Leila stood on the curb and held the diary in both hands. The Uber dropped her off here, but before she took a step forward, she opened the diary to a certain entry and read it again.
June 17, 1942
I have been dreading this day for months. We have finally packed up our belongings… Mother has been crying all day. I don’t know where we are going, but I know that it’s bad. I don’t like parting with my things. Mom says we will get them back soon but I don’t know if that’s true. I am keeping this diary. I’ll hide it in my pocket. Everything else will have to wait until we get back.
I gave Mother my things to be put away: a red parasol, a small round suitcase, and my ice skates. I hope I can come back for them soon.
A red parasol, a small round suitcase, ice skates. Leila’s hand trembled as she closed the diary. She had read these passages over and over again, in her family’s hybrid Japanese-English language. After months of research, digging, and traveling, she now stood on the curb of the Panama Hotel. A time capsule, a fragment of history wedged into modern Seattle. A piece of the puzzle of her heritage, her past. A time machine into the struggles of another generation. She walked to the hotel and entered.
The steep stairs took her up to the front desk. Each one creaked and the walls smelled of must, of age. Old photographs lined the walls depicting the hotel as it was in 1910 when it opened its doors. Since it was still an operating hotel, she shared the hallway with guests carrying luggage and guests heading downstairs into the tea room. Honoring its history, the hotel displays some of the belongings of those who hid them during Japanese internment. An homage to the weight of this place. But Leila knew her grandmother’s belongings weren’t there. She knew that the only way to get to them was through the basement.
Leila asked for the owner of the hotel at the front desk. A short older woman emerged eventually, wearing thick glasses, “You must be Leila.”
“Pleasure to meet you. Thank you for letting me make an appointment.”
“Of course. You aren’t the only one who has asked to see the belongings in the basement.”
“I just want to see what my grandma left behind.”
“Follow me,” the old woman said and led her down a series of passageways and stairs into the dark. Leila felt mixed emotions of excitement and sadness. How could an entire culture of people be cast away? How could their belongings sit in the dark? All these possessions meant something to someone. Meant the world to them. Now they are simply collecting dust underneath a hotel. Waiting for their owners to come back to retrieve them.
The old woman flipped a switch and the lights flickered to life, illuminating rows and rows of suitcases, baggage, boxes and more. It looked like junk, it looked like storage. It was a small museum of forgotten things.
“You said you were looking for ice skates, right?” The old woman said and she led Leila around. “I believe we have a pair over here.”
Leila followed, breathing in dust. There were typewriters, books, kitchen supplies. Things that would now be seen as vintage. It almost felt wrong to view them as museum artifacts. And yet, frozen in time, that’s exactly what all of these things were.
The old woman gestured to a pair of skates, small enough for a young girl to fit in. Sure enough, they were stored next to a red parasol and a round suitcase. She had found them. Her grandmother’s things. Just as the diary said. They brought tears to Leila’s eyes.
It felt wrong to ask to take these things. It felt wrong to rob the hotel of its history. To remove these from the basement meant to take back history. Leila struggled with the thought… she hadn’t had to face it since she wasn’t sure she would even find anything. Everything that once belonged to someone now belongs to the past.
“Thank you for showing this to me,” Leila said, overwhelmed. The woman smiled at her.
Rather than fight any more with her choices, Leila decided to snap a few photos of the belongings. She held the parasol, brushed off the dust. She opened the suitcase to find clothes and shoes. She felt a connection to these things, a descendent of them.
Making a decision, Leila turned to the woman. “This is amazing,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been anywhere without this.” She pulled out her grandmother’s diary.
“The diary that led me here.”
She handed it to the woman, who wore an expression of amazement. The woman flipped through the worn pages, running her fingers over the old ink, taking in the stories.
“Keep it,” said Leila.
“I couldn’t,” said the woman.
She wanted to give back to history. She wanted to preserve this piece. It felt wrong to keep it in her possession. If it had helped her so much to explain what her grandmother went through, it may benefit future historians and add to the history of the basement. The woman hugged and thanked her for her donation.
Leila left the Panama Hotel feeling both richer and poorer at the same time. But it meant everything to her to have taken the journey.