A Family Interrupted

Published November 27, 2005
The Los Angeles Times Magazine (adapted from the book "I Married My Mother-in-Law")

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 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.

Some Japanese Americans fled inland to states they had never before seen, but more than 120,000 of them reported to a series of concentration camps--that is, by definition, what they were--in seven states. These families sold their homes and businesses for next to nothing, or simply left them behind for others to claim. The reasoning behind the internment was nicely summarized by Lt. Gen. J.L. DeWitt, who carried out the relocation, in a letter he wrote to the Army's chief of staff in 1943: "The continued presence of a large, unassimilated, tightly knit and racial group, bound to an enemy nation by strong ties of race, culture, custom and religion along a frontier vulnerable to attack constituted a menace which had to be dealt with."

George had already enlisted in the Army by the time Roosevelt's order was handed down. While his parents and siblings lived behind barbed wire in North Dakota and Arizona, George fought alongside other Japanese Americans in a segregated regiment, the legendary 442nd. Somewhere in that house, probably in a dusty box, he kept a cluster of Purple Hearts.

Ellen's mother, meanwhile, went to high school in the notorious camp at Manzanar. "The Manzanar reception center will be a self-sufficient community, with a 150-bed hospital staffed by Japanese doctors and nurses, community kitchens, a library, motion-picture theater and houses of worship for all denominations, including Buddhism," a wire service reported cheerily as the first prisoners arrived in the spring of 1942. "From this elevation of 3,700 feet, the Japanese evacuees will enjoy, if they feel that way, some of the most magnificent scenery in the United States."

In fact, these lucky internees lived in barracks, most without plumbing or stoves, where two families were often crammed into a 24-by-20 room. They were encouraged to foster an environment of normalcy, working low-wage jobs and electing representatives of a camp government. The photographer Ansel Adams shot sparse, haunting portraits at Manzanar, where he captured the surreal quality of its small-town pretensions. One of his photos features a smiling, attractive high school student in a dress, twirling a baton against an ominous mountain backdrop. The girl is Ellen's Aunt Flo.

Far from conveying the impression that they felt angry or unjustly persecuted, Ellen's parents almost never talked about this history with their two daughters. When her mother did make a rare passing mention of the internment, it was lighthearted, as if such an ordeal were a fairly typical childhood experience. Ellen recalled her aunts and uncles mentioning their days in "camp," when they spent hours rolling up balls of tinfoil for recycling into metal. Ellen was a teenager before she realized they hadn't been talking about the YMCA.

"It never really had any impact on us," Ellen told me. I asked what her sister was doing now. Ellen said she was an immigration lawyer.

"And you don't think there's a connection there?" I asked.

"I guess I never really thought about it," she said.

I wanted to know where her family had been held and for how long, how her father had been wounded, why he had ended up fighting when others in the family had not. She had vague notions about all of this but admitted that she had never really felt at liberty to ask. Her father wasn't given to long explanations. Her mother guarded the most routine information as if she alone understood its hidden value; she didn't like for outsiders to know her address or telephone number, and she adamantly refused to be photographed.

I will admit that Ellen's shadowy family history was one of the things that drew me to her. Her relatives had suffered, and this was something I could understand; Jews have elevated suffering to a kind of performance art. That Ellen's parents had risen beyond discrimination and ostracism made them, in some weird cultural way, more like my own forebears, chased by bigotry across Europe and Asia and, finally, to a new country whose muted resentments were more subtle and insidious.

What I could not understand, on a cultural level, was the secrecy. In my family, every small injustice is scrubbed and polished, like an heirloom, so it can be measured against the injustices of others. An especially harrowing trip to the grocery store becomes a tale of victimization to be repeated through the ages at family weddings and funerals. To remain silent in the face of misfortune, however petty or subjective, would be an abdication of our inheritance.

