Scraps and Fragmments, Photos and Notes

September 13, 2014 by Admin

By Jean Shiraki Gize

I sat with my husband John in Dad’s dusty, dank garage, a forgotten space filled with musty smells, dog and cat hairs, cobwebs, rat droppings, and piles and piles of boxes.  Mom and Dad’s stacks of papers had to be faced, confronted, and sorted.  What do we keep?  What do we throw away? 

Dad had just died. It was 2003. Ken, the real estate agent from my dad’s church, advised us: “Put the house on the market to sell in the summer.” Now we needed to clean up and clear his house.  We were under the proverbial gun. Ken reminded us,

“Summer is the best time to sell.  June is best because families with children will move before the school year starts.”

But the pressure was mounting, and time was running out. My sister, Anne, was swamped at her job.  “It is just too busy at school with the end of school activities. At school . . . testing, reports, and those closing forms and filing. I can’t do this until I am done with work,” she stated to me one day at Dad’s house shortly after the funeral. She and I had been working in his bedroom, both of us sitting on the edge of his bed and together writing down a list that separated household furniture from personal property in columns on a yellow legal tablet.

“Anne, what do you want me to put aside for you to sort?  What do you think we can donate?”  I asked. “The Rose Society probably would be interested in his copies of the Rose Journal and books. I can call them. Should I put the other books aside so we can go through them together?  Do you want all the issues of National Geographic?”

Anne helped me the arrange the books into various stacks; she and I worked for hours that day, but we could only go so far.

Where do we start?  I wondered now.  At Dad’s San Leandro home, sitting and sorting items in his garage, John and I rummaged through everything and eventually took boxes to the library, donating his copies of the Rose Journal and books to the Rose Society. Dad’s resource library was comprehensive, because he had been the National Chairman of the Rose Naming Committee for the American Rose Society.

As we traveled back and forth between his home in San Leandro and our home in Los Gatos for months, we decided to take home some boxes of paper and photo albums.

“Look John, a picture of Grandpa Shiraki when he was young. Wow,  John Jr. looks like him and my dad. The resemblance is uncanny.” Dad’s WW II picture of him in uniform stood out among the many photos; in another album that I had never seen before, I found a photo of Grandpa Shiraki as a young man before 1900. I put John Jr.’s picture beside the two others and marveled at the similarities.

As we looked through Topaz photos and letters, we found gossipy letters written by friends from Mom’s workplace, the Board of Education in Oakland. One cherished letter had been taped together–ten sections written by ten friends–and folded like an accordion; only eight and a half inches long and four inches wide, it actually fit into a legal-sized envelope. Once written on brightly colored construction paper, its color now faded with my parents’ treasured memories.

The first letter started: “June, Start here-or anywhere Us’ns.”

Another letter exclaimed:  “Look at the glorious date Sept. 30, 1942. It is payday . . . Wish you could be here. It was the Art Dept. tea celebrating their new workshop. Gretchen will testify the refreshments were wonderful.”

And another: “Gossip via Betty. . . guess who got into the Army, because he couldn’t get into the Navy. None other than Carl. He’s in Monterey. Too bad they just finished their house.”

The letters really said that they missed her and cared. What a comfort that must have been for

Mom. She wrote her friends, and they wrote back and sent care packages. This contact with them probably helped her to maintain her sanity.  

Reading the letters, one by one, I relived moments in our combined past lives and my own letters that I wrote to my parents.  One stated, “Father, Mr. Duveneck made me a doll house.”  I wrote this letter to my father in December 1944 on the first Christmas after we left Topaz from the Duveneck’s, whose ranch had provided a safe transition place for us to live after we left camp. Mother and I were the first Japanese Americans to return to the Peninsula from the prison camp in March of 1944.

Twelve years after Mother’s passing and when Dad died, John and I took home her bags of mail and other things in order to sort them.  The last few years of her life Mom had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, and she had a habit of piling mail and advertisements–in stacks and more stacks.  “Mom, what do you want me to do with these papers?”

“Put them in a bags,” she said.  The bags went into the closet.

