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, Georgia and Japan.
A late-March rain-drenching front finally moved on. The return of the sun enticed Kenta’s class of one to move to the backyard picnic table.
“Don’t think of algebra as some kind of spooky math,” said Kenta, trying to ignore the swell of his pupil’s breasts. “When you see the letter ‘a,’ think about cars or apples. It’s just a symbol. Instead of having to write out ‘one hundred apples,’ or ‘twenty cars,’ we use a letter.”
“I’ll never get it. Your younger sisters find it so easy. I’m just dumb,” Teiko pouted.
“Don’t say that!” Kenta put a consoling hand on Teiko’s arm. “While my sisters have been studying, you were taking care of a family. There’s a difference between not knowing how and not being able to know.”
Haru watched from the kitchen window. Kenta’s gesture was innocent enough. She tried to think how many time he had touched the arms of Hiromi and Sachiko. She couldn’t recall any incidences; then again, she had never bothered to record such a trivial event. Kenta often gestured as much as an Italian would . . . just as Irie had done. The thought registered like an earthquake rumbling through her mind.
Teiko had moved into her daughters’ room. While at first her daughters had welcomed Teiko in light of the tragedy, friction soon developed. The problems started with Teiko skipping baths. While Haru’s chat with Teiko resulted in a daily bath before bed, Haru remembered how fastidious Ume had been. How could Irie or Teiko’s mamahaha — Teiko’s stepmother — have been so negligent? As much as her current studies, Teiko also needed a good Japanese education.
Haru turned her attention from the picnic table to the back row of cherry trees. The rains had stopped just as the tips of the buds split open. Now the sun was performing its magic. The first blossoms had burst open, reminding Haru of the promise she had made to herself — that before the first petals dropped, she would have her talk with Kenta. Looking back to the picnic table, she watched Teiko’s blouse brush Kenta’s arm as she leaned over the table to look at an open book. Haru hoped the cherry blossoms had not come too late.
When Teiko came in for a bathroom break, Haru strolled out to the picnic table.
“Why don’t we go to the movies today,” she said. “They’re showing ‘Stage Door,’ with Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers.” Although the entire family enjoyed a good movie, she and Kenta were the cinema’s biggest fans — except when Errol Flynn or other heartthrobs drew Sachiko’s interest.
“Can Teiko come, too?” Haru managed to keep her expression neutral. “It’s been a while since just the two of us have enjoyed a movie together.”
Kenta took the hint. “Hai, Okäsan.”
* * *
“Let’s have a tempura bentö,” said Kenta as they exited Waikïkï’s Seaside Avenue Cinema. He knew his suggestion meant eating at Haru’s favorite Waikïkï eatery, Choco House, two doors down from the theater.
During lunch, Kenta talked about his favorite subject — himself — like all Haru’s children, except Sachiko and now that he was older, Takeshi. Haru nodded as Kenta spun a web of words about spring practice for football without a word of appreciation for his father who had finally relented and allowed his students to skip language school classes for school activities. Then he offered his opinion on casting Jane Wyatt in “Lost Horizon” — he would have preferred Barbara Stanwyck.
On another day, Haru would have responded to Kenta’s remarks. Instead, she played with her food. She had rehearsed her pending conversation with Kenta often over the years, in case the day ever came — and more frequently since Teiko had moved in with their family. She never composed it quite to her satisfaction. Now she wanted to be done with it.
“Your mind seems elsewhere, Okäsan,” said Kenta as they prepared to leave.
“Why don’t we stroll along the beach?”
Minutes later, as she and Kenta walked along where the grass meets the beach in front of the Pink Palace, she shook her head and commented, “Three hotels on Waikïkï Beach.”
“I don’t think you have to worry about more hotels, Okäsan,” said Kenta as they ambled past the hotel. “With only one ship arriving each week, the Waikïkï hotels are complaining about empty rooms.”
“And what about Pan Am’s flying boats?” Haru asked, recalling the first commercial flight from the Mainland two years earlier.
