Short Story: Desert Birth – June 1944
June 11, 2013 2 Comments
The following is the first of two short stories by Yosh Golden, who was born behind the barbed wire at Manzanar during World War II. This story, along with June 1997: High School Yearbook is the foundation for the upcoming short film, The Song, based on Manzanar, and the Japanese American Incarceration story. Originally published in Northwestern University’s Triquarterly Online (Issue 140, Summer/Fall 2011). It is reprinted here with permission.
by Yosh Golden
My father, Yoshizo Yoshimura, born in Salt Lake City, was 26 at the time of my birth. My mother, Sachie, twenty-three, was born in Portland, Oregon. Both were American citizens, Japanese Americans—now confined to a camp in the California desert, Manzanar Relocation Center, surrounded by barbed wire and machine-gun turrets.
On June 14, 1944, my mother stepped out of Apartment 1 of Building 2 in Block 20. She and my father left their three-year-old son, Johnny, asleep on a government-issue blanket and cot back in the tarpaper barracks in the care of a young woman in Apartment 2, who lived just on the other side of a blanket partition. Holding my father’s arm, Sachie crossed the sandy walkways to another hastily constructed green-wood barrack that had been converted into a hospital. Sagebrush and sand devils kicked about by the constant wind blew across her pathway.
Mama said she almost died giving birth to me. That she didn’t was likely a result of the patient skill and care of her Japanese American doctor, also confined at Manzanar.
I think about that young woman, her own mother and family across the ocean in Japan, which was engaged then in a terrible war with the United States. Six years earlier, Grandmother Minae Aono had put her bright-eyed seventeen-year-old daughter on a ship to return to the United States where she had been born, believing that her Sachie would be safe and would have a good future in this country. Grandmother Minae wouldn’t know about her daughter’s experiences until years later, after the war ended, after the atomic bombs had been dropped.
I think about giving birth in a hostile country, in a hostile environment, without the comfort of a husband—fathers were not allowed in delivery rooms in those days. What does a young woman fear when the contractions become so strong that the body feels as if it will be rent in two? And what does a young woman think when there is little comfort and not enough medication to keep the labor pains at bay and the labor continues for twelve, fifteen, twenty hours—into the next day?
In a quiet moment one afternoon, my aging mother told me that the thing that hurt her most when she was forced from her home in Los Angeles and moved to Manzanar was having to sell Johnny’s new baby furniture. He was the first born and had won the “Cutest Baby” contest that year. Mama’s hurt in being unable to shelter Johnny, to amuse him with new things, soft things, was still raw decades later. I think about that young woman, my mother.
There were many mothers and grandmothers in Manzanar. And when I flew to California to be with my daughter Tomo and new granddaughter Malia Sachie, I realized that Mama would have wanted to be with her own mother during childbirth. A few of the women gently helped Sachie as she recovered from the long labor and tried to breast feed her newborn. But the milk didn’t flow easily at first, and Sachie had to bargain with other mothers to get enough milk for the infant.
When I was with Malia, I became the official diaper-changer by choice. I would sing to her, and sometimes the changing would take more than fifteen minutes because Malia became so relaxed—I started referring to “two- and three-diaper-change” changes. But she was always clean and fresh by the end of the process, and we would have exchanged smiles and engaged in grandmother-granddaughter small talk. I wondered how my mother kept me clean—which she would have done meticulously—since the latrines and washing areas were in buildings separate from the barracks. And what happened at night, when I would wake, like newborns everywhere, soiled and hungry, when the mess halls were also in buildings separate from the barrack apartments? Did Mama have to cross the sandy walkways in the moonlight to get water to clean me? Did Mama have to dodge the sagebrush blowing about to get to the mess hall to find more milk?
I looked at little Malia in her bassinet and admired the new crib in her sunlit second-floor bedroom with cool breezes coming in the window, and I thought of my mother trying to make a soft place for me to sleep as I squirmed and squalled, hungry and fretful. I imagined Mama moving as close to the rough wooden wall as she could, tucking me in next to her on the army cot, her arm gently cradling me. There I would fall asleep each night for the first nine months of my life—secure and fiercely loved, warmed, and protected by a young mother whose dark eyes and dark hair were reflected in her newborn infant.
As I was growing up, watching my Japanese American mother, she never directly said to me “I love you.” But to help Papa support our growing family, she’d work into the night sewing housecoats to take to the factory boss the next week. She never directly said “I love you.” But she baked loaves of bread, canned tomatoes and peaches, and took the time to teach me how to cook rice and clean the kitchen and feel competent in the doing. Mama never directly said “I love you,” but she sewed and mended for her tribe of eleven children, and we were properly clothed for any occasion. She never openly praised me either, but attended every parent-teacher meeting, every piano recital, and every school event.
I think of my mother as a young woman in circumstances I will never know. No, my mother never directly said “I love you” until very late in her life, but I remember that whenever I sat next to Mama—at school, at church, at various events—I felt safe, content, secure, and loved. How did she manage, and how did I ever doubt that she loved me?
You can help make this film a reality! For more about the film project, and how you can help, click on You Can Help The Song Become A Reality During Final Days of KickStarter Fundraising Campaign.
A short video of Yosh Golden’s first trip to Manzanar since her release from the concentration camp can be viewed below (courtesy Kazuko Golden).
The views expressed in this story are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Commitee.
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