“Grandmother, what is this painting supposed to be about? It’s so, um, grey,” Anna says to me. She is pointing to a bleak grey painting of a broken down shack with a tin bucket on the doorstep I had made many years ago.
“Oh, Anna, it is such a long story, I am not sure you will want to hear it,” I tell her.
“Oh, but Grandmother, I love stories!” she says eagerly. I can never resist her joy. It makes me warm inside to know she is happy.
“Alright Anna, I will tell you about the painting.” I sit down on my favorite green armchair, and Anna sits on the worn red rug in front of me. She rests her head on her hands, and I can tell she is ready to listen to my story.
“When I was 13 years old, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Do you know about that?” I begin.
“Yeah, we learned about that last year,” Anna says. “It was during WWII when the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. It forced the United States to declare war on the Japanese, entering the U.S. into WWII.”
“Right, well after that, the President made a law that all Japanese Americans had to go to internment camps, places to hold enemy aliens and prisoners of war. I found this out when mother and I were making dinner. I remember that we were making my favorite dish, Hayashi rice, rice with beef stew on top. Father came home from work with a pained look on his face. I remember that he sat his worn leather briefcase down on the kitchen table and hung up his hat and coat like he did every night. But this time, he sat down at the table and put his head in his hands.
‘Hiroki! What is the matter?’ Mother asked him.
‘Oh, Yuna, Aya, this news pains me so much. Two months ago, the Japanese bombed a place called Pearl Harbor. Now, because the government is scared, and the Japanese are their enemy…’ He paused and sighed. ‘Right after the bombing they began construction on internment camps, places where all of the Japanese Americans will be forced to go to. We, too, must go and can only bring one suitcase each.’
‘But Hiroki, we do not even own any suitcases!’ Mother said.
‘We will make do. I can find some at the thrift shop. We only can pack what we will absolutely need.’ I burst into tears and thought to myself, ‘Oh, no, I must leave all of my precious painting supplies behind.’ Painting was my passion, even then. I would have to leave behind all of the paintings that I had labored over and been so proud of throughout my life. Father let me take one tin of paints and two brushes because he knew of my sorrows. With that tin of paints I made the painting you are holding right now, Anna,” I said.
“Really, Wow?!” Anna exclaimed.
“Yes, I created many more, but I had to leave most of them behind, and all of the others except for that one were lost one way or another.
We had to leave the next evening so I went to pack up some clothes. I only took what was necessary. When I brought my small pile of clothing and tin of paints to stuff into the new, but very worn suitcases, I found Mother hunched over with a pile of clothing in her hands. At first I thought she was trying to fit more things in, but when I saw her shoulders shaking, I realized, my mother was crying. I’ll never forget that moment because it was the first and only time I saw my mother cry.
We arrived at the camp to find a partially built building. Father approached the guard who was standing outside of the tall barbed-wire fence. I could see the uniformed man was heavily armed with a machine gun. I could not hear what he said but when Father returned, he shook his head and said, ‘We will be in a room with a family of five; their name is Sasaki, and they have a daughter named, May, who is Aya’s age.’ Father said with a wink. Secretly, I hoped that I could find a friend at this camp and Father seemed to know how I felt.
When we found our room, the Sasaki family was already there. The room was small and cramped. There were eight small, rickety cots with mattresses so thin they were almost invisible. From the ceiling, a single light bulb hung by a thin black wire. The floor was hard and bare, and the room was icy cold. Outside there was a shared bathroom for about 20-30 rooms.
My parents were trying to get to know our new roommates. They kept beckoning me to come over from my spot on my cot, but I pretended I didn’t notice. I sank my face into the musty pillow and started to cry. I hated that new place and I hated the government for forcing us to go there.
When the bell rang for dinner the hallway outside our door was suddenly filled with other Japanese families. We filed into a long mess hall and everybody started to gravitate towards the food. I had no appetite, but I took some potato salad, so I would have something in my stomach. The whole meal I was silent and picked at the potatoes. One of the Sasaki’s children, May, kept on staring at me. May, you remember, was the girl Father told me about, who was my age. In any other circumstance I would have introduced myself right away and gotten to know her, but I had no desire to do anything right then. The camp, that place, seemed to take the friendly part of me away.
Finally, May spoke up and said, ‘So, your name is Aya.’
‘Yes,’ I said and looked back down at my potato salad.
‘I’m May,’ she said.
‘I know,’ I replied. May must have gotten the clue that I wasn’t in the mood to talk so she gazed back to the fish on her plate and sighed.
Our room was cold, and my head hurt from crying. The thin mattress felt like I was sleeping on a board and I could not find a position that was comfortable. I guess I must have fallen asleep, eventually, because the next thing I knew, the sun shone in the small window and I awoke to seven other people moving around. I looked for a clock to see what time it was, but there was none. As soon as I got out of bed the bell for breakfast rang.
Sleeping must have given me a new appetite because I devoured a slice of French toast and a bowl of cereal. I felt bad about how cold I was with May so I said, ‘Do you like to paint?’
‘Yes, I do,’ she said, ‘do you?’
‘Yes, I even brought some paints and brushes,’ I replied.
‘You did? So did I!’ she exclaimed.
‘Would you like to paint with me this afternoon?’ I asked.
‘Okay,’ she said, ‘see you then.’ Her family got up from the table to go say hello to the Sumiko family.
May and I met outside the building with our paints, and some paper we had found. She immediately started to paint a herd of rainbow horses. ‘Do you like horses?’ I asked her.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘my family owned a farm outside of Poston with many beautiful horses. We had to sell it because of this place,’ May sighed.
‘Oh, I see,’ I said, ‘That is so sad, I’m sorry.’ May kept on adding more and more horses until her paper was filled with color and horse shapes. My paper remained blank with the exception of a tin bucket painted in watery grey.
May looked at the painting, then away at her watch and said, ‘Dinner is soon, we should go back to our room.’
The rest of our time spent in the Poston internment camp was spent together. Eventually a school was built and May and I entered the eighth grade. We made more friends, but May and I remained the closest.”
“Wow, Grandmother,” Anna says, “that is an amazing story. I mean that’s so cool!”
“Yes, Anna,” I reply, “I suppose it is. Now help me set up for when May comes for tea.”
Lili May Muntean is in eighth grade at the Friends Select School and enjoys reading and writing realistic fiction. She also likes playing field hockey, swimming, and playing the piano. She lives with her mom and dad in Center City Philadelphia. In her spare time, she likes watching British mysteries with her family.