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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.

On the night the picture was taken, he had just taken his three daughters to a dance recital. The FBI was waiting for him at home, though no one ever knew why. In the photo, he is sitting on a police station bench alongside other prominent Japanese American men, smoking a cigarette and looking faintly bored. He wears a thin mustache, a tailored suit and dress shoes. For 18 months, Nancy and her family would receive only sporadic and censored letters from a series of holding facilities--from Tujunga, Calif., to Livingstone, La.--until Nancy's father was at last "released" and reunited with his family in Manzanar.

No one in Ellen's family had seen this photograph until it was published in the newspaper almost 60 years later. Nancy had since obtained a copy, but I couldn't find it hanging anywhere among the homemade crafts and family snapshots in her and George's home. I imagined it had been discreetly deposited into a drawer somewhere, alongside all the other unanswered questions.

I was thinking about that missing photo as I flipped through the pictures of my wife as a young girl. Our conversation stalled repeatedly, but I couldn't say it was awkward. George and Nancy seemed at ease with silence. Decades of stony reticence had settled into their lives in the way that calcium deposits itself into the joints of the aging; it had hardened and filled the spaces. The drawn-out pauses, along with what little manners I'd managed to preserve in my years as a reporter, dissuaded me from asking the questions I really wanted to ask as I blithely turned the pages of the photo album. My more subtle entreaties--"How long have you lived in this house? Did you grow up in this area?"--went nowhere. George nodded. Nancy smiled.

What had become of George's boyhood farm? When he fought in the foxholes of France and Italy, did he think it was still there, waiting for his return? How narrowly and how often had he escaped death? George might have thought I had come to ask for his daughter, but what I found myself wanting--what not even Ellen had gotten--was his story.

Several weeks after the terrorist attacks of 2001, George and Nancy visited us in Washington. It was about six months after I had first shown up at their house in Garden Grove.

The occasion was a reunion of the remaining robust veterans of Company K, which had been George's Army unit. Usually, they met every few years in Hawaii or on the West Coast because virtually all of the veterans lived on the Pacific. But in recent years, Washington had, belatedly, honored the Japanese American families with a memorial and a museum exhibit, and the old soldiers wanted to see those testaments while they were still able.

I asked Ellen if I could join them at the reunion. My ostensible reason was that I wanted to write an article about it, but my deeper motive was to penetrate some of the mystery that surrounded her parents' lives--and perhaps, by doing so, to peel away some of the unease that characterized my brief conversations with them. Ellen advised me that this would not be an easy assignment. Her father agreed readily to have me tag along with a notebook, but she cautioned me that he probably hadn't realized--either because he didn't hear well over the phone or because the very concept was so foreign to him--that I intended to ask all kinds of questions. Nancy, for her part, understood all too well; she was fine with my badgering George about his war service, but she wasn't about to be interviewed herself.

About 30 veterans and their wives gathered at the dreary Holiday Inn on Capitol Hill. So as not to alarm George and Nancy right away, I started by approaching other veterans and asking for their stories, which seemed to amuse Ellen's parents. "What are you writing?" Nancy would ask me with a wry smile I'd not seen before, as our coach bus traversed the capital en route from one attraction to another. "It's all about you," I teased her, nodding meaningfully at the notebook. "I'm writing a book." Ellen winced. Her mother just laughed.

I finally confronted George in his hotel room during an afternoon break. He sat on the edge of one of the room's two double beds, his hands planted on the flowered bedspread, while I sat facing him in the desk chair. I had to shout above the hum of the air conditioner when I asked him to tell me where he had been when the war started, and how he had come to fight while his family was kept behind barbed wire.

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