Chapter 22, 'Thirty Years More - 1956-1986'
From 1956 to 1976, Mizuko continued living with Yoshiko and Sam on their San Ysidro farm with her four grandchildren, Harumi, Ann, Jane, and Robert. In 1958 the final two of twenty-six Mizuko’s grandchildren were born: Jeffrey Nomura to Mikako and Henry, and Carole Machida to Ayako Nomura Machida and her husband Edward. As she had for all her other grandchildren, Mizuko travelled to the newborns’ homes to greet and help care for them and their mothers.
From the farm in Chula Vista, the Hasegawas moved to San Ysidro where Sam continued his farm management duties. San Ysidro (Palm City) was located just a few miles north of the California/Mexico border. The area, with its mild sea breezes, year-round sunshine, and rich soil, provided an ideal environment for the cultivation of tomatoes, asparagus, and sweet corn. The Hasegawas enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, so much so that Sam was able to realize a childhood dream of leasing a new Cadillac sedan every other year.
But despite the bucolic setting and their comfortable lifestyle, the Hasegawas’ contentment was tempered by the declining health of their oldest daughter. As her cardiac insufficiencies became more pronounced, Alice Harumi Hasegawa’s health worsened. Taxed to the maximum by the stresses of a growing teenage body, her heart needed repair if she were to survive.
In 1958, at age fourteen, she was flown to the Mayo Clinic in St. Paul Minnesota for experimental open-heart surgery to repair a defective cardiac valve. During the course of the hours-long procedure her fight for life ended. Open-heart surgery is now a relatively standard procedure, but in those early days of cardiac care it was still an experimental procedure.
Mizuko, her immediate family, and everyone who had known Harumi were devastated. Sixteen years after the death of their first born, Roy in Manzanar, the Hasegawas were faced with the death of another of their children.
The death of a young person is incomparably calamitous. Mizuko, who helped care for her precocious and fragile granddaughter from her birth in Manzanar, was profoundly saddened. Calling upon her faith in God helped her through the sorrow, but Harumi’s passing depressed everyone’s spirits for years to come. Mizuko continued to be a loving grandmother to Yoshiko’s three remaining children, but spent more of her time alone in quiet contemplation and prayer.
During the 60s and early 70s members of Mizuko’s large extended family often made the trip to San Ysidro to visit her and the Hasegawas. Tables laden with fresh produce cooked to perfection, Sam’s barbequed steaks, and freshly caught tuna sashimi, along with Mizuko’s stories, Yoshiko’s quiet good humor, and Sam’s bonhomie are cherished memories for everyone who visited the farm during that period.
Mizuko continued to amaze everyone with her knitting wizardry and sewing prowess. She maintained the thrifty habits acquired during her earlier years in America, taking apart old sweaters, and using the yarn for new clothing, blankets, and shawls. It was not unusual to find her totally unraveling a sweater she had just knitted because she was not satisfied with its fit or design.
She altered her grandchildren’s clothes to fit perfectly, especially the store bought items. When the children’s favorite stuffed toys fell apart from age and rough use, Mizuko would painstakingly take them apart, use the worn pieces for templates, and reconstruct the toy to just-as-good-as-new condition.
The torn jeans look of the late 1960s aggravated her greatly. She never became completely comfortable with the frayed cuffs, and tattered jeans favored by her granddaughter Jane, as she strove to cultivate a Hippie-look-alike appearance.
In 1970, she was introduced to the author’s first-born child, Christopher. At age 75, displaying her consistent joy and deep affection for babies and children, she expertly and confidently cradled her great-grandson in her strong arms.
In 1975 Mizuko observed her eightieth birthday in chronic pain. The strain of years of overwork and sleep depravation frequently incapacitated her. The arthritic spinal condition that had first afflicted her during her long days of work on the Montana railroad in the 1920s often became so painful that she was at times unable to get out of bed. Memory lapses also came more frequently, and with the Hasegawa children grown and living lives of their own, and Yoshiko’s husband Sam experiencing poor health of his own, the decision was made to move Mizuko to live with another of her six children.
In the summer of 1976 Mizuko moved from San Ysidro to live with her eldest son Henry’s family in Monterey Park, California. There were offers from her other children to provide a home for her on a rotating basis, but Mizuko was not interested in changing her residence so frequently. After discussing the long-range options Mizuko decided that the best course of action was to live in an around-the-clock care facility catering to Japanese seniors in nearby Boyle Heights, just east of downtown Los Angeles.
The Keiro Japanese Retirement Home was fortunately accepting new residents. At age 81, on September 17, 1976, Mizuko was admitted.
At the retirement home she stood out from the other tenants because she remained active and was remarkably strong, especially for someone her age. Her physical strength allowed her to eschew the use of the elevators for the stairways at the multi-story facility, but her exceptional mental capacities continued to decline. One thing however remained constant: her need “to work.”
Being among people that were her own advanced age was challenging for Mizuko. She found herself preferring the company of the few issei men that resided in the home to that of the women.
