Book from bygone era helps bind couple through years of marriage

In America they say you can't judge a book by its cover, but the cracked, masking-taped binding of the decades-old tome in Masue Cresse's hands speaks volumes.

Its title, embossed on a teal exterior, is one hard to imagine anymore: "The American Way of Housekeeping." She got it in 1959, during the uneasy collision of cultures produced by lingering U.S. forces after World War II.

"For Japanese girl," she explains in shaky English. "I have to know the American way." The book was a gift from her late husband, a U.S. serviceman stationed in Japan who wanted nothing more than to merge her life with his own.

Until her husband died a few years ago, she still consulted its hints and recipes, and tiny, handwritten tags sprout from within, marking recipes for meatloaf, beans, soup and her specialty, cinnamon bread.

More than that, the book was a road map for a life transformed, a sentimental symbol of how a woman made America home and a throwback to a bygone era when the world seemed bigger, less intertwined, than it does today. Its cover is among the images featured in an ongoing city-funded art project honoring the stories of residents at Seattle's Kawabe House, the senior high-rise where she lives.

Now the 77-year-old widow leafs through its wrinkled pages, reading section headings drawn from another time: "How to Make a Bed," she laughs. "How to Take Out Stains."

"This book," reads the foreword, "is designed to meet the everyday needs of the women who are maintaining Western households here in the East. ... The aim has been to provide the fundamental directions and instructions which will help the homemaker meet the needs, fulfill the purposes and solve the problems of her household."

Written for a different time

Charles Tuttle founded Tuttle Publishing in 1948. A U.S. serviceman assigned to Japan, his mission was to produce "books to span the East and West," and "The American Way of Housekeeping" was among the company's first publications.

"It was written for a specific time, for a specific purpose," says spokesman Rod Hansen of the company, now based in Boston. With American presence high during Japan's postwar rebuilding, most of Tuttle's early books addressed bridges and divides between American and Asian cultures.

"The American Way of Housekeeping," with bilingual chapters titled "Cleaning the House," "Care of Electrical Equipment" and "Care of the Kitchen," includes recipes compiled by wives of American servicemen overseas. Its aim was to "create understanding and mutual good will between persons of different backgrounds in Japan."

Masue worked as a tour guide in Kamakura, a site of Buddhist antiquity visited by American families stationed at U.S. military bases nearby. It was at a friend's party that she met Illinois native Reed Cresse, who'd come to Japan aboard a Navy minesweeper.

Though Masue didn't think he was especially handsome, the two gradually took a liking to each other. "Young people don't like fat guy, baldy guy, short guy," she says. But Reed, slender and sturdy with a swatch of blond hair cresting above his forehead, wasn't any of those things.

"I was not happy about meeting blond guy," she says. "But he wasn't chubby."

And while he was a sweet guy besides, she'd seen heartbreak befall too many other women before. When Reed shipped out, she told him as well as she could: "Don't tell me you'll be back."

New life

But Reed did come back, when he could. Sometimes it was two months later, sometimes six. In the meantime, they had a son, who they named Eddie, and kept applying for their marriage license.

Masue didn't want to stay in Japan, which in war's wake was a shambles. Her childhood home in Shimizu City had been torched by an American warplane. Housing problems were rampant, and it was hard to find work.

But more than that, her world had grown. As a youngster, she'd traveled abroad, and now that she'd gotten to know so many Americans, she'd started to see some of her fellow Japanese as too tied to the ways of the past despite the change going on around them.

Japan's difficult return to the global community after World War II was marked by anti-American riots in the late 1950s, prompting U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower to cancel a visit there. Echoing sentiments of the time, her sister and three brothers shunned her romance with a white American and wanted nothing to do with their child.

Meanwhile, the couple's efforts to get a marriage license were hampered by endless paperwork and authorities who kept harping on Masue's bout with tuberculosis 10 years earlier. "I couldn't pass the physical exam," she says. "I don't know how many times I took it. Finally, they said yes. Reed got discharged. I tried for five years to get married."

When they left for America, she left without telling her family goodbye.

Book was 'like her Bible'

Just before they got married, Reed bought "The American Way of Housekeeping" for Masue at the military post exchange. "All women are alike in their basic desire to do their best for their families and their households," read the foreword. "It is the purpose of this book to help realize that desire."

In West Seattle, Masue took on the role of traditional American wife, circa World War II. She sewed Reed's shirts, cut his hair and fashioned caps for him out of old blue jeans. "I always cooked for him," she says. "I didn't feed him TV dinner."

Her early cakes were stone heavy, and pot roasts were a disaster. But in time, the book helped her tell short loin from sirloin, with illustrations and instructions for newly modern appliances such as washing machines and fold-up-style toasters.

"It was kind of like her Bible," says son Eddie, now 48 and living in San Francisco. "She just wanted to fit in with the rest of the Western folks here. The way America is now, you can't even imagine anybody using a book like that anymore."

And until two years ago, when Masue moved into Kawabe House, she still used it. Now, she says, her kitchen is too small for her cooking tastes, and elsewhere in her fifth-floor studio, there are reminders of the West Seattle homes she and Reed shared for 41 years.

Here's a snapshot of them from 1955, when Masue's hair hung over her shoulders and her eyes were as dark and penetrating as Natalie Wood's. On a dresser, a detached doorknocker reads "Cresse," and there's a retirement plaque given to Reed from American Steel, where he worked for 12 years.

Says Eddie: "One time my dad got this job working in a lumber mill by the waterfront and he forgot his lunch. My mother packed him a lunch and walked all the way down to the mill, about 10 miles round trip. It was that kind of marriage."

But as time passed and times changed, the traditional wife began to seek independence. A few years after their daughter, Alice, entered grade school, Masue began looking for work despite Reed's insistence that women shouldn't.

"I was tired of that," she says. But unable to speak more than a few words of English, "there was nothing I can do." Finally she found work at Japanese-oriented Keiro Nursing Home.

Even as the world changed around them, the book remained a constant in the Cresse household; its recipes for pies and cinnamon bread were her favorites. "I used it every day," she says. "That's why it's so dirty."

"Most of our happiness in life stems from our homes," the book's foreword continues. "This book is a sincere attempt to add to your joy of living."

Reed had always thought they should write their life's story. Now she taps on a nearby photograph of him: "Are you listening?" she teases.

In Japan, she says, they say soul mates are destiny's thread, two string-linked pinkies meant to find each other. Even now, she still thinks of her marriage that way.

Marc Ramirez:


"The American Way of Housekeeping" is among a number of images in a postcard project and exhibit that will feature the stories of residents at Kawabe Memorial House, 221 18th Ave. S. in Seattle. The project, by Bay Area artist Rene Yung, is sponsored by the Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs. For information, contact residence administrator Connie Devaney at 322-4550.