A Sansei Reflects On a Magical Time and Place

Aileen Hanai-Wills
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Editor’s note: The following memory essay was shared with the Herald by Aileen Hanai-Wills, who spent her formative years in Hawai‘i and now lives in Eugene, Ore. She writes about visiting her Issei grandparents’ home on the banks of Pearl Harbor’s West Loch in the 1950s and ‘60s as a 10-year-old child. As the mother of grown children who, fortunately, had a chance to visit their great-grandparents’ home at West Loch, Aileen said she hopes her memories will be meaningful to Herald readers.

Fields of sugar cane lined the rural road that led to their home. As we traveled deeper along the route, it felt like we were being swallowed up among the tall stalks with their fluffy tassels. Suddenly, the road turned abruptly, dropping us like a roller coaster ride at our destination — Grandpa and Grandma Asato’s house.

My two brothers and I quickly jumped out of the car, leaving Mom and our baby sister behind. Grandma greeted us with a wide, generous smile. I remember her dark, leathery skin, toughened by her years of hard work under the sun. She laughed when she saw our eager faces and pointed to the collection of empty tin cans and glass jars that lay discarded by the banana trees. That should keep us busy, Grandma said, as Mom carried my sister and followed her toward the house. From the landing on the porch they could watch us play around the amazing pond.

My grandparents’ house was elevated — they used the entire bottom section of the slatted enclosure for storage.

Beneath my grandparents’ property lay a hidden treasure, an artesian well that Grandpa and Grandma had tapped, providing them with fresh spring water that they used to irrigate their vegetable garden and create a large pond. The pond was covered with emerald-green lily pads with exotic white and pink blossoms. Heart-shaped taro leaves huddled in clusters along the border. The pond was surrounded with majestic red torch ginger and delicately fragrant white ginger blossoms.

The tranquil scene was interrupted by our noisy excitement as we swooshed our little nets around in the water. Ripples expanded across the pond, forcing a swarm of tiny dragonflies resting on the lily pads to take flight, scattering like glitter tossed in the wind. Our cans and jars were soon filled with a water world of creatures: minnows, guppies, black wiggly tadpoles, agitated crayfishes and even docile snails. I liked the rainbow guppies the best. When I held my glass jar up to the sun, I could see their long colorful tails flowing like liquid stained glass.

Our grandparents’ home was a wonderland for us. The wild tropical flora nestled in the harbor filled our childhood years with hours of imaginative play. It was a gift we got to enjoy because of our grandparents’ will to persevere through the harsh early years of their life in Hawai‘i.

Grandpa Taketa Asato was 18 years old when he arrived in Hawai‘i from Nakagusuku village in Okinawa, lured by the promise of a better life. He was among the immigrants that worked for the sugar plantations in the early 1900s. Grandma Miya Asato arrived a few years later to be his bride in a marriage that had been arranged by their families. After several years of working for sugar plantations on Maui, they moved to O‘ahu and continued working for sugar companies.

With money they had saved, they joined a group of farmers and fishermen who leased parcels of land along an inlet of Pearl Harbor called West Loch. It was a bold move for all of them, relying mainly on their own labor and resourcefulness to make a living.

Our grandparents persevered through the years, providing for their family of six sons and three daughters. My mom, Alice, was their eldest daughter. She said hard work was expected from all of them. Her biggest responsibility was looking after her younger siblings so Grandma could tend to the garden and help Grandpa. By the time we came along, the land was theirs and we had our wonderland.

From the pier, Grandpa saw Grandma waving her arms and pointing to us. Grandpa spent a lot of time on the wooden pier that jutted out into the harbor. In the early years, the pier was essential to his livelihood, as it was where he caught the seafood that fed their growing family and that he sold for money. Although the pier was no longer a necessity, Grandpa still enjoyed being out there.

Back then, fish and crustaceans thrived in the nutrient-rich seawater. Grandpa’s narrow pier was built with koa pilings and had wooden slats for the decking. It was weathered in several places, so we had to be careful not to step on the broken slats while walking out to the end of the long pier. Sometimes Grandpa would let us throw out his crab nets and show us how to quickly pull up the nets before the crabs slipped out. It was thrilling to be on the pier; it made us feel brave, like we were out at sea and yet tethered to the land.

Grandpa came in from the pier and walked a few feet, stepping over the worn railroad tracks to the other side, where we were playing by the pond. The steel rails were a remnant of the past and a reminder that the railroad once ran in front of their property.

By 1898, the Oahu Railway & Land Company had laid down tracks connecting downtown Honolulu with rural communities along the southwestern edges of the island. The railroad continued northwest, skirting the Wai‘anae coast and ending at Kahuku, on O‘ahu’s northern tip. The railroad provided transportation and commercial opportunities for many along its route.

