Marion, my dear wife of 53 years, comes from a family of 11. Of 10 girls, she is sixth from the top. Her lone brother, Mitch, is fourth in birth order. Her father was a contractor for farm laborers in Lodi before the war and ran a restaurant there before the family was incarcerated at Rohwer, Ark.
After surviving 3 ½ years there during the war, the family moved to a farm right outside of Little Rock. Although the farm was successful, Marion’s father decided to return to Lodi with the family. This decision was probably made with the intention of having his daughters marry Japanese.
Marion tells me when the family arrived at Little Rock, the community circulated a questionnaire to determine whether the children would attend the “Negro” or the white schools. The resulting vote had Marion and her siblings attending the white school. Her older sisters attended Central High, which, years later, gained notoriety as the school where President Eisenhower had the National Guard accompany the black students to enforce school integration.
When Marion was a teenager, her father, brother-in-law (her eldest sister’s husband) and his father were drowned in a fishing accident on the Sacramento River. Only the brother-in-law’s young son survived the tragedy. Her brother, Mitch, was working at a garage in Los Angeles, so the family moved to a home in L.A., close to Venice and La Cienega boulevards. Mama worked at various jobs over the years. Her final years were lived, comfortably, at Nikkei Village in Pacoima.
With the exception of Joye, a sister right below her who died a few years ago, all of Marion’s sisters and brother live in California. Up until about four or five years ago Jerrine hosted an annual gathering of the sisters in Fullerton, where she lives. Last month, because of health issues on the part of four of the older sisters, the remaining sisters and I got together to drive up to visit them.
Driving the car was Carol. Next to her was Akemi Kikumura Yano, who recently retired as CEO/president of Japanese American National Museum. Carol is the next to the youngest in the family, and Akemi the youngest. In the backseat were Jerrine, Marion and me.
So, why was I not driving? On a previous car trip Carol saw me with my glasses off reading with the print just inches from my face. For those of you who are near-sighted, you know this is no big deal — it has nothing to do with how well you see with your glasses on. Well, Carol was convinced I was going blind and she was not about to let me drive her Mercedes. So she and Akemi drove the whole way!
Our first stop was to see Jean in Bakersfield. Jean, who lives with her daughter and husband, was so happy to see the sisters again. At first she was withdrawn, but by the time we left a couple of hours later, she spoke freely and smiled.
Anne, in Fresno, had prepared an array of great Japanese/Chinese food, and, of course, the sisters had a lot to talk about. Her husband, Joe, is a retired grape farmer. We have been up to visit for New Year’s celebrations before, and have come to know some of the people who make up their tightly-knit community.
Gail, who lives in Sacramento, drove down to Lodi, where we met with neesan (eldest sister) Mary, who is 87. She and her family provided more great food. Other than the years in Arkansas, Mary has lived her whole life on this farm with her deceased husband’s side of the family. Her three daughters and one of her two sons were there, along with his daughter.
Janice, one of Mary’s daughters, took us on a nostalgic visit to Lodi High, as well as other landmarks from the past. Akemi, in her two books, “Through Harsh Winters” and “Gambler’s Den,” spoke of some of these places.
Our last stop was in San Francisco to see Fusae, who lost her husband a few years ago. She lives at Kokoro, a comfortable assisted living facility adjacent to Japantown. Happily, Fusae remembered enough to recall pleasant memories with her sisters. My daughter Laurie, who lives in San Francisco, prepared a delicious Japanese lunch for us.
It was a privilege for me to be a part of these reunions. In saying goodbye, I saw a lot of sadness and tears. This was a most memorable and necessary trip for Marion and all of her sisters.
I told Carol if we should go again I would be glad to help drive, and I will be certain to get clearance from my optometrist.
Phil Shigekuni can be reached by email. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.