The Walls We Build

by Jordan Stivers

It was the rain against the window that woke Stacy Redhill. Drizzle was common in coastal Oregon but, to a girl from Phoenix, the sound was still uncommon enough to rouse her. Sliding her woolen-socked feet onto the hardwood floor, she shivered. Ugh it’s freezing, she thought, pulling her robe around herself. She stumbled into the kitchen to turn on the coffee pot, watching the rain pelt the window as she waited.

The town of Little Ridge exemplified the first descriptor in the town’s name but not the second. As far as Stacy could tell, it was perfectly flat. Generally the first thing passers-through noticed were the trees. Giant evergreens grew right up to the coastline like silent, imposing sentries. The surf always seemed much calmer than Stacy thought it would be, like an oversized, over-washed gray fleece blanket.

With the coffee warming her body and waking her brain, Stacy turned her mind to the day’s research. She was in Little Ridge on assignment for her first book since joining the History Department of the University of Arizona as a Pacific-American specialist. While in Little Ridge, she was researching the local Asian-American population during the World War II period to show how they were affected both economically and socially by the war. The jingle of an email notification on her phone pulled Stacy out of her fog and she puttered through her morning routine. An hour later, Stacy noticed her neighbors sitting on their porch with their morning coffee. They both smiled and waved to her cheerily as she drove by toward town. Stacy raised her hand to wave in return. No one should be so happy at this time of day, she thought, smiling back.

 

Like in many small towns across America, Little Ridge’s courthouse was larger than necessary, painted stark white, and featured hideous recreations of Greco-Roman columns. A variety of plaques were scattered about, dedicated to events and people no one remembered today.

Stacy headed to the records department situated in the basement of the silent courthouse. As she laid out her materials, Stacy scanned the shelves looking for the marriage licenses. They were not in sight. It’s never that easy, she thought, walking through the bookshelves. After ten minutes she found her quarry: five boxes covering over a century up to 1950. Opening the boxes made Stacy smile. The dried pages smelled of time, of hundreds of sunny days, of ink that dried decades ago. She had yet to meet a historian that did not passionately love that smell.     

Hours passed quietly as Stacy catalogued various statistics concerning the local population including mixed marriages, owned businesses and farmland, and local positions of power. Overall trends showed how, before internment, the local Asian population did decently well in Little Ridge and then, after 1945, many left the area searching for work or better conditions. Many of the records had not been updated in decades and still contained original ink signatures in long-hand cursive or in different languages, like Japanese kanji. Stacy took note of records listing residents still in Little Ridge, hoping to interview them about their before and after internment experiences.

Without windows, Stacy forgot the time until a stomach rumble distracted her. “Geez,” she said aloud, surprised by the noise. Her watch read past one so she grabbed her coat and left the room for lunch.

Across Main Street, there was a small diner called Lad’s. She had been told that Lad’s was shortened from the name of the diner’s original founder, a Russian immigrant named Vladimir. Though Vladimir and his descendants had long since died or left Little Ridge, Lad’s continued to be the only place downtown that served a full meal before dinnertime. Stacy waved to the three retired fishermen at the bar and took a booth. The vinyl creaked under her damp jeans.

“Hey there Stacy,” called Amelia from the bar. Amelia Sugou was a true Little Ridge local. Her family had lived in the area since the 1910s when land was very cheap and landowners cared less about the race of their tenants than how much money was in their pockets. Her Japanese heritage was clear with her thick black hair, almond-shaped brown eyes, and her high cheekbones. Amelia had a tendency to wear several bright colors at once, particularly items she knitted herself. She was an artist, waitress, hairdresser, seamstress, and likely five other occupations around town. 

“Hey Amelia,” Stacy said with a smile.

“So, worked up an appetite reading all those papers?” Amelia teased.

Stacy nodded, “Absolutely. I’ll take a bowl of the oyster chowder and a BLT. Oh, and a cup of coffee. This rain just sucks the energy right out of me.”

Amelia grabbed the nearby coffee pot from the counter, “I guess it’s not the daily dose of vitamin K you’re used to getting. At least you didn’t need to pack a bottle of sunscreen.”

