Fifty-six years ago the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the world was changed. Humankind lives the legacy of the events of the summer of 1945 in countless ways, great and small, personal and political. The end of the Cold War did not halt the fierce global race for more powerful armaments. And today, as citizens of the United States, as members of the world community, we face many great and grave decisions about the future, concerning missile defense, arms control and test ban treaties, the international proliferation of nuclear weapons and the development of, and trade in, weapons material, nuclear, biological and chemical. It is difficult not to despair of the overwhelming amount of work to be done.
However, this afternoon, in a garden dedicated to children and to peace, I would like to put aside these daunting challenges and look to the sacredness of the small and the power of place to transform our lives. I am reminded of Mother Theresa’s statement, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”
This is the seventh ceremony to be held in this garden, on these benches, dedicated to Sadako Sasaki, one of the millions of children we lost to the twentieth century’s brutal wars. This garden has come to have personal significance for me, and for many like me, who have found moments of inner quietude in the shelter of the Tree of Faith. My husband, Joseph, and I have come to the Immaculate Heart Center on retreat over the last six years, and I have learned many things from the Tree of Faith. Several years ago, I was looking at the very top, at the fragile new leaves opening there. And I realized that those leaves, growing from the majesty of this sturdy trunk and these strong branches, were as young, as fresh, as the smallest seedling growing in the brush. This was a lesson to me about history, about aging, about the past giving birth to the future. This regal tree delicately recreating itself through time- God’s grace at work in small things.
So, this afternoon, let us renew ourselves, and rededicate our lives to peace.
Several years ago, I realized that in order for me to deepen my understanding of what it might mean to invent a peace that has never existed in humankind’s history, I had first to deepen my understanding of the legacy of war in my own life. Thus, an explanation of the title of my comments is in order. Memories of the Trinity Bomb is the name of a Japanese documentary film about me and my search for the moral legacy of the atomic bomb, as the daughter of Manhattan Project scientists. Last fall, a Japanese documentary maker, Yoshihiko Muraki, read portions of my book, Atomic Fragments: A Daughter’s Questions, and was inspired to tell Japanese people the story of my quest in search of the personal meaning of the bomb in the lives of the scientists who created it.
Mr. Muraki told me that there is a great gap between Japanese and American understandings of the atomic bomb. Japanese people, he said, see themselves as victims of the bomb, Americans see the bomb as having ended a brutal war. My words spoke to him across that gap, and he hopes that his film, which premiered last night on Japanese television, will be a step toward bridging understandings between our peoples-another small thing.
This past spring, I spent more than thirty days with the Japanese film crew, traveling to Manhattan Project sites around the country, and to other places of personal and historical significance. The first place we visited together was the Trinity site in New Mexico, where the atomic bomb was first tested in July 1945. The last place we visited together was this garden.
Although I was born four years after the end of the war, I do have very real “memories of the Trinity bomb.” I grew up with pictures of the Trinity test. My mother, with an undergraduate degree in physics, was an optics expert, and a member of the Los Alamos team that developed the photographic equipment for the test. I have a vivid childhood memory of studying the photographs of that test, famous pictures that many of you have no doubt seen, of the silvery bubble that was the deadly fire ball, expanding into the towering mushroom cloud.
Then, three years ago, while doing research for my book, I visited Trinity. The site is only open to the public twice a year, and thousands of people came. I was alone among the crowds. At the obelisk marking ground zero, I witnessed a young Japanese woman weeping.
As I wrote in Atomic Fragments, I was struck by the sacredness of the place, somehow representing not only the lives and deaths of the bomb’s victims, but the lives and deaths of all victims of war. I silently walked the great circle around ground zero, wondering if my prayers had the power to relieve past suffering.
After Trinity, I drove up to Santa Fe. The next day was Sunday, and I walked to the cathedral, where mass was being said. Listening to the message of Christian loving kindness, I felt a lonely, deep despair. I could not imagine how, with all of our differences, it would ever be possible for the planet’s peoples to understand each other. How would the world ever be free of war? But following on that, I was graced with the smallest sense of hope. And at that moment, a nascent feeling, the conviction that there is something in our humanity that binds us together, was the only thing I was sure of.
