Grandmothers memories of lives extinguished in 1945
The June day is perfect for a wedding — bright sunshine, water merrily cascading from the large metal statutes in the fountain, a slight breeze playing with the bride’s dark hair and long, slim slip of a wedding gown. The two bridesmaids, clad in short, fashionably black satin dresses, smile and tease their soon-to-be-married friend. Their laughter mingles with the murmur of the breeze.
The groom paces a bit, joking with the elderly Chicago judge who will marry them. Akira, the groom’s father; Grandfather Yoshizo; an aunt and uncle from Springfield; a cousin; and a few friends attend the short ceremony, which is followed by hugs, good wishes, and directions to the reception.
But first the newlyweds drive to visit Grandmother Sachie. The old woman is too ill to leave her bedroom and join them.
In times past, Grandmother was the first to join in a celebration, the first to encourage and lead family gatherings. Her calm presence commanded respect, and her playful love drew children and grandchildren together year after year, occasion after occasion.
The newly married grandson greets Grandmother with his usual cheerfulness, though his teasing barely covers the concern in his voice. His bride holds Grandmother’s once-strong hands and gently greets her.
Grandmother is awake but a little groggy from the morphine needed to quell the pain deep inside her wasting body, which, in decades past, gave birth to 11 vigorously healthy infants. Words are quietly shared.
Then, louder than would have been expected, a wrenching sob emerges from Grandmother’s throat, filling the silent spaces in adjoining rooms.
“Don’t let her be alone, Toby. Don’t let her be alone . . . don’t let her be lonely.” Toby looks at Grandmother, then his bride, but he has no point of reference.
“I won’t,” he says, puzzled.
The young couple quickly leaves as the groom’s aunt, Grandmother’s oldest daughter, enters the bedroom, which is now swathed in shadows by the setting sun. The daughter thinks momentarily of her mother as a young bride in America, more than 50 years ago.
Trying to understand her mother’s plea to her grandson, the daughter leans over the bed railing and whispers, “You were very lonely, weren’t you, Mama?”
And her mother, who seldom complains or cries, who is the recognized source of strength for a boisterous clan of 11 children and 25 grandchildren, who has been the source of steadfast strength for husband Yoshizo, looks at her oldest daughter with unbearably sad eyes and replies, in a whisper, “Yes.”
In that moment, searching her mother’s anguished face, the daughter grasps what her mother is saying.
Born in Portland, Ore., in 1921, her mother returned to Japan when she was 3 years old to be educated and grow up in a comfortable hillside home overlooking Hiroshima. She came back to America when she was 17.
An arranged marriage took place, and a son, Hajime, was born a year later. Some 17 months after his birth, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the family was forced into the Manzanar Relocation Camp, set in a desolate California valley where sand and snow blow through the chinks in the walls of the uninsulated tarpaper barracks. Because Sachie was fluent only in Japanese, husband Yoshizo and new relatives helped her learn English. Always a bright student, she practiced the new language diligently, but the loneliness of those difficult years in Manzanar was lifted only by conversations with elders who spoke Japanese, by playing with her firstborn son, and, after the passage of nearly three more years, by taking care of a newborn daughter.
For more than three years, Sachie looked past Manzanar’s barbed-wire fences to the barren desert landscape framed by mountains. At times, distant Mount Whitney reminded her of Mount Fuji, thousands of miles across the ocean to the west. For three years, while America and Japan were at war in the Pacific, there was only one communication with her mother, who sent a telegram through the Red Cross. He mother simply wrote, “Come home.” Sachie received nothing more, and she did not hear from her younger sister or brother, who remained in Hiroshima. Nor was Sachie able to learn what her high-school classmates at Yaseda Girls School were doing, what their lives were like during the war.
In March 1945, when Sachie’s daughter was 9 months old, the young family was able to leave Manzanar. They traveled by train to Chicago, where they restarted their lives. Having converted to Roman Catholicism, they moved into a Catholic parish and found that they were the only Japanese-American parishioners. Religious differences kept the family from becoming involved with other camp internees, who found solace at the Midwest Buddhist Temple.
In one of the suitcases carrying their meager possessions to Chicago was Sachie’s treasured high school yearbook, which was kept safely hidden in Manzanar. The cherished yearbook reminded her of her many friends and the experiences they shared. From time to time, while sitting in the barracks, Sachie gazed for long moments at the yearbook’s black-and-white photos of students learning to conduct a proper tea ceremony, to arrange flowers, and to play classical Japanese instruments. Moments frozen in time by the photographs brought back memories of mathematics taught by a stern and exacting sensei (teacher), friendly games of volleyball in gym class, and laughter-filled days at the beach, learning to swim in the Pacific Ocean’s currents. In one photograph, her friends are wearing black swimsuits, but Sachie wears white; her smile is playful and sunny.
After graduation, some of Sachie’s classmates worked for a few months with Sachie at the post office, where she successfully tested for and won a coveted position.
In her senior-class photograph, Sachie is one of 121 faces, young women with shiny black hair worn pulled back or braided, their eyes bright, perhaps seeing future possibilities. But, agreeing with Sachie that her future would be too limited in Japan, her mother, Minae, arranged for her daughter to sail under the supervision and protection of a friend, Mrs. Mori, who was returning to her husband and family in America.
Before boarding the steamer docked in Yokohama harbor and sailing off to America, Sachie turned to her mother and bowed several times, murmuring words of respect, gratitude, and thanks for all that had been done for her. Minae gazed at Sachie, believing and trusting that her beautiful, adventurous daughter would be safe in America.
In Sachie’s trunk, Sachie and her mother had packed a few kimonos, several Western-style dresses, and books, including the yearbook, bearing good wishes penned by Yaseda Girls School classmates and teachers.
Good wishes sometimes are transformed into prayers against suffering and a shield against loneliness. On the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, Yaseda Girls School and most, if not all, of Sachie’s former classmates and teachers ascended to the heavens in an atomic mushroom cloud that burst bright against the clear horizon, their voices and hopes lost forever in the roar of the monstrous blast.
In the decades that have passed, Sachie has never brought out the yearbook for family to see. In quiet moments alone, she has taken the book from her dresser drawer and looked at the hopeful faces — Kae, Mariko, Michiko, Tomo, Yae, Kazuko — and other school friends with whom she shared dreams. When the memories weigh too heavy, she lifts her shield against loneliness and puts the book away.
Now gravely ill and too weak to attend the wedding of a grandson to another bright-eyed, dark-haired young woman, Sachie no longer has strength to lift the shield against the loneliness in her life.
“Don’t let her be alone,” she says, weeping. “Don’t let her be lonely.”
And Sachie’s oldest daughter sees that, after all the years of making so many others feel secure, protected, and loved, Mama is really, finally, pleading for herself.
Yoshimi Yoshimura Golden has written frequently about the experience of Japanese-Americans during World War II. A version of this story appeared in the Alchemist Review, a publication of the English Department of the University of Illinois at Springfield.