Short Story: Fragments
By Ben Bartels
Through rheumy eyes, she squints as if to bring her past into clearer focus. Arthritic fingers claw the teak armchair she often occupied. My grandmother steels herself against the thunderous explosions, 70 years past, that ring more loudly in her ears than any noise of the present day. Her dog barks, her tea kettle spouts, her handheld phone rings --all escape her notice until I gently call attention to them. She sinks into her memories as deeply as she sinks into her chair, irretrievable without a helping hand to hoist her back to her feet and the present day.
I had heard the story of her family in fragments. Every few years a chance remark might open a door to a memory -- fish eaten under a Hawaiian sun, a swimming pool, a letter from her sister -- but the discussion always skirted away to presumably safer waters. It wasn’t until the summer before I left my hometown for college that I got her story in full, or rather in life-altering pieces. From the depths of her armchair, over many a sunlit afternoon, she recounted her early years to me.
Like many immigrants, my grandmother’s family came to the United States seeking opportunity. The Hawaiian plantations had been recruiting their workforce from China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines for three quarters of a century before her family moved there. The diversified labor was a strategic gambit by the plantation owners to prevent workers from organizing against them. My grandmother’s family was placed in a segregated community with other Japanese migrant workers on a pineapple plantation.
Her uprooted household included her mother, her father, an older brother, and a younger sister. An adult sister and brother remained in Japan, preferring to make their living in their mother nation, shunning what they viewed as their father’s misguided opportunism. But for my grandmother, the plantation was not an unhappy place. She smiles recalling one time, jealous of a neighboring community swimming pool, she coaxed a boy into sneaking under the fence with her to skinny dip.
She recalls a schoolhouse on a hill overlooking the ocean, a makeshift shrine in their living room, her mother’s stately and demure composure, her father’s rigid toughness. For an opportunity-seeking, yet tradition-bound couple, my grandmother’s fiery spirit was a source of much consternation. Still, she played the dutiful daughter well enough, absorbing the meticulous way her mother arranged the Shinto altar, parroting her father’s insistence that she was American, a dual honoration that would split her allegiance the rest of her life.
Mutterings of war seeped into their little hovels. But her father and his friends assuaged their worries. The U.S. was staying out of it, Hawaii was so far from the mainland and Europe for that matter, they weren’t citizens, they’d be left alone.
But mutterings from across the ocean were harder to ignore. The plunging economy they had left was causing a rise in nationalist fervor. Frequent assassinations and assassination attempts continued. Political parties were weakening with more and more governmental figures being appointed from the military. War had broken out with China. The emperor was doing nothing to punish the repugnant acts of barbarism and use of chemical warfare by his military. Yet amidst these grim tidings came the occasional flicker of joy. My grandmother’s sister had gotten engaged and moved in with her fiance.
Mama shifts uncomfortably in her seat. I offer to get her a glass of water. She graciously accepts with trembling fingers, taking a measured, still slightly sloppy sip. As she puts her glass down on a crowded wooden TV tray her gaze wanders out the window though she clearly doesn’t see the idyllic summer day outside.
“Are you OK?”
“It’s just…everything that happened next. It’s still...”
The unthinkable. The nation of her mother’s yearning attacked the nation of her father’s hope. Thunder boomed from miles away, but somehow she knew what it meant: The bombs were destroying the foundations of her family and her heart.
Soon, they came.
A simple knock on the door. American officers silhouetted by the bright sun outside. They wrapped their fists around her father and marched him away like a prisoner. Mama screamed and cried. This was the man who brought their family to America for hope, he told his daughters they were American first. Her brother restrained her. Her mother sat on the floor in dignified silence. Mama felt swelling hatred toward her parents for refusing to stand up for themselves, to fight.Her father remained as rigid as the soldiers escorting him, head held high as the door to the hovel closed.
In retrospect, it was rotten luck her father was chosen to be one of the approximately 1,500 internees from Hawaii out of the 150,000-plus Japanese living on the islands at the time. Perhaps the U.S. suspected his allegiance would be tested by his children. His eldest son was conscripted to the Japanese army while his younger son was conscripted to the American. As dual Japanese-English speakers, their skills were invaluable and both boys served as translators of radio intercepts from the other side. From the desperation of their plantation, my grandmother and her mother worried the brothers would meet on the battlefield.
Mama would battle her adolescent years in a constant state of extreme worry. Worry at the lack of news about her father. Worry that one day news of one of her brothers would reach her. But worry would not stave the bitter reality that eclipsed all her wildest imaginings.
On August 9, 1945, one of two days the world would never forget, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki after dropping one on Hiroshima three days prior. Mama’s sister was incinerated, along with her fiance, gone forever in a flash.
Tears fall freely from her eyes. Pain as fresh as the day the blows were struck. Tears for her father, her mother, her brothers, her sister, her nations. I offer her a box of tissues. She takes a moment to shake off the weight that has descended.
I draw back from her with guilt welling in my stomach, but also curiosity. As she recounts these episodes, they revive her in a way. While the memories are painful, they are also links to reality at its sharpest. The words she uses are passionate and more crystalline than her recollections of a particularly feisty Christmas spent with me and my parents a decade ago, or days from my mother’s childhood, or even and especially this morning’s breakfast of overdone eggs and grapefruit.
The bombs, Japanese and American, blew up youthful inhibitions and sense of duty. She would embark on the next phase of her life as a rebel, attending college in first Nebraska, then New York City, then dismissing any notions of building a traditional life and becoming a traveling teacher. It would be an unremarked irony that the same military that tore her family apart would also afford her the opportunity to trot the globe and forage her future family as she taught at U.S. military outposts everywhere from Germany to Africa, and all the way back to Japan.
After that summer, my insistence to hear her family’s stories proved prescient. Mama’s husband, my grandfather, passed away around Christmas of my freshman year. Along with him went her last and best link to the present and the past. I would later visit her retirement home and she would recount those memories once again, forgetting she had told me before. It struck me how she recounted them in almost the exact same way. The symphony of thunder hadn’t altered.
Soon though, she would forget. Everything. On her 85th birthday, she would not recognize my face through the phone screen. Nor give any recognition to my name or hers.
Now all that remains are these stories. Only fragments now, as I remember them. Blown apart like her family.
Ben Bartels is a New York based actor, singer and writer. You can check out his first album, FOUND, on Spotify and iTunes. He's a proud son and grandson of immigrants. Follow @benbartels_