Friday, October 26, 2018

We Are the Vessels of Our Stories: Recording My Grandma's Stories So They May Exist Outside of Her

I felt very lucky tonight. My mom, daughter, and I all went to visit my grandma whose health has been declining more once again, and this time it sounds dire. She has endured a series of incidences for years now, most recently suffering a stroke, which has limited her ability to eat, drink, and speak well. But, tonight, while garbled, she was in a talking mood.

My grandma is the relative I've always felt most like. We joke in my family that, while we come from a strong line of women, the aspect of "girliness" skips generations. My mom always seemed disappointed that I didn't want to wear dresses and makeup; but, she at last found good company with my daughter who shares her interest in fashion.

For me, I've always felt an affinity for basic styles like my grandma. I feel like we share a love for simplicity and practicality. Tonight, she told us how her mom, my great-grandma, used to think she was too much of a tomboy. Her mom was concerned about looks and would do things like shave my grandma's arms and legs since she was a hairy child. This once again supports the theory about beauty-obsession skipping generations!

Regarding her tomboyishness, though, my grandma says she couldn't help it because she was sandwiched between two older brothers and two younger brothers before another girl was born. She would hang out with her brothers and they would let her tag along as long as she promised not to cry.

These memories of her childhood, they come from the period before her whole family was sent away to Poston. As a child, my grandma grew up with her family on a farm in El Centro in the Central Valley. Tonight, she shared how her brothers would go swimming in a canal and her job was to keep watch since they weren't supposed to swim in the water meant for drinking. If she spotted someone coming, she would yell, "The man is coming!" and her brothers would get out of the water before getting caught.

The whole concept of water during this time period is so hard for me to imagine given the privileged plumbing I enjoy. At their home, my grandma explained that there was a pond they used for water for things like washing clothes and drinking. The pond would run out, though, and so her mom would order more water "by the foot" and it would get delivered to refill the pond. Apparently, my great-grandma used to wash clothes by hand until her hands bled. For drinking, there was some sort of filtering system, and as far as toilets, it was just an outhouse.

Life on the farm was hard work, but happy memories my grandma shares seem to often center around animals. As long as I've known my grandma, she has been both a dog lover and the most loved by all dogs. In the past, my grandma talked about her family's mules, but tonight she spoke mostly of the dogs. She told the story about how she once fell asleep under her house. Her family was worried when they couldn't find her and looked all over when she was right underneath them all that time, sleeping snuggled up with a puppy.

When it came to going to school, it was a dog once again that was always by my grandma's side. Every morning, she says that their German Shepherd would walk her to the bus stop, a distance she estimates was about a half-mile. After seeing her off, the dog would return home. But, it would go back every afternoon on its own to meet her at the same bus stop to accompany her home. She would give the dog a piece of bread when they arrived at the house and it would be so happy.

The dog was so loyal that, even when they were sent to the incarceration camps and had to give it away to a neighbor, it would apparently go looking for them at their old home. It is a story similar to the mules returning to their stalls and so I tried to confirm that all of these animals - the dog and the mules - were really returning in search of their old home and family. I started to wonder if my grandma's memories could be getting jumbled together; although, there is no way she could have even known back then since it would have all been secondhand stories reported to her from neighbors.

Fortunately, it does seem like my grandma's family had some neighbors who extended kindness during the War. For instance, there were people who stored some of the family's belongings and supposedly kept them safe during the forced incarceration. The article of proof we have of this safekeeping is my grandma's Ochigo headpiece, which my own daughter got to wear just a couple of years ago.

Another gesture of kindness that my grandma recalls is when the library staff in Poston gave her a birthday cake for her 18th birthday. (Yes, it turns out my grandma had worked in a library like me!) She was so excited to share it with her family that she ran to show her parents, only to learn that her father was in the camp hospital. He had suffered a heart attack and ended up dying on her birthday, the reason why she never enjoyed celebrating her birthday moving forward.

My grandma has said in the past that maybe her father's heart attack was caused by stress over losing the farm since he died so soon after they had been forced from their home and livelihood. The one thing that seems certain is that he adored her, just as her mom did, too. She explains that she was her mom's "puppy," and given my grandma's love for dogs, this is a treasured role. Of course, she justifies that her parents depended on her and that she always said yes and never said no to them. She was loyal, indeed just like a puppy.

Compliance, however, seems to have limited her in other ways. She remarked how her own mom got to go back to Japan two times to visit. But, having been born in the United States, she never got to go once. I can tell my mom is saddened by this trip that my grandma will never get to go on, and she tells my grandma how she would have certainly taken her if she had known that she wanted to go. Why didn't my grandma voice this desire? I guess my grandma did have plans at one time to travel to Japan with her sister Kik, but those plans fell through when her husband, my grandpa, got diagnosed with cancer. After he died, she says she just didn't care anymore.

As my mom, my daughter, and I all sat next to my grandma tonight - four generations of women spanning in age from 95 to 8 years old - all I could feel was gratitude for getting to hear these stories. Some of them I've heard before and forgotten to different degrees. Some were brand new to me. Still, I can't help but wonder how many other stories remain that I will never get to hear.

Before we said goodbye for the night, my grandma remarked with a sense of wonder something along the lines of, "I guess this old lady has been through some difficult times." She explained how she made it through growing up on the farm and going to camp. A specific memory surfaced about having to wait in long lines in the unbearable heat for food. It was so hot that she thought they would die while standing, carrying a plate, a fork, a knife, and a spoon. The worst part was, when they finally got their food, it was - and she paused a bit indicating her disappointment - "corned beef and cabbage."

My mom perked up to have caught another new detail escape from my grandma that she had never heard before. It is another story that I am grateful to know, one more piece of my grandma's past that helps me imagine her life and my history. We were so in the moment of listening that we did not record her words on our phones and we did not attempt to write. All of that activity would have likely made her self-conscious and taken away our attention as listeners, as well.

Of course, the moment that my mom, daughter, and I stepped outside my grandma's house, we all agreed that we needed to write down as much as possible before we forget. And so, this is my attempt to record the stories that my grandma shared tonight, so that they may survive outside of her and beyond us.

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