Uncle George

It was a family secret.

And when they first told me, I didn’t understand why it had been hidden.

But I didn’t understand America, then.

Your uncle George is Japanese, they said, but don’t tell your cousin, his daughter, she doesn’t know .

When he married your aunt, before the War, they told mom and dad he was French. He’s only half anyway, they said, but they never would have accepted him.

My mom and all the other kids knew, of course — their oldest sister lived with new husband George in Japan town, out in Montavilla at 92nd in his parents’ house.

And it worked, until the War came with decree of the President, all citizens of Japanese descent to internment camps. Aunt Dorothy, George and two kids penned at the Expo Center while sisters stood outside waving to them.

That was the shame, I guess — all from Japan demon enemies of the U.S., knew we couldn’t trust And our family harbored one, even though he was only half. And that’s how he got out, his mother Caucasian, father from Japan, and my aunt didn’t have to go anyway, white women exempt. So George, Dot and kids allowed to move Midwest, his mother’s people took them, and they used the family name way out on a farm all by themselves.

At War’s end George allowed to come back, start over, an east county mechanic finally owned a little piece of land with horses, dogs, trees, drank beers with dad and uncles, squinting around cigarette locked between lips, nails rimmed black.

Sure, he looked different, but what did I know? I thought uncle Bruce looked like an Indian. And besides, here’s the thing:

Every summer we’d wait on sidewalks for Rose Parade to pass, George riding a Palomino bristling with silver, scarf round his neck, Dot and George in cowboy hats waving, marching bands, American flags — how could I have known he was Japanese then, on horseback, in a cowboy hat?

When they told me, though, it made sense why he looked the way he did, why they never talked about the War then, none of the men, shamed by it I guess, and so we kept the American secret that we’re a country of mixed races that’s the secret we’ve kept, shame that hides our past from us, hides it in plain sight on golden stallions draped with flags, under cowboy hats and cloaks of silence.