I had forgotten about the shoji screens until I saw someone post on Facebook this morning, about the shoji screens her grandfather had made by hand. And a ripple of panic passed through me. Where are my father’s shoji screens? He had made two sets of them, with my uncles, in our house in Park Ridge; one next to the front door, which created a small entry way into the living room; and the other set covering the sliding glass doors that led from the cluttered, sample-filled basement to the concrete patio that later became an enclosed, cluttered storage room. No matter. They were not in a beautiful or Zenlike setting; they were in our green, suburban ranch house in New Jersey. But what mattered is that my father made them by hand. He made them with my (not my real) uncle Ted Tono, both of them skilled carpenters, trades they learned from their Japan-born fathers. With help from my (real) uncles, Kiyoshi and Asao.
Those shoji screens were a marker in our suburban home. Japanese people live here. The only ones in our small town. But it was a way of saying, we are here, this is who we are. We build small delicate walls of wood and paper. I was so proud of those shoji screens, of my father’s hands who had made them, as well as the kitchen cabinets and basement built-in storage units and my elaborate stilt house in the back hard.
When my father passed away and it became suddenly clear that my mother would not be able to live alone, we sold the house in Park Ridge quicker than I could catch my breath. We flew to New Jersey and in a scramble, met with realtors and called movers without having any sense of what we were doing. I flipped through the Yellow Pages in my mother’s kitchen and selected what was advertised as a “family owned” moving company, rather than a nationally known corporation. I liked the sound of “family owned.” I thought they would take care of our family.
It was a terrible mistake.
In the move cross-country, the small “family owned” business managed to disappear several items from the truck they packed in New Jersey. Including a bureau filled with photo albums and my mother’s wedding gown. Including the shoji screens.
Did I not remember this until today? I remember dismantling the screens and unbolting them from the floor with care and pride. I don’t remember that they ever arrived in California. They are certainly not in our house today.
Another loss. Another reminder of a past dismantled, a piece of history gone. I have to steady myself against grief, and to tell myself it’s not my father who is gone (although he is). That it was real. I want to touch them again, those paper walls, those thin gleaming strips of dark wood. I want to remember his hands holding a piece of sandpaper, the different grades of roughness, how they mattered to him. How he made the shoji and placed them in our home, how these delicate walls grounded me in suburbia, in our family, in what it meant to be us in that place in that time.
They are gone. There is nothing I can do. They are in a landfill, a dumpster, a stranger’s home. I don’t know. But they were real and we were real. My father’s hands on sandpaper, steadying the whining circular saw in his basement workshop, the sweet tangy sawdust on the floor.