In Ellen's family, the determination not to acknowledge injustice is equally willful. When the Los Angeles Times published its photos of the century, it included one of Ellen's grandfathers, Nancy's father, that was taken the night of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was a charmer of a man who ran through a succession of jobs--for a while, he held a stake in a hotel in East L.A. that is still visible from the freeway--and, according to family lore, was given to gambling.

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.

To Ellen's surprise, her father didn't seem at all reluctant to discuss the war years. He rubbed his short-cropped hair and scoured his mind for dates and places and people. The problem was that all those years of silence, which had so deterred his daughters from probing about his life, seemed to have corroded the mechanism of his memory, the way an old unopened safe becomes rusty and mistimed. He remembered getting his draft notice and training at a base in Minnesota so cold that his hair froze. He could recall the names of friends who were blown up on the hills of France and Italy. Isolated facts, unmoored to place and time, resurfaced, but their connections to one another were tenuous.

Until that time, I'd never really considered the relationship between narrative and memory. Mine was a home consumed by storytelling. We all knew, for instance, about how my father had moved out of his Yale dormitory and commuted from home so that he could take care of his stricken mother; how he had been unable to work for a lot of venerable law firms because he was Jewish; how my mother's father had lost two fingers in a slicing machine in the family bakery before, eventually, suffering a fatal heart attack over the ovens--a fate, my mother never failed to mention, that the philandering dilettante deserved. These tragic little narratives, endlessly rehearsed and sharpened, preserved our collective past, even as they almost certainly distorted it.

But what happens when a family's stories aren't assiduously maintained and preserved? The avoidance in George and Nancy's home--and in the homes of so many of the other Japanese American veterans I was meeting--had taken its toll on the past. George could still conjure up places and faces and moments in time, but he could no longer easily slide them into their proper order or perspective. He was in France and Italy. He was in a military hospital. He was training for war while his family endured the camps. In his memory, he was in all of these places at once. He reminded me of Billy Pilgrim, the broken soldier in Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five"; George too had come "unstuck in time." Too long neglected, the narrative thread of his life had unraveled.

And so we began, all of us, to weave it back together. Ellen leapt in with prescient questions. Even Nancy found herself trying to restore her husband's memories to their proper shape. "Weren't you at that base in the desert first?" she would ask, prodding him along. Nancy was nine years younger than George and hadn't met him until a ski trip long after the war. It occurred to me that she might not have heard the entirety of his story, either.

George recalled that he had settled into life as a mule skinner on the family farm when he was drafted on Oct. 19, 1941, less than two months before Pearl Harbor. (He had been born "Yuichiro," but adopted the name "George" when he was very little as a means of blending in, just as Nancy and all of Ellen's other relatives had chosen American names in the years before the war.)

The Japanese American soldiers were like human Kevlar for the Army; it was assumed that they had yet to prove their loyalty, and thus they were deployed for some of the grisliest fighting of the war. The 442nd would emerge as one of the most decorated units of its size in the history of the country's military, testifying to both the ferocity of its fighters and the breathtaking scale of its casualties. George helped liberate the town of Bruyeres, France, then did his part to rescue the famed Lost Battalion--a Texas-based unit that had been encircled by Nazi troops in France. As German fire ravaged the Japanese American soldiers, George heard the general in charge issue an order to the battalion colonel for the men to charge straight at the German machine-gun batteries. "That's when I thought, 'Maybe he thinks we're expendable,' " George remembered with a chuckle.

By the time the Lost Battalion was freed, Company K, which had started out with some 200 men, had been reduced to only 12, with no surviving officers. Amazingly, George's luck held out for several more months, until a mortar barrage shattered his eardrums and peppered his flesh with shrapnel.

I asked George about his family in the camps. He shrugged. He admitted that he had harbored hopes that if he fought bravely enough they would be released. When at last the Army sent him home, the home he left was a distant memory. The mules and melons now belonged to someone else, either by sale or by seizure, and his relatives had relocated to Cleveland, where they worked in factories and car dealerships, trying to start again.

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.

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.