The Steinway Grand

October 14, 2012 by Admin

By Tae Ishida

Ever since I could remember, the shiny black grand piano had stood majestic and stately in Papa’s study, a treasured gift from a well-to-do banker friend, who had given it to my parents shortly after their marriage in 1931.  Although they both did not play the piano, my parents were saving it for us–their children–who would someday be able to.  Whenever we passed by Papa’s study, we would peer in and look at it with awe.  We were not allowed to play on it, however, until we could take piano lessons.

Sometimes, when my parents were not upstairs, my sister Nori and I would sneak in and carefully open the lid.  It took two of us to do this, and we took turns plunking the keys. “Wow!  Listen to the sound!” we would exclaim.

Hearing Papa or Mama’s footsteps coming up the stairs, we would hurriedly close the lid of the piano and rush out of the room, pretending to look innocently out the hall window at the buildings across the street.  Mission accomplished without detection!

Then we returned to our bedroom, giggling and looking at each other, sharing sighs of relief after our secret adventure for the day. We could hardly wait until we were rich enough to take piano lessons.  But, little did we know, our dream was not to be.

One day in1942, when I came home from school, I found Mama sitting alone, crying.  “Do-oh shita no? (What happened)?”  I asked.

“The piano,” she said as she pointed into Papa’s study.  My eyes opened wide at the gaping space where the piano had stood.

Utte shimatta no (I sold it).”

I was speechless.  I knew that we were being forced to move to a horse racetrack called Tanforan,  but I had not thought about what was going to happen to our home nor all of our belongings.

Ju-u dolu shika kule nakatta no (He gave me only $10.00 for it).”

I burst into tears.  I vaguely recall Mama saying that this man who bought the piano said his name was Mr. Wolfe.  She described him as a tall, white, soft-spoken, nondescript man, who reminded her of the FBI men who came to take away Papa.  These FBI men would not tell us where they were taking him. So we couldn’t see Papa or talk to him about what was happening to him or to us.

During those frantic days, Mama tried to sell off other things or give them away. Not only were we forced to abandon most of our possessions but also all of thechurch property.  Since Papa was a Buddhist priest, our living quarters were upstairs from the sanctuary, and Mama felt a huge  responsibility both for the church as well as us, her five children, and our grandmother.  As I reflect back, I realize that Mama was only 38.

We sorely missed some of the things we had to leave behind, because they were too heavy to carry:  the phonograph, records, radio, and books.  We also could not bring snacks, food, or kitchen utensils.  The loss of the piano, along with everything else, forebode the loss of music and other comforts in our lives as we were herded on to buses and incarcerated in camps.  Mama and Grandma each had one adult-sized suitcase, and four of us children (ages 9, 8, 7, and 6) each carried small child-sized suitcases, except of course, Renko, our 6-month-old baby sister.

I don’t remember singing or hearing music in the first two camps we were at, Tanforan or Topaz.  The only “music” I heard in Tanforan was the noise of traffic coming from outside of the camp.  In Topaz, the sounds of music were the swishing, swirling winds and the hurtling and hail-like sand beating against us and the thin walls of the barracks.  In Crystal City, Texas, the FBI’s Criminal Justice Camp where we were finally reunited with our father after two long years, music came back into my life in the form of Mrs. Bottles, my fifth grade teacher.

Despite the headaches caused by the unrelenting Texas sun, I learned the songs that Mrs. Bottles taught us and loved to sing. Enthusiastically, she introduced us to many tunes, which we sang at school almost every day.  Some were old folk songs like “Home, Sweet Home” and “Old Kentucky Home.”  Some were patriotic, such as “America, The Beautiful,” “My Country Tis’ of Thee,” “God Bless America,” and “The Star Spangled Banner.”  Others were military songs of the Army, Navy, and Marines with words that I can still remember to this day.  I also remember one popular song in particular, “Don’t Fence Me In,” which the whole class sang loudly and fervently, because it symbolized freedom to us.  How ironic for the government to enforce loyalty upon us while we were trapped behind barbed wire.

I still missed hearing the piano and sometimes would hear the notes and chords of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart in my imagination and wonder: Where had Mr. Wolfe taken our piano?  Was it still shiny and black, and did he make it glisten with polish?  Would I ever have the chance to  confront him?  Would I ever be able to ask, “Can I have it back?”

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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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