“It’s 11 already!” Susanne, the hurried nurse in the white uniform complete with the folded red-crossed nurse’s cap, blurts out to me as she rushes up to Mr. Barrymore’s room.
“Yep, and he’s not in the best mood today.” I call back, doubting that the Master of the house can hear me through the thick plaster walls of his Mediterranean-style Beverly Hills villa.
“Take me outside now!” I hear in a yell muffled through the walls.
I better hurry on his lemonade, or I won’t hear the end of it until his nap at 2.
Quickly, I begin picking out the ripest lemons from the box delivered this morning.
Mr. Barrymore’s mood seems to shift rapidly from confused and docile old man enjoying the last wisps of life to frustrated curmudgeon energetically angry at a world he no longer understands.
My fingers burn from the acidic lemon juice pouring over them into the measuring cup as I slowly turn the juicer with my left hand and the lemon with my right.
“Mary, can you help with the stairs?” Susanne calls to me from atop the staircase.
“I’ll be right there.”
Choosing between finishing his lemonade and allowing him his daily time outside is never easy. Why don’t I ever start making the lemonade earlier?
Shuffling to the bottom of the staircase, I wipe my lemon-scented hands on a dishtowel that I then stuff into the beige apron wrapped around my waist.
The Master’s wheelchair is descending slowly down the side of the staircase with machine precision so that his frail body is not jostled as he moves from one level of the house to the next.
This German-built contraption may be the last piece of German machinery imported to the United States before the Germans declared war on us.
Having just been installed, the wheelchair elevator is a machine that Mr. Barrymore accepts, but he does not appreciate having to use.
“This damn NAZI machine is not needed in my home. I can take these stairs myself!” he barks out.
“Yes Sir,” Susanne replies. “We’ll walk back up on our return.”
Missing the irony in this response, Mr. Barrymore grunts an affirmation, before looking up at me.
“Where is my lemonade?” he demands.
“I’ll have it ready as we step outside” I reply as I take his right hand to help him dismount from the wheelchair connected to the wall.
Susanne comes down the staircase quickly and takes his left arm in her own to guide him out the door.
Rushing back to the kitchen to put the final touches on the lemonade, I can hear the front door open as the two of them burst into the garden.
I pour in three soup-spoonfuls of white Hawaiian sugar, mix in a cup of ice-cold water with the lemon juice, and stir the mixture into a tall pitcher before pouring the sugary concoction into a carafe that I place on a tray next to a spotless drinking glass.
The Master cannot accept spots on his drinking glasses; a lesson I learned only too well again yesterday when I had to clean up the shattered remnants of one off of the walkway outside the front door.
Carrying the tray out the front door, I overhear Mr. Barrymore ask, “What are those soldiers doing with Nishi and his family?”
I had completely forgotten that today is the day that Nishi, the gardener, and his family are being taken away.
“They’re going away,” Susanne replies.
“Why?” Mr. Barrymore asks, a look of concern on his face.
Mr. Barrymore looks across the well-trimmed hedges toward the driveway, where a large ugly green truck sits surrounded by soldiers. Nishi, his wife, and two sons fervently gather their meager belongings at the behest of multiple gun-toting boys in uniforms that match the wretched truck.
Susanne looks up at me, hoping I can save her from having to explain to Mr. Barrymore why he is losing his gardener.
“Sir, Nishi is Japanese. We are at war with Japan.” I softly offer as I set the tray of lemonade on a side table. At the same time Susanne lowers Mr. Barrymore into a chair on the freshly mown lawn.
“But is there a war on with Nishi and his family?” Mr. Barrymore asks.
Susanne and I look at each other.
How do I answer that?
One day in the early spring of 1942, at the door of John Barrymore’s California mansion, Barrymore saw his Japanese-American gardener Nishi with his family and their belongings waiting to be carried away by soldiers. Barrymore was dying, his mind fading in and out of reality, and he did not understand what was happening. When someone explained that America was at war with Japan, Barrymore could only murmur: “But is there a war on with Nishi and his family?”
On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the Secretary of War to prescribe certain “military areas” and to exile “any or all” persons from them. Though couched in broad language, the order was aimed at Japanese-Americans. Under this order, in the spring and summer of 1942, 112,000 Japanese-Americans were removed to internment camps throughout the country, eventually ending up in 10 permanent camps away from the coasts. Germans, Italians, Romanians, Bulgarians, and Hungarians were all exempt from this roundup. Not a single Japanese-American was ever brought to trial on charges of espionage or sabotage in the United States. Thousands of Japanese Americans fought and died for the United States in World War II while their family members were held in camps for the duration of the war. One of whom, Daniel Inouye was awarded the Medal of Honor, and became the highest ranking Asian American in United States politics.
Source: The Home Front U.S.A., Time Life Books, 1978, pp. 27.