“Nope, just duck boots. I didn’t even own a pair before coming. These suckers are brand new,” Stacy replied, wrapping her hands around the warm coffee cup as she stuck her foot from under the table for inspection. Amelia shook her head at the bright plaid boot and called the order back to the cook. Between the warmth of the coffee, the pelting rain, and the buzz of a local radio talk show, Stacy felt like taking a nap.

Amelia broke Stacy from her trance minutes later, “Here you go, chowder and sandwich.” She sat down the plates. A bolt of chilled air rushed in as the front door opened and in came a slight woman, her head bent in an effort to avoid the rain. Stacy could see it was Amelia’s grandmother, Suzumi. When Stacy had arrived in Little Ridge, Sue (as everyone called her) was one of Stacy’s first contacts as the unofficial local historian. No matter what surrounding small town Stacy visited, they always seemed to know Sue.

Sue greeted the other customers and the cook as she walked to her granddaughter. She hugged Amelia and looked at Stacy, “Hello Stacy! I told Amelia I would bring her some iwashi shoyuyaki for lunch. It is good for the baby.” Amelia was pregnant with her first child and the practice of pregnant women eating iwashi (or sardines) was a Japanese custom.

Amelia opened the bag a touch and inhaled, “Ah Baba, it smells wonderful! I’m going to go grab a plate from the kitchen. I’m starving.”

As her granddaughter left, Sue turned to Stacy, “How is your research proceeding?”

Stacy sipped her coffee and replied, “Pretty good. Just wrapping up here before heading onto Whitecrest tomorrow and then Blue Haven next week.”

Sue nodded and replied, “It sounds like you are making the rounds then. Mariam, in Blue Haven, knows you are coming for the records on next week. I reminded her yesterday when she called me for my cherry pie recipe.”

Of course she did, Stacy thought. Where else but small town USA do old women call each other for cherry pie recipes instead of checking the Internet? Stacy smiled, “Thanks Sue. I appreciate you calling ahead for me.”

Sue waved her hand nonchalantly, “It is no problem. I hope it is worth the trip. Well, I must be going. I have afternoon bridge in a couple hours to get ready for.” She stood to leave, buttoning her long coat and calling out goodbyes to Amelia and the other guests. Sue’s departure left the diner near silent, leaving Stacy to her thoughts and stew. The rain continued to run down the windows in waves.

***

Finishing her research in Blue Haven had become a clear, logical next step on her tour of other towns. Of the ten or so families whose genealogy Stacy had ended up tracking, nearly three-fourths of them had at one time lived or worked in Blue Haven. As the largest center for jobs and government in the area, Stacy suspected she would find information vital to the rest of her book there.

The courthouse sat at the heart of the town, surrounded by old evergreens, gleaming white against the clouded skies. The contrast of marble against the sky was striking through the remnants of a morning fog. The inside smelled of old leather, wood oil, printer ink.

Mariam Polder had served as the head of the Oregon Historical Society in Portland for a number of years before retiring to her hometown of Blue Haven. She had written a handful of seminal books concerning the state’s history but now she volunteered leading tours of the local courthouse and gave history guest lectures to county schools.

     Stacy knocked on the open office door, “Mrs. Polder?”

     A small woman with tightly curled salt and pepper hair nodded though her eyes remained glued to her computer screen, “Yes, yes, what can I do for you?”

Stacy answered, “My name’s Stacy. Sue from Little Ridge told me to speak with you about the records for a book I’m working on.” Mariam continued to type a few more seconds in silence before looking over her bedazzled cats-eye glasses at Stacy.

Unlike many residents of the area, who had hardly travelled outside of Oregon, Mariam had an air of adventure about her. Her curls fuzzed out inches from her head and she wore long bright-red acrylic nails that clicked on the computer keyboard. She loved anything that glittered or had faux rhinestones. To simply call her ‘a character’ would be to sell Mariam Polder short of her own intriguing brand of eccentricity.

Mariam nodded to her computer, “Did you know I have the most up-to-date computer in this building? Had to bring it from home when I started the job. The old bag before me used a typewriter for Christ’s sake.” Stacy just smiled, nodding the way the younger do toward older people who seem a bit unhinged.

Mariam stood, walking to Stacy, an appraising look in her eye, “Yes, Sue said you would be by today. Need to track down a few names for your work? Records is still atrocious but luckily there’s not so much that you won’t find what you’re looking for eventually. Everything’s on the top floor. If you think something should be there and it isn’t, come talk to me. There’s a hodgepodge of digital scans over the years but, as you might expect, there isn’t a way to search those documents without an employee computer.”

