Flotsam, Jetsam, and Family Heirlooms: Treasures from Grandpa’s House


My grandpa and me



“Hey, I brought you something,” my grandpa says.

“Oh, really?” I almost shout.  I hope he can hear—he isn’t wearing his hearing aid.

“Here!” He reaches into his Umeya box and pulls out Christmas stickers from decades ago. He smiles and holds it out to me.

My great-grandfather’s bird pin from camp

“Ohhhh … that’s nice,” I say. I take the stickers from him and hold it up to my mom. “Isn’t that interesting?”

“Yeah,” my mom says rather noncommittally.

“Thanks, Grandpa,” I practically yell.

“You’re welcome,” he says, nodding his head and looking satisfied.

Boxes come from Grandpa every time we see him.  He’s brought us everything from mochi to guacamole, from last year’s stamps to the newest state quarters.  My mom says that it’s a Nisei thing—“They can’t throw anything away,” she says.  “Habit from the war.”

I’ve thought about that. Many times, I’ll smuggle something my mother has destined for the trash up to my room where it sits on my desk and eventually enters a box or drawer where it’ll just have to get cleaned out again one day.  But that’s more due to a packrat quality and a weakness for anything “old” to this Yonsei. The trait of not being able to get rid of anything does noticeably run in both sets of grandparents.  My other grandparents have mountains of who-knows-what in their garage, although their house was cleaned out mostly due to flooding rather than by choice.  Both sides of my family were also at Poston during World War II.  If anyone had to learn to save, the Issei, in coming to this country and enduring the internment, and Nisei, as American citizens in camp, must have.

A reflection of grandpa pointing out names at the Go For Broke Monument in Little Tokyo.

I’ve grown up learning about the camps and using my family history for papers and projects about the internment and World War II. This inability to sort and throw away, however, adds a new dimension for me. Though it’s probably not the only reason my grandpa saves things, the effects of World War II carry on today—I personally live with these effects as I can never relive the internment no matter how much I research. It’s a living memorial to their experiences. It’s a connection to my family history.

And Grandpa doesn’t always bring things that get thrown away when he leaves. He gave me my bed — my great-grandmother’s bed from the 1960s, with the same mattress and box spring that she used. Sure, we could have gotten a new mattress, but the bed’s a piece of history, though the phrase is clichéd. I like pieces of history.

Just this past Thanksgiving, Grandpa brought over a box of Grandma’s jewelry.  Since my grandma passed away of Alzheimer’s a few years ago, he has, surprisingly, been cleaning things out.  Of course, he doesn’t throw them away, but he gives them to us or to others who can possibly use her impossibly small clothes. But among Grandma’s jewelry, the disintegrating chains, and the mod flower necklace, we found what looks like her engagement and wedding rings. I have them now, and if I ever get married, I wouldn’t mind using them.

Perhaps even more significantly, Grandpa once brought out a cigar box with tissue-wrapped trinkets inside. These trinkets turned out to be the bird pins my great-grandfather carved in Poston. They’re skillfully done—the family all concludes they’re better than the ones in the Japanese American National Museum. And thanks to Grandpa’s generosity, one of his father’s pins is mine.  One pin connects me not only to my family history but to a legacy of the whole Japanese American experience during World War II.

So, as my family continues to sort through the boxes Grandpa brings, I continue to reflect on how his tendency to save and pass on some of the objects are a way of passing on our family history to us, the Sansei and Yonsei.  Someday, I hope I can pass on these same stories and heirlooms to the Gosei and Rokusei—although I hope I’ll have a better chance of throwing some of the old calendars and years-old nori away.


Ariel Okamoto is a graduate student in English at Cal State Los Angeles. Originally published in Nanka Nikkei Voices: The Japanese American Family.



  1. Koji Steven Sakai on

    Wait… how does she know it’s better than the ones at JANM? Has she seen all the ones they have?

  2. Pingback: Love: She hasn’t told her family about him | Recent News Today | We Give You Actual News World

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