Kiyoka Yoshida, a child of Japan, was my mother. I’d rather have her as my mama more than any other woman on earth. Barring no one. Not even the Virgin Mary or Beyonce. I love Mama madly. I love her. I love her.
You wonder…”Wow! What’s this fuss about?” Well, I don’t blame you, ‘cuz it took me eons before I came to this emotional realization about Mama. She had been the woman, through whose birth passage on April 9, 1922, introduced me into this wonderful earth in the port of Seattle, Washington. The city enlightened by the vast Puget Sound. Its expansive water, water, water. And to the miles-away north and east, the majestic, snow-covered Mount Rainier.
Mama loved me. Mama breast-fed me. Mama changed my soggy, smelly diapers. For my first birthday photo, she put me into generous white cotton bloomers tight at the knees, a white vest, long white stockings topped off with black patent leather one-button shoes. If I may say so, I looked adorable…which didn’t last long.
I had evolved from “adorable” into a self-conscious, frightful adolescent. At 13, very much aware of my blotched skin. violent red pimples..eek! Early social dance gatherings found me huddled in the darkest corners of the hall. A victim of curious and accusatory stares from the cutest of girls…it was hell.
But, all was not lost. Bam!… learned how to jitterbug (from my younger sister, I think). And it was fun. Great fun! A popular dance that was the rage in the late ’30s into the ’40s. Its musical foundation was hot jazz in its upbeat tempo that “drove” aficionados wild.” Its foremost advocates were African Americans whose brothers and sisters displayed a penchant for “swing”, an essence in jazz that excited and inspired its practitioners to jump for joy. In today’s parlance, “It rocked and rolled!” And I dug it with heart and soul plus four flying appendages. I discovered “swing” in my blood. A natural “swing.” A genetic “swing.”
On the dance floor, with a partner of equal soulfulness, I’d keep pace with the goading impetus of the jazz band. Mindless of anything else, with pure joy in my heart. It was surely…”Heaven, I’m in heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak. And I seem to find the happiness I seek, when we’re out together dancing check to cheek!” (Thank you, Irving Berlin and, of course, Fred Astaire. Both of you know what it’s all about.)
Sorry I’m talkin’ too much about me. It’s my mama I wanna talk about. Did I mention her playing hymns for Seattle Japanese Congregational Church worship services? She pumped the wheezy old organ with her feet and sang along as she accompanied the congregation singing “Nearer My God to Thee.” Mama had learned to play the organ at the Christian-origin school she had attended in Okayama, Japan. (I wonder if she ever played American and Japanese children’s songs when the occasion arose. I’ll bet she did.)
Mama’s love of Western music expanded in East Los Angeles before World War II. She alone, invited and accompanied neighborhood Nisei youngsters to attend classical music concerts at the grand Hollywood Bowl. Not having nor capable of operating an automobile, she hurried kids onto city buses for magical music journeys into the beauty of symphonic music. What a treat for the kids. (I wonder why she didn’t ever invite me to the Bowl. Gender bias? Boys don’t like the classics?)
Mama loved opera as well. She was moved by the melodies of “La Traviata.” Her favorite vocal ensemble? The massive uplifting Salt Lake City Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Happy children singing happy songs in “The Sound of Music,” a movie very dear to her. In the Yoshida household there were many Japanese children’s ditties to be played on our hand-wound “chikonki” (phonograph) for 78 rpm records. There also were Caruso solos. Little room for old Japan koto and shamisen. Western harmonies and melodies were much more inviting in our playroom. Thanks to Mama.
So much for Mama’s music, which filled her soul with joy. Classical stuff. Popular stuff, too. Just mucho music. Her passion. Which, in turn, became my passion. Me … George Yoshida, first-born of Kiyoka Yoshida in Seattle. Music, my passion. My life-sustaining passion. My genetic response to Mama’s joys.
And I am beholden. Beholden to Mama’s music mania. “Who-I-am” comes from “Who-she-was.” Nor entirely, of course. My bag mostly is jazz as espoused by the Duke of Wellington and the Count of Basie, the sweet vocalizations of Sarah Vaughn and Johnny Hartman. And I do dig Bach and Beethoven. Also Puccini, Schubert and Edvard Grieg (“Peer Gynt” forever etched in my mind’s ears).
Thank you, dear Mama. I thank you. You filled my soul chock-full with music. I am forever grateful. Several years ago Mama (in Japanese) wrote to my sister in Monterey Park.
I am suffering such great pain, I must leave earlier than I had hoped. I am sorry. Thank you for your many thoughtful and kind care these many years.
Sister Masa had provided Mama with love and precious care as Mama precariously traveled on her journey home. Today, I write this in deference to Mama’s personal legacy to me. A legacy that had not been outwardly proclaimed. I write now in gratitude. To tell the world what she has meant to me. Her legacy is her life, infused generously with the delightful sounds of music.
Mama, I hope you are still pumping those organ pedals for the good folks up there.
See you, Mama.
George Yoshida is the founder of the J-Town Jazz Ensemble in San Francisco, the author of “Reminiscing in Swingtime: Japanese Americans in American Popular Music, 1925-1960,” and an active member of the National Japanese American Historical Society. He taught at Washington Elementary School in Berkeley for 35 years. While interned at the Poston camp in Arizona during World War II, he formed a dance band called the Music Makers.