The Photograph: A Window to Heritage

Connecting to your heritage via memoir writing can be a complex, beautiful path, like hiking the Dolomites without a map. Author and client Jack M. asked us to help write his memoir of growing up as a nisei (American-born of Japanese parents) in a Scottish-American adoptive family in the 1920s. His Japanese parents had wanted a better life for him than they could offer, so, as was not uncommon in the day, he was adopted by an American family as an infant. Jack rarely saw his birth mother and only saw his birth father once, later in life when he returned to Japan on business.  

As a youth, Jack was a great student, excelling in English, and by the time he got to college in 1930, he had decided that English literature was his calling. Although he thrived in college, he was told twice by graduate studies advisors that he’d never make it with this major, and that he should try the Department of Oriental Studies. He didn’t even speak Japanese, but as Jack describes, “With my Japanese face, I could never get an appointment to teach English literature.” It was 1934. And so he moved into “Oriental Studies.”

He went on to marry another nisei, the love of his life, and one who spoke fluent Japanese, unlike him. At the onset of WWII, he and his wife narrowly missed getting sent to a Japanese internment camp by his securing a job in the nick of time with the FCC. After the war he was sent to work in Japan for the U.S. government during the reconstruction of the country. His account of it is included in letters he wrote to his wife during his time in Japan. An excerpt:

April 12, 1946

We passed through Hiroshima around 11. We couldn’t see the main area of devastation from the train. What we did see wasn’t much different from other cities except for the trees. They stood black and dead with their branches burned short. They seemed like burned skeletons and at the same time movements which were the only sign of life that was there on August 6, 1945. It was more like a warning. It was not a thrilling sight.  … Here was physical devastation wrought by man, which proved that he does not yet have the moral sense that he needs to survive.

 Jack was ninety-two when he dictated his story to us in a number of sittings; we then transcribed and edited it. He was determined to edit the entire manuscript again, but he suffered a non-fatal heart attack and lost the ability to work at his computer. I was hired to go to his house to work with him once he was feeling better. Here was the process: Jack would read the first sentence of the chapter to himself, then he would revise the sentence in his mind and speak it back to me in a more articulate fashion. I would type the new sentence on the computer, and then he would do the same with the next sentence. We would continue on in this manner, sentence by sentence, week by week, month by month, until a year later, we had revised the entire 283-page book to his satisfaction.

But the twist came when it was time to select the photographs. Jack told me he had only a few photographs of his family. He pulled out from under his bed an old trunk and reached inside to find a manila folder. There were the precious photos—the first one he handed to me was of a beautiful woman in a kimono, sitting in in a chair at a table, her lovely eyes looking straight into the camera, her dark hair pulled up and back and adorned with a hairpin. Now, I’d worked with Jack for a year, and he was an exceedingly reserved guy, never expressed much emotion. But at this moment, he spoke in a way I’d never heard before. Like a very young child hoping for candy, he looked at the photo and said quietly, “My mother. This is the only photograph I have of her.” Then he turned to me and asked, “Do you see any resemblance?”

Do you see any resemblance… any resemblance… The irony in this is that Jack’s face is Japanese, and the woman’s face is Japanese, and I’m not Japanese, and they probably look different, or maybe they resemble each other, but I can definitely say they look alike.

“Yes, Jack, yes, I can see the resemblance,” I answered. He seemed pleased at this.

I wondered if Jack wanted to know whether I could finally see his Japanese-ness, when his whole life had been enveloped in American-ness. Or not. I wondered if, at age ninety-six now, he just wanted me to see him as a child again. A child of his origins. A child of his mother and father. I wondered if he just missed his mother.

In the end, maybe he and I both wanted to feel, even for a moment, our mother’s hands on our foreheads, stroking our hair, over and over, saying, “My little baby…” “Watashi no chīsana akachan…”

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