My father, Yoshizo, was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, and was 26 at the time of my birth. My mother, Sachie, was born in Portland, Ore., and was 23 when she stepped out of Apt. 1 of Building 2 in Block 20, crossed the sandy walkway, hanging onto my father’s arm on her way to Manzanar Hospital — a tarpaper barrack that had been converted into a hospital. Sagebrush and sand devils kicked about by the constant desert wind blew across her pathway.
Mama said she almost died giving birth to me. That she didn’t was likely the result of the patient skill and care of her doctor.
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 Aono had put her bright-eyed 17-year-old daughter on a ship to return to the United States, believing that her child would be safe and would have a good future in this country. Grandmother Aono wouldn’t know about her child’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, with a 3-year-old son waiting back in the barracks, 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 12, 15, 20 hours?
I think about that young woman, my mother.
When I flew to California to be with my daughter Tomo and granddaughter Malia Sachie, I felt that my mother would have wanted her own mother to be with her during childbirth. Yet there were other mothers and grandmothers in the camp, and they tried to help Sachie as she recovered from the long labor and as she sought to start breastfeeding her new daughter. But the milk didn’t flow easily at first, and so Sachie had to bargain with other mothers to get enough milk for the new infant.
When I was with Malia, I became the official diaper-changer by choice. I would sing to her during the changing. Sometimes the changing would take more than 15 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 — because 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 in Manzanar Relocation Center?
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 as she tried 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 cot, a protective 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.
How did she manage, and why did I ever doubt that she loved me?