Knowing Tama by Maggie Tokuda-Hall

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The question of inheritance can be so ugly. Money and family are a poor combination. Money and anything, really. But when my grandmother Tama died, there was no discussion of inheritance. She had been preparing for her own passing for years, and so when it finally happened, there wasn’t any sorting or fighting to be done. A final gift to her grieving family. She had always lived with grace; it was no surprise when it continued after her death. Her yukata went to the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, along with many of the apothecary bottles from her husband’s erstwhile pharmacy. What few belongings were left were split up among her children, mostly.

But there was the question of her books.

Tama had a modestly sized but deeply loved book collection. A lot of Japanese authors, novels in translation. A collection of Chekhov stories from her time in Minidoka. Flaubert. Bashō. I was grateful when I was allowed to take my pick from the collection— about ten books, mostly from Japanese authors, nearly all mass-market paperbacks.

I didn’t know Tama as well as I think I might have, if I had not spent my childhood preoccupied with normal childhood things (myself). I didn’t think to ask her questions like I should have, like I wish I had. This is not to say any of my time spent with her was a waste— I knew that she loved me, I knew she made incredible jam, I knew she comported herself with unflappable dignity, that she favored quiet moments of kindness, and romantic musicals. That her laugh wasn’t loud but the whole room felt alight with it. But I didn’t know what the quiet corners of her mind held, nor the secret passages in her capacious heart. It was not a loss I realized until she was gone. It is perhaps not a loss most of us realize until our elders pass.

I knew the story, the one that would become Love in the Library, of course. She had told me it; my mother had told me it. I never heard it from George’s perspective— he passed when I was a year old. But it was a story I knew the way some children know the story of Christmas. Tama and my grandfather George had met in the Minidoka incarceration camp in WWII. Tama, was the camp librarian. My grandfather George would check out a bajillion books he had no intention of reading so that he could go flirt with her. They met while imprisoned, their lives seemingly ruined, their dreams arrested; and yet they fell in love. I knew that.

What I didn’t know was how she remembered that time. What color were the lenses she saw that memory through? What would she say to young Tama, her college career stalled in her senior year? What would young Tama say back?

I cannot ask her now. But I can read her books, and I can imagine. I can imagine in that unusually intimate way that our treasured books tell us to. Many of the books, and seemingly her entire collection of Sōseki novels, were purchased during her 1977 trip to Japan. The Chekhov stories, as noted above, were added to the collection while she was in Minidoka; but, strangely, tucked into those delicate, skin-thin, aging pages is a Medicare satisfaction survey cover sheet with her likeness on it, a stock photo she posed for in her later years. In it, she is considering a bottle of pills, her face blank of any expression I recognize from my years of knowing her. In her careful script at the bottom of it, she notes: “Received on 3/30/09.” I had graduated college by then. Why didn’t I ask her why she had gone out for that modeling gig? She was not vain. Her mystery deepens.

A collection of short, surreal stories from Japan has the uncracked spine of an unread book, but in it she notes that she purchased it after reading a text panel in a museum exhibit in 1981, the year my elder sister was born. A collection of modern Japanese literature has a homemade book cover over it: thin red wrapping paper with yellow, blue, green, and purple flowers on it. A sticker with the address I know she lived in after she moved out of my mother’s childhood home and into an apartment, but before she moved into the old folks’ home where she would eventually pass on. There is a dog-eared page toward the end of the collection, in the middle of an Akutagawa Ryūnosuke story called “Hell Screen.” I wonder if she never finished it, or if she simply forgot to unfold the page. Her copy of Madame Bovary is fully annotated.

A dog-eared page in her Bashō collection, with the following stanza of poetry underlined in blue ballpoint pen:

            With a hat on my head

            And straw sandals on my feet,

            I met on the road,

            The end of the year.

In them, too, I found a single book of George’s. A bookplate announces that this copy of Crime and Punishment is from “the library of George T. Tokuda.” She must have known, just as my mother knew, that he never read that book. He wasn’t a reader. Yet she kept it.

I cannot know Tama only from her books. But the shape of her mind begins to take form nonetheless. In her collection I see the Tama who marked the passing of time in the pages of her books. The woman whose curiosity never dimmed with age. The former librarian who still curated her books to those most interesting or precious to her. Her personal history entwined with her literary history. And I wonder what she would have thought about her least thoughtful grandchild, the poor reader and the loudmouth, pancake face as she used to call me, telling her story now.

It is an odd thing, to tell someone else’s story. It’s made odder still by being unable to ask her what she thinks. In writing Love in the Library, I did my best. To winnow down her complicated and winding life into a single story is impossible. But I hope that, in the telling of this particular story of her life, some of the best of her may remain. Her dignity. Her grace. Her eye for beauty. The love that would, for better or for worse, define most of her adult life. This story that is my inheritance.

 I like to think about how, one day, a grandchild may wonder who I was after I’m gone. And they will have the books I’ve either written or saved to know me by. And in this story of Tama, I hope they’ll see what I see. That we come from people who find beauty in the world, even when the world is ugly. That we are stronger than the hate that would see us unjustly incarcerated. That we come from love.

 And maybe, too:

That we can use books as means to know ourselves, and each other.

Maggie Tokuda-Hall is the author of Also an Octopus, illustrated by Benji Davies, and the novel The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea. She lives in Oakland, California.

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