I am scrunched into as small a ball as I can curl myself, the warm, scratchy wool coat rubs my back, the stale smell of worn shoes in my nose. I closed the door on myself to shut out the sounds coming from the kitchen. It’s dark, close and safe where I am. No one can see or hear my breathing, my thumping heart.
Pop is shouting, his words slurred and blurry to my ears. Mother is shouting back; her anger and accusations clear even though I don’t know all the words. The words are familiar; I catch one here and there that I don’t understand, but they use the same words every time. But their emotions don’t need words I know. I can feel the hurt, feel the passion even without understanding.
Pop was drinking again. He had been out until early morning, and his stumbling awoke us all. I wondered where he got the money to drink. We were always scrambling to garner enough money to pay rent. My older brother worked part-time at the packing houses–they were always looking for cheap labor—and he would give money to Mother to help out. I wished I were older so I could help more, but in the meantime, I just made myself as small as possible, to stay out of the way.
Pop could be so nice. I loved sitting on his lap, he would tell me stories of the men he helped get jobs as they come to this new country. He helped mostly those coming from Hiroshima, the prefecture he came from, but sometimes he would help others who had no connections established. His family had sent him over to get an education. Instead, he found schooling in a foreign tongue too difficult, and the lure of the bottle too easy to resist. His education fell by the wayside, even though he used his street sense to get paid to help others and his command of English better than most compensated for his lack of steady work.
His family in Hiroshima was quite prominent, money made in trading goods. They were wealthy enough to send the second son to America and even though the oldest had wanted to go, he had to stay back to manage the property he was to inherit.
America wasn’t what he expected. Everyone was white and tall; those were the people in power. He had come from status, but here he was nothing—a nobody. And worse, a yellow nobody. The first drinks had dulled the pain, the shame. And later, the drinks dulled the shame of drinking.
Mother’s anger was understandable. She had several jobs to make ends meet. When Pop wouldn’t come home, she would have to fend for herself and us. She worked at the packing shed, the same place Ben would go, managed the boarding house we lived at which only meant she cooked and cleaned after the laborers who lived here with us; she would pick up odd jobs cleaning for others. Her English was worse than my dad’s, so she socialized mostly with the other Issei (first generation) ladies whose English was equally bad. She found herself home alone many evenings.
I excelled at school. I loved literature, my girlfriends, the picture of George Washington on the wall and the flag with 48 stars. In the morning we said the Pledge of Allegiance, we would have lunch in the big cafeteria, our bento boxes with rice balls and the smell of tsukemono (pickled vegetables) shouting out our Japanese-ness while the white girls would have their brown bag white bread sandwiches. After school some of us would play tennis or go to Japanese school at the Buddhist church. There were always movies and plays put on by the Japanese community. Movies were often from Japan, but we had the Hollywood movies, too.
At school I wouldn’t have to face Pop who might be the happy Pop that I loved, or the scary Pop who shouted at Mother—the Pop that I feared. School was a safe zone. Nothing extraordinary ever happened there. Every day was like the other, the routine safe, secure. Home was uncertain, a pot always on the verge of boiling over.
This was my life in 1934, in the little town of Guadalupe, California.