Monday, February 12, 2007

kinda rough.

When I was a kid we lived on the West Coast in a small town which is now a suburb of Portland, Oregon. My fathers' side were original pioneer settlers there.

It was an agricultural community to start with. My first generation dad would point out with disgust how whatever new shopping center or paved roadway used to be Gundersons' farm or Bardo's dairy pasture and what a shame they sold out during the depression. Or Nokamura's radishes, or Watanabes' celery field, and how they'd lost their land during WWII. Of course , they had to go. They might have been spies and helped the enemy. You couldn't take chances back then.

Which is how I grew up knowing about Japanese interment camps and never thought a thing about it.

When I was about 10 my grandfather died and a box turned up in his stuff. When it was opened it turned out to be filled with photographs and legal documents that belonged to the Watanabe family. My dad went through the whole thing...laid it all out on the table, had my mom read him the papers, went through all the photos. Some of them were extremely old... cabinet daguerreotypes with weddings, babies, stuff like that, things that came over from Japan.

My dad wanted to throw it away. Because it would 'just bring up bad memories' and 'it's just a lot of old stuff anyway; they've probably forgotten about it, if it'd been important they would have got it already.'

Now they might have been fighting at the time; probably. I don't remember. Anyway my mom made the phone call. (Small town, small phone book, few Watanabes, all related.) My dad stood in the background red in the face hissing 'Why'd you have to go and embarrass me like this for?"

The entire Watanabe family came over. Tiny, tiny little Great-grandma and grandpa came too. Grandpa was so frail that two big boys held on to him and helped him walk. He was swimming around inside of his best suit from about 1940 and wore a big old fedora hat that rested on the tops of his ears. He shook my dads' hand and thanked him and they lead him back out to the car to sit down.

His wife stayed and looked through the things and cried. She was overcome, and had to sit down, and everyone hugged her, and she rocked back and forth. The whole time somebody was thanking us and shaking our hands, and I mean me, too.

That little elderly couple had been in the camps.
Their citizenship papers and land titles were in that box.
The family's history was in that box.

One of the guys that showed up that night was 'G' Watanabe. My dad attended school with G. Watanabe. My dad was on the Milwaukie High School football team with G. Watanabe. All while this took place, the team photo hung on my parents bedroom wall, and there was G. Watanabes' face, and there was his name.

As you might imagine, growing up with these people and having a different racial heritage had it's difficult moments.


  1. wow. how'd all that stuff come to be in your family's possession?

  2. Anonymous8:55 AM

    This post's just left me speechless.

  3. Whoa.

    Hey, thanks for the linky-link! And for even looking. :)

  4. There's definately a short story in that.

  5. cb; we figure old mr. watanabe gave it to my granddad to hold on to for him, and my granddad forgot all about it. at one time he was a pretty socially conscious person; he helped organize the woods and such.
    hendrix: first time i've said a word about it, too. i was forbidden to mention it.
    w2: hell, i owe ya!
    realdoc: an ugly one.

  6. Hopelessly derivative comment, sorry - wow. I'm speechless. Your posts are always... really something else. In a good way.

  7. Anonymous2:23 PM

    Wow, that was an amazing story. Just... wow.

  8. Hard, isn't it, to be on "both sides" of a conflict?
    I hope more people find your blog.

  9. I tagged you from the office party - you have to do it - 6 or 7 things about you - you have no idea how difficult it has for me to post this - they have to be weird things by the way xxxx romo xxx

  10. 5 am a bit inebriated but nice xxx

  11. I mean I am nice xxx by the way xxx

  12. oh my god HOW DRUNK? it's only Monday nigh ! xxx

  13. FN, you have one of the most amazing lives and the beautiful ability to wring emotions out of your readers with every word you write.

    What an incredible story.

  14. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  15. Oh wooooowwwwww!

    You have such a way with words, I envy you! :)

    This is touching in more ways than one.

    It gives a glimpse of life past, and of life to be. In a family's a box, one families aspirations for the future.

    All in a box, history...although one family, history in a box.

  16. God.

    I only know about the Japanese internmant camps becasue I read that book ages ago - that Snow Falling on Cedars.

    Romo - sounds like it was a good party.

  17. how upsetting it would have been if your father threw that stuff away. Someone's entire family history could have been gone forever.

  18. FN, wow... (wipes away the tears...)

  19. violet: thank you! :)
    alala: *really blushing*
    dinahmow: no kidding. that house was a constant battle zone, too. finally i just had my own side.
    rocky: how ya feeling this morning/afternoon? rocky, i bet! now you have to tag me all over again because i don't get what the meme is exactly now.
    pam: i honestly just wrote it straight from memory. its kind of freaking me out that people are reacting. i guess when it's your life it already happened to you.
    awaiting: and the thing that pisses me off to this day is that one ignorant man could have destroyed it because the people were japanese and 'didn't count'.
    frobi: yeah, well.
    spinny: i could not make it through snow falling. it's tough when you know a place and someone doesn't 'get it' the way you do.
    claire; exactly. and the only thing that saved it is my mother wanting to piss off my father. let's give them both a big hand, shall we?
    kindness; oh pshaw. go rent out monty python season two, girl!

  20. For the Watanabe Family that was probably one of the most exciting days of their entire life...seriously touching moment.

    My wife's Father was a C.O.(Mennonite/Sprechen Sie Deutsch you know) and he was forced to chop wood during the war..all of that
    That's OK I wasn't using my Civil Rights anyway..

  21. Anonymous11:43 PM

    Half of the Japanese in the State of Washington used to live in the White River Valley (a.k.a. Auburn). I go to the Japanese Cemetery here and look at all the stones in Kanji and the Jizos--really simple and beautiful tributes. The cemetery was terribly vandalized during WWII. Only a handful of the Japanese ever came back here from the camps. I often wonder what this community might have been like if we'd just left them alone.

    (P.S. Consider installing Haloscan for comments now that Blogger has made their commenting feature into a gated community...)

  22. An amazing amazing story. Told with perfect detail and emotion. Wonderful fn, nobody spins a yarn quite like you.

  23. Anonymous1:09 PM

    This post is so good it has been nominated for a Post of the Week here.

  24. In fact it's so good it was not only nominated for Post Of The Week, it won, and a well-deserved win at that. Congratulations.

  25. Anonymous12:34 AM

    God, that poor family.
    You're from Portland? Have you read East Bay Grease, by Eric Miles Williamson? I reckon it'd be right up your street. Great book.
    And this is a great story. Good thing they got their stuff back.