Frances H. Kakugawa
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
When I was 40, poet Georgia Heard asked, “When did you start becoming a poet?”
“It began in Jackson, Michigan,” I said, “where I lived in a cozy little attic, like Emily Dickinson, above my penpal and her family, teaching first graders at a nearby school. I looked out one afternoon and saw orange and red maple leaves dancing past my window in a slow dance. In the silence, I heard Roger Williams’ “Autumn Leaves” — leaves and piano keys all becoming one. What a contrast that was to the Twist, which was raging the country. It was my first fall.
“When winter came, I looked out that same window and saw the ground covered in freshly fallen snow. I walked in the snow, leaving my footprints behind me. It was a time for such sadness as I walked and walked, knowing I couldn’t do anything about the beauty of seeing my lone footprints in the mounds of snow. I didn’t have the words, yet. I could only think of Longfellow’s “Footprints on the Sands of Time.” But it wasn’t mine. Did it begin here, that morning of my first winter?
“Or,” I continued, “maybe it was that summer I fell in love. It was a time for poetry once again. I offered him “How Do I Love Thee” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and he hand-wrote “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. When we parted, I memorized poems from “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle” and listened to Kui Lee’s “I’ll Remember You.” To keep from dying, to keep from driving my car into one of the trees along the Pähoa road, I began to write poems of things broken inside of me. The first volume of these poems would be published less than a year after I had penned the last poem. It must have begun there.”
“Are you sure?” she asked. “How about your childhood?”
“Kapoho?” I asked. “Do you know what Kapoho was like? I did everything to get out of there.”
“Perhaps,” she said, “it’s time to return.”
So I’m back in Kapoho with a shovel, digging for memories and images.
I’m lying on my back on a branch on a kukui nut tree at Pohoiki Beach near Kapoho. My body aligned against the rough bark of the branch, a giant back scratcher, it massages my back with each careful movement I make to keep my balance as I watch, mesmerized by the waves as they tumble in over the coarse black sands. I have a book in my hand; I lean into the branch and watch the body surfers and swimmers sharing waves. I know what aloneness and silence mean even as the voices of the swimmers break into my tranquil space.
“Time to eat!” is the final break, and I scurry down to rice balls, fried Spam, fried hot dogs, and potato and macaroni salad. I dip my hand into the aluminum washtub, filled with blocks of ice and water, to find a bottle of Coke.
After resting an hour after my last bite, I go to the outhouse to change into my bathing suit. The stench makes me want to throw up. Now our own outhouse, it was different. It was my place of refuge, where I spent hours, reading whatever books or magazines I could get ahold of to avoid household chores.
It’s Monday morning and I’m walking to school, bare-footed, dressed in my oversized home-sewn dress with my home-sewn schoolbag swung over one shoulder. There’s no mystery in school, especially in my teachers, because I knew them by their first names before they became my teachers. My teachers are young ladies from the village.
“Eh,” I complain to anyone who will listen, “I bet kids in Hilo have fancy, college-educated teachers, and here I’m stuck with teachers who only graduated from high school. I wonder what city kids are learning. All they do here is let us read; they read to us and force us to grow vegetables to sell to the cafeteria.” No one hears me.
Today is music day. Our music is a one-book music curriculum. It’s no wonder I would almost fail my basic music course in college years later. It was a good thing the professor was old and he liked my poetry.
For half an hour, we sing from the vomit-colored green book of Stephen Foster songs. There’s a copy for each student. So we sing “Old Folks at Home,” “Old Black Joe,” “Massa’s in de Cold Ground” and “My Old Kentucky Home.” These spirituals of sorrow and brokenness make me feel Kapoho isn’t that bad. I could be on an auction block, being sold to a slave owner. Or living in slave quarters with scars of whiplashes on my back.
I become a sucker for sad feelings and stories. A pulse is created deep inside of me. I borrow books on slavery and human suffering, romance and relationships to feed this pulse. At home, we sing Japanese songs of soldiers out on battlefields, calling out their mother’s name as they lay dying. As history would have it, wars would tail me for the rest of my life, feeding into my own humanity.
