Posted by Carly Perera on February 19, 2016 in In The Community
Tommy working in SV farmland
Tommy working in SV farmland

 

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.

Grandma Tommy with the author and her sister
Grandma Tommy with the author and her sister

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.

Internment

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.

Tommy and Frank Miyahara on a date in Santa Cruz
Tommy and Frank Miyahara on a date in Santa Cruz

And this one of Tommy striking a pose on Frank’s car.

Tommy striking a pose on Frank's car
Tommy striking a pose on Frank’s car

I am still figuring out who my Grandma Tommy was, and luckily, I have three boxes of photos to help me find out. You can view more of Tommy’s photos on my Instagram account, @tommykm.

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.

13 Comments

  1. Kelly Gregorio

    such a cool way to connect with your past! Just checkouted the instagram @tommykm, a treasure-trove of more awesome photos! Keep up the good work!

  2. Jennifer

    Thank you kindley for sharing this is awesome to see you take time and interest in something of importance this i believe would touch your grandmothers (Tommy) heart she lives on threw you. Take care and enjoy learning of her life and ill look for updates hopefully youll continue to share with us as well.

  3. Janice

    Enjoyed this story. Such a travesty about the Japanese internments during WW II but I love the pictures and you have a great story. Wish you luck in your quest to learn more.

  4. Vivian Kahn

    The internment of Japanese Americans was a violation of civil liberties that all Americans must remember, especially as politicians fear-monger. I was horrified as a 5th grader when I learned about the treatment of Japanese-Americans from a book I found in my local library. We need to continually remind everyone that it has happened here and can happen again if we are not vigilant.

  5. Jane

    Carly, it’s amazing what we can uncover about our ancestors lives – and your Grandma Tommy certainly sounds like someone I would have enjoyed knowing (very fun!). I agree w/ Vivian (above) that the Japanese American internment was such a cruel travesty of justice – and we need to be very wary of politicians even today who talk of building walls, etc. Carly, I feel sure your Grandma Tommy stored those filled suitcases away in the hope that one day YOU would find them!

  6. I found my mother’s father’s family in Del Rio, Texas. A real thrill. But, my grandmother I know very little, wish I could find out something about her. Your findings about your Grandmother Tommy was interesting and touching.

  7. Barbara

    I’ve been working on the same thing lately — but more with an eye to the future. I’m fairly certain I know much of my family history on both sides. Now that I’m aging, I want to provide for our future genealogists. I’ve been scanning and adding papers from my parents and siblings. I even added wedding photos from my first (failed) marriage. Why? Because it’s part of my history–good or bad. Someday, a great grandchild will say “OH! I found a photo of my grandpa with his first wife.” Or “I found a photo of my great aunt in her wedding dress. Isn’t she beautiful?” I’ve added photos of me over the years with commentary about things like “This was me at a special event at the turn of the millennium and describing life at that time.” Since I’m living, it’s not visible now. But there will come a time when my date of death is reported and the info will be available to others. I’d like to leave others a history of my life and the lives of my siblings and parents. Eventually, I will get around to interviews with my siblings. Goal: so that stories, like Tommy’s, don’t get lost.

  8. Carly

    Thank you everyone for your kind words of encouragement! I am still putting together the pieces of Tommy’s story on Instagram and learning about the remarkable woman she was. It’s inspiring to hear your stories as well so I hope you continue to document and share! If you are curious about updates, you can check out Tommy’s instagram page on the web here: https://www.instagram.com/tommykm/

  9. Hi Carly, Great post and I love your Instagram feed too! Just a quick note to point out that 120,000 Japanese Americans (not 10,000) were imprisoned in the camps during WWII. And you might find even more information about your grandmother, or at least about Heart Mountain at densho.org. Thanks for sharing her story!

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