, Charlie. Valuable things, right? Most valuable things?”

I didn’t really know. I never had a hope chest either. “I guess the things would be valuable.”

“I never had one and I want one now. Look in this.” Mary reached under the bed and pulled out a catalog, then opened it to show me.

“You can order from this catalog with or without cedar,” she said pointing to the page of cedar chests. “The difference is $75. And I want it with cedar.”

Well, she was sure of that.“But Mary this bedroom set is incredible. Look at these tiny roses, every petal cut separately and even rose buds just opening. You may want to think about selling it. Maybe your children will want it someday? I think it’s probably really valuable.”

Mary wasn’t listening. She was anxious, strangely insistent, almost demanding me to understand.

Lowering her voice to a surprisingly serious tone, she said, “Not the same kind of valuable, Charlie. I have thought about this—a long time, too. My children don’t like old things either. They want modern, modern, modern.” She tapped the page of the hope chest catalog and repeated, “I’ve always wanted a hope chest.”

Mary walked across the room, looked out into the hallway and quietly closed the bedroom door. She leaned back against the door. I heard a soft little click of the latch. She came up close and looked me straight in the eyes. Tears streamed down her face. I had never seen Mary cry.

“Charlie, this furniture is the only thing in Leonard’s house that I own all by myself. I’ve been riding the bus to Minneapolis and working for that woman for ten years.” I realized, she couldn’t have told me this when Leonard was home.

“I do most of the work and I never get a raise, but I did it anyway.” Mary wiped her face with the bottom of her apron. “I’ve saved almost enough money to buy that hope chest,” she said dropping the catalog on the bed. “I’m just short $75 dollars. If you could give me $75 for all my furniture, I could buy the hope chest.”

I didn’t have $75 and we didn’t need bedroom furniture either. Mary was pleading though, desperately and I remembered what she had done for me at a very frightening time of my life. I had no choice. I wrote her a check for $75.

When my husband and I came to Hanover to pick up Mary’s furniture, it was already moved from the house into the garage. The rose buds and ribbons were replaced in Mary and Leonard’s bedroom by one cedar-lined hope chest with a white lace doily placed exactly in the center of its lacquered top.

“You see,” Mary said with a serene smile, “I even have a key.” She grasped a long gold key tightly to her chest. Relief and calm had settled around her. She winked and gave me a hug. “Thank you for helping me.”

“You’re welcome,” I whispered. “Mary, what are you going to put in there?”

“I told you, the most valuable things I have.”

Whatever it was, it was Mary’s secret.

It would be two years before I saw Mary again.

On an otherwise normal autumn afternoon, Mary’s husband, Leonard, made a call to my mother. He told her that Mary was in the hospital. Two days earlier, Mary was on the bus coming home from work, when she suffered a brain aneurysm. Leonard told Mother that Mary had been unconscious ever since and he asked if we would come to the hospital to relieve him and the kids, so they could go home and get some sleep. Mother agreed and called me.

I sat down as gently as I could at the end of Mary’s bed. The crisp white sheet was pulled and stretched tightly over her chest with a six-inch hospital-fold over the thin blanket.

Mary’s delicate, obedient hands were placed one over the other on top of the sheet. I reached down to touch them. Cold! The hands that sketched the designs, cut the cloth and gently guided the fabrics under the rhythmic drill of the needle beneath the tiny light of her sewing machine, were cold.

Moving up closer, I held her hands and mentally reviewed the stories we had in common. Things I thought she’d remember, like the trip to Japan many summers before.

Gently rubbing one hand at a time, I spoke. “Remember Mary, that pink and white seersucker suit with the white linen vest and gold buttons? I wore that so many times.”

As I talked to Mary, I’d alternate her hands, trying to keep them warm and I hoped I thanked her enough for everything she did. Had I told her all the details? So many beautiful details.

“And Mary? The two-piece swimsuit you made of red islet over polished cotton and trimmed with white lace. You made a matching jacket of chantilly lace. . . fit perfectly when I boarded the ship and after four days of tea cakes and ice cream on the deck, I was overflowing.” I laughed recalling that suit didn’t fit me on the return trip.

“Remember the orange and yellow paisley cotton dress you made for day-trips… easy-wash, no-wrinkle with the little matching fabric bow sewed at the waist. I washed it, Mary, every other night and hung it, like a flag. I wish you could have seen it, flying from the fourth floor window of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in downtown Tokyo.”

