Mama, is it time to go?” I hadn’t planned to cry, but the tears came suddenly, and I wiped them away with the back of my hand. I didn’t want my older sister to see me crying.
“It’s almost time, Ruri,” my mother said gently. Her face was filled with a kind of sadness I had never seen before.
I looked around at my empty room. The clothes that Mama always told me to hang up in the closet, the junk piled on my dresser, the old rag doll I could never bear to part with—they were all gone. There was nothing left in my room, and there was nothing left in the rest of the house. The rugs and furniture were gone, the pictures and drapes were down, and the closets and cupboards were empty. The house was like a gift box after the nice thing inside was gone; just a lot of nothingness.
It was almost time to leave our home, but we weren’t moving to a nicer house or to a new town. It was April 21, 1942. The United States and Japan were at war, and every Japanese person on the West Coast was being evacuated by the government to a concentration camp. Mama, my sister Keiko, and I were being sent from our home, and out of Berkeley, and eventually out of California.
The doorbell rang, and I ran to answer it before my sister could. I thought maybe by some miracle a messenger from the government might be standing there, tall and proper and buttoned into a uniform, come to tell us it was all a terrible mistake, that we wouldn’t have to leave after all. Or maybe the messenger would have a telegram from Papa, who was interned in a prisoner-of-war camp in Montana because he had worked for a Japanese business firm.
The FBI had come to pick up Papa and hundreds of other Japanese community leaders on the very day that Japanese planes had bombed Pearl Harbor. The government thought they were dangerous enemy aliens. If it weren’t so sad, it would have been funny. Papa could no more be dangerous than the mayor of our city, and he was every bit as loyal to the United States. He had lived here since 1917.
When I opened the door, it wasn’t a messenger from anywhere. It was my best friend, Laurie Madison, from next door. She was holding a package wrapped up like a birthday present, but she wasn’t wearing her party dress, and her face drooped like a wilted tulip.
“Hi,” she said. “I came to say goodbye.”
She thrust the present at me and told me it was something to take to camp. “It’s a bracelet,” she said before I could open the package. “Put it on so you won’t have to pack it.” She knew I didn’t have one inch of space left in my suitcase. We had been instructed to take only what we could carry into camp, and Mama had told us that we could each take only two suitcases.
“Then how are we ever going to pack the dishes and blankets and sheets they’ve told us to bring with us?” Keiko worried.
“I don’t really know,” Mama said, and she simply began packing those big impossible things into an enormous duffel bag—along with umbrellas, boots, a kettle, hot plate, and flashlight.
“Who’s going to carry that huge sack?” I asked.
But Mama didn’t worry about things like that. “Someone will help us,” she said. “Don’t worry.” So I didn’t.
Laurie wanted me to open her package and put on the bracelet before she left. It was a thin gold chain with a heart dangling on it. She helped me put it on, and I told her I’d never take it off, ever.
“Well, goodbye then,” Laurie said awkwardly.“Come home soon.”
“I will,” I said, although I didn’t know if I would ever get back to Berkeley again.
I watched Laurie go down the block, her long blond pigtails bouncing as she walked. I wondered who would be sitting in my desk at Lincoln Junior High now that I was gone. Laurie kept turning and waving, even walking backward for a while, until she got to the corner. I didn’t want to watch anymore, and I slammed the door shut.
The next time the doorbell rang, it was Mrs. Simpson, our other neighbor. She was going to drive us to the Congregational Church, which was the Civil Control Station where all the Japanese of Berkeley were supposed to report.
It was time to go. “Come on, Ruri. Get your things,” my sister called to me.
It was a warm day, but I put on a sweater and my coat so I wouldn’t have to carry them, and I picked up my two suitcases. Each one had a tag with my name and our family number on it. Every Japanese family had to register and get a number. We were Family Number 13453.
Mama was taking one last look around our house. She was going from room to room, as though she were trying to take a mental picture of the house she had lived in for fifteen years, so she would never forget it.
I saw her take a long last look at the garden that Papa loved. The irises beside the fish pond were just beginning to bloom. If Papa had been home, he would have cut the first iris blossom and brought it inside to Mama. “This one is for you,” he would have said. And Mama would have smiled and said, “Thank you, Papa San”° and put it in her favorite cut-glass vase.
But the garden looked shabby and now that Papa was gone and Mama was too busy to take care of it. It looked the way I felt, sort of empty and lonely and abandoned.
