THROUGH THE FIRE: still, grandpa (part 1)

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By traci kato-kiriyama

In a town called Independence
up in the Owens Valley
a small museum
holds a panoramic photograph
of the farmers in Manzanar
during the war

you can only see it once a year
when it is put out on display
for a Pilgrimage
the descendants make
to meet with the ghosts
who hover around
the fences of Inyo County

the spirits usher us around their
former camp
with haughty high noon
exhales
tempting us toward the
streams where their
hands once
proffered treasure
to the puzzled desert
and made introductions
between cherries and bark
wisteria and wire
eggplant and tumbleweed
cucumber and dust

the river was aloof
to most but nothing
more than a challenge
to the farmers who were
masters at designing
the maze
that would irrigate
distant wishes into
dreams realized
right through the
vast, abandoned domain
underneath their green feet,
turning once pitied dirt
into the richest
of soil

they did this
for their sons
like my father
who would run with friends
from mess hall
to mess hall
come dinner time
to see how the
new crops were
being represented
on the plate

they did this
so the rumors
of wartime officials
stealing meat rations
would matter less
for their stoic daughters
like my mother
who even at 3 years of age
knew she wasn’t
supposed to learn the
meaning of seasons
while locked
up in a desert camp

the first time I made
pilgrimage to meet
Grandpa’s ghost
my brother pointed out
that photo

when you go to find it
look towards the very
center and you will
see a man in a
clean white t-shirt
and a long, thick,
black beard

in every other picture
taken of my grandfather
outside of camp
he was always
clean shaven
in a button down shirt
with rolled up sleeves
underneath a vest
or tie
ready for the business
he took from farm
to grocery store

now when I look at this
picture of the farmers
I wish it to be a digital photo
in a frame with a touch screen
so I could expand the image
with my fingers and zoom in
on the detail of his
face

I’d like to think I could
tell what was behind the
beard and confirm
what looks like a smile
for all the
glorious vegetation
posing so splendidly
in the foreground

what I can see is
the posture of a
proud spirit
a fierce farmer
and a man
who didn’t need to
be pretty for that
kind of place

that place
where the farmers
like my grandfather
who had nothing to
prove
and for no one else
but their families
raised
into a home

traci kato-kiriyama is a Sansei writer who pens letters and memories in the form of poetry and prose from corners all over Los Angeles.

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