Photo of wild Bamboo Shoots

Frances H. Kakugawa
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

Omoiyari . . . Think of others first and good karma will return to you. — Frances H. Kakugawa

New Year’s. Traditionally, it is a time of hope and renewal and looking forward. But I’m going to take a different path here and look back. Sometimes there are life-changing events worth revisiting time and again. They are quiet milestones of our lives that would do us best if they became part of our present and future. All of us have had events like these in our lives. Here are a few of mine:

When I was 18 years old and a freshman at the University of Hawai‘i – Hilo Campus (today, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo), I lived with a haole family, working as a live-in maid for my room and board. The transition from Kapoho was earth shattering as I shifted from chopsticks to place settings with numerous forks and spoons.

What I missed most during those years was rice. In my new household, the standard sandwich was made with mayonnaise, lettuce and peanut butter. But by some miracle, at Hilo campus, I had musubi (rice balls) and okazu (side dishes) for lunch every day for the next year and a half. A fellow freshman, Ella, must have sensed my drool as I watched her enjoy her rice balls and okazu lunch as I bit into my haole sandwich. For the next three semesters, Ella brought me a home-made lunch of musubi and okazu every day until we transferred to the Mänoa campus on O‘ahu. Every day.

(When I transferred to UH-Mänoa, I ate bologna sandwiches for 15 cents, which was all I could afford. So, please don’t ever feed me bologna or peanut butter and mayo sandwiches — just thinking about them makes my stomach turn upside down.)

I knew then that I would take that daily rice ball “gift” and someday pass on Ella’s act of kindness and generosity to someone else who needed it as much as I did back then. Opportunities were abundant.

I opened a savings account for a musically gifted Vietnamese student who was living a life that seemed so hopeless. Upon his graduation from high school, I cashed in that account for his future plans.

I have observed him from afar as he passes on that rice ball. Once, he invited me to play my flute with him in Waikïkï during the Holiday season.  I was also paying for his flute lessons anonymously.

“We’ll leave a hat to make money,” I told him. “We can have a good Christmas dinner together.” He laughed and said, “Frances, I was thinking of giving that money to the hungry.”

So that musubi continues to make a difference in other people’s lives. Last year, I fulfilled my mother’s wish. When I was growing, she often shared with me her long-held wish. “If I get rich someday, I want to give a scholarship to someone at Pähoa School.” Last year, a Pähoa High School senior received the first Matsue Kakugawa Scholarship for $1,000.

It doesn’t always have to cost $1,000, or even a penny. There are so many volunteers making a difference in nursing facilities, churches, at the Alzheimer’s Association and other nonprofit organizations. During the Holidays, I had the privilege of observing an act of pure human kindness.

In a supermarket aisle, a woman who reminded me of a grandmother in a kitchen baking cookies snarled at me. “Watch it!” she said when my cart got close to hers. Dumbfounded, I quickly gave her space.

While standing in line at the post office, I heard a voice in a menacing tone growl at an elderly man. “You’re standing too close to me. People like you shouldn’t be allowed in public.” The closer we get to Christmas, the more distance we seem to need from each other.

At a furniture store, the sales people had their radars on full blast. They swooped in succession. Did they smell cash in my pocket? Maybe I shouldn’t have worn my leather coat. “Thank you. I’m just looking,” I repeated, and walked toward their room displays.

The door opened and another person entered. I smelled his presence before I even had a chance to turn and look at him. The salesman was on the man in an instant. “May I help you?”

“I just want a place to sit,” I heard the man reply.

I looked at him, and then looked again. He certainly didn’t look like cash to me. He was unshaven and had a sallow and gaunt look. His thin coat, which hung loosely on him, was dripping wet. He looked like a refugee from Loaves and Fishes (a refuge for the homeless) who was out of his realm.

I braced myself for the confrontation that I knew was about to come and prepared myself to run defense for the man. The salesman looked the man over and then gestured at a collection of pricey sofas.

“Be my guest,” he said softly. Then, as an afterthought, added, “Just be careful not to wet the furniture.” And then he walked away. I didn’t buy anything that visit. But you can be sure that when there is cash, I’ll be back to the same store and looking for that salesman.

Today, there is such a need for acts of human kindness — more so today than ever before. Some of the best come from complete strangers.

When I first moved to Sacramento 14 years ago, I used to walk around Arden Fair Mall every morning. Except for Red, I knew no one. I had no friends and I felt very alone on these walks, often asking myself, “What am I doing here?”

Then one morning, I ran into the Challenge Butter delivery driver parking his long truck near the mall. He greeted me like an old friend. He was a handsome young man and we used to chat on those mornings when we saw each other. For the first time in a long time, I felt joy, like I wasn’t alone anymore. I felt I had found my first friend in Sacramento, even though we never exchanged names. This ended when I joined the gym.

This morning after my workout at the gym, I walked over to LaBou Coffee Shop for my morning coffee and saw the Challenge Butter truck parked outside the lot. “Now you’re the smart one by parking on the street,” I told the driver pushing his delivery. Others park in the lot, blocking cars.”

“Thank you,” he said. “I know how those guys park.”

As he walked into the bakery with his delivery cart, I realized that he was that same young man from 14 years ago, just older now. I asked him if he had delivered to the mall 14 years ago. He said he has been delivering here for 23 years. I told him what his friendship had meant to me back then — that I had just moved here and never forgot his kindness. He was moved and thanked me. I sent a copy of this story to his bosses. I hope he not only got a raise, but that my story of his kindness will be shared with all of the employees of Challenge Butter.

As with every experience in life, there is another side of the coin. For anyone whose memories are not as pleasant and worth preserving as mine were of Ella’s rice balls, is it possible to take a negative memory and turn it into a more meaningful one that benefits our well-being and others?

So, caregivers . . . in the course of your day, you may not feel it or realize it, but you belong to that special group of people who live the humanities day in and day out. With your busy life, you may not realize the impact you are making. There is no medal or special ceremony at the end of each day, but know that your acts of compassion and human kindness are appreciated and that others are observing them and learning from them. You are passing on these lessons to our children and all who come in contact with you. What better gift to leave our future generations than a legacy of knowing what it takes to be a kind human being — you are all of this and more.

So as we enter another year, thank you, everyone, for your support and for all the emails and feedback. There is so much wisdom out there — please share yours with us.

Thank you, Hawai‘i Herald, for allowing us to share information and experiences through this “Dear Frances” column. May the new year bring more dignity, compassion and countless acts of human kindness. Happy New Year!

By tradition, the emperor writes a haiku for each new year. I’m no emperor, but here is my haiku to greet 2018.


A haiku poet

Sits in a dense bamboo grove

Becoming bamboo.

Frances Kakugawa was her mother’s primary caregiver during her five-year journey with Alzheimer’s disease. A native of Kapoho on Hawai‘i island, she now lives in Sacramento. Frances has melded her professional training as a writer and educator and her personal caregiving experiences to write several books on caring for people with memory-related illnesses. She is a sought-after speaker, both in Hawai‘i and on the Mainland, sharing strategies for caregiving, as well as coping with the stresses of caregiving.


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