“Did I tell you that?” I hoped for a reaction, maybe her eyelids would flutter or her lips would move slowly into a smile.

I tucked Mary’s hands under the blankets. Mother and I stayed awake through the night keeping the vigil until Leonard returned in the morning.

At four o’clock the next afternoon, I came home from work at the restaurant, hugged my children and my husband, thumbing through the numbers in my book. The receiver began ringing out.

A voice at the other end said, “Hello?” It was Leonard! I hadn’t even dialed. How could that have happened? “Did you call me, Leonard?” I asked hoping for a simple explanation.

“No.”

“How is Mary is doing?”

With almost no emotion, Leonard delivered the news. “Mary died at 4:17 p.m. just a few minutes ago,” he reported. “I’ve been on the phone with her family in Japan.”

My ribs hurt with the banging of my heart. She couldn’t have died. Had we done something wrong last night? Were we disrespectful trying to make her squeeze our hands, wasting time talking about unimportant things like clothes?

“Oh, Leonard,” I said with an emotional rush. What should I say to him? What do people say? “You know, don’t you, that I loved Mary?” After an awkward silence at the other end, I continued, “Please let Mother and me help with something. We can cook or do any errands. How are the kids?”

“They’re fine,” he said in a flat tone. “I’ll let you know when we’ve made all the arrangements.”

I wondered if he might be in the state of shock. Then a darker thought came to me. How much did Leonard really care for Mary?

“Leonard?” I asked softly not wanting to annoy him.

“Yes?”

“Were you going to call me?”

“Yes, later. I finished talking with Mary’s family and was making tea. Then I was going to look your number up in Mary’s book. That’s when the phone rang.”

I closed my eyes and tried to breathe deeply to slow my heart. At that moment I smelled it. It was quick, warm, intense and undeniable. I opened my eyes and raised my head to meet and follow the sweet scent of cedar as it floated through the room toward the open window. The scent was so vibrant, like I could almost see it or touch it. But the stream of incense spiraled down through the screen and out the window over the porch roof. Gone.

After Mary’s modest memorial service, Leonard found me in the church parking lot.

“Thank you for the food you and your mother prepared,” he said. “We’ll be sending Mary’s ashes back to Japan—tradition and all.”

“Leonard? I hope this is not too personal but Mary showed me her hope chest right after it arrived. I know how happy she was to have it.”

“Yes?”

“Well, I was just curious. What did she put in it?”

“You know, Charlie, there really isn’t much in there, but if you like you can come over to the house right now and see for yourself.”

I followed Leonard down the familiar narrow hallway into what was now his bedroom.

I knelt down in front of Mary’s hope chest. The lacquered wood reflected the light from window. The lace doily was still placed carefully in the center of the chest.

Leonard turned the key and slowly lifted the lid. Waves of sweet cedar rose up and filled the room. I stared at the contents in disbelief, my eyes filling with tears.

Mary’s hope chest was, as Leonard described, practically empty, only about a quarter full.

The top layer was carefully folded squares of alenscon lace and white satin, all wrapped in white tulle with silk ribbons. Three colors of shantung silk, lime green, sea foam blue and black were bundled with a swatch of the fabric from the wrinkle-free dress that hung in the window of the Imperial Hotel.

I reached in to gently shift bundles of fabric, being mindful to return each item to its intended position. Scattered around the chest like jewels were more bits and pieces of fabric, buttons and sequins from clothes Mary designed for our trip to Japan, clothes that Mother and I wore on this very day to her memorial service.

Mary’s sketches, including ones of a Picasso outfit and the silk jacket she’d given me with her very first label attached, lay together in the bottom of the chest.

A constellation of pearl buttons, sequins and rhinestones, spools of thread, and extra bobbins were arranged on top of a swatch of gold satin. The Japanese Kokeshi doll rested like a queen nestled in tulle guarding the labels, Made by Mariko.

This was it, the most valuable things Mary owned—her identity. These were the treasured artifacts of Mary’s self-respect and transformation.

As I knelt clinging to the side of Mary’s hope chest, shaking with the power of the message in front of me, I realized that Leonard was still standing beside me. I looked up.

“You see,” he said, “Nothing much in there.”

Originally published by the literary journal www.scrollinspace.com

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