While rummaging through a box from the past that contained bits of memorabilia, I ran across a black and white photo taken in Minidoka Internment Camp, a desolate area of Idaho where we were sent during World War II. I picked the photo up to look at it more closely and found myself returning to that time and place some seventy years ago. There I was in the front row among other little fifth grade girls. As I scrutinized the picture, I realized that a photographer must have been given special permission because cameras were not allowed in camp.
The picture captured a sense of excitement. My normally straight hair held bouncy curls and the girls’ faces were graced with innocent smiles. I remembered wearing a very special light blue dress with a waistband of embroidered pink roses. The material was soft and graceful. Could it have been made of silk? As my memories came out of the shadows, I found myself going back to December 1942, that first Christmas in Minidoka.
I don’t think I believed in Santa Claus at this point, but if I did, how would Santa ever find our barrack, let alone our singular room that barely had space for the five sleeping cots which were provided for my mother and the rest of our family? Decorations in the sparse barrack room that was now our home were non-existent, and the only Christmas tree was in the mess hall where we assembled each day for our meals. On top of all that, our father was still separated from us, detained in a different camp in Lordsburg, New Mexico. There was not a whole lot of joy to spread around. During this bleakness, I yearned for our home in Juneau and the simple innocent rhythm of life. How quickly our lives were turned upside down in just one year.
About this time we got a notice that a package had arrived and was being held for us in the postal area. We were a bit astonished. Who would be sending us a package? My brother said he would go to get it, but we all wanted to go with him. We were that excited. We ran out of the barrack room, past the latrines, and past the mess hall. We arrived breathlessly at the postal office. The package was handed over, and we could see that it had come from our hometown of Juneau, Alaska.
It was from my father’s friend, John Hermle. We just looked at each other in amazement and while taking in the thoughtfulness of Mr. Hermle, we quickly went back to the barrack and opened the package. Among the items in the box were colorful Christmas candy, a beautiful doll with curly blonde hair for my little sister, Mary, and the wonderful blue dress for me. As I remembered it, the blue was like the blue of Alaska’s state flower, the forget-me-not, so light and pure. The delicately embroidered roses on the waistband of the dress made a statement of elegance. It was so pretty. I could remember my mother hastily putting it back into the tissue wrappings as if to protect it from the rough, barren life of Minidoka.
At the time I wondered if I would ever have a chance to wear it, but I was wrong about that. My mother must have remembered the dress when informed that a class picture was going to be taken. She sought it out from under our sleeping cot and knew that I would have a ready smile to go with it. I’m grateful that the picture was taken, so that many years later I could still be reminded of that Christmas.
Mr. Hermle extended such grace to us that first Christmas. It wasn’t just about the presents. A more precious gift was his unspoken support during a time when we were treated like the enemy by our government. We were prisoners in a secluded internment camp far from home, and denied our rights as Americans. There were other Christmases in Minidoka, but John Hermle’s act of kindness made that first Christmas memorable, never to be forgotten. I tucked the photograph safely away back into the box of memorabilia. There will be a time when my memories will fade, but the gift of the blue dress sent by a thoughtful friend will always be captured and kept strong by this picture from the past.
*From a memoir by Alice Tanaka Hikido. The Hermles owned Home Grocery Store and extended credit to the Tanaka family when they returned to Juneau after their internment until they established a steady cash flow.