Stacy smiled, “Great. I’ll head upstairs then. Thanks Mrs. Polder.”

Mariam snickered, “Just call me Mariam kiddo. Even my mother-in-law never liked the sound of ‘Mrs. Polder.’”

 

The top level of Blue Haven’s courthouse was both a researcher’s dream and nightmare. On one hand, there were bookshelves piled with records from wall to wall, full of unrealized information and stories. However, absolutely none of it was digitized, which meant a lot of pulling out papers box by box.

While her statistics were writing the larger, general trend, Stacy had chosen a handful of specific families to research individually. These families mostly showed anomalies: families who decided to stay despite pressure to leave, families whose white neighbors fought for them against internment, families who were of different or mixed races.

It took days to catalogue the overall numbers so Stacy dedicated Thursday to finding the specific family documents. She specifically wanted information on a few families who went on to be local politicians and business leaders. Also, Stacy hoped to find documentation on the Akamine family, tenants turned landowners and one of the area’s only mixed-race couples. The paperwork trail on each family was decent but the Akamine family had started giving her trouble research-wise. For some reason, they ceased to have Little Ridge records in 1940. After hours of looking for any document with the name, Stacy had hit a brick wall and took a coffee break.

Mariam saw Stacy on her way out, “How’s the research going, kid?”

Stacy shrugged and rubbed her eyes, “Just need a last piece of the puzzle. I have a whole family that just disappears from the records around 1940. Any advice?”

Mariam leaned back in her chair and looked over her glasses, “Hmmm, about that time I would bet that family got shipped out, to an internment camp I mean. The records must have dropped off the map somewhere. Send me an email with the name. I’ll see if there’s any digital record of them.”

Hours later, back in the records room, Stacy continued to research. Feeling her phone buzz across the table, she glanced at her email. The most recent message was from Mariam. Stacy read the byline aloud, “Found something. Look familiar? Ordered the birth certificate already.” She opened the attachment.  It was a name change form filed by a Hiroki Akamine in 1946 for himself, his wife Susan, and a two-year old son Kenneth. The requested last name: Redhill, the same as Stacy’s.

***

After the phone rang for what seemed like eternity, Corinne Redhill answered her daughter’s call. After the general chit-chat, Stacy asked, “Mom, would you happen to know where Dad was born?”

“Not the town exactly but somewhere in California,” Corinne answered, “Why?”

“Well, I found this family up here in Oregon named Redhill so I thought I’d check for relatives you know. There’s a boy in the papers named Kenneth too.”

“Same name as your father? That’s strange. I know your grandparents did live in Oregon though, before I met Kenny.”

“Yeah you’ve told me. They died, what, a few months before you met Dad?” Stacy asked.

“Mhmm, in a car accident. I never met them. Always wished I had, especially after what happened to your dad…” Stacy nodded. Her father had died suddenly almost twenty-five years ago when Stacy was six years old.

“Anything else, sweetheart? I’ve got to head out if I’m going to be on time to this dinner,” Corinne said.

“Well, real quick off the top of your head, you wouldn’t happen to know the name of Dad’s mother would you?”

Stacy could almost hear her mother smile over the phone, “Of course! It was Susan. We almost named you after her.”

***

Mariam insisted that she always worked on Saturdays, despite most public buildings being closed, and Stacy was already planning to research over the weekend. After depositing her materials upstairs, Stacy met Mariam in her office. The room was dim with the growing rainstorm outside.

“So, any word back from California?” Stacy inquired.

Mariam nodded, waving one hand absently at a table while staring at her computer screen and typing with the other hand, “Yes, yes, I printed out the paperwork and laid it over there somewhere.”

Stacy flipped through the stack until she found one with a California state seal.

Birth Name: Kenneth Franklin Akamine 

Date of Birth: 1944 February 17 

Father’s Full Name: Hiroki Akamine 

Mother’s Full Name: Susan Williams Akamine 

Place of Birth: Tule Lake Relocation Center, Siskiyou County, California

 

Attached was an amended form dated two years later showing the name change from Kenneth Akamine to Kenneth Redhill. Stacy stood in silence. That was her father’s full name. That was her father’s birthday. She remembered singing to him over cake in February, when the mountains outside their town would be capped with snow and the nights were cold enough to use the fireplace.

