Desert chrysanthemums

Thus far, one of the best things that my dad’s book has given me is my grandfather.

Although there are pictures of me with my dad’s mother, I never got to meet my grandfather; he died before I was born. And my maternal grandfather actually died the year I was born, a few months before my birth in December. So I never had a biological grandfather, growing up.

But my grandfather, my dad’s father, is all over the manuscript.

He was a dancer. There’s an entire chapter devoted to a folk dance that my grandfather used to perform, and even performed in camp, a fisherman’s dance. As a granddaughter, it’s lovely to know that he was a dancer; as an editor, I am not sure why the chapter is there. But that’s a conversation I’ll have with the manuscript another time.

He was a rabble-rouser, a speech-maker. Contrary to what I used to think about our family history, my dad and his siblings were not sent to Tule Lake initially because of my grandfather’s “troublemaker” behavior. While at Tule Lake, my grandfather made a series of fiery speeches against the military recruitment policies in camp. For that series of speeches, he was taken away to New Mexico. I say this with pride.

He cared about his community. Upon his return from New Mexico, when asked what he would like to do, he answered, “I would like to serve the people of this camp.”

He was a man with a sense of history. When he learned that World War II had ended, he sighed, and said “From this day on, I will become an American Indian.” How did he know what it was to be an American Indian, to associate his own experience of dispossession with theirs?

In other words, the manuscript is shot through with a young boy’s hero-worship of his father. (I realize that’s something I’ll need to think about for my own book.) It makes a certain amount of sense: my dad was writing about the time from when he was 10 to when he was 14. Not long after that, I believe, he was no longer living at home, working in various jobs. (I’ll have to find out more about this gap.) For all I know at this moment, actually, my father was writing about and through the loss of his own father.

In my dad’s buy ventolin with no prescription manuscript, the loss is so palpable that even after my grandfather returns to camp from imprisonment in New Mexico, my dad thinks hard about what his father’s absence meant. “What is a family without a father?” he asks himself.

My father’s response to his own question stuns me: “Not much of anything.”

And here I can begin to write back to my father. After age 10, I grew up without a father. And while we missed him terribly—what he said about a father’s absence? It’s just not true. Or at least, it’s not true for everyone. It wasn’t true for us, for my sister and my mother and I, and our larger extended family (who never abandoned us, even though their brother had died). For my sister and me, the youngest of our generation of 13 cousins, it has been a family existence rich with love.

Before opening the manuscript envelope, there were so many questions that I wanted answered. I think that I went to the manuscript not just to find my father, but to find fathering: to find advice, support, strength. How does one endure terrible, difficult times?

And I have to confess that in this respect, the manuscript feels incomplete. Why? My friend B put it best, I think. I told her that I’d looked for a father in the manuscript, but didn’t find him, and she nodded with understanding. “You went to find your father—but what you found was another kid.”

So it’s unexpected and wondrous, painful and lovely, that while the fathering I wanted wasn’t in my dad’s book, the grandfathering was. “You must have the capacities to bounce back,” he said to my father, “no matter what the adversities are.”

I like to think that my grandfather learned that lesson from the gardens that they grew in camp. I didn’t know that families could grow anything in Tule Lake. But my father describes growing flowers and vegetables in his manuscript. “The flowers brightened the area,” my father says, “and the sense of desolation was removed.” Few people can talk about the power of endurance and regeneration like farmers can.

You see, all this time I thought that I love chrysanthemums because my father loved them. I didn’t know he inherited this love from my grandfather.

They grew chrysanthemums in camp, too.


About Tamiko: The Professional Version

Tamiko Nimura is a Sansei/Pinay writer and editor, originally from Northern California and now living in the Pacific Northwest. As a professor in English and African American Studies, she taught classes in writing, humanities, and multicultural American literature for the last seven years. Her writing has appeared or will appear in The San Francisco Chronicle, Kartika Review, the Rafu Shimpo, and Crosscurrents Literary Journal. Last summer, her book proposal reached finalist status in the “Passion Project” nonfiction contest. She received degrees in English from UC Berkeley (BA) and from the University of Washington (MA, PhD). She has received awards from the Ford Foundation, the University of Iowa, the Asia Pacific Fund, the University of Washington, and the National Japanese American Citizens League (JACL).

She now works on memoir, personal essay, and food writing here.

About Kikugirl: The Backstory

My parents swear that I learned to read when I was 18 months old. That’s about 6 months younger than my youngest daughter, and I can barely picture it. (“I have a tape!” my mom insisted, a couple of years ago.)

Nevertheless, whenever I began to read, however I began to read, I haven’t stopped. The written word is, for me, like breathing, like water, like sunlight: elemental, essential, lifegiving, lifesaving. Even during my busiest and worst moments and years, I have always carved out a few minutes for a few pages of pleasure reading, every day. (I am sad that not many people do this, but that’s for another time.)

Given this love of reading, and my relatively early start, it may have been inevitable that I was my dad’s dinner party trick.

Early one Saturday morning in the 1970s, we were playing with that white magnetic letter board, with the red plastic frame and those kid-party-balloon colored letters. We spelled other words, I’m sure: cat, and maybe paper, and maybe house. But the word he asked me to memorize (how old was I, anyway?!) was a long word. I have no idea if my dad meant to pick a word this long, just for the sheer silly challenge of it all.

(Does this help us to figure out his reasoning?–later, when we traveled to visit family friends, he’d trot out a college textbook, and ask me to read a paragraph out loud, even if I had no idea buy albuterol usa what it meant. I’m sure there’s a poem in there somewhere.)

And yes, this was the word: chrysanthemum.

I learned to say it-spell it quickly, as if it were its own poem: c-h-r-y-s-a-n-t-h-e-m-u-m. Except that with the dashes in between, it actually looks even longer, and I always said it out loud very, very quickly: “ceeaitcharaiessayen [breath] teeaitcheeemyoumum.” Amazed laughter, a sonic memory that my cousins still use to tease me.

The chrysanthemum was one of my dad’s favorite flowers. I’ve always known it as a thing of beauty, for the green glass vase at the center of the dinner table. I’ve also known it as an edible flower, since we used the greens in making sukiyaki.

My dad died when I was ten. I don’t know how anyone processes the death of a parent at a young age. And I have come to realize that there are many worse ways to lose a parent–through abuse, for example, or prolonged neglect–but losing my dad is one of the losses that has defined my life. So there will certainly be more about him here. The chrysanthemum has been the flower that I associate most with my dad, and if I ever visit his grave, it is the flower that I will bring to honor his memory.

The Japanese word for chrysanthemum is kiku. When I chose my very first e-mail name, a hotmail account way-back-when (so 90’s!), I chose kikugirl.

I’ll use this blog as I ask my students to use the writing process itself: I’ll be writing to discover, rather than simply writing to record. I’ll be writing about what brings light and color to my life, including my family, the written word, food, friends, and those who work for social justice. I am about to re-enter the writing life. If you asked me what I was going to be when I was little, then a teenager, then even a college student, I would have said “writer.” I haven’t written creatively, even creatively nonfictively, in some years. And sometime this year I am going to re-open the manila envelope with my dad’s book manuscript, which I haven’t read since I was in fifth grade, some twenty-odd years ago. I know that this will be an amazing and difficult year of change and transformation for me.

Thank you for being here.