Some of the men, especially those that had spent their lives doing physical work, had an earthy, succinct way of expressing themselves that Mizuko was used to and still enjoyed. In contrast, the endless gossip and catty observations of many of the women were of little interest to her.
In early October, two weeks after she had arrived at the retirement home Mizuko met with the facility’s social worker. Living in the unfamiliar environment of the home seemed to initially diminish Mizuko’s short-term memory. Rather than detail her post-WW II life, she spent most of the session recounting her difficult early life in America.
“It was awful,” she said. “I found out very soon after coming to America that I could not count on my husband to support me or the family. I ended up spending most of my time trying to survive and getting my children through the hard times.”
“What kind of work did you do?” the social worker asked.
“What kind of work, didn’t I do?” replied Mizuko, with a smile.
“I did a lot of physical labor in those early days. I was a farm worker, a teamster, a laundress, worked on the rail road, cooked, baked, canned fish, you name it.”
“The railroad?” the worker said in surprise.
Before the worker could ask her to elaborate, Mizuko continued on. “I also worked as a seamstress and storekeeper.”
“And what did you think of your life during that time,” asked the worker.
Mizuko sat back and considered the question. “It was difficult but I tried to not dwell on my situation much. I felt like that type of thinking would have just slowed me down,” she replied.
“It wasn’t that interesting,” she added. “I did what I had to do. By the way, do you think you could get me a job around here?”
The social worker told her that living at the Retirement Home offered her a time to relax and to do whatever she wanted. She concluded the session by telling Mizuko about the group activities and classes that were available to her at the home. Mizuko agreed to look into the possibilities.
However, after exploring the home’s activities options, Mizuko’s first choice continued to be spending her time alone, reading, writing, and doing her handicrafts. Although she had a television in her room, she never watched it. TV viewing to her was a passive activity that she considered a waste of time. Instead, she spent as much time as possible outside in the fresh air.
Her routine activities grew to include walking the perimeter of the extensive facility grounds twice a day. Her less mobile and infirm neighbors, impressed by her seemingly limitless energy and impressive strength, often asked Mizuko to help them move the furniture in their rooms. When Mizuko’s arthritic pain occasionally lessened, she honored as many requests for assistance she could. For a while she even expertly gave free haircuts to her neighbors.
Mikako, Henry, and Mizuko’s daughter Yoshiko visited her on a regular basis, sometimes accompanied by Mizuko’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In addition, Mizuko still attended holiday celebrations with Henry and his family at their home in nearby Monterey Park.
In 1980, Mikako Nakadegawa Nomura and her brother-in-law Kaworu (Carl) Nomura decided that a family reunion should be organized and held at the retirement home where Mizuko lived. Since Mikako and her husband Henry were both leading members of their respective families, they decided that the reunion should include both the Nomura and Nakadegawa families. In August 1980 over fifty members of the two families gathered at the Keiro Japanese Retirement Home for a day of shared remembrances, a potluck dinner, and a talent show.
Mizuko, at age 85, was a focus of the reunion. However, she remained an elusive photographic target as she quickly left any area where photos were being taken. Her lifelong belief of being mittomonai, unsightly, continued to fuel her discomfort with photography. But after much pleading and begging, Mizuko consented to sit for the camera. This occasion marked the last time that most of her extended family, many of whom had traveled from afar, saw Mizuko alive. In addition to five of her six children, and a host of her grandchildren, the attendees included Junji Kaneko, Mizuko’s former son-in-law by marriage to her step-daughter Chiyoko, and Shigeko Oshiba, Mizuko’s second step-daughter and Chiyoko’s sister
As Mizuko’s physical strength waned she spent more and more of her time alone in her room writing, often posting notes to herself on the margins of newspapers and calendars as reminders of what she wanted to write. The retirement home included her in a study of patient’s writing ability as a way to assess their mental health. Unfortunately, although Mizuko wrote copiously, her efforts lacked cohesion and were often repetitious.
Her daughter-in-law Mikako continued to tend to her on a weekly basis, often taking the time to bathe her increasingly frail mother-in-law. Ironically, Mizuko, who had taught a brand new mother how to bathe her newborn daughter in Manzanar was being bathed by that same woman forty years later.
Regardless of her physical limitations, Mizuko was still single-mindedly industrious. She kept her quarters well-organized and tidy, and regularly implored Mikako to “find me a job.” She found the periodic rituals that celebrated aging uninteresting and had to be convinced to dress up and be photographed for her eighty-eighth beiju birthday.
On August 28, 1986, Mizuko died at the Alden Terrace Convalescent Hospital in Los Angeles in the presence of her son Henry, and her daughter-in-law Mikako, who had long ago come to view Mizuko as a second mother. In the end, her brilliant mind, strong body, and compassionate soul had succumbed to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. She was ninety-one years old.
Funeral services were held at the Maryknoll Catholic Church in downtown Los Angeles, not far from the site of the family grocery store she had operated more than sixty years earlier.
Mizuko Takahashi Nomura had spent seventy-five of her ninety-one years living in her adopted country of America.
end of Chapter 22, 'Thirty Years More, 1956-1986'