Today I’m in the fifth grade in a combination class. Miss Fujii gives us a reading assignment to last about an hour while she teaches the sixth graders. I finish my work ahead of time and walk to her desk to hand in my assignment. I return to my desk. I get up and walk to the bookshelf to get a dictionary. I take the dictionary back to my desk and pretend to look for a word. I close the dictionary and walk to the shelf to return the book. I walk back to my desk, then get up and walk to the shelf for the dictionary, again. I repeat this a few more times to entertain myself. My classmates have their heads over their work.
Miss Fujii’s voice jerks our heads up.
“Frances!” she threatens, “if I see you walk one more time, I’m going to glue you to your seat.” I hear smirks from my classmates.
I take my reading book and pencil and scribble a note on the first page. I pass the book to Kay, who’s on my right. Her shoulders shake as she reads my note: “I glue her to her own ass!”
Kay returns the book, still trying to contain her laughter.
I rip a sheet from my notebook and scribble another note for my appreciative audience of one.
“When she smile,” I write, “she looks like obake. (Japanese woman ghost, a crone of a hag). Her teeth so ugly, I elect her the ugliest obake in the world. Her hair looks like steel wool. No wonder she single.”
Kay snorts with laughter when she gets my note, scribbles a few words and gives it back to me.
Miss Fujii’s commanding voice stops me before I can read Kay’s note.
“Frances! Bring those notes up to me right now.”
Nani, who sits behind me, is returning to her seat after going up to the teacher to whisper something in her ear. She passes me with a smirk on her face.
I take both note and book up to Miss Fujii. She reads them and says to the class, “Frances has been writing notes about her teacher instead of doing her work. Look, she even wrote in her reading book. How shall we punish her?”
The class turns into a field day.
“Rubber hose!” a 16-year-old yells out. “Send her to the principal for the rubber hose!”
Rumor has it that there is a rubber hose behind the principal’s desk that is used on the big bad kids, bad kids meaning the 16-year-olds. Nani is one of these students.
“Suspension!” another voice rings out. “Suspend her for a month!”
She sends me to the principal. The thought of swallowing evidence never occurs to me. The principal, Mrs. Iwasaki, looks at me and quietly says, “Frances, I want to teach you something today. If you had kept these notes in your head without writing them down on paper, there would be no proof of what you did. Next time, when you get upset with your teachers, just think them. Don’t write them down.
“I’m going to suspend you for one day. I need to do this because your teacher is very upset. Stay home tomorrow and when you return, apologize to her. I’m sure all will be fine after you apologize to her.”
I walk back to my class, thinking of Miss Fujii and her “Some people’s children are so d-u-m-b” comments addressed to me whenever I gave incorrect answers. I’ll bet Hilo teachers treat their students better than this, maybe like Mrs. Iwasaki, who seemed to be on my side.
“Frances is suspended!” spread all over school.
“Oh no, I hope my brother Paul keeps his mouth shut.”
He does. He keeps my secret, and the next morning I awake with a stomachache and stay in bed all day. I pretend to swallow the black tar-like Japanese medication prescribed for stomachaches. I write a note of apology to Miss Fujii.
The morning after my suspension, I put on my Academy Award face of looking solemn and regretful and hand the note to her and add, “I’ll never do this again.”
She looks at me and simply asks, “Are you sure?”
It’s a good thing she didn’t ask what I had learned. I would have told her, “No write, no get in trouble.”
When I left sixth grade, Miss Fujii’s last words to me were said in private.
“Keep on writing. Don’t ever stop writing.”
I so wanted Kapoho to be the Eden of my dreams, a place of perfection, where I was taught by college grad teachers, have parents as perfect as those in novels and classmates who didn’t tattle on me. I so wanted to be taught How to Write or How to Become a Poet from fancy textbooks, like those kids in Hilo and in New York City. I thought I was living deprivation and I couldn’t wait to get away. But it looks like I didn’t need the fancy city stuff. Kapoho had something no other city could offer. Why didn’t someone tell me then?
I put my shovel away . . . for now.
Frances Kakugawa, whose “Dear Frances” caregiving column is published monthly in the Herald, was the middle of five children, all of whom grew up on the Big Island. When Frances was 18 years old, a lava flow swept through her hometown of Kapoho, forcing her family to move to Pähoa.
Frances currently resides in Sacramento. She is perhaps best known for her writing on caregiving after having served as her mother’s primary caregiver for five years following her diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease. Frances continues to write and give workshops and talks on caregiving and writing. By coincidence, she is currently in Hawai‘i, speaking on caregiving and writing.