Chapter 16, segment 2 of 2, 'Survival'
One day during the summer of 1935, a letter arrived from Onorimura, Japan. Nine year-old Ayako, sitting on the entry steps to the house, watched a mail truck pull into the yard.
“Special delivery!” said the postman, climbing out of the vehicle.
“Hello there, little lady, is your mother home?”
Ayako shook her head.
“Working,” she said quietly.
“Ah, OK,’ he said , taking in the rundown house. “I guess you can sign for it."
"Can you write your name here?” he asked hopefully as he extended a clipboard towards Ayako.
Ayako nodded and slowly wrote her name on the form.
“That’ll do, here you are. Be sure that your mother gets it.”
The postman handed Ayako a large, smooth, pale yellow envelope festooned with a variety of colorful Japanese stamps. Before she could respond, the man turned and walked away, humming to himself.
Ayako examined the envelope with great curiosity. She was used to seeing the thin blue envelopes that came from Japan every now and again. But this large packet with the words, SPECIAL DELIVERY stamped on both sides was a different matter altogether, and was clearly important. Deciding that it was a priority she got up and trotted out to the green pepper field where Mizuko was working that day.
“Okaasan, okaasan,” Ayako shouted as she made her way down the narrow spaces between the rows of pepper plants.
“Something came in the mail, special delivery!”
Mizuko brushed her hands off on her work pants and took the packet from her daughter. Inside was a short letter and a large black and white photo.
I am sorry that I have not been keeping in touch. The children and my work keep me very busy. I don’t know where the time goes! I hope this letter finds you and your family in good health.
I have enclosed a copy of an official photo taken right after the His Exellency the Emperor gave papa his award. It is called the Order of the Chrysanthemum, and recognizes him for more than fifty years of civil service and educational achievements.
Papa met the Emperor himself! Can you imagine! Everyone here is very proud of what has happened. People are even congratulating me for having such an important father! I wanted you to share in the excitement.
Faithfully, your sister,
The photo of Kichinosuke in formal attire with his third wife Komatsu seated at his side made him seem incredibly distinguished. Mizuko could feel her heart swelling with pride over the recognition he had received. Ayako looked up at her expectantly.
“Your grandfather Kichinosuke has received the Order of the Chrysanthemum from the Emperor himself. Today you can be proud that you are a member of the Takahashi family,” Mizuko said to her daughter.
“Wow,” responded Ayako, impressed as much by the emotion in Mizuko’s voice as in the photograph she held.
“Oi! What do you have there?” shouted Suzuki-san from a nearby row. Mizuko’s issei co-worker stepped carefully around the pepper plants between them, and peered at the letter and the photograph she was holding. After Mizuko explained the contents to him, Suzuki-san suddenly dropped to his knees and bowed deeply, his forehead nearly touching the ground.
“Please, please, that is not necessary,” an embarrassed Mizuko pleaded. Despite her protest, Suzuki-san retained his posture for several seconds, sat up, and bowed deeply again.
“What a great honor your father has received. He is a credit to Japan, to you, and to your entire family,” Suzuki said as he rose to his feet. “Thank you so much for sharing the news with me.”
Mizuko carefully slid the letter and photograph back into the envelope and handed it to Ayako.
“Take this home and put it in a safe place. And thank you for bringing it to me.” She reached down and hugged Ayako, then returned to her work.
Later that same year, Nagai-san unexpectedly showed up at the Oshiba’s farm to return Mizuko’s youngest son, six year-old Yoshito to his family. Yoshito had spent the past year living with the bachelor. Nagai-san had taken him after Mizuko had decided she was too poor to take care of him properly.
With Nagai as his surrogate father, Yoshito was happy to receive new shoes and store-bought clothes that were not handed down from an older sibling. At Nagai-san’s house there was always plenty to eat and he had his own bed to sleep in. But with his guardian working full-time in the evenings as a Produce Broker in the Wholesale Market, Yoshito was often left on his own at night.
Being alone for the night unnerved the boy so much that eventually he asked his guardian to return him to his family. Mizuko was very happy to have her family intact again and thanked Nagai-san profusely for taking care of her son.
Yoshito shared his mother’s happiness at rejoining the family until he was enlisted into the Nomura’s juvenile workforce. But despite his initial resistance, he soon became a productive and willing helper. He and his older sister Ayako spent much of their non-school time repairing wooden produce crates for Takuma and Jiro’s business.
One relatively costly concession that Mizuko made was the use of a kerosene-powered hurricane lamp for lighting. Mizuko used the light to illuminate her household chores after dinner and the children did their homework by the dim glow of the lamp.
Since the Nomuras were so poor, outfitting the children to attend school was an on-going challenge. Mizuko stayed up until the wee hours to sew clothes for the children and to mend the clothes they had. Keeping them in shoes was especially difficult. Cardboard pieces would be slipped into the shoes to extend their lives when holes wore through the original soles.
During the summer, the younger kids went without shoes most of the time. Handmade slippers, or waraji fashioned out of rags often served as footwear in lieu of shoes.
When the Nomuras arrived on the farm in 1934, Mizuko’s stepdaughter Shigeko was already the mother to Kimiye who had been born in 1933. In 1936, she gave birth to a son she named Kiyoshi. Ayako, Mizuko’s youngest daughter, and the children’s aunt, was called in on a regular basis to be their caregiver during the day.
For the Nomura children, it was a hardscrabble life. It was difficult not to complain about it, especially when their more privileged relatives lived just next door. With indoor plumbing, electricity, gas heating and other amenities, the Oshibas, separated from the Nomuras by only the thickness of a wall, enjoyed a much more comfortable life.
Whenever any of her children complained however, Mizuko was quick to set them straight. Having experienced far worst circumstances herself since arriving in America, she reminded them to keep things in perspective.
“Be thankful that you have a roof over your head,” she would say.
If a child continued to lament his or her situation, Mizuko would cap the discussion by saying, “We’re doing the best we can.”
When asked by her son Kaworu how she could be satisfied with the low wages, and long hours she worked, Mizuko would reply, “It is good to work hard. It’s what I enjoy doing. If you are in charge like Oshiba-san, life is not simple. He has lease payments to make, farmhands to manage, bad weather to worry about, and the uncertainty of the market to consider. They may have a few more conveniences than we do, but they are not living an easy life either.”
Her commitment to surviving and doing the best for her children was unshakable. It was clear to each of her children that Mizuko was doing the best that she could and would always do so.
In 1937, with the Depression still gripping the country, the Oshiba’s lease on the Roscoe land ended. In order to continue farming the Oshiba family moved to another farm in Dominguez Hills south of Los Angeles.
Mizuko considered following them there, but fortunately for the family, Takuma and Jiro’s Produce Brokerage in the Los Angeles Wholesale Market had begun to flourish. With their financial support Mizuko was able to move the family from the Roscoe farm shack to a real single family house of their own.
Their new home was in Coldwater Canyon, on the eastern border of North Hollywood. While compact, it had running water, heating, electricity, and indoor plumbing. The family still slept in shifts in the available beds, but no longer had to cook outside. Mizuko continued to earn her own income by hiring out as a farmhand at nearby farms. But the hard-earned success of her children held the promise of a better future for all.
end of Chapter 16, segment 2 of 2, 'Survival'