Wednesday, February 25, 2009

tommie went home ~

Grandma Mabel had all her old photos in the bottom drawer of the built-in buffet. The drawer never opened right ~ or at least "right" in terms of eight-year-old experiences. You had to wiggle, wiggle, left to right, right to left ~ then the painful squeak of the drawer rails that hadn't seen wax since the 1930s. Finally, shwoosh...the drawer would open to expose its odd, musty smell and treasures.

Careful, careful. Reaching into the drawer seemed to always produce nicks and scratches. Those dime store fancy metal frames were full of "pokes" and able to pierce through even the musty smell of the drawer.

She always liked to sit in the dining room chair she moved close to the register. The heat register that is. Mabel would sit and warm her legs while watching cars drive by on Broadway. I'd sit on the floor and pull out dusty frames from the drawer. "Who's this?" I'd continually ask. "That's mama and papa on their anniversary," she'd tell me. Man they were old looking.

"Who's this?” asking again. "That's mama when she was younger. Oh that's a dandy," grandma would tell me.

Mama, or great-grandma Kari, wore a big hat and was dressed in her finest. She looked young, but had probably already given birth to at least 5 of her 8 surviving children by the time the photo was taken.

I'd continue to empty the drawer and would somehow always feel surprised when I'd find Tommie. "Who's this grandma?" She'd tell me that was Tommie from Japan. "I never knew what happened to her," she'd say.

Tommie worked with grandma at the Pacific Laundry (a primarily Scandinavian employer). When I was young and even today, I'm surprised to think that there was a young Japanese woman living without her parents in Bellingham. Bellingham has always been a predominantly white area, and back when grandma Mabel was young, residents who were from Asia were typically from China.

But here was the smiling Tommie ~ so happy looking. Grandma would continue with her story. She’d tell me that Tommie went home to Japan to visit her family ~ it was 1923.

On September 1, 1923, tragedy struck Japan in the form of the Great Kanto Earthquake. This was a quake that was somewhere between 7.9 and 8.4 on the Richter scale ~ it was big. Tokyo and Yokohama were destroyed.

Grandma Mabel didn't know all the details; she just knew that Tommie never came back. No one in Bellingham heard from Tommie after the quake. Grandma never knew if her friend stayed home in Japan to help out after the quake, or if Tommie was one of the 115,000 people who died. She just never knew.

The drawer was empty ~ all the pictures around me on the floor. I'd place them back one by one. Stacking them just so ~ just so the drawer would close again.

We all have those drawers. The ones we open every so often to look to see who we may have forgotten. Well, maybe not forgotten ~ just stacked away neatly, so the drawer will close.


  1. Awesome post, Julie! Mellon Collie. I have a flowered suitcase full of ...who? Never too sure and everyone is dead...

  2. I wonder if "Tommie" was really "Tomoko" (common Japanese woman's name). I would have always wondered what happened to her too.