Grandpa and their neighbors sometimes caught the train to Honolulu to sell their produce harvests and seafood. More often though, Grandpa walked along the railroad tracks to ‘Ewa, the next rural town over, to sell his goods. Mom said he filled two big baskets with fish, crabs, sometimes oysters, vegetables and taro and hung a basket on each end of a long stick that he balanced across his shoulders. With his straw hat on his head, he walked miles, relying on his legs to reach his destination. A good day of peddling meant he had made enough money to take home to his family — and to reward himself with a bottle of sake.

As Grandpa approached us, we saw the same dark, leathery skin as Grandma. But it was his gold-capped front tooth that identified him. Flashes of gold glinted as he spoke to us in Japanese, which we didn’t understand. That didn’t bother Grandpa, though. He just continued walking to the house.

Grandpa joined Grandma and Mom on the porch, where he sat down and pulled out a pouch from the front pocket of his shirt. His white bushy eyebrows drew close in concentration as he rolled his tobacco and licked the paper shut. As he smoked his cigarette, he looked out at the harbor and watched us playing on the railroad tracks. Silhouetted by the bright, shimmering water behind us, we must have looked like shadow puppets as we hopped on and off the tracks.

According to Mom, there were once clams in the harbor. She said the water was so clear she could see the eyes of the clams peering out of their shells. That all changed when the war came. The water became dirty and polluted, killing the clams.

My mother was 12 years old when she saw the Japanese zeros in the skies above their home that Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. From the other side of the large peninsula that separated their community from the Pearl Harbor Naval Base came the frightening sound of exploding bombs and the sight of billowing black smoke. Japan was at war with the United States.

The surprise attack lasted two hours, spilling tons of oil into the harbor, along with ship debris and bodies. Mom said her family was lucky — they were spared from the internment camps. Grandpa and Grandma were classified as poor farmers and thus were not subjects of suspicion as were those of higher status.

Under martial law, military activity soon became intertwined in their daily lives. Mom remembered soldiers walking on the railroad tracks and stopping to ask questions. She also remembered patrol boats darting across the harbor, making their rounds. The train became vital to the war effort, transporting workers, supplies and military personnel to the various bases. Food had to be rationed and the windows of their home had to be darkened to prevent any bit of light from leaking out at night and possibly alerting the enemy if they had invaded the Islands.

Five of Mom’s six brothers showed their loyalty to their country by joining the U.S. military. Only her eldest brother remained home, duty-bound by tradition to take care of Grandpa and Grandma.

As time passed and tensions eased, interactions became friendlier. Soldiers passing by would wave at the family. Some of the soldiers even shared their care packages from home, giving them candy and cookies.

Candy was a special treat, she remembered. It could be easily unwrapped and eaten, not like the stalks of sugar cane that were their usual confection. Chewing on sugar cane “made my teeth strong,” she said. Sometimes we got to eat sugar cane when we visited. Cut from the nearby field, the thick outer stalk was peeled away with a machete and given to us. We bit hard into the dense fibrous stalks and sucked on the pure, sweet liquid.

There were so many fresh fruits to eat at Grandpa’s and Grandma’s house — bananas, coconuts, tamarind, papayas, plums and avocado trees grew in abundance throughout the property. Luscious yellow and red mangoes were ready to be picked whenever in season. I remember the long, handmade bamboo pole with a hook and basket that was used to pick the mangoes. The pole was hoisted high into the air and into the branches. With a firm yank of the hook, the heavy mangoes dropped into the basket, arching the pole back downward. With perfectly ripe mangoes in our hands, we peeled back the thick outer skin and bit into the soft, golden pulp with the juices running down our lips and arms and onto our clothes.

It was much easier to harvest the liliko‘i, or passion fruit, which dangled from curly vines in the bushes. The oval-shaped, glossy-yellow fruit fit nicely in our palms as we tugged at them. Puncturing the rind revealed little seed sacs that burst with flavor when they met our tongues. The tart and sour taste puckered our lips.

But not all of the fruits were as inviting to our eyes and young palates. A soursop tree by the shed bore a large bulbous fruit with a prickly green skin that looked forbidding. The milky inside of the fruit was slimy and tasted too peculiar for us to want to eat again.

Grandma leaned out from the porch and called for me to come inside the house. She wanted to take my measurements so she could sew my new kimono for the annual summer Obon festival at the local Buddhist temple. I followed Grandma to her bedroom, where she took out some brightly colored yukata fabric from a drawer and held it up against me, nodding approvingly. Then, slipping her tape measure off of her neck, she started to take my measurements.

As I stood obediently with my arms outstretched, I observed three things in her room: the big bed, the tall dresser and her Singer sewing machine. Atop the dresser sat a framed photograph of their family: Grandpa and Grandma with their nine children, dressed in their Western best, wearing serious faces.

I looked at her dresser, knowing there was something special in one of the drawers.

Grandma had once shown me a black silk kimono. “This,” she quietly told me, “is reserved for when I die.” But in that moment, she stood alive and well before me, allaying my fears.

She picked up the cut fabric and sat at her sewing machine, rocking her feet back and forth on the treadle, her energy driving the needle up and down as it stitched the cloth together.

