The Branches Grow from the Trunk

I ulu no ka lala i ke kumu.The branches grow because of the trunk. Without our ancestors we would not be here.

'Olelo No'eau - Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings, #1261 Collected, translated and annotated by Mary Kawena Puku

Wouldn't it be interesting to sit in a room with our ancestors and hear their stories? Perhaps we'd gain some insight into our lives and why we have certain inclinations and quirks in our behavior.

My maternal grandfather, Joichi Tahara, has been a mystery to me for most of my life. All I remember is that he wasn't around when I was growing up. Nevertheless, going up to Gramma's house in Paauilo-mauka was always a treat - the elevation was about 1,000 feet so there were lots of evenings with misty fog and cool, crisp mornings. But it was just Gramma there for as long as I can remember - and her big, empty house after the last of her nine children had moved out.

This was the house that Grampa built. It was surrounded by seven acres of coffee trees, green pasturelands and hills. The home had a little country and feed store attached to the front and an old fashioned Shell gas pump that my father helped put in. There was a round catchment tank for running water. Gramma had a little Bull Durham sack tied around the faucet to strain out particles that fell into the tank.

And Grampa was there literally, in a funerary urn, high atop a Buddhist altar in her bedroom. Gramma would do her prayers every morning and evening in front of the altar - always lighting incense. And my sister and I would sleep on her bed that sagged in the middle in that room. I always gazed at a beautiful scroll depicting a huge round, translucent moon and a baby smiling up at it.

I learned when I was older that Grampa died in a detention camp in Honolulu during World War II. My mother was 16 years old at the time of his death.

We found transcripts in the National Archives showing he had been questioned by the military police and knew that he was angry about being unjustly imprisoned. But that was it! No one spoke much of that day the FBI came and gave him a couple of hours to gather his things and say goodbye to his family. He was never seen again.

Kilauea Military Camp is situated down the road from the Volcanoes National Park Visitor's Center. The camp is a meaningful place to have a family reunion. It's located just past steaming volcanic vents with a gorgeous view of Halema'uma'u Crater and Mauna Loa, the world's largest shield volcano still considered to be active. 76 of the Tahara 'Ohana (family) gathered there this past July. The weekend weather was beautiful and clear, while other parts of the Big Island were wet and stormy.

The reunion was held in Volcano because that's where our grandparents, Joichi and Tomeyo Tahara, lived for a time in the early 1920's, just after marrying in the spring of 1921. Joichi was Issei (first generation Japanese in Hawaii). He came to Hawaii from Hiroshima. His family genealogy included rice farmers and family members who had cared for a Shinto shrine for 600 years. He worked as a postman in the Volcano area doing mail delivery on horseback. Tomeyo was Nisei (second generation) and worked for the family of Thomas Jaggar as a maid and cook. Jaggar was an American volcanologist with a PhD in geology from Harvard and was the director of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory from 1912 - 1940.

About a half year prior to the family gathering, my cousin unearthed a letter that had been lying dormant in one of my aunts' homes together with some of our grandmother's possessions. My grandfather had written the letter to my grandmother and his nine children - sometime in 1942 - from Sand Island Detention Camp, Oahu. It was written in beautiful Japanese calligraphy and was like finding a 70 year-old treasure - a time capsule filled with memorabilia.

76 relatives attended the reunion - aunties, uncles, cousins, second cousins, sisters and brothers. My mother's family likes to get together and enjoy each other's company. When the program began, we were told that KMC was the first place on the Big Island of Hawaii where Japanese suspects had been held before going to Sand Island. The thought that our grandfather was unjustly imprisoned 70 years ago - at the very place that we were all gathered so joyously together for the reunion - was sobering.

Grampa's letter was then read to all of us by his oldest male grandchild, Rocky, in a halting, saddened voice. We learned a lot about our grandfather in that one letter. He wrote in a poetic older style of Japanese showing he had been well educated. In fact, he had helped the local people communicate with their families in Japan through letters and headed the local Japanese school.

In the letter, he expressed his love for his wife and his great appreciation for her single handedly taking over the responsibility of raising their nine children and maintaining the household in his absence. He told her that he felt very lucky to have such a loyal and flawless wife - though he had failed to mention his sense of gratefulness to her in the past. He called her the best wife and wisest mother. He said she had made it possible to conclude his life as a Japanese without shame. And because of this, "he was quietly happy to be waiting for his destiny."

We learned about his steadfastness when he said no matter how long he was detained on Sand Island due to false accusations, it would never break his Japanese spirit. The camp was designed to break men's spirits. Then, at the end of the letter, we were surprised to learn that he was a haiku poet when he signed his name as Junsetsu (spring snow).

This month at our Zen Life & Meditation Center, we remember and honor our ancestors. Our forebearers are indelibly a part of us. We stand on their shoulders - thousands of them. They give us strength of character and the deep, abiding love that runs in our veins. We remember and honor them. In addition to my blood ancestors, I honor my zen, hula, and la'au lapa'au lineage - a long line of distinguished masters. Eo! Long may they live!

Malama pono (take care of body, mind and heart),

June Ryushin Kaililani Tanoue Dharma Holder, Kumu Hula