The other day I came across a plastic bag with some items I had found at a “living” estate sale a couple of years ago. The elderly woman whose things were being sold didn’t need them anymore, we were told, because she was moving to a smaller place. Her name is Mary. (Since I believe she and some of her family members are still alive, I’m not going to share her last name here.)
Mary saved a lot of what’s called “paper ephemera.” Among the cards and envelopes in her collection was a Letter from Santa that her daughter received just before Christmas in 1961.
The front of the envelope was hand addressed to the child, postmarked Santa Claus, Indiana – rather a long way from the North Pole, but perhaps when you're little that doesn't matter. The back of the envelope shows us that her mom had worked with the folks at the local Montgomery Ward store to get Santa to write.
This letter from Santa is evidence that someone led a rather typical mid-20th century American family life. But the other pieces of paper ephemera I brought home from the estate sale tell, as media commentator Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story.”
Mary had also saved memorabilia from her high school years. In 1947, she graduated from Excelsior Union High School in Norwalk, California. Cross-checking her on Ancestry.com, I can see that in her senior year, Mary was the secretary of Excelsior’s chapter of the National Forensics League, the forerunner of the National Speech and Debate Association.
Several of Mary’s classmates and teachers signed the back pages of her small “Memories” book. Her senior year school yearbook photo, also accessed on Ancestry.com, shows the young woman that her classmates described as “brainy,” “peppy” and “wonderful," and alluding to her skill as a debater.
The last person to sign Mary's Memories Book was her Forensics League sponsor, Mr. Hanks:
‘Tis always a sad time to say “Good bye.” In this case, it will not be for I have only memories of a most efficient secretary, a most pleasant person, a young lady of the most courteous type, an American who really knew what the ideals of our country meant to people. We’ll miss you – but we’ll feel better for our memories.
The most significant item I found among Mary's graduation papers was the special Certificate of Merit in Citizenship she received from her school.
In 1946, Mary’s junior year, she doesn’t seem to have participated in any extracurricular activities. She looks thoughtful, perhaps a little sad, on the far right of a row of students in her junior class group picture.
The 1945 Excelsior Union High yearbook doesn’t show a photo of Mary. That’s probably because of what the official records from the time reveal: Mary and her family lived in Arkansas from September 1942 to November 1945, when the Rohwer War Relocation Center (internment camp) closed and the families of Japanese origin were finally released.
Mary’s parents were born in Japan and settled as agricultural workers in Southern California. Her father, born in Japan in 1884, had registered for the draft in this country in World War I and World War II. Mary herself was born in the United States in 1929.
Mary and her siblings were among about 2,000 children interned at Rohwer. (Another child interned there was a young fellow you may have heard of, named George Takei.)
It is ironic that Mary earned her high school’s Citizenship Award within two years of being released from an internment camp. Does Mr. Hanks’ comment that Mary was “an American who really knew what the ideals of our country meant to people” indicate that she displayed a positive attitude about what had happened to her and her family? Did the school’s administrators recognize that the internment of American students because of their parents’ country of origin, was wrong? Or did Mary realize that sometimes the best and only way to get past a problem, is to go through it and come out the other side?
Regardless of the reason(s), Mary the 1947 all-American high school graduate was indeed a Survivor. In 1954, she married Merrill, a man who apparently spent much of their marriage in the hospital. (A photo of the family on Ancestry.com shows him in a wheelchair, Mary and their young daughter at his side.)
Her husband died in 1964; Mary raised her daughter as a single parent and had a career as a registered nurse. Other items from her living estate included a packet of letters from her father's relatives in Japan written shortly after World War II ended, a collection of old Disneyland tickets, and many greeting cards that showed family members expressing great love for each other .
The man who ran the estate sale told me that, in her old age, Mary had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and given only months to live.
“But that was several years ago,” he said, “and she’s still with us. Great lady. Wish you could meet her.”
Somehow it didn't surprise me that Mary didn't appear to let bad news get her down. I wish I could have met her, too.
You can read more about the Japanese American National Museum's Remembrance Project here: