How to Be an American Housewife

by Margaret Dilloway ’96

How to be an American HousewifeMargaret O’Brien Dilloway was inspired by her Japanese mother’s experiences and by a book her father had given her mother, The American Way of Housekeeping, to write her first novel, How to Be an American Housewife, published in July 2010 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. Margaret lives in Hawaii with her husband and their three young children. Below is an excerpt from Chapter One.

When Father decided I was too old to be a tomboy, around age thirteen, he made me take dance lessons, like all young ladies did. I did what my father told me to do. I learned how to flip open a fan with a flick of my wrist, peering over it at the audience. I also learned the shamisen, which was a little harp. The teacher said I was a beauty, and very talented. I didn’t quite believe her until I saw how the men watched me at our talent show.

I came onstage in my beautiful silk kimono and red lips as my teacher played her shamisen. The bulbs shone in my eyes, but I would not squint. I lowered my gaze and snapped open my fan as I launched into the dance.

I heard an intake of breath from the men. I looked up and saw their admiring gazes fixed on me. I blushed, and kept on, knowing that wherever I went onstage their stares would follow. The other girls became invisible. I had more power in dance than I did at baseball.

I understood then that my skills in school or in sports would not make my life come about in the way I wished. I took my bows at the recital, vowing I would learn what I needed and make the best marriage possible.

The war had changed my life’s direction from East to West. I heard about Pearl Harbor from my father. I was in third grade. Father, a priest in a religion that believed in peace, was worried. “America is so big,” he fretted. “They will destroy us.”

Mother reassured him. “If the Emperor says we will win, it will be fine. Japan is mighty.”

Father seemed to be the only one around who questioned the Emperor. Everyone else thought we would triumph easily and show the West how strong we were. Even Father dared not bad-mouth the Emperor in public. The Emperor was supposed to be a god, and to say anything to the contrary could land you in prison.

At first, the war stayed far away, something we knew only from the radio. Then we began having blackouts and sirens. We built shelters in the hillsides to hide in when the planes came.

“Why would they bother with a countryside village, with no targets except chickens?” Father said. But they did. One night, the alarms went off and we blacked out our windows so the planes wouldn’t have easy targets. “It’s just a drill,” Father told us. We didn’t bother to go out to the shelters. But then we heard a great roar, the bombers overhead.

A blast rumbled the house. Something had been destroyed. At first light, I went outside. Our neighbor, Mrs. Miyama, and her little boy had been using their outhouse, and the light had been a beacon. Just like that, they were gone.

Another time, Taro, Suki, and I were walking to school. It was fall, the air just turning cold, the sky still gray. We had on our navy-blue-and-white school uniforms, our nice shoes that we could wear only to school. I remember that Taro’s hair was slicked down as flat as Mother could get it.

Our road went through farmland, a country road with country people, nothing of any significance. Nothing that the Americans should bother with. Suddenly we heard the roar again. It was deafening. Suki stopped and clapped her hands over her ears. Father had told me what to do.

“Drop!” I ordered, pulling my sister to the ground and falling on top of her. Taro fell, too.

There were popping noises and the brown dirt in front of us lifted. We were being shot at. Three little children. I put my head down and prayed that we would be all right. The plane flew past and I started to get up.

Margaret DillowayThe noise returned as the plane turned around.

“It’s coming back!” Taro yelled. He grabbed my arm, I grabbed Suki’s arm, and we jumped over an embankment into an irrigation ditch at the side of the road. I looked up and saw the pilot and the plane as it came low. It had a star on its side, a skull and crossbones on the rear tail, and a half-naked woman painted near the front. The pilot saw me and laughed. He had been playing with us, scaring us. If he had wanted to, he could have killed us. That was the first time I ever saw an American.

Suki’s face and body were muddy, and she was wailing. I took a chunk of mud out of her pigtails. Taro stood up and kicked at the dirt embankment, causing a slew of pebbles to fall down. He shook his fist toward the plane. “We will kill you all!” he shouted. “American fiends.”

I had not thought of this story for years.

I sat up on the couch in my San Diego living room, where I had been napping. Bright morning light made the room uncomfortably warm.

When I had told this story to my daughter, Sue, when she was still young enough to ask for stories, she had looked at me as if I were telling a grim fairy tale. “Why would they do that?” she had whispered, her eyes big.

“Those stories scare her,” my husband, Charlie, had said. “The past is past.”

He was right. And so I hardly talked about my past at all to my daughter. It was a lifetime ago. I had grown tired of my own stories, even of my old dreams. What good did dreams do me now? When you are young, dreams are the reason you pray for a new year and better luck.

Except for this. This one small dream of mine.

Taro and I together again.

I got a piece of tissue-thin airmail stationery and my husband’s fountain pen out of the desk drawer. Sitting down on the floor at the coffee table, I put the pen to my lips, thinking. From the garage, Charlie sang as he put laundry in the washer. One of my adult son Mike’s cats meowed at the screen door. I began my letter to Taro.


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