A Mother’s Day Memorial

My path to becoming Warren’s Daughter (the one responsible for my sweet nonagenarian dad) officially happened when my mother died suddenly.  Now, almost three years later, it’s the strangest feeling watching everyone celebrate a holiday that I can no longer participate in.

The irony is that my mother didn’t even like celebrating this holiday or for that matter any holiday, even her birthday.  She was the least sentimental person I know and when asked how we should celebrate a special occasion would say, “what’s all the fuss, it’s just another day.”  The best words to describe my mother are tough, tireless and ambitious and until the doctor told us she was dying of cancer with less than a week to live, I thought she was invincible.

My mother had a hard life that I will never truly understand since she refused to discuss it.  Every so often, I would get up the courage to ask about her youth only to be told, “that was the past” and the conversation would quietly end.  I could write an entire book on the subject of the Japanese internment but I will keep it brief.  My mother was one of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry relocated to assembly centers and then internment camps during World War II for fear of being a threat to US military security.  At the start of the war, my mother was 17 years old, a US citizen and living in San Francisco with her family.  The photo below was taken by Dorothea Lange (documentary photographer who chronicled the internment among other historical events) and includes a glimpse of my mother (behind the man with the hat) as she prepared to board the bus to Tanforan Assembly Center.  She looks so calm and beautiful and oh how I wonder what she was thinking.

Evacuation to Tanforan Assembly Center (Source: UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library)

Evacuation to Tanforan Assembly Center (Source: UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library)

From what I’ve read, my mother and her fellow evacuees lived like the horses, which once called Tanforan Racetrack home before it became an assembly center.  The horse stalls became housing, hay became filling for mattresses and the unsanitary conditions suitable for horses became reality for about 7,000 people of Japanese ancestry.  After five months at the assembly center my mother and the other evacuees were sent to the Topaz internment camp in Delta, Utah.  Topaz (one of ten internment camps) was located in the remote Utah desert, where temperatures ranged from a high of 110 degrees to below freezing in the winter.  Guard towers dotted the landscape, along with rattlesnakes and scorpions.

Tanforan Assembly Center - Housing

Tanforan Assembly Center – Housing

My mother left the internment camp shortly after arriving to work as a maid in Detroit.  After the war ended she eventually returned to San Francisco and began a new life, which included marriage, motherhood and jobs as a beautician, florist, assembly line worker at a canning factory and keypunch operator among others.  She was industrious like many people of her generation.  Even in her 80’s she asked my husband to teach her how to use a computer and started learning how to drive again at the age of 84.

Knowing about my mother’s past I understand why she was who she was.  And, I marvel at her resiliency instead of wishing she was someone she wasn’t.  After my mother’s death my two sisters and I began the process of preparing our family home for sale.  The first step was to take all the keepsake items.  I’m sure my sisters thought I was crazy.  I had no interest in furniture, china, silverware or the few pieces of jewelry she had.  One of the few things I took was a piece of pink paper that hung nonchalantly on my mother’s kitchen corkboard next to reminder cards for doctor’s appointments, grocery store coupons and their old rotary phone.

What Is LifeThis pink slip of paper was from her senior center newsletter.  Without my mother ever uttering these words, I truly know this is how she saw life and how she wanted her children to live.  We never had a memorial service for my mother since she didn’t want a fuss.  So dear mother, this is my tribute to you on this Mother’s Day and how I will always remember you.


  1. Melissa

    Janet, Really great post


    1. Melissa…you were so supportive as my mother got ill and passed away. I will always appreciate all you did for me.


  2. Lainey

    Janet, Your writing is exquisite and captures so viscerally the history and your relationship with your mother. I am shamed by our American history but not surprisingly I am ashamed at much of what we do in general.

    This was simply beautiful and I am so glad I got to learn so much about your mother and you as well. It looks like this was the year you really got to celebrate Mother’s Day after all and it wasn’t just another day. You made it so special for all of us who got to read your words.


    1. Lainey…Thank you for your kind words. I was really nervous to post such personal thoughts for everyone (family, friends and oh heavens strangers) to read. But, comments like yours give me comfort that I made the right decision. Thank you again.


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