Sunflowers

December 17, 2018 by Admin

The very last memory I have of walking out of my Block 20, Barrack 4, Apartment B (20-4-B), where I had lived with my family at Topaz, was the tall sunflowers growing all along the porch railing. I recall stopping, putting my face close to the bright yellow petals with their large cushion-like brown centers, for one last look. Curiously, until that moment, I hadn’t paid much attention to them.

I was fifteen years old and leaving my desert home of nearly three years. The July heat of the day was already surrounding us. Having no transportation in Topaz, my mother, two sisters, brother and I had no option but to walk the miles to the departure gate. My mother helped me carry my one heavy suitcase. As I trudged along the dry, gravel road, my thoughts started to wander: I’m leaving behind all I know—my friends, camp home and my family; (Dad had already left months before for Berkeley and would be waiting for me—but would he be there at the station when I arrived?) I’d miss my siblings, Aki, Michi and Seiji—I was their nesan, Big sister—and mom who I looked up to . . . These ideas and images were interrupted by talking and questions from my siblings, “How long until we are together again?” as mom directed us along in her soft, musical voice: “Keep moving ahead. It will be alright.” We came to the departure gate. With a lump in my throat, I looked at each one, smiled and said “bye-bye” and stepped into the now half-crowded bus—yes, others were leaving Topaz, too.

As I boarded the bus alone that day nearly six decades ago, headed for the train station in Delta, my nose and eyes unexpectedly began to run and itch; I felt a tickle in my throat and let out some sneezes! Luckily, my symptoms subsided by the time I arrived in Berkeley the next day. Later it crossed my mind that the culprit was the pollen from the sunflowers I had breathed in so closely by my Topaz  home. This was the one and only time I experienced such a sudden allergic reaction.

Seated by the window, I waved goodbye until I could no longer see my family—mom, Aki ,Seiji and Michi. For 4 more months, they would remain in Topaz until it closed. I was alone. I didn’t know anyone on the bus.

                                 *                      *                      *

Now, fifty-seven years later on a pilgrimage to Topaz, I see the sunflowers in the desert and realize what a bright spot they must have been in the midst of the drabness around us. These “fun flowers” beg for attention just by being there conspicuously. Even though there are only a few of them, they shine with living beauty, a burst of unexpected bright, golden yellow color.

These scrawny stemmed sunflowers with their dry brittle leaves rise triumphantly between cracks of cement floors in mess halls, latrines and laundry rooms, bringing us back to bygone days. Exposed to all the elements and long neglected, they have survived, kept reseeding themselves all these years. They are blooming yet somewhat stunted, not as full or towering as I remember. But here we are, too, survivors in the arid desert land where sagebrush still abounds.

The large heads of the flowers were then and are still full of seeds which can be toasted and eaten. I don’t think folks ate them during Topaz camp days. I know I didn’t. We had no facilities in our barracks to cook or roast the seeds and probably never thought of it!

Seeing the daisy-like flowers of golden yellow with the large brown “disc” centers, I have come full circle—from the day I left Topaz in July of 1945 to this nostalgic return almost six decades later, August 2002. The sunflower, the “Happy, Fun Flower” still lives, a miracle in the desert and in my heart—a growing reminder of my past.

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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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