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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.

By the end of our weekend in Washington, George was volunteering scraps of memory as they returned to him, filling in gaps without any prodding. The stiltedness that had permeated our first conversation in Garden Grove seemed to have dissipated as we strolled through the memorial to the Japanese American internment and war veterans, a few blocks from the Capitol, and saw the names of America's 10 concentration camps chiseled into stone: Manzanar, Tule Lake, Poston, Minidoka. Even Nancy posed with me for a photograph in front of the monument's granite wall. She wasn't willing to relive her wartime experience in the way that her husband was, however. As we toured the National Museum of American History, she and I found ourselves standing in front of a life-size replica of one of the prisoner huts at Manzanar. She stared at it for a long moment.

"Is that what it looked like?" I asked.

"Yeah, that's not bad," she said wryly. "Only it wasn't that nice."

The dynamic among all of us seemed different after that weekend.

Months later, at the request of someone in Hawaii who was writing a history of Company K, Ellen interviewed her father for the first time and committed to paper his oral history. Nancy and I began exchanging lively e-mails. Ellen and I became engaged and ultimately married, and now when I would see George, he would tell me stories about his days in the Army and as a student--about how he slept in the football stadium at Ohio State because the number of incoming students had overwhelmed the housing system, or about how someone had managed to talk him into going out for J.V. football as a freshman, a decision he quickly regretted.

What remained for me a mystery was why George and Nancy--and, for that matter, so many Japanese Americans--had allowed their memories to become entombed in the first place. Not long ago, I was making this same point to Ellen as I mused on the cultural differences between Jewish Americans and Japanese Americans. Why was there no great Japanese American novelist to chronicle their persecution? Why weren't there more organizations reminding us of the internment? All of this reticence, I argued, had made it easier for America to forget, and maybe to repeat its crime.

"You have to remember," Ellen told me, "it's not like everyone came rushing up to apologize when they got out of the camps. Nothing changed. They still couldn't get jobs."

As I thought about that conversation in the days that followed, I decided that I might have been looking at George and Nancy in the wrong way all along. Perhaps it wasn't that their long, self-imposed silence had somehow obscured their sacrifice; perhaps their truest sacrifice was the silence itself. After all, there had been those in the camps who rose up in revolt, just as there had been Japanese American draftees who refused to fight and litigants who challenged the internment. But George and Nancy had never condoned the airing of such grievances; if anything, they resented it. In the end, they wanted the same things for their children that all Americans want--a sense of belonging. Could they really have provided that and demanded justice at the same time? Perhaps it wasn't shame that swallowed their narrative. Perhaps they bore their burdens silently so their children wouldn't have to.

I was forced, then, to reconsider the volubility of my own upbringing. We were defined by our stories, and for that reason I treasured them, even in adulthood. But the inescapable theme of our household--that we were apt to be victims, that fate would somehow conspire against us--had left an imprint, too. My older sisters and I labored, midway through the journey of our lives, to take risks in our careers and in our relationships, to see ourselves as unencumbered. We were trapped, in a way that my wife is not, by the stories of our childhood.

Last Christmas Eve, George taught me to harvest macadamia nuts and snap off the shells. I was bagging the nuts in the kitchen when, suddenly, I heard a familiar series of explosions in the sky outside. I stepped out onto the driveway, and there, overhead, were the nightly fireworks going off over Disneyland. A few minutes later, George came out and stood beside me, and we both stared quietly for a good 10 minutes at the electric sky, arms folded across our chests.

"This is the finale, see," my father-in-law said finally. Sure enough, blue and green stars erupted into little galaxies, and red streaks slithered toward the horizon. It was a nice moment. We stood watching comfortably in silence, the space between us filled by the light and fury of the American spectacle.

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