Weekly Writing Challenge: Lessons from the Dust

“Dust. It was so dusty everywhere,” her eyes looked past the kitchen window and back in time. Turning to me she asked, “Do you know what a dust bowl is?”

“No?” I answered in question, my nine-year-old mind imagining a cereal bowl full of dust.

“It’s a lot of dust. Dust, dust, dust.” Her hands plunged back into the soapy water, scouring the dinner dishes, ridding the dust from her memories.

My mind’s eye can still see that “one-butt” kitchen with space for a refrigerator and microwave stand, no oven, on one side. A sink, some drawers and two cupboards lined the other. Room for one butt at a time down the worn linoleum middle. The house was a rental, tiny, old, and full of cracks—the kind that let dust in when the winds blew. We’d often have to rewash the dishes after a storm, thus my young imagination’s bowl of dust wasn’t too far from my reality.

And as clearly as that house remains in my memories, she is brighter yet. She is my grandmother, my father’s mother. And I was her only grandchild.

That evening my father urged me to ask Grandma about The War. You see, Grandma was a 19-year-old Japanese American during World War II. As a child, I didn’t understand what this meant; however, I inherently knew this was something BIG. So that night on the farm as Grandma washed and I hand-dried the dishes, she told me part of her story.

“I grew up in Willamette Valley. Do you know where that is? It’s in Oregon. Green, beautiful, the soil is good. After my parents came to the States, they settled there in the Valley. We didn’t know what dust was. Too much rain for dust.” The silverware was done.

“Growing up, me and my sisters—we older girls—used to go pick fruit and harvest food at other people’s farms for money. We had a good place in the community. Then the war broke out. Eventually we weren’t allowed to stay. We had to move they said. We could only take what we could carry so we packed everything else up. But one of our neighbors was kind and let us store things on his property.” Drinking glasses done.

“We took a train north and they took us to the holding center in Puyallup. That was a little dusty, but I still didn’t know what dust meant. There were so many of us, all piled up into this little area*. We had to wait there to find out where we were going. Wait, wait wait. My family, now there were nine of us total: my father and mother, your aunties Ine, Martha, Shirley, and Ruth, your uncles Kay and Jim, and me, we were given two horse stalls to live in while we waited.” The plates were done.

“Eventually we found out we were going to Minidoka, but none of us knew what that meant. They put us back on a train and we travelled and travelled. I thought I saw the dust bowl when we were on the train, but I didn’t see nothing yet. It was kind of a shock going from all that green to the desert. When we stepped off that train, oh! It was so dusty! It just got into everything! Dust and sagebrush. And when it rained…. Do you know what happens to dust when it rains?”

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Even I could get this question right, “It turns to mud.”

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“That’s right,” not a speck of food would be left on that casserole dish as she scrubbed vigorously despite fingers gnarled with age, “It turns to mud. And there was just mud everywhere. You couldn’t escape it. And it was deep!”

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“Don’t let anybody tell you Minidoka wasn’t a prison camp. Because it was! We were housed in barracks. They build fences to keep us in, not keep people out. And those guards turned their guns in on us rather than pointing them out to protect us. But we made the best of it. The kids went to school. We had community. Our young men volunteered for the war—you know your grandpa was in the 442nd. He received a Purple Heart. Those boys wanted to show the United States that they were American, even though they were born to Issei (Japanese term for the 1st generation citizens, born in Japan and relocated to the US). We all wanted to show that we were proud to be Americans.”

Grandma went on to tell me how she and her older sisters had been able to leave the confines of Minidoka Relocation Center, as named by the US Government, by getting a work release. With all the able-bodied men fighting overseas, farms needed workers to care for and harvest the crops, something Grandma had already had experience doing. While on the outside, Grandma met my grandfather who was a “local boy”. After the war they settled down in southern Idaho, about 50 miles from Minidoka. My great-grandparents moved back to Oregon and found that most of their belongings had been either stolen or destroyed by rats. Along with the thousands of other Japanese Americans, they began to rebuild their life from the unseen rubble that WWII brought to our home turf.

I had always loved my grandmother but on this evening, even at my tender age of nine, I began to respect her more. The older I’ve become, deeper that respect has grown because, despite all the interruptions and tragedies of her life, Grandma Tishi remained gentle, kind, honest, thoughtful, and loved to serve. She was not a bitter, angry woman.

Some days I was angry for her. Angry at injustice and fear and ignorance and white people. Then I realized I was half white. And that my anger was at something that occurred almost 50 years earlier. And from all these intense and horrible circumstances, I existed. Without WWII and the camps, my grandparents may have never met and I wouldn’t be alive.

Now I realize that when I face my own life interruptions and tragedies, I have a heritage of strength and grace.

Think of your own family story. Who is your hero or heroine? They don’t have to be famous or important. They can be a little old woman in a dishpan.

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To find out more about the Minidoka Relocation Center: http://www.javadc.org/minidoka_relocation_center.htm

* The temporary relocation area was at the Puyallup Fairgrounds, now home to the Washington State Fair

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