Mom’s bags of mail and the boxes from Dad’s place landed in our garage in Los Gatos.  One box was filled with letters and pieces of paper. My eyes fell upon one scrap of paper saved by my parents for over 60 years:  a note from a piece of a paper bag that was faded and worn. It read: “Dear June, Here’s 10 lb. sugar 79 cents. Come over Tuesday afternoon for a piece of cake and maybe some ice cream if I get cream in Hinckley, going there now.”

Written by Em McColm, the wife of my Dad’s former boss, George McColm in Hinckley, Utah, the note brought back a flood of memories.  Dad had worked outside Topaz on an agricultural project before he volunteered for the army in April of 1943. Carol–their daughter–was about my age and our families became friends; their friendship continued beyond the Topaz years.

Celebratory photos with the McColm family documented my Dad’s military leave in late 1943 after his training. I was dressed up in a pretty, floral print skirt and white, scalloped and collared blouse, standing with Mom and Dad in Hinkley. Mom had carefully labeled the photo on the back.  Another photo Dad must have taken captured Mom:  as she held a tomato in the McColm’s bountiful vegetable garden, she and I stood with the McColm family, George, Em, and Carol while I clutched two large zucchinis larger than my arms along with a cucumber.  Mom looked so happy, young, and beautiful that special day. Dad was with us, and we were together and with friends.

Other photos brought me back to the years of Topaz, the years we were imprisoned behind barbed wire while Dad and Uncle Tyler fought for America in Italy with the 442. They demonstrated our family’s and community’s loyalty to our country. They volunteered for the army.  They suffered, however, like everyone else before leaving Topaz.  Those who voiced their loyalty had been beaten up, and loud arguments and rage were commonly displayed by those who disagreed with their point of view, the air thick with conflict. As a child I felt what was unnamed. I now know Dad was not safe. He was aware of the threat since other volunteers had been beaten.

Mother worried for him and all of our family.  Grandmother Nakayama, in her mid-seventies, was overcome by nervous exhaustion in Topaz. First, she lost her husband shortly before WW II during the Depression and was left to run the family grocery store. Next, she was uprooted from her home and put into a dusty, sandy, sooty, desolate, too cold and too hot place of chaos, where her son volunteered for the army along with her son-in-law and where she watched her only daughter fall ill. She–who in 1894 had left Japan to meet her husband and who dreamed the American dream–was heartbroken in Topaz.

Over the months, the letters, the scraps of paper, the photos all had transported me to Topaz, allowed me to reflect on how the members of my family had survived.  And, as I sat in our Los Gatos garage that Spring shortly after Dad’s passing on April 20, reading the words on that piece of paper from Em McColm, the memories continued to flood my mind: 1944.  WW II. Our family imprisoned in Topaz, an isolated, dusty, flat, windswept land where we faced extreme heat and freezing cold.  Topaz was Dad’s absence and the bitter tastes and provisions of camp food . . . I was almost 6. Topaz was rationed food and powdered eggs and powdered milk and little else. Topaz was the desert where flour, sugar, eggs and butter were scarce, and Em McColm used her extra food stamps to buy 10 pounds of sugar for Mom. Topaz was us as children deprived of cake and ice cream, our sadness at missing our father and watching the deterioration of grandmother, at seeing mother and others fall ill.

Topaz lacked privacy and beauty as well.  As a child, I felt uncomfortable with the open bathrooms in the common area. My parents had just moved into a brand new house in 1941.  We had a new bathroom to ourselves there.  Topaz was dreary, devoid of green, full of illness and tension, so dirty and so primitive.  I do not remember playing with friends in Topaz and had memories of disliking school there, unlike my Oakland neighborhood nursery school where I loved my teacher, Mrs. Helen Smith and had many friends.  In Oakland, Dad, Mom, and I, along with Mrs. Smith, all went to the same neighborhood church; Topaz had no neighborhood church.  I clung to my mother in Topaz while my beloved Dad and Uncle Tyler were fighting for their beliefs and lives in Europe.

The letters, notes, photos, and scraps of paper that Mom and Dad had saved for a lifetime and which John and I found in boxes and bags were glimmers of goodness and courage beyond WW II in Topaz, its dust and heat, barbed wire and guard towers:  dad wielding a rifle in Italy to prove our loyalty; the soft fabric of my floral skirt and smell of fresh vegetables emanating from the McColm’s garden; the sweet bites of cake and ice cream melting in our mouths as we sat with them in the safety of their home.

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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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