Shared Histories (Tule Lake)
Grandma Iida’s house was a yellow rambler in West Seattle with a delicate line of ever-present marching ants in the garage. Grandma was in a constant war with these ants who she persistently sprayed and trapped and poisoned and smashed. With similar persistence, she cultivated her tomato plants in a couple of small beds along the side of the driveway until all of her fussing (and a bit of sun) produced perfect little cherry tomatoes and larger Romas at the end of the summer.
The house was padded on all sides by huge, fluffy hydrangea plants of every conceivable shade of blue. She pruned them and weeded around their bases. She clipped them and poked at them and stood back and admired them. She wore khakis and white tennis shoes and a floppy canvas hat when she worked in the garden. Her gardening gloves were always too big for her tiny hands.
We almost always entered the house through the garage. I can still smell the specific scent of the garage – a combination of mildew, old wood, fragrant dryer sheet exhaust, lawn mower gasoline, and cleaning supplies. A series of strange aluminum covered accordion ducts lay on the ground by the stairs. Sometimes the ants made their path along the top of them, continuing up the wall.
Up two wooden steps and we enter the kitchen. The yellow formica oval shaped table grandma’s had since the 50s is the centerpiece of the room. Four matching yellow chairs with shell-shaped backs and plastic upholstery sit around the table. I always sit on the side facing the door to the garage, my back to the fridge with the sewn fabric “Mr. and Mrs. Chef” magnets. I watch grandma’s backlit silhouette at the sink, the sun shining on her face through the leaves of the tree with the hummingbird feeder just outside the window. She’s massaging cucumber slices, she’s cutting suction cups off octopus tentacles, she’s washing and draining rice three times, she’s pressing bright pink pickled plums into salted rice balls.
She takes a bath each evening. She carefully places her hair in a plastic shower cap then lays down in the warm water with two pink washcloths, one to cover each of her private areas from my young eyes.
Grandma’s bedroom still contains two matching twin beds, both made up identically with pink sheets and ancient electric blankets. The nightstands match the bed frames and dressers. On the tall dresser there is a red ceramic bull, fiercely charging an invisible opponent, his painted black eyes full of passion.
Grandma pulled me in my red wagon to the rose gardens at the Community College. For five-year-old me, the journey of a few blocks turned into a sun-beaten death march in the summer. I whined, I dragged, I flailed, I flopped down on the sidewalk in protest. Grandma, with her sweet voice and small stature struggled to talk me back into the wagon. When we finally did arrive, and stepped through the topiary gates of the vast rose gardens, I became Alice in her own personal Wonderland. We wandered the gravel, rose lined paths, the empty red wagon clanking behind us. I ran ahead, sniffing the infinite varieties of rose until my head pounded. The fuzzy chocolate colored Madrona trees leaned with the slope of the hills. A lima bean shaped pond with a stone fountain teemed with koi. We sat together on a bench in the shade of a viney arch and shared a tupperware of wax paper wrapped rice balls each with a fluorescent pink pickled plum inside.
Afternoons were often spent watching Bob Ross on the floor. Grandma made sure I was prepared in advance with my smelly marker, pencil, and pad of paper. Three circles makes a horse body: shoulder, stomach, hind quarters. Two more make the face: jowl and muzzle. Grandma meticulously helped me, cleaned up my lines with the eraser, sharpened my pencil, showed me how to go over my pencil lines with color.
Two of three bedrooms in grandma’s house were packed to the brim with stuff. Stacks of newspaper clippings spanning the moon landing to Rodney King. Rows of dressers and shelves contained her son’s 50 year old science projects, coin and arrowhead collections, polished rocks, plastic parachute men, carnival winnings, slingshots, cap guns, fishing lures, baseball mitts, Erector sets, Slinkys and marble collections. I liked to explore them while listening to my Puff the Magic Dragon cassette, while Grandma was sewing or cooking. Walking through these rooms for me was like entering a historical or natural history museum. What are these strange old things? I saw toys made from metal with sharp points, rusty edges, and exposed springs. Toys that looked so different from the toys I knew – sleek, brightly colored plastic things with rounded edges, covered in safety certification and choking hazard stickers.
As she aged, she became increasingly paranoid about the man who lived on the roof. He was very sneaky and fast. He stole her bras out of her dresser drawers, he stole her car keys when she lost them. Eventually she wouldn’t leave the house because she was worried he would rob her blind the moment it was left unguarded. Was she reliving the horror of being taken from her home and imprisoned for being Japanese as a teen during WWII? The day finally came for her to be relocated to a nursing home.
Moving day came and my dad rented a big truck. Only one of the set of twin beds made the journey to her new room at the facility. Most of the rest of her things were rounded up, thrown in the truck and taken to the dump. Fifty years of memories were marched past the line of ants and thrown off the edge at the transfer station.
I showed up late in the day and saved the red porcelain bull.