“Well, the China Clipper carries only 36 passengers,” Kenta replied.
On another day, she would have countered, “The first whaling ships didn’t have many more than that.” But she had other things on her mind.
At that moment, the surf lapped inches from Haru’s feet. She took off her shoes. As most boys did in those days, Kenta went barefoot, even to school and the movies. He hooked his fingers around the straps of his mother shoes. The gesture earned him a warm smile. Then, she took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“I need to tell you a story, Kenta. A story I never thought I would tell anyone.”
Kenta stopped and turned to her, just as a single tear slid down his mother’s cheek.
“You know the story of how you were born on the beach of Moloka‘i . . .”
“Of course,” he said, wondering where this was going. “You were picking up Ume’s baby. You were keeping your promise to Ume. Giri . . .”
Watching the distress in his mother’s eyes, Kenta felt compelled to keep talking. “You were tossed about in heavy seas. You weren’t due for two more months. A woman . . .” Kenta hesitated and searched his memory.
“Ipo,” completed Haru.
“Yes, a Hawaiian woman condemned to a leper’s death helped you. She delivered me as people meeting the boat watched. You were lucky you made it to the beach in time.”
Haru grabbed Kenta’s hands. Her head did not move. She hardly noticed the gentle surf sweeping over her toes. “I wasn’t lucky, Kenta.”
Kenta felt a stirring in his stomach full of popcorn, Coca-Cola and bonbons. “What are you saying?”
“My baby died on the beach.”
Two beach boys hurrying past dove into the surf.
Haru held Kenta’s hands tightly.
“Then . . . who am I?”
“You are Ume’s son . . .” Haru replied in a low voice.
Kenta made out only the word “Ume.”
Haru held his gaze and took her time. “Teiko . . . is your birth sister.”
Kenta bent over and retched popcorn smudged in acidic chocolate. Knees on the beach, he cupped salt water from a surf surge and wiped his mouth. He pounded the sand with his fists. “No, no, no, no, no . . .”
Haru lowered her eyes. Her worst fears cascaded through her mind. Would Kenta run away? Condemn her for her deceit? Would he tell his father? How could Kenji bear it?
Kenta stood up, his eyes filled with confusion. “I need to know everything. The whole story.”
Haru stared directly at the ocean. The mid-afternoon sun was sinking over Pearl Harbor to her right. Fluffy clouds danced. A surfer cried out as a wave flipped him on his back.
Kenta grabbed his mother’s hands. “Is any of the beach birth story true?”
“My baby was stillborn on that beach. Ipo tried to breathe life into my baby,” Haru began. “You can’t imagine the devastation, losing my baby. Otösan had begged me, begged me not to go. My stubbornness killed my baby.”
“So you switched babies . . .”
Haru silently thanked Kenta for not speaking to her in an accusing tone in his flat voice. “When I saw Ume’s baby . . .”
Haru raised her eyes tentatively, seeking out Kenta’s eyes, still in disbelief. “He . . . you . . . were so healthy, but motherless. Ume insisted I take you and raise you as my own. She wouldn’t accept my protests. She said Irie could not handle another child. I knew that better than Ume. So I put you to my breast, changed your diapers, put Band-Aids on your skinned knees and walked you to kindergarten. You were my son in every way that counted.”
“If Irie hadn’t died, leaving Teiko without a family, I never would have known,” Kenta said soberly.
Kenta raised his eyebrows. “Does Otösan know?”
Haru withdrew her hands from Kenta’s grip. Her constricted throat squeaked, “By the Lord Buddha, no.” The wind and surf drowned out the strained words, but Kenta read her lips.
“Then this is our secret. You are my mother.” Kenta wanted to add “I love you,” but could not. Boys did not say such things to their mothers any more than men professed it to their wives.
They walked silently to the beachfront Elks Club. Haru wanted to freshen her face in the ladies’ room, but knew that, except for employees, Asians were not allowed on the premises. She settled for splashing her face with water from the water fountain across the street in Kapi‘olani Park.
To be continued . . .