by Nancy Stricklen-Juneau
My mom’s 13th birthday gift was a kitten. Gray and white striped, she named it “Tabi”.
Tabi is important to this story, because, of all the things my mom was forced to leave behind, her name, her belongings, her friends, Tabi was what she remembered, even as an old woman, when dementia’s eraser wiped out most of her mind.
Japanese in California in the 1940s were mostly farmers, and my grandparents were no exception. They rented a home, which they kept immaculate, and drove their 5 children to school every morning in the back of their Ford pickup. Mom was especially proud that she was top of her class. She was the eldest Yahiro child, and though she was not a boy, she still felt the responsibility of being number 1. Once she reached 16, she would be allowed to work in the fields like her parents, picking strawberries during the spring, squash, and beans in the summer.
There wasn’t a lot of extra money, and she knew that her parents hadn’t paid for Tabi, who was really a barn cat, but the fact that they let her keep a kitty, indoors, made her deliriously happy.
In the weeks that followed, Executive order 9066 was signed by FDR, and 120,000 Japanese Americans were given 4 days to collect “only what you can carry” and prepare for relocation. My grandparents, and their five children, were “relocated” to Poston Internment Camp. Tabi could not go with them. Mom left a 13-year-old girl named Hatsuko, she was released aged 16, calling herself “Connie”.
When I traveled to Poston as an adult to see the camp and show my kids their grandma’s memories, I saw a dry, dusty ditch surrounded by barbed wire. There were guard towers where men would stand with machine guns to shoot any Japanese who tried to escape. “Escape where?” my mother asked me long ago, where could we have run to?”. In August, the temperatures reached 120 degrees, and the wind blew constantly, carrying dirt into eyes, and teeth, infiltrating the unfamiliar food rations they were given and even their water.
My mother’s mental decline was so insidious, that at first we thought she was just a bit crazy. “Just Mom being Mom” my sister would say. But as the years went by the Alzheimer’s worsened. For years we tried to care for her ourselves, naively thinking that love would somehow slow the decline. She would escape from our house, wearing nothing but panties, into the snow. One day she caught her hair on fire trying to light a candle from the stove. When my husband saw her, he rushed to her with a towel. She hadn’t even put her hands up to her face to tamp out the flames, just stood there, ablaze. Rubbing ointment onto her burnt eyebrows and the blisters on her cheeks and nose, we knew she needed more care than we could possibly give. The guilt that my sister and I felt was, and still is, horrible.
Dementia goes through phases: at first, Mom was angry all the time, “Who made YOU the boss?” she would demand as I tried to force her to eat. Then there was a year or so when she became really kind. “Creepy” my sis would say, and I agreed. Her mind, rather than getting older, was getting younger. She would insist on not wearing a bra anymore, stopped even trying to draw her eyebrows on. She wanted to wear the same clothes every day.
We had always had cats, our whole lives, and as she aged, they provided comfort for her and were good company. They also gave her something to look after, and that calmed her. She would have a half dozen cat food dishes scattered around her living room; you had to be careful to avoid stepping in them. I told her she only needed one food and one water dish, but each time I returned there would be more of them, she said she wanted to make sure the cats could find them, they might be hungry.
Toward the end, she was a baby. She stopped trying to wander away. We changed her diapers, fed her, massaged lotion into her bony hands and her skinny back. One day, she just stopped drinking water. “Tastes like dirt” she said, when I asked why. She died in her sleep. She never fell and broke a hip, she never had a feeding tube, or her ribs broken by CPR, so for that we can be grateful, I suppose. But my sister and I are bitter, angry for our mother who could not quite forget everything, who, even at the end, remembered the taste of the dirt in her water.
Nancy Stricklen-Juneau is a recent retiree from the healthcare field, where she spent the past four decades helping those who had the least education and the most complicated medical issues. She worked as an outreach nurse practitioner for two years at Hilo Medical Center. Her education includes two Master’s degrees: Healthcare Communication and Nursing.
One response to “The Taste of Dirt”
As sad as this story is, it leaves me wanting more. Having visited Manzanar NHS this fall, I think the story of those interned needs to be shared as often as possible. We need to know and do better.