Shiho Shinoda Nunes
From “Growing Up with Ghosts”
The story of Sanae and her mother’s ghost I heard some years later from a girl from Mälua who lived in our dormitory.
Sanae left home when she was fifteen to go into domestic service with a haole family in Hilo. Her mother had died the year before and the mother’s income as a field hand was sorely missed.
It was a big jump from a dirt-floor kitchen to a linoleum-laid one, from a cotton pallet on a floor crowded with brothers and sisters to a soft bed of her own in a room with ruffled white curtains. But Sanae made the jump with ease. She quickly learned to use every electrical appliance in the house: the toaster, which popped up bread the likes of which, with butter and jam, she had never tasted at home (their toast was browned — or often burned in a frying pan over a kerosene flame); the electric iron, which made a joy out of a weekly chore, unlike the charcoal–heated one at home. And the washing machine! How could she have endured the boiling of soiled field clothing in a galvanized iron tub outdoors, the endless hours of hard scrubbing in the washhouse behind her house? Best of all, she quickly learned to prepare American dishes: spaghetti, meat loaf, macaroni and cheese and other casseroles, Swiss steak, chops and many others. Sanae found them all absolutely delectable after the sparse diet of rice, vegetables, miso soup and dried fish she had known. And the desserts! Cakes, pies, cookies, puddings, the delights of which were never–ending, now that she was mastering the art of baking.
After two years in this domestic heaven, Sanae was called home. Her father, who had managed his household quite well after his wife’s death, suffered a stroke, and Sanae was needed at home. Her brothers were working in the fields and her sisters were too young to care for a bedridden adult.
To return to the primitive home was a trying letdown for Sanae, but she did the best she could. Determined to give her family the best of the domestic arts and skills she had learned, she prepared casseroles and other dishes that could be cooked on a kerosene stove from ingredients she could find at the plantation store on her biweekly trips to the village, or from the peddler’s truck that made the weekly rounds of the camps. Her siblings loved the change of diet and begged for more.
In spite of her devoted ministrations, however, Sanae soon saw that her father was not getting better. Day by day, it seemed to her, he grew weaker. He ate little, moved even less and spoke nothing. His eyes followed her as she moved around the small room, but expressed nothing beyond an unutterable sadness.
One afternoon, Sanae was boiling macaroni to prepare the family’s supper. She sensed someone enter the kitchen from the backyard. Startled, she turned and saw her mother standing at the sink in the corner. Her mother was not ghostly at all, but a solid presence. She wore the plain-cut gray print she had always worn and the white apron tied around her waist. She began to wash the leafy cabbage, green onions and daikon she had brought in from the garden. Then suddenly she was gone.
The next day, her mother appeared again at the same time — when Sanae had begun preparing the evening meal. This time her mother was grinding miso paste in a suribachi, her hands lightly holding the wooden pestle as she went round and round the bowl. Sanae had seen her do this thousands of times, for miso soup was a staple of their diet.
In her third and final appearance, her mother was preparing sweet potato rice gruel over the wood fire in the lean-to outside the kitchen. The watery rice was boiling briskly as she dropped in several pinches of salt and a zaru-ful, a shallow basketful, of sweet potato chopped into generous pieces. She pulled out the burning wood and, smothering the sticks in the ashes around the stove, left the potatoes to cook in the remaining heat. Then she quietly vanished.
Sanae was not a stupid girl. Her mother appeared no more, but Sanae had gotten the point. She continued to please her siblings, but she also made an extra effort to prepare for her father the foods her mother had always cooked for him: rice and sweet potato gruel, miso soup with garden greens for breakfast and supper, sometimes even for lunch, with an egg dropped in; root vegetables like carrots, daikon and burdock cooked into a nishime with seaweed and dried shrimp; steamed greens seasoned with a sprinkle of dried bonito flakes and shoyu.
Without surprise, she saw an improvement in her father’s condition. By the end of the second week, he was turning himself in bed. Sanae knew that in time he would be sitting up and getting himself out of bed.
Sanae would always be grateful for her mother’s silent lessons.
“The Silent Lesson” is from the late Shiho Shinoda Nunes’ unpublished book, “Growing Up With Ghosts.” Born in 1917, she was the daughter of Japanese immigrants who worked in the plantation village of Hilea in the Ka‘ü District of Hawai‘i Island. Her family moved to Hilo when she was a child. Shiho Nunes earned her degrees in education from the University of Hawai‘i in 1939 and returned to Hilo to teach. She enjoyed a long career in education, working for the state Department of Education and later at UH-Mänoa, retiring in 1977.
She was in her late 70s when she began to write. Her first book, “The Shishu Ladies of Hilo: Japanese Embroidery in Hawai‘i,” was published in 1999 by University of Hawai‘i Press. It is a tribute to her parents, Yoshio and Ima Shinoda and their students of Japanese embroidery. That was followed by “Chinese Fables: The Dragon Slayer and Other Timeless Tales of Wisdom” (2013, Tuttle).
In 2007, Nunes moved to Berkeley, Calif., to live with her daughter, writer Susan Nunes (who shared this story with the Herald), and her husband. Shiho Shinoda Nunes died in March 2016.