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A Family Interrupted

No one among his wife's Japanese American relatives talked about their time in the camps. His family's own travails, on the other hand, were an open book. But silence has its ultimate reward.

November 27, 2005|Matt Bai | Matt Bai is a Washington-based writer for the New York Times Magazine. This essay was adapted from the anthology "I Married My Mother-In-Law," edited by Ilena Silverman, to be published in January. Copyright 2005 by Matt Bai. Reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead Books.

Only as I sat in rush-hour traffic on Interstate 5, on my way to Garden Grove, did it occur to me that I might have conveyed the wrong impression to Ellen's parents. Since I was spending the week in Los Angeles on business, I had called her folks and invited myself down for dinner.

Ellen and I had been dating for two years at that point, and all at once I realized that they might have drawn the logical inference from my call; it would have been reasonable to think that I was appearing at her parents' doorstep, alone and almost unannounced, to do that thing where you ask the father for his daughter's hand in marriage. In reality, it never would have occurred to me to discuss such matters with him. I'd met her parents only briefly, but already I had the impression that one did not broach topics such as love and devotion with George and Nancy. In Ellen's family, as in a lot of Japanese American families of her generation, life was better left unsaid.

In any event, it was too late to reconsider, and I found myself driving past the gates of Disneyland, down a broad boulevard where, as a little girl, Ellen had marveled at the exotic landmarks of her childhood--a motor inn with a topiary garden, a Sheraton built to resemble an Elizabethan manor. My destination was a street of wood-sided ramblers with neatly kept lawns, hard against one another, many of them now owned by Latino and Vietnamese families. A kid dressed like Eminem was riding his bike. George and Nancy came to the door before I'd finished parking.

The little house was warmly decorated with old furniture and cluttered with the kinds of random artifacts my relatives would have called tchotchkes. I noticed a glass case with Japanese wooden dolls of various sizes. Atop the piano was a handmade wooden clock on which Nancy had flawlessly painted an American flag and some watermelons. There were pictures of George as a young man in his Army khakis, small but sturdy, with a cocky grin. Out back, in a fenced-in square yard, George tended to trees sprouting oranges, persimmons, macadamia nuts, papayas and lemons. His father and brothers had been farmers in Ohio, before the war. George, on the other hand, aided by the GI Bill, had become a pharmacist at the local Sav-on, a tedious job for which he showed mild enthusiasm and then retired.

He was in his 80s now, his round face leathery from the sun, his eyes blinking slowly--unusually large eyes like Ellen's. I thought he resembled a big koala bear. He interspersed his sentences with the word "see," like Jimmy Cagney in his old movies--"I planted this tree when it was this high, see?"--and sometimes trailed off in the middle of them. You had to shout into his two hearing aids in order to be heard, but he looked 20 years younger than he was, he still golfed twice a week, and his arms suggested a deceptive kind of power and agility as he shook ripe oranges to the ground for me. I imagined that one did not lightly pick a fight with that young soldier in the photograph.

We sat in chairs in front of the wide-screen TV on which George watched UCLA or Ohio State, his alma mater, play on Saturdays. We didn't say much. I think I heard a clock tick. At my request, Nancy pulled out an album of Ellen's baby pictures, and she and George watched as I flipped through them, taking care to keep a polite, even smile on my face. What was she like as a child?, I wanted to know. "Oh, she was always reading," Nancy replied. What did she read? "Anything she could get her hands on." She sure was a cute kid, I offered. "Oh, yes," Nancy said.

Ellen and I are journalists; we met aboard Bill Bradley's campaign bus a few days before the New Hampshire primary in 2000. Ellen has the quiet confidence of a genuine intellectual (before stumbling into news, she acquired a master's degree in medieval literature), and she was adept at shutting frivolous men down with a blank stare and a turn of the head. Undeterred, I waited her out, until one night a week or so later, during a cross-country charter flight, I sat down next to her and started asking her unreasonably personal questions.

At some point she revealed to me, with neither pride nor shame, that the government had interned both sides of her family during World War II. "Interned"--the word sounded spookily like "interred," with the same deathly connotation, and it brought back vague memories of a high school history lesson long since forgotten. On Feb. 19, 1942, a little more than two months after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, later upheld by the Supreme Court, which decreed that no one of Japanese ancestry, whether a citizen or not, could live on the West Coast.

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