I never expected to visit Trinity again. However, when the Japanese film makers read my description of ground zero, they asked me to return there with them. There were eight of us at the Trinity site last April, along, with our military escort. There were no crowds, just eight of us, dwarfed by the desolate enormity of the stormy New Mexican wilderness and the memories imprinted on its landscape. I became aware that I was embarking, with them, on a new spiritual journey. They asked what I remembered, and what I felt. Again, I walked the circumference of ground zero, but I was no longer alone. I was accompanied, being observed, interpreted, and listened to.
Our understandings of the place and time were very different. We were sometimes surprised by each other’s questions and observations, careful about each other’s feelings, judgmental of each other’s actions, and vulnerable to each other’s judgments. But in being there, in experiencing that place together, in examining the fearsome history that joins us, we consented to learn from each other, and in each others’ presence. Our understandings were filtered through our cultures, but by assenting to experience Trinity together, we were united in ITS space and time.
The last place we visited together was this garden. I had written about attending the dedication on August 6, 1995, and Mr. Muraki wanted to film me here. So, in June, Joseph and I brought our Japanese colleagues, that they might experience its gentle refuge-a space so far from Trinity site. A tiny oasis capable of holding an infinity of prayers. I told them about the dedication of the benches on the fiftieth anniversary of Hiroshima, about Stella Matsuda’s Dance of a Thousand Cranes-Up From Ashes, which she performed in the chapel. I told them about returning here over the years, and even recited a poem I had composed one night under a full moon.
And so we came to the end of our journey-thirty days together over a three month period. I do not know if, as Mr. Muraki hoped, the story of the daughter of Manhattan Project scientists will speak, in human terms, to the Japanese general public. But I am certain that during our difficult and gratifying time together we took steps toward each other.
After filming here, we went to my home in Oak View. I motioned to Mr. Muraki that I wished to show him a little garden, sheltered by an old oak tree, where I love to sit. Mr. Muraki speaks some English, but I speak no Japanese. There were two chairs in different sections of the lawn. After some few moments of trying to communicate, I understood that he was asking me in which chair I liked to sit. I showed him. He sat down, and looked out at the mountains in silence.
There he stayed for many minutes-longer than I had anticipated he would. He was making a gentle gesture, discovering a window into my life, and opening for me, a window into his. A small moment of peace.
I would like to close by relating my earliest memory of A Thousand Cranes. But first, some background: At Los Alamos, my father worked on the electronics of the bomb’s trigger mechanism. During the war, he advocated a demonstration of the bomb to compel the Japanese surrender. After the war, he never again worked on weapons and dedicated himself to peaceful scientific pursuits, to political and social action, and to building relationships with scientists worldwide, particularly in Japan.
In the early 1960s, he hosted a young Japanese postdoctoral fellow at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Dr. Wakuta stayed in the United States for one year, and every day of that year, at home in Japan, his wife and young daughter folded three origami cranes as a prayer for his safe return. At the end of a year, they had made one thousand cranes, and once back home, Dr. Wakuta sent the cranes to my parents. Although I did not discuss it with my mother and father at the time, I now wonder if the gift of a Thousand Cranes was not an allusion to the bomb, a gesture of reconciliation, a prayer of forgiveness.
It is a gift I remember even today-a small thing. One thousand fragile folded cellophane birds of blue, yellow, red, purple, green, suspended in long strands from a flat woven disk.
Sadako’s cranes had flown around the world. And they continue their flight today, recreated now and into the future, by our hands and our hearts, as we bind ourselves to Sadako’s dream of peace, her small act of great love.
Mary Palevsky, Ph.D. email@example.com
Atomic Fragments: A Daughter’s Questions University of California Press, 2000 http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/8743.html