Monday, November 21, 2011

Monday, November 21, 2011

The dental supply box sat undisturbed on a garage shelf for nearly 21 years. Bing had hand-carried it on the airplane back to Palo Alto after graduating dental school, moving it with him into his Loma Linda residency apartment, into the condo on Del Mar when we married, and then finally here to this Howard Street house.

One afternoon during a feeble attempt to organize the garage, I asked him what he was going to do with that box, or rather, the contents of it. “You can go ahead and throw it out,” he said. “I don’t know what I was thinking, taking a stained glass window class while in school. I realize now that my design is far too difficult for a beginner project, but I put so much work into the drawing, and thought and good money into selecting the glass, I hate to think about not finishing it. I can’t throw it out, but I know I won’t finish it. You can throw it out for me.”

After a speech like that, there was no way I was going to be the one to throw it out. So on the shelf the box stayed, labeled “Bing’s stained glass window” in my hand writing.

Then on an October 2009 business trip to Orlando, Florida, I visited The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park containing the world’s most comprehensive collection of Tiffany glass. Standing before a sketch by Tiffany displayed with the finished window pane, I was struck, truly struck, by the thought that I should find someone to finish Bing’s project. After I came home, I asked around to come up with recommendations, and got the name of a stained glass window shop nearby in Eagle Rock.

Life intervened; the post-it note with the shop name and address sat on my desk and the box sat on that shelf. This June while feeling “life is short” in between chemo treatments, I made it a high priority one Saturday morning to get myself to that shop, box in hand. Within ten minutes of arriving at the shop, I was telling this story to the shop’s stained glass window instructor as she admired Bing’s design and his glass selection. In near tears she said she would love to finish his window. Leaving the store, I knew he knew.

I remember Bing said he based his design on a Japanese silk screen of peonies he loved at the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian, but the postcard he bought had gotten lost along the way. The instructor was able to follow his design, but she still wondered if there was some way I could find that silk screen so she could see the basis of his inspiration. I went online with the Freer collection, and within ten minutes, knew I had found his silk screen by Hasegawa Tonin, “Peonies and Willows,” from the Edo Period, early 17th century. Another sign that this was meant to be.

Three weeks later when I went to pick up the finished window, I could not get over how beautiful it was. I could not stop staring at it. I don’t know if this is how he imagined it would turn out – I couldn’t have imagined it myself – but I was just so glad that between us, we didn’t throw out that box, that I had time for that tour to Winter Park, that the instructor was so accommodating and skilled. I decided that this would be the special 21st birthday gift for Akemi and resolved to keep it a birthday secret for the time being.

Since she doesn’t come home for her Thanksgiving time birthday, I decided to tell her about it and show the window to her at the end of the summer, before she returned to Boston. She appreciated it as much as I hoped she would.

Since the day that Akemi unwrapped it, the window has been in our kitchen window where I admire it constantly. As Thanksgiving and Akemi’s birthday draws closer, I feel the window has become more and more hers – that it was my stewardship to complete it and now to keep it safe for her until she has her own home.

That dental supply box still contains his colored-pencil designs and the left-over glass. I thought Akemi might like to have the designs, and the instructor advised keeping the glass in case something broke. But truth be told, even though the window has taken on its own reality, I can’t imagine that garage shelf without that box still sitting there.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Remember what Christopher Robin told Winnie the Pooh:

“If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together. . .there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart. . .I’ll always be with you.”

P.S. The first of the narcissi I planted last year, bulbs from my colleague and friend Jane.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday, November 11, 2011

On the morning of August 10, 1988, redress warriors were gathering from across the country for President Reagan’s signing ceremony of H.R. 442 that afternoon at the White House.

After deplaning from the LAX-IAD red-eye, my dad and I sat in a Washington, D.C. coffee shop, killing time until Congressman Bob Matsui’s reception later that morning on the Hill. A few other LA Japanese American lions joined us; I’ll have to go back to my journal to dig up exactly who else was in that coffee shop with us.

In the almost ten years I devoted to the legislative passage of the redress bill, I had asked my dad many questions about his thoughts and feelings about his internment experience and effect upon his life. Once I asked him was what he was thinking when he heard Pearl Harbor had been bombed. Even as a 13-year-old, he knew at that moment that the life he and his family had in Orange County had ended forever.

Sitting at that coffee shop table, I asked him if he could have ever imagined on the morning of December 7, 1941 that 47 years later, a President of the United States would be inviting him to the White House to apologize for the wrongs of the United States government to him and other Japanese Americans? It was the first, and only, time I saw tears well up in my father’s eyes. His hands trembled slightly around his coffee cup, and he couldn’t speak. Every second I devoted to redress, every ounce of energy, was for my Nisei parents and their families – to help in some small way with that which they could not have done for themselves.

In looking at the few photos I have of the redress signing day, I’m realizing that we didn’t take nearly enough. We were all too shell-shocked trying to take in the reality and significance of the day, too busy hugging one another so tightly, too occupied with thoughts of those who had not lived to see that day. But here is the one photo I have with my dad at Bob and Doris Matsui’s reception. He went from holding a coffee cup to a champagne glass. As Doris started to hand him that glass, he looked at me, his diabetic watch-dog on hand, for permission. Doris said, “It’s a champagne kind of day.” Who could deny him?

Almost 20 years later, Akemi incorporated the coffee shop story into a paper she wrote for her U.S. history course as a junior at Polytechnic School. Her assignment was to write about a “change agent” in the 21st century, and she chose as her thesis that the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and other Japanese American military units were a driving force behind civil rights and, ultimately, the passage of redress.

When she first told me about her ideas for this paper, she could not believe my reaction. I surprised her with a dusty box from the garage, filled with my redress documents and memorabilia. She had no idea I had helped with legal research, drafted copy that got included in Senate hearing reports and in the report for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, co-chaired fundraisers, and appeared on television. For the first time, she saw newspaper articles featuring my dad, saw memoirs written by family friends, and heard about the significance of the White House photo hanging on our wall. For years, she had passed by an entire shelf of our bookcase filled with “JA” books without knowing why I even owned them. I realized that in the tidal wave of life, I had moved on from redress by the time she came along, and had short-changed telling her about all of this.

With such a lode of primary sources, Akemi picked up the Kamei torch in writing her paper. She did such a fine job that it was Poly’s single submission for the Cum Laude Society Paper of the Year award for 2008. Her expanded version “The 442nd Regimental Combat Team: More Than Heroes on the Battlefield” was published in The Concord Review 19, no. 4 (Summer 2009), 1-28.

On this Veteran’s Day, 11/11/11, I’m more than glad that on November 1st the U.S. Congress awarded the surviving members of the 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat team, and the Military Intelligence Service the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor that can be given by the U.S. Congress. Truly I believe that these men are heroes who sacrificed all for the rights and privileges Akemi and I enjoy today. I marvel again that redress came to pass. I’m so proud that Akemi seized an opportunity to learn about this and add to the academic landscape, and I know that her grandfather has been very proud, too.