Grandma was a devout Buddhist. Every day, she sat before the lacquered shrine in the living room, lit incense and prayed. She faithfully filled the shrine’s small gold pedestals with offerings of food for our ancestors. I once got caught eating from the pedestals and was scolded for my transgression, which left me feeling bad. More than the scolding, though, I feared that our ancestors would come back to haunt me.

Grandma said I could go back out and play, leaving her to continue working on my new kimono.

I ran out to rejoin my brothers, anxious to see what new adventures they had discovered. I found them among the banana trees, poking around the grove with sticks they had found. It wasn’t long before I imagined myself in their wild tropical forest, searching for treasures, the broad banana leaves like elephant ears spread wide, shielding us from the hot sun. For my siblings and I, the outdoors represented the freedom for us to stretch our limbs and our imaginations.

We loved even the simplest outdoor activities. We had fun dipping the hollow stems of papaya leaves in soapy water and blowing bubbles. Sometimes dirt and water were all we needed to keep us busy, playing with mud — nature’s Play-Doh — and dreaming up things to make in our make-believe world.

We got dirty playing outside so we often bathed at Grandma’s house before going home. Bathing was done in a shed Grandpa and Grandma had built away from their house, at the far corner of the pond.

My grandparents bathed in a Japanese furo, a wooden bathtub, in the enclosed portion of the shed. There was a sink to wash clothes and an old washing machine on one side. A large water tank was stationed on the backside of the shed. The tank was heated by burning koa and kiawe (algaroba) wood, which were plentiful around the property. Pipes carried the heated water to the enclosed shed, filling the furo.

We all followed a strict set of rules when we bathed in the furo. Everyone had to first wash themselves clean outside of the furo tub and then rinse off completely with a few buckets of water. Only after we had done all of that could we step into the steaming hot tub to soak and relax. The furo was a daily respite and a small luxury for the entire family to soothe their tired muscles and release the stresses of the day.

Grandma’s voice interrupted our daydreaming.

“Come eat some crabs,” she called out. Grandpa had gone back out to the pier and retrieved the crabs he had caught earlier from the crab cage that he kept in the water. He had taken them into the house for Grandma to cook.

Grandma spread out some old newspapers on the front porch and then emptied the pot of cooked crabs onto the paper. Our hands were washed and ready for the feast. In no time, they were covered with the warm, salty liquid spilling out from the cracked shells. The crabmeat was sweet and delicious. We licked our fingers of any leftover flavor. With the last of the crabs eaten, all of our youthful energy had been expended. We were tired — it was time to go home.

Grandma quickly gathered up the remaining newspapers and walked swiftly to her vegetable garden. Squatting down, she clipped off some eggplants and beans from the garden beds and wrapped them in the newspaper. Spotting a nice head of cabbage, she added it to her harvest. And Grandpa, with his machete in hand, hacked off a bunch of bananas and handed it to us to take home.

We all piled back into the car and waved goodbye to Grandma and Grandpa from the back seat. Mom pressed hard on the gas pedal, accelerating the car to the top of the road as we held on tightly to the jars of fishes and tadpoles that were coming home with us.

My children never got to meet my grandparents, although I did take them to their old West Loch house a few times when they were young. By then, the sugar cane fields were gone and had been replaced with a housing subdivision. The steep driveway to their house was hidden between houses in a cul-de-sac. All traces of the railroad tracks were gone, as was the shed where we soaked in the hot furo. I was happy that the pond was still there; my uncle still used it to grow taro, which he sold. I was thrilled to see the excitement in my children’s eyes as they ran to the pond. They were as eager as I had once been to see what creatures lay hidden beneath the lily pads.

Over the years, our visits became less frequent. My family’s move to the Mainland only widened that distance.

Earlier this year, I returned to Hawai‘i for Mom’s 90th birthday party. My mother, my sister and I decided to take a drive to our grandparents’ old home. Our aunt lives there alone now since our uncle — Mom’s brother — passed away.

She welcomed us warmly when we arrived. We were quickly saddened by what we no longer saw, however. Our beautiful pond was now dried up, and the wild foliage that had been our playground in our childhood was gone, too. Gone was the way of life we remembered so fondly.

“The artesian well was shut off,” said Aunty.

She took us to the pier, which was now shorter and wider. It had been rebuilt with safety in mind. The familiar sea breezes brought some comfort as we walked along the pier, reminiscing the fun times we had enjoyed together. It was a short visit. As we drove away, past the row of houses, I longed for the past. I longed to see the sugar cane fields … and to be a child again, playing in the enchanted wonderland that had been Grandpa’s and Grandma’s house.

Aileen Hanai-Wills is a sansei who was born and raised in Hawai‘i. She graduated from Waipahu High School in 1968 and received a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Hawai‘i. Aileen retired last year after a 40-year career as a decorator consultant for Sears and JCPenney. Retirement gave her the time and freedom to reminisce and write.


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