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After the funeral, we visited the farm for the last time. I was overwhelmed by a sense of loss. Jiichan and the farm had been a touchstone for all that was Japanese in me. Some part of me had expected them to stay frozen in time, an ageless haven for my heart.
I had spent quite a bit of time on the farm when I was growing up. Bored and at loose ends, I had spent hours leafing through old photo albums and pawing through drawers full of rhinestone shoe-buckles, strangely shaped Japanese scissors, and old celluloid fountain pens. One day I found a book the size and shape of a high school yearbook entitled Mohaveland. On the cover, a man and a tree stood silhouetted against a dramatic desert sky. On the first spread were photos of rows of shoddy barracks in the searing Arizona desert, with guard towers and barbed wire in the distance. The book was a souvenir of Poston Relocation Center, where my family had been incarcerated, along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans, during World War II. My family had been swept from their sprawling pre-war farm on the California coast, leaving everything behind except what they could carry.
Of course I knew about Camp. The family’s reference point for time was “before Camp”, “during Camp”, and “after Camp”. It must have been a wrenching experience, but they spoke of it matter-of-factly, without bitterness. Shikata ga nai, they said. It couldn’t be helped.
Thumbing through Mohaveland, I found snapshots of residents from each of the barracks... Block 116, Block 117, Block 118... There were photos of the choir, the Young Buddhist Association, odori (Japanese dance) performances... and most striking of all– Japanese gardens with stone bridges and lanterns and carefully pruned pine trees. I remember wondering, What sort of people would respond to being uprooted and stuck in a prison camp by building gardens in the desert and memorializing their internment in a yearbook?
My grandparents lived through the rigors of immigration, discrimination, the Depression, relocation camps, the economic death of family farms, aging and loss. “Shikata ga nai,” they said. The usual translation is “it can’t be helped, there’s no alternative”, but shikata ga nai connotes something vastly more positive than simple resignation – with echoes of “when you’re stuck with a lemon, make lemonade, “living well is the best revenge”, or “life is transitory; make every moment count.”
Roaming the farm for the last time, I marveled at the richness and creativity of Jiichan’s life. After the War, my grandparents worked as migrant laborers until they scraped up enough to buy ten acres, less than a tenth the size of their prewar acreage. Jiichan built the house and outbuildings himself, with the help of his sons. There were a dozen different kinds of cacti growing near the garbage can. They had arrived as 39-cent plants in tiny plastic pots; now they grew on top of each other, squeezing and spilling over themselves, spiny ones, hairy ones, tall skinny ones, flat paddle-leaves and fat fluted domes. A pile of abalone and clam shells lay near the water tap, souvenirs of coastal forages to gather seaweed and eat black sea snails. The front yard was edged with beautiful rocks, gathered on road trips with his friends. In the shed were more rocks, shelves and shelves of them – examples of the art of suiseki – carefully selected for their resemblance to the mountains of Japan, and each set off by a wooden stand precisely carved to fit.
Beneath the apparent dullness and routine of rural life, a self-sufficient and joyful creativity had flowered The walls of the house were lined with calligraphies, painting and plaques crafted by friends in Camp. Baachan’s (Grandma’s) homemade Japanese silk quilts lay on the beds. The drawers of the old, treadle-powered Singer sewing machine were crammed with tatting reels, crochet hooks, bits of lace and fancy-glass buttons cut off of worn clothes to decorate anew. In the home-built curio cabinet were handicrafts created  from the most mundane materials – life-like crepe paper flowers and intricately patterned umbrellas and Japanese lanterns painstakingly crafted from dozens of old cigarette packs, folded and glued together.
In the storage room I found three suitcases. They looked like the old pre-Samsonite cardboard ones, complete with leather edges and metal fittings, except that the bodies were made out of wood. “I made them in Camp,” Jiichan had told me. “When the War broke out, the FBI came and got all the men in the middle of the night. I didn’t even have time to pack a suitcase.” (Jiichan had spent most of the War in a high-security camp for “dangerous aliens”, separated from the rest of the family.) He laughed, “After awhile, they made me a Camp policeman. I was a policeman, but in the middle of the night, I turned into a dorobo (thief). I stole some scrap wood and made myself these suitcases.”  
The suitcases are now stacked in my front hall, handy storage in an over-stuffed apartment, the top surface a catch-all for magazines and mail. Jiichan is gone, shikata ga nai, but sometimes I catch sight of those suitcases, and I’m grateful that I am one of the things Jiichan made.



      In Good Conscience
     Century of Change

   Creative Nonfiction
     A Well-Made Life
     A Clue About Christmas
     Don’t Look Away

     Dad’s Fire

     The Great Learning

© Shizue Seigel. All Rights reserved.
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