The mother once told a story about her wedding day: after the civil ceremony, having had a drink or two but not being a drinker, she thought she was a bird. Flying down the Main Street of a strange city against the blue horizon of a lake with its fish so unlike the ones of her homeland, flapping the wide arms of her flower and crane-adorned cream silk kimono, she thought she was free. In The Empire of Signs, Roland Barthes writes about Tokyo that, ‘this city can be known only by an activity of an ethnographic kind: you must orient yourself … by walking, by sight, by habit, by experience’. Even though she now finds herself in a city chaotic with numbers, where both houses and people are numbered in multiple forms, her first knowledge is through a kind of flight and touch. Forever after, she will know these streets by the wingspan of her silk sleeves, the tapping of her lacquered zori on the even cement.
In a downtown photographer’s studio, she wears the kimono again, her black hair pulled back in a splendid bun held in place with a long ebony and coral pin. Kneeling on the floor against a pale backdrop, she places her hands on her newborn daughter, both slightly open-mouthed with captured laughter. Wrapped in a red-patterned kimono of her own, she waves her hidden arms like a fledgling nesting in thick padded cotton. Gaston Bachelard, writing on nests in The Poetics of Space, says, ‘the moment we love an image, it cannot remain the copy of a fact.’ Later on, he writes, ‘from the depths of what daydreams do such images arise? … from the dream of the protection that is closest to us, a protection adapted to our bodies. Dreams of a garment-house are not unfamiliar to those who indulge in the imaginary exercise of the function of inhabiting.’ As soon as she can recall memories, it is true that the daughter does not think of the photo as such, but the event; despite only remembering things like the edges of the dark beyond the studio lights, the clean, slightly camphorous scent of the kimonos, and most of all a rustling of fabric, the solidity of material that forms a garment-nest which has been built for her. The dream of inhabiting is a reality, for it has been created to be so: by her grandmother who has made her little kimono, and her mother, who by dressing her, has placed the daughter in the space she feels safe within.
When the mother came to this country, she brought with her a tanzen, a great padded winter kimono. With its velvet collar and patchwork of fine antique silks in gold-hued olive green, navy, and burnt orange, it is never worn but lies on a bed as a thick coverlet. It is a ruin of sorts, one that straddles the worlds of specific use and disuse, for as Susan Stewart says in The Ruins Lesson, ‘… ruin refers to a fabric … that is meant to be upright but has fallen … what should be vertical and enduring has become horizontal and broken.’ Here in this Western bedroom, the tanzen is horizontal but not broken, instead adjusting its meaning to a different world, the way the mother must and the daughter will. This is another of the daughter’s earliest memories: the contrast of these ruins of paper-thin silk and dense black velvet against her baby skin, its wide weighted sleeves playfully folded over her body. Though no body ever fills it, the child regards its touch as if it were its mother, and so this mass of materials endures.
On a trip to Japan, the mother of the mother folds her new grandchild in gentle, grey kimono-clad arms on a curved bridge, showing her the koi rippling beneath. Leaning over the pond, the child wears a light blue Western dress, her baby hair the colour of the carp’s orange-red scales dulled to copper under the greenish water. The grandmother has never worn Western clothes or ever left her country, but she has understood her youngest daughter’s need to go elsewhere, welcoming the child of her marriage, a little creature regarded with curiosity. The ombré of her hair and robe is another world to the cuckoo, who regards these new people and surroundings with the understanding that they are hers regardless. She takes in this new world with solemn contentment and because of the kimonos she has known in that one and this, with no sense that this is different from the one she has flown from. She moves from houses with numbers to houses without, with their old wood and paper-framed panelled sliding doors, tatami mats, and bedding put out on the floor for the night and stored away during the day. While she does not yet have formed memories that she recognises, there is feeling: deep and wide kimono sleeves that enfold her, brush against her skin whenever she is picked up or tucked in. The daughter recalls this more than the touch of skin, the feather-light strokes of these bird-women with their cloth wings, their murmured unknown words that she translates and responds to in babbled emotions.
Jacques Derrida in On Touching – Jean-Luc Nancy, writes about tenderness: ‘the caress does not set upon anything tooth and nail. It is tender in that it does not push to take anything … rather, it tends to give, extend, tender forth the tender: “Tiens,” hold, take what I do not possess, nor you, what we do not and shall never possess. This will not be properly our own; of this, we shall never be the masters and owners. Gift or offering?’ In these images, to hold and touch is a gift: first as the child of a child of a child, the latter two now slowly removed by time from the state of childhood; second, as love without capital, a pure and short-lived state of freedom. For those moments of touching, both are bestowed with the absence of age and a rich and wordless communication of emotions.