Still holding the paper, Stacy turned and saw Mariam looking at her. “So, that’s your dad, huh kid?” she asked.

Stacy nodded slowly, “Yeah, seems so.”

“So, how’s it that outta all the families you’re looking at, you pick that one? How’d you never find any of this out?” Mariam asked.

Stacy breathed deeply, still looking at the papers in her hand, “Dad died when I was six. The only mention I ever heard of his childhood was some farm in Oregon my grandparents lived on but they died in a car wreck before he married Mom. She’d never met them and only kinda seemed to know he was born in California. I’m sure we have a copy of his paperwork somewhere but he’s been gone so long…why would we ever look at it?” The question hung, heavy and draping, over the office. Mariam continued to look at Stacy, several beats of time falling between them.

Through the silence, Mariam quietly said, “You know kid, I remember when they came and took people.”

Their eyes met across the room, now dark by the rain clouds outside. “I was maybe six or seven. The radios blew up with all this talk about Pearl Harbor, which of course none of us had ever heard about. The President talked to everybody about how we needed to fight people that wanted to kill us, to take everything good away from us. I had nightmares of big black clouds scooping people up, of the clouds taking people’s candy and toys and parents away.” Mariam stopped for a moment. She reached inside her battered desk and pulled out a bottle of scotch and two paper dixie cups. Mariam walked over, handing one cup to Stacy, and continued over to the window.

“It wasn’t long after that when uniformed men started showing up in town. My parents and other white folks even went to a city meeting to protest the notices their Asian friends had gotten. The notices gave them a week to voluntarily move from the coast or be moved forcibly to a camp. People around here, they didn’t have money to just pick up and go somewhere else. All their family, their livelihoods were here. So that winter the uniformed men came back and rounded people up, took them all to the train station and sent them away. They didn’t say where.”

“I had a little friend that lived a few doors down. Never got to say goodbye to her, just found her dog tied up on our porch that afternoon. Couldn’t take the little guy with her obviously.” Mariam took another sip.

She continued, “Blue Haven lost a lot of its population to the camps. Some of the smaller towns lost more. Those still here boarded up the houses but if the Asian families didn’t own it, the owners found new renters, new tenant farmers, new factory workers, and so on. Then years later when the families got out of the camps they came back to find their towns have moved on. A lot didn’t have homes or jobs anymore and they left. My friend came back and got her dog but even they moved within the next few years.” Mariam did not turn around. She continued to look out the window, watching the black clouds outside.

Stacy nursed the scotch, wondering what this all meant. This was her research. It was part of the dozens of books she had read, the thesis papers she had outlined, the lectures she had attended. But, was she a part of this story now? She glanced back at the papers. Tule Lake Relocation Center, Siskiyou County, California. History to her had always been something fun to dissect, to poke about, to even sometimes find excitement in the bad tidings and violence throughout it all. Now it felt alive in a sickly way, in the way that you continue to watch a worm writhe about after you have severed it in half. Suffering can be interesting until it starts to touch you.

Stacy finished her drink, dropping the cup in the waste basket. As she started to leave, Mariam spoke, “You know, those years were the emptiest this town has ever been. Between the men going to war and the Asian families being imprisoned, it was practically a ghost village.” Then she nodded in Stacy’s direction, “You would’ve been there. In the camps that is. You may not look it but, if that guy’s your dad, you’re one-fourth Japanese. It only took one-sixteenth to get you on that train,” Mariam paused, staring into her empty cup, “Just food for thought.”

***

The next day, Stacy arrived unannounced at Sue’s house. She had visited the older woman many times since arriving in Little Ridge and had always felt welcome. Sue had to know something. Stacy felt unmoored, a skip adrift in that gray quilt of an ocean. What are you supposed to do when history suddenly becomes alive? Sue answered after the first knock.

“Good to see you, Stacy. Come in,” Sue said with a smile, leaving the door open behind her. Stacy sat in the living room, staring at the dancing flames in the fireplace. Sue brought tea from the kitchen. She sat across the room from Stacy, watching the younger woman quietly with her dark eyes.

