Michael G. Malaghan
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: We continue Michael G. Malaghan’s serialized historical novel, “Picture Bride — A Family Saga,” based on the Japanese immigrant experience. Malaghan’s trilogy takes readers from turn-of-the-20th-century-Japan to Hawai‘i in the picture bride era; the Islands during World War II, highlighted by the exploits of the Nisei soldiers; and beyond.
The novel, which is now available as a printed softcover book, opens with 12-year-old Haru-chan, fleeing her home in Amakusa, Kyüshü, for Hiroshima, where she becomes the picture bride of a Buddhist priest in Hawai‘i.
Author Michael Malaghan is a retired businessman who divides his time between Hawai‘i, Florida and Japan.
As Kenji drove off, Haru padded over to her Singer. “A seamstress day,” she addressed the new machine, all the while thinking, You are the only good outcome of my meeting with Okumura. She sat down beside the pile of her sons’ trousers — some needed to be shortened, others lengthened.
Thirty minutes into her sewing project, the sharp, short ring of the front doorbell interrupted her stitching of Tommy’s cuffs. Seconds later, she heard a thunk, followed by the soft whishing of an envelope. She waited for the clunk of the wooden flap slapping the mail chute before investigating the day’s post, but, already, her mood had lightened. The thunk meant she had received a catalog. Which one? Last week, she had received the Montgomery Ward winter catalog. Upon entering the foyer, she was surprised to see an unfamiliar tome and stopped to read the spine: Spiegel.
A jolt of excitement ripped through her as she spotted an envelope bearing Admiral Togo’s portrait on Japanese stamps. Must be from Midori, she surmised. She stooped down to pick up the catalogue and letter and sauntered over to the tatami mat room, her favorite room in the house. As much as Haru embraced Western furniture with all its conveniences, nothing soothed her more than stepping into what her family had started calling “Mama’s retreat.” The centerpiece of the sparsely furnished room was the squat, lacquered, rosewood tea table. Four zaisu, or floor chairs, surrounded the table. She moved one of the padded zaisu to her private tatami tsukue, a knee-high sandalwood desk. Haru squatted down on the back of her legs in front of the floor desk, which still gave off hints of its famous aroma. A smile softened her face, as it always did, when she looked up at the watercolor of a cherry tree branch in full bloom against a pink sky honoring the facing wall.
She flipped the envelope around. The return address was her Hiroshima home. She lifted her ivory letter opener . . . then stopped. She stared at the unfamiliar handwriting. Who besides Midori or Kiyoshi ever wrote to her from the Fudoin Temple? Her heart bumped against her rib cage. Something had happened to her parents.
Haru wedged the ivory blade under the seal and withdrew two thin sheets of paper. Like all of Haru’s incoming correspondence, this letter would be added to a string-tied batch, carefully sorted by sender and kept in a wobbly bamboo letter box Yoshio had built three birthdays ago. With dreaded expectations, Haru began to read.
“Dear Sister . . .” was as far as Haru read before tears drowned her eyes. It couldn’t be. But it was. She managed to read the next words. “I am Kin. Gin and I are fine.” Haru took a handkerchief from the cuff of her yukata to wipe the free-flowing tears. She wanted to rush out and tell Kenji, the children, someone, everyone. Since arriving in Hiroshima in 1905, Haru had posted a letter, first monthly, then twice a year, to her sisters at their last known address — a silk factory in Niigata. The correspondence always came back undelivered. Despite the failures, Haru continued writing the letters after arriving in Hawai‘i. As the years passed, she realized the returned letters constituted more of a diary than a correspondence.
She glanced left at the family portraits resting on the raised flooring that served as a knick-knack shelf separating the tatami mat from the wall. Soon I will be able to add my sisters’ photos.
Her eyes went back to the letter. “This summer, we returned to Amakusa to pay our respects to our parents, who gave their lives for your freedom.”
Bile rose in Haru’s throat. Her left hand grabbed the low table as she tried to fight her lightheadedness. She breathed in slowly and deeply. She had always wondered about her parents’ sudden deaths at sea. An image of their last minutes, struggling in the icy water, arose before her. Now she fully accepted what had happened. Her father had used the procurer’s money to pay off his debts before she was scheduled to depart. Had she really believed that her father was going to pay back the money to the procurer when he told her to escape? But she had honored their sacrifice. She became a cherished daughter and the wife of a good man, a gifted priest. Together, they had dedicated their lives to helping others. Haru looked up at the cherry blossom painting while thinking that only now did she realize the depth of her parents’ love. That night, when they had sent her on her way to freedom, they knew the cost. They knew they had only hours to live.
Long moments passed before Haru could resume reading.
“Amakusa’s Buddhist temple told us the story of your escape, adoption and move to Hawai‘i. Then I understood why the postman sent back a letter addressed to Otösan with a note, ‘Family deceased.’ After that notice, we wrote you a letter at the same address. Another note from the postman on the back of the returned envelope read, ‘Haru ran away. No one has heard from her.’ Such a small matter for such a long separation. Once we learned you had gone to the Fudoin Temple, we went to Hiroshima. Kiyoshi and Midori were so kind. They insisted we stay with them until we decided what to do.”
Susano padded over and snaked her furry body through Haru’s legs. The calico Persian was rewarded with gentle, but absentminded strokes along her arched back.
“After the Russian war, our company promoted us to supervisors on the condition we move to Sendai. We were happy to leave. Our boss in Niigata was very mean. No mail was ever forwarded from that workplace, even though we left a forwarding address. In Sendai, we lived in a dormitory with the young girls we managed. We often talked about going to the matchmaker, but kept putting it off. Now, at 34, we are too old for any man to accept us as a first wife. And we don’t want to be someone’s minor wife.
Haru had stopped crying by the time Sachi returned with Kenta and the groceries. Looking at Haru’s red eyes, the girl asked, “Are you all right, Okäsan?”
“I have found my sisters,” Haru replied, and then proceeded to tell Sachi the story. When Haru finally finished, Sachi laid a gentle hand on the woman she so admired. “If not for your parents, who would have taken care of me? I will fix lunch. You can start writing a letter to your sisters.”
Haru placed her own hand on Sachi’s in thanks. “Perhaps I can write a few pages before the boys and Kenji come home. We have so much to do this afternoon.”
“Yes,” said Sachi, proud she had remembered that Mr. Makino and other important people were coming to dinner to talk about the school laws.
To be continued . . .