Near the end of February 2020, I attended a concert with some of my adult children. We met for dinner at the Afro Deli in downtown St. Paul before walking to the Ordway Center. We didn’t know it would be the last show we’d be seeing for a long, long time. The last weekend in February, my family—kids and grandkids—had a party to celebrate the three-year-old’s birthday. We had no idea it would be the last time we’d all be together, indoors, laughing and eating and watching the little ones play together, for a long, long time. Early March, I worked as a bookseller for an event in one of the area libraries. I had no idea I would not be out selling books again for a long, long time.
Mid-March, tears came to my eyes when the owner of the bookstore I work at announced we would be closing to the public. We were able to stay open for online and phone sales, distancing from each other and disinfecting, turning our shop into a warehouse and order fulfillment center. Sunday mornings I’d be in the store alone, and I’d wander the now-unfamiliar floor, shelves pushed aside to accommodate tables of incomplete orders and boxes of books ready for delivery. No longer a place where people laughed and talked, and where children explored books and toys and the freedom of space in which they could wander and play, with the possibility of the best treasure up ahead—it was now a utilitarian space, our main concerns keeping safe, accuracy in fulfilling orders, and efficiency. It would be five months before we could open again to booklovers browsing.
From weekly family dinners on Sundays at our house, where the cousins played together, and the babies were passed from aunties to uncles to Appa and Amma, all while laughing and eating and chatting together, we moved to family Zoom meetings on Saturday afternoons. Awkward, treasured, necessary times. The grandkids still took center stage—but they, too, hardly knew how to act on a video visit. As the weather warmed, sometimes we’d visit outside, but never all of us, and always masked. No hugs, no sharing food, no nestling close to read a book together.
In April, a new grandbaby was born. We could not hold her. We could not watch the cousins hold her, their small arms carefully cradling her as watchful aunties or uncles stood near; we could not smile as they peered into her tiny face, nor as they stroked her soft cheek. We could only all see her, on occasion, on our Zoom meetings, our hearts yearning.
On May 25, George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, about five miles from my home. Suddenly COVID took a backseat to grief and anger at another Black life lost. The sound of helicopters filled the night, and I watched newsfeed videos of people marching, people gathering, people protesting the injustice of far too many killings by white police officers wielding power and far too many Black men or women dying because of it. We boarded the windows of the store with plywood, and now I walked the shadowed rooms and wondered what would happen to our city. If even burning buildings could motivate the changes we need to end the killings.
During the summer, we celebrated birthdays outside, dropping by the houses singly or in pairs. The five-year-old worried ahead of time that no one would come to her birthday because it was in December and it would be too cold to gather outside. Aunties and uncles sent packages of books to their nephews and nieces at random times. We created a family text message thread where the kids had long discussions of whether peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are for breakfast or lunch, and what constitutes a sandwich. One son and his wife gave me a digital frame for my birthday, which connects to an online photo album that all the kids can drop pictures into for me. My husband, our son who lives at home, and I all find ourselves standing in front of that small screen often, smiling at the faces of the people we most love.
Just before Thanksgiving, both my husband and son were exposed to COVID, both in their workplaces. We further isolated ourselves by keeping to our separate floors: son in the basement, husband on the main floor, me on the second floor. We each ate our turkey dinners alone.
December came and was thankfully mild. We made birthday signs, which Appa planted in the five-year-old-now-turning-six’s front yard while she was at the dentist. We had a car parade and honked our horns and brought gifts. Everyone came. The soon-to-be-six-year-old was thrilled, declaring it to be her best birthday ever.
Christmas means potato sausage-making, a Swedish tradition from my husband’s family, when aunties and uncles and cousins come to our house to mix ground meat with onions and potatoes and spices and crank the handle of the casing stuffer to make the sausages. The cousins would work a bit, but spend most of the time playing together, spreading out through the house to have their adventures. This year my husband and son did it alone—which went faster, with fewer small hands involved, but was so much less fun. Christmas also means an early morning breakfast at Mickey’s Diner. This year some of us opted for takeout and met in the chilly parking lot, not early in the morning but at a more reasonable eleven o’clock. Christmas itself was a Zoom, with kids taking turns opening presents. But afterwards, it felt like it never really happened.
In 1942, my grandmother and grandfather, along with their three children, including my dad, were incarcerated at Minidoka because of anti-Japanese racism and war hysteria. Forced from their home in Seattle, they spent a year and a half living in a barracks in the southern Idaho desert. I have thought about my grandma often in the past year. I wonder how she made it through that time. As dust and dry hot air, mess halls, and the indignity of communal latrines became her new reality, how did she keep from despair? Did she worry about how this would affect her two-year old as he grew up? Did she wonder if her seventeen-year old son—my dad—would be safe when he left the camp on work crews? Did the confinement, the loss, the exclusion, ever weigh on her so that in the mornings she did not want to get out of bed?
I have struggled through this year, counted my losses as if to contain them. I remind myself: I have my home—my books, my bed, my kitchen—while Grandma was forced into a tiny room in a barracks, which could have been no bigger than 20’ x 25’, living and sleeping space for the five of them. I can get in my car, drive anywhere, and even if I choose not to, I could shop in all the places where I was accustomed to shop, or eat at my favorite restaurants. Her life was circumscribed by barbed wire and desert. I can connect with friends on video chats, through text messaging, via email. She may have written to friends outside of the camp, but being 600 miles from home, even if her friends could have visited, it was unlikely they would. With the rise of anti-Asian hate—fed by a former-President—and reports by Asian American women of hate crimes in the Twin Cities, I lost the easy assumption of safety when I walk in our neighborhoods. But by condemning these as crimes, and by working to counter them, my community has affirmed my right to belong. Her president, with the backing of the federal government and the support of local leaders, removed her, her family, and her entire community and incarcerated them in the desert.
What gave Grandma hope? What did she appreciate? What brought her joy?
I have no answers for my questions.
In the early weeks of COVID isolation, some of my children, grandchildren, and I folded paper cranes for Tsuru for Solidarity, an organization of Japanese Americans who are “working to end detention sites and support front-line immigrant and refugee communities that are being targeted by racist, inhumane immigration policies.” One of their protests called for 120,000 cranes—one for each Japanese American incarcerated during World War II. Folding cranes can be a contemplative task, and having a project—a purpose—was helpful to me. But it was the reminder that there is still so much work to be done in the world that gave me perspective, that connected me to a world larger than myself.
It was Tsuru for Solidarity that reminded me of the word “gaman.” Gaman means “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” And it was one of their Facebook posts that gave me the words I have carried with me through all these long months:
I believe none of us Japanese American descendants would be here today if we didn’t each carry that Issei tenacity. So it’s time to call on that part of us to be the very best we can today to be kind, patient, loving, and strong leaders for our families and our community. Let’s each take the lead to be helpful to others even during this time of social isolation, to reach out to those by phone or internet who may be isolated, to offer comfort to those who are struggling to overcome their fear. It may be a family member or a total stranger. Such actions are contagious and more powerful than any disease virus that comes our way. (Satsuki Ina, co-founder, Tsuru For Solidarity)
The words helped me to be steady for my family, and for my co-workers, who were, in turn, steady for me. We are building gaman together, for each other, and kodomo no tame ni—for the sake of the children. I don’t know if Grandma thought about gaman. But I know she endured. After a year and a half at Minidoka, she and Grandpa moved to St. Paul, where they established their home, finished raising their children, and lived to see grandchildren. Their lives, too—and especially as I imagine my grandmother’s—also help me gaman. Our losses and struggles are real, but so are the connections that help us endure together.