“You look as if you have something on your mind,” Sue said.

Stacy nodded, “I told you about that family from here I was having a hard time tracking down. The Akamine, a mixed race couple with a little boy. They’re…umm, well apparently, their son was my dad.” Stacy was confused how to explain further so she stopped and looked at Sue.

“Mhmm, I wondered, considering your last name. Little Ridge has always been small and the Japanese residents were an even smaller community within it. Your grandfather was only a few years older than me when we were children. I knew him and Susan for many years.” Sue sipped her tea. “Kenny never mentioned them?”

Stacy shook her head, “He would tell stories about his parents, about a farm in Oregon. I don’t remember him calling his hometown Little Ridge but he died when I was little so all the stories are a jumble really. I know he certainly never mentioned being half-Japanese though. My mother didn’t even know.”

Sue sighed softly, “I am not surprised that he did not tell you. Hiroki changed their surname from Akamine to Redhill to give his son and wife an easier life. This country…it did not want us after the War. Our friends, our neighbors looked at us differently after our imprisonment, even through the Korean and Vietnam wars. There was much hate and distrust for many years.” Sue paused for a moment. It was clear to Stacy that the old woman was reliving it as she spoke.

After a moment, Sue went on, “Your grandfather saw this and tried to distance himself and his family from it, to protect them, to give them opportunities. Your grandmother was white of course but it helped Kenny. With an American last name and no accent, Kenny could pass. He took more from his mother than you would expect from a boy. Hiroki knew it would help his son and,” she nodded toward Stacy, “future grandchildren escape the shame that he had experienced his whole life.”

Stacy stared at the fire while Sue spoke. It was strange to hear a woman she barely knew speak of a family she had never met, of a history she had not known was hers. “Didn’t I have a right to know though? I’m his only kid for crying out loud.”

“Many of us wanted to do away with as much of our pasts as we could. To show we were good Americans, we wanted to get rid of what made us different. I know your grandparents never taught Kenny Japanese. I didn’t teach my children either, or Amelia. We no longer wrote in kanji. We named our children American names. We no longer celebrated our holidays. We tried to be as American as possible and that meant denying our children their heritage with the hope that their lives would be better without it.”

Sue continued, “Your father grew up in a town that taught him from birth to leave his Japanese-self behind. Assimilation was the best way. Your generation…this all seems strange to you. But, you have grown up in a world that finds beauty in what is special. It is different now. You must not look on your grandfather’s decision as ignorant any differently than how you look at how the ancient peoples thought the stars were gods.”

Stacy nodded slowly. She had been studying Asian communities on the West Coast for years. She knew about the trends in assimilation during the 1950s through the 1980s. The Asian-American community did not even begin to reclaim its heritage until around the time she was born. But there just still seemed to be a disconnect between all that academic knowledge and the emotional attachment she had to it now.

Stacy said, “I’m guessing then that you were at Tule Lake too, like my grandparents.”

Sue nodded, “Yes. Everyone from Little Ridge and the nearby towns went through the Portland assembly center and then to Tule Lake.”

“Did you see my grandparents there?”

“Yes. We lived in the same building. As I mentioned, I had known your grandparents since we were all young children. I remember when your great-grandfather died in a tractor accident. Your great-grandmother went with us to the camp but she was elderly and died not long after we arrived to an illness. Later your father was born in the camp hospital. Susan was very upset when the doctors would not let any of us townswomen in the delivery room with her, like we would have done here at home,” Sue spoke quietly, sipping her tea throughout her story. Her eyes glazed over when she spoke of the camp, as if she could still see it. 

Sue continued, “Your grandmother was always trying to make camp life easier for the rest of us. She was only one of a handful of white women who insisted on coming with their Asian husbands to the camps and she could talk the guards into doing things because they trusted her. I remember, one of my birthdays in the camp, she got a can of fruit cocktail and gave it to me as a present.” Sue smiled slightly at the memory.

Stacy’s mind tried to connect childhood memories to Sue’s story. Her father had talked about his parents of course but Stacy had been so young, she could not remember the details. “What about my grandfather?” Stacy asked.

