We were in Texas.
The taxi from the Waco airport pulled up into a summer night full of crickets—crickets hopping slowly outside baggage claim, crickets in the bushes, crickets in the air. The drive to our hotel felt like a different country. I could smell the Brazos river before I saw it. The day’s afterglow hovered at the edge of a long, flat horizon, past the floodlights on the empty picnic tables outside Papa Bear’s BBQ, past the lights on the pool tables inside Ash Cocktails.
My father and his brothers sat on a couch on a stage at Baylor University and talked about their lives. Our family history, my family history, their accomplishments, handed out on little photocopied squares of paper in party-favor plastic bags. A number two pencil and an index card, for questions. A Math Awareness rubber bracelet.
There is so much you can’t talk about at the front of an auditorium full of people. There is so much you can’t talk about on a page. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, Joan Didion wrote once. My uncles and my father told stories about the Japanese internment camps, and about their own college professors, about my grandfather who came to this country from rural Japan and sent his four kids to college. All three boys are now college professors. Their sister is a music teacher.
Ted told me later that at Minidoka, where my family was interned, they had guard towers and barbed wire around the perimeter, but unlike at Tule Lake or Hearth Mountain, the Minidoka towers stood empty. No guards.
Minidoka had a yearbook. Page-long photographs show all of the families, in front of their barracks, tiny black and white rows of Japanese faces. There are photographs of the clubs. A dance. The baseball team.
We tell ourselves stories means we shape the facts into an ordered narrative, choose one fact over the other. My father used to tell me a story about his bubbling childhood excitement when the Sears catalogue came in the mail. He left out the detail that this happened in the camps. Much later, my father clarified that the Sears catalogue was exciting, in part, because there were no stores in the camps. In order to cage the spiraling uncertainty of everything that could happen next, to understand the black boxes of the people all around us, all the little performances and evasions, we tell ourselves stories. Our own stories.
My father sat on stage next to his brothers. Ted played with the cord to his lapel mic. Paul, with his electric energy, could barely stay on the couch. They were three brothers, in a way I had never seen them before. It was new information for me just to watch them together, talking to each other, three Japanese men all above the age of 60, all surprisingly tan, the youngest, my uncle Paul, wearing a t-shirt silkscreened with a black cat. He always wears cat t-shirts. Whena piece of his had its premiere at Carnegie Hall, he came on stage to take a bow wearing a t-shirt with a Hello Kitty with red horns that said “Hell Kitty.”
My family spoke about their career choices, their success in three various different fields—philosophy, mathematics, music—and then everyone clapped. My dad introduced H., who was there, up past her bedtime, and she looked around the auditorium at the applause, wide-eyed, thrilled, surprised.
My grandfather arrived in Seattle with an eighth grade education and no English. He worked for a railroad magnate, Jesse Hill, as a cabin boy.
I look at my father and my daughter together. She demands that he tell her a fairy tale one more time. I think about how far my world is from my grandfather’s world, how unimaginable rural Japan at the turn of the century is, for me. Not unimaginable, of course, so much as impossibly distant, without any overlap in vocabulary.
My uncle Ted told me that the Brazos river figures in a lot of old Westerns. It’s the longest river in Texas. Ted watches a lot of old movies. My father told students at Baylor that someone in Texas, he couldn’t remember exactly who, but a Texan, had been the only person to read the entirety of Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica. They do things big, in Texas. While we were in Texas, my uncle Paul got one, or was it two, further commissions. He will write a ballet for a major city in China which none of us has ever heard of before. Millions upon millions of people live there.
Nothing is unimaginable, we tell ourselves. In order to live.