My obsession with my grandmother’s past started with this photo. Who was this woman? Skin browned from the California summer, head turned towards the sky, smiling in the sun with a German Shepherd at her side in the middle of a strawberry field.
She looked carefree, playful, and confident in her men’s work trousers, which certainly were not the norm for women in the 1930s.
There was never anything orthodox about my Grandma Tommy. She was a second generation Japanese American, born into a stern and traditional Japanese family—but any time they weren’t looking, she danced the Charleston and listened to music like any other American teenager.
When she wasn’t working hard in Northern California’s farmland, she was beach bumming in Santa Cruz with her friends. She even joined a Methodist church despite being raised Buddhist.
I knew very little of these details growing up. To me, she was just a regular grandma. She made fried chicken dinners for the family every Sunday. We rolled sushi out of her hot, clammy kitchen for our annual New Year’s Day party (Omisoka). When I danced in San Jose Japantown’s annual Obon festival, Grandma Tommy gave me a peach and white kimono.
However, nobody in our family spoke Japanese and it was only until I was an adult that I learned why. Life had many heartaches for my Grandma Tommy, the first of which occurred early in her life. As a Japanese American, she was sent to an internment camp during World War II in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Despite being American, born and raised, she was required to leave her home along with 10,000 other Japanese Americans to various internment camps where they remained until the American government deemed it safe for national security. For this reason, Grandma Tommy never passed on her native tongue.
I wonder how it felt to be told at the age of 26 that your life would be indefinitely postponed and that you would be involuntarily shipped to the middle of nowhere? Or to see your family lose everything that they had toiled in the fields their entire lives for – suddenly taken away? How would it feel to be raised on American soil and be told that you are an enemy of the state? These questions continue to plague me, especially because she’s no longer here for me to ask them. She passed away in 2009.
My curiosity in this part of my family’s history grew recently when I dug through my Grandma Tommy’s garage and found a treasure trove of forgotten artifacts and neglected photos. Packed away for decades in three dust-covered leather suitcases, were snapshots of the life of a young farm girl, an American teen growing up in the 1930s, and a young woman whose dreams were deferred as she faced an uncertain future in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. This is a record of her internment from Ancestry.
The record is a snapshot from this dark period that stands in sharp contrast with the photos I have of her, like this one of her on a date with her husband Frank.
And this one of Tommy striking a pose on Frank’s car.
About Carly Perera
Carly is an artist and fourth generation Japanese American living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Join her as she attempts to unfold her grandmother’s story on Instagram @tommykm.