Sue sighed, “Truthfully, he was enraged by the whole affair. He and the other farmers had been furious to leave their lands unsown. The news told everyone that the war would be over by Christmas but it lasted four years. We felt lied to. We had been told our entire lives that America was the best place in the world. It was a free place, somewhere that we could become something greater, something important, if we worked hard enough. The laws of this country said that we had rights, that we were citizens whose freedom was to be protected. And then, they locked us away because we looked like people we had never met.”

“What about when they released you all, from the camps?” Stacy asked.

Sue nodded, remembering, “We were fortunate. As nisei, we were born American citizens and fluent in English. We had lived in Little Ridge all our lives. People knew us well. Your grandfather owned good land and my husband ran a hardware store so our families had solid work to return to. But most of our friends lost their place here and they had to leave for the cities to find work.”

Stacy took it in, imagining it all through Sue’s eyes. Not only to be taken so quickly from your home but to be gone for so long and to come back finding it changed. “I’m just…I still don’t know how to soak this all in. I mean, I know the events, the numbers, the timeline. It’s a story to me, from one of my old textbooks. I can see the paper trail that puts me in it but…,” Stacy said, searching for the right words. A moment of silence passed.

Sue looked at Stacy patiently and said, “You have an opportunity here, Stacy. Your generation is breathing life into our heritage again. Things that used to be taboo, or at least unpopular, are now seen as a badge of pride. Your Asian history is something to share. Communities like ours are coming out again into this country. Not just Asians but Hispanics, gays, Native Americans. The different people are being celebrated for their uniqueness. I believe young people will fix the problems my generation made, the walls we built around the past to forget it. Embrace it to the point you want to.” Sue smiled, a mixture of sadness and hope on her face.

She really thinks I can make a difference, Stacy thought. She smiled back at Sue, “I’ll try, Sue. Thank you, for all this. I…well, Dad never said much about my grandparents or his hometown, not that I remember well. It’s nice to hear things about them, about what they were like, what they lived through.”

“They would have been proud of you. A big college professor with her name on important books, living in the big city! Yes, I think they would have liked that,” Sue said.

***

By the time Stacy rode her bike around the corner, the party had spilled out into the sunshine. Rob’s parents were hosting a late baby shower for him and Amelia. There could not have been a better day for it as people spread out picnic blankets and chatted on the wrap-around porch. Stacy immediately noticed many friendly faces. She had completed over a dozen interviews and felt close to all of them for sharing their life stories with her. As she greeted them, she remembered what each person had lost because of the camps and how hard they fought to gain it all back. It made her proud, to be the one to share their experiences.

Mariam emerged from the crowd, her rhinestone sunglasses shimmering. “Hey kiddo! Just look at this sun! I’m liable to fry up into a crisp,” Mariam grinned, tugging at the hat’s brim.

Beside Mariam stood Sue. “Hello Stacy. Are you packed for tomorrow? I cannot believe you will be leaving us so soon. It feels as if you just arrived.”

Stacy nodded, a feeling of melancholy settling over her despite the beauty outside. Little Ridge had become almost another home to her, a place with roots and meaning. It was hard to imagine leaving it all behind.

“Stacy!” called Amelia from the porch, waving and breaking Stacy’s thoughts. The mother-to-be walked over to the group, greeting others along the way. She hugged her friend, despite the baby bump. “I’m so glad you’re here! We should have doubled the shower with a going-away party for you. I wish you were going to see the baby!” Amelia patted her stomach, “You’ll just miss each other.”

Stacy joked, “Not by much it looks like. I’m just glad to see everyone again before I go. I’ll be back eventually though, I’m sure.”

Amelia smiled as Mariam said, “You better kiddo. Everyone’s gonna want to see that book of yours with our names in it!” The group of women all chuckled at that.

The party continued on for the afternoon with several silly shower games and cake. Practically everything was decorated in blue because Amelia and Rob had already announced the baby’s name: Kenji Akio, after their two grandfathers. Sue had been thrilled.

As the sun began to set, Stacy said her final goodbyes. Amelia promised to send pictures and Mariam made Stacy promise to come back to Little Ridge. She approached Sue last. Stacy hugged her and smiled. “Thank you, Sue. Really, for everything. I think, I think I know where to go from here and you helped me with that.”  

Sue smiled, “I know you will keeping doing good things in this world, Stacy, and that your grandparents and your father would be proud. Genki de, child.”

 

The Walls We Build

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