When Mrs. Simpson took us to the Civil Control Station, I felt even worse. I was scared, and for a minute I thought I was going to lose my breakfast right in front of everybody. There must have been over a thousand Japanese people gathered at the church. Some were old and some were young. Some were talking and laughing, and some were crying. I guess everybody else was scared too. No one knew exactly what was going to happen to us. We just knew we were being taken to the Tanforan Racetracks, which the army had turned into a camp for the Japanese. There were fourteen other camps like ours along the West Coast.
What scared me most were the soldiers standing at the doorway of the church hall. They were carrying guns with mounted bayonets. I wondered if they thought we would try to run away and whether they’d shoot us or come after us with their bayonets if we did.
A long line of buses waited to take us to camp.There were trucks, too, for our baggage. And Mama was right; some men were there to help us load our duffel bag. When it was time to board the buses, I sat with Keiko, and Mama sat behind us. The bus went down Grove Street and passed the small Japanese food store where Mama used to order her bean-curd cakes and pickled radish. The windows were all boarded up, but there was a sign still hanging on the door that read, “We are loyal Americans.”
The crazy thing about the whole evacuation was that we were all loyal Americans. Most of us were citizens because we had been born here. But our parents, who had come from Japan, couldn’t become citizens because there was a law that prevented any Asian from becoming a citizen. Now everybody with a Japanese face was being shipped off to concentration camps.
“It’s stupid,” Keiko muttered as we saw the racetrack looming up beside the highway. “If there were any Japanese spies around, they’d have gone back to Japan long ago.”
“I’ll say,” I agreed. My sister was in high school and she ought to know, I thought.
When the bus turned into Tanforan, there were more armed guards at the gate, and I saw barbed wire strung around the entire grounds. I felt as though I were going into a prison, but I hadn’t done anything wrong.
We streamed off the buses and poured into a huge room, where doctors looked down our throats and peeled back our eyelids to see if we had any diseases. Then we were given our housing assignments. The man in charge gave Mama a slip of paper. We were in Barrack 16, Apartment 40.
“Mama!” I said. “We’re going to live in an apartment!” The only apartment I had ever seen was the one my piano teacher lived in. It was in an enormous building in San Francisco, with an elevator and thick-carpeted hallways. I thought how wonderful it would be to have our own elevator. A house was all right, but an apartment seemed elegant and special.
We walked down the racetrack, looking for Barrack 16. Mr. Noma, a friend of Papa’s, helped us carry our bags. I was so busy looking around I slipped and almost fell on the muddy track. Army barracks had been built everywhere, all around the racetrack and even in the center oval.
Mr. Noma pointed beyond the track toward the horse stables. “I think your barrack is out there.”
He was right. We came to a long stable that had once housed the horses of Tanforan, and we climbed up the wide ramp. Each stall had a number painted on it, and when we got to 40, Mr. Noma pushed open the door.
“Well,here it is,” he said, “Apartment 40.”
The stall was narrow and empty and dark. There were two small windows on each side of the door. Three folded army cots were on the dust-covered floor, and one light bulb dangled from the ceiling. That was all. This was our apartment, and it still smelled of horses.
Mama looked at my sister and then at me. “It won’t be so bad when we fix it up,” she began.“I’ll ask Mrs. Simpson to send me some material for curtains. I could make some cushions too, and…well…” She stopped. She couldn’t think of anything more to say.
Mr. Noma said he’d go get some mattresses for us. “I’d better hurry before they’re all gone.” He rushed off. I think he wanted to leave so that he wouldn’t have to see Mama cry. But he needn’t have run off, because Mama didn’t cry. She just went out to borrow a broom and began sweeping out the dust and dirt. “Will you girls set up the cots?” she asked.
It was only after we’d put up the last cot that I noticed my bracelet was gone. “I’ve lost Laurie’s bracelet!” I screamed. “My bracelet’s gone!”
We looked all over the stall and even down the ramp. I wanted to run back down the track and go over every inch of ground we’d walked on, but it was getting dark and Mama wouldn’t let me.
I thought of what I’d promised Laurie. I wasn’t ever going to take the bracelet off, not even when I went to take a shower. And now I had lost it on my very first day in camp. I wanted to cry.
I kept looking for it all the time we were in Tanforan. I didn’t stop looking until the day we were sent to another camp, called Topaz, in the middle of a desert in Utah. And then I gave up.
But Mama told me never mind. She said I didn’t need a bracelet to remember Laurie, just as I didn’t need anything to remember Papa or our home in Berkeley or all the people and things we loved and had left behind.
“Those are things we can carry in our hearts and take with us no matter where we are sent,” she said.
And I guess she was right. I’ve never forgotten Laurie, even now.