Everything Gone

October 14, 2012 by Admin

By Sumiko Higaki

Everything the folks had worked so long and hard for would be gone: all our possessions, our household furniture, Daddy’s cars, trucks, the expensive farming equipment accumulated over the years, Mary’s piano and her beautiful new bicycle, Mama’s new washing machine and our new refrigerator.  What would happen to all of these?  What would happen to our home?  What was going to happen to us?These frantic thoughts must have run through our parents’ minds as we gathered around the utility pole near our house that spring morning in 1942 and read the words on that sheet of paper that someone had posted there:

“Instructions to all persons of Japanese Ancestry living in the following areas. . . Yolo and Solano County . . . in the State of California will be removed . . . ”

I knew the news was not good but, being only 12 at the time,  I  don’t think I fully realized the impact that this moment would have on us.  From then on,  all normalcy was lost as our family tried to fathom and face  everything that had to be done within the next 4-5 weeks in preparation for our departure.  As we learned more about this forced removal of all of us who were of Japanese ancestry, we realized the enormity of this order and the very short time we had to make some very important decisions.  If we could take only what we could carry, what do we do with everything else in our home and on the farm?

Many  families had “fire” sales and word got around very quickly that there were some real bargains to be had.  Some in the greater community took advantage of us and our plight by trying to buy things as cheaply as possible.  One Japanese lady in town was so outraged by the paltry amount offered for her beautiful set of expensive china that, rather than sell it at that price, she stood there in front of the potential buyer and threw each piece on the pavement, shattering the whole set.

But thankfully, many honest, kind and generous neighbors and friends helped us.  Daddy had bought a new DeSoto sedan the past autumn for $925, and a neighbor purchased the car from us and matched the full price Daddy had paid. Our teacher, Mrs. Armstrong,  a wonderful Christian lady offered to keep some of our things for us, and Daddy asked her to keep his new Kodak camera for him. After the war ended, when he went to see her, she returned the camera to him and, when Daddy tried to give her a small amount of money for her kindness, she would not take it.  “No, Harry,” she said.  “I do not want rewards for helping a friend.”

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the Buddhist Church in town where my family worshipped closed its doors.  Mrs. Armstrong invited my sisters and me to attend her church–the local Winters Presbyterian church– and my two sisters and I attended this church until the forced removal.  The members of this church opened their hearts to us and made us feel welcome and wanted.  At a time when we felt that even neighbors and “friends” saw us with disfavor, the warmth of this congregation left an indelible inpression on me and my sisters.  This was our introduction to Christianity and, over the years, all three of us became Christians even though  Mrs. Armstrong never knew that her kindness had opened the door for our conversion.  I wish we could have let her know because she would have been so pleased.

My father could see the bright side of most situations, but I doubt that he saw any bright side to this situation.  Yet he explained the coming “evacuation” to us children in a way that made it something to look forward to rather than something to be dreaded.  He said, “We’re going on a trip. . . it  will be a vacation!”  A vacation!  Other than a few overnight trips to the beach for fishing and clamming, we had never been on a real vacation!

Our folks bought each of us a brand new suitcase and Mama helped us pack our clothes and told us , “You can take anything else you want as long as you can carry your own suitcase after it’s all packed.”  I wanted to take some of my books, but they were heavy, so I took only my two favorites,  Black Beauty and Dog of Flanders.

My older sister Mary, a promising pianist at age 16,  packed her favorite piano music.  She took many of the classics she had learned and some “popular” music as well, like “Sleepy Lagoon” which was number one on the Hit Parade at the time.  Her music teacher, Mr. Adams, had seen the promise Mary had shown in her piano and urged her, “Continue your piano study if at all possible.”  But would there be a piano where we were going?

Before the departure day finally came, we had packed and unpacked our suitcases many times over.

And so we prepared to leave.  Everything we could not store, sell or take  with us, we gave away, threw away, or left behind.  I don’t know what happened to the farming equipment or the household appliances, but I do remember someone buying Mary’s piano.  A woman came to the door and asked what we had to sell so Mama showed her some things including the piano.  “I’ll take that,” the woman said and paid Mama $25 dollars for Mary’s beautiful piano. When her piano was sold, it must have been as though she had lost her best friend.  The quiet in the house, especially in the evenings,  was a silent reminder that Mary didn’t have her beloved piano.  Mama never had to remind Mary to practice; it was something she just loved to do!  More often than not, my younger sister Mitzi and I fell asleep at night listening to Mary softly running her fingers over the piano keys in the adjoining living room.

Along with the excitement of our impending “vacation,” my sisters and I felt sadness, too.  Deep down, I think we all knew the “trip” was not a real vacation but something more serious and profound.  We knew we couldn’t take our dog Poochie or our cats, Boots and Silvertoes, and even though they were going to be cared for by a friend, leaving them would be hard.  Our dog was very pregnant at the time, and I can still recall looking back and seeing Poochie standing in the middle of the country road, her usually wagging tail droopy and still, looking so forlorn as our car drove away.  I really believe she knew we would not be coming back.  Our friend later wrote to tell us, “Poochie has given birth to many healthy puppies and enjoys being a mom.”  But we never saw Poochie or our cats again.

With everything gone–the piano, our pets, Daddy’s record player– everything gone, we left our now empty home in late May, 1942.  The apricots
were almost ready for harvest,  the fruit turning a beautiful pinkish color on the trees.  Daddy and Mama had worked all year caring for their apricot, almond, peach and plum orchards, but they would not be here to see the harvest.  The evening before we left, after dinner, Daddy had gone out alone for a walk through the apricot orchard near the house.  I saw him stop and for a long time, he just stood there, looking up at the trees.  He didn’t say anything but I thought I knew what he was thinking, what he was feeling,  because I felt it, too– not as acutely perhaps but I understood.  As young as I was and even though he had tried to protect us from fearing the forced removal, I knew, as he did, that we were leaving the security of our home, our friends, our comfortable life.  We did not know what lay ahead.  I sensed his heavy hear and knew that he was also mourning the loss of everything he and Mama had accomplished over 21 years of hard work.  From nothing except faith in themselves and a determination to succeed, they had built a fulfilling life for themselves and their three daughters; a life filled with many friends, with thriving children and noisy pets, with music and books and satisfying work; a home where we were happy and felt safe and protected.    Now, we were losing it all.  What a sad time this must have been for my parents.  Even now, my memory of that still figure in the orchard shadowed by the leaves and branches of the apricot trees brings an ache to my heart.

The next day, we finished packing our suitcases for good, locked up the empty house and said goodbye to our pets and to friends who had gathered at the house.  Another good friend drove us with our suitcases to the station in Vacaville.  My younger sister Mitzi could only drag her heavy suitcase, weighed down by its precious contents of things a young child just couldn’t  leave behind,  so Daddy had to carry hers along with his own.  Along with these two suitcases, he lugged his heavy case of Japanese music records.  Even though he couldn’t take his record player, he loved his music and he just couldn’t bear to part with his record collection.

We and the other “evacuees” boarded the waiting train and as it began to move, we waved to those who had come to see us off.

Our  “vacation” had started.

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In the aftermath of World War II, more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry – roughly two-thirds of whom were American citizens – were released from forced imprisonment in U.S. concentration camps. But released to return where, after being taken from their homes along the West Coast? When they were finally allowed to leave the internment camps, they faced a new challenge: How do you resume a life so interrupted.
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