By Mary Abo, For The North American Post
My mother’s favorite place in the whole world was her garden, surrounding our home on a hill and covering about one acre in Juneau, Alaska. We called it “Mama’s Garden.”
There were at least 100 steps with three short landings to reach our house from South Franklin Street, which runs along the waterfront. Take another 25 stairs and you reach a dirt road at the base of Mount Roberts.
From our house, the garden looked like it extended into the mountain with its massive hemlock, spruce and alder trees.
My sister, Alice, said Toyokawa-san built rock terraces on the hilly plot for mother’s garden. He helped tend the carrots, rhubarb, green onions and radishes for my father’s cafe. Mom especially liked the fragrant sweet peas that thrived in the cool, damp weather.
I don’t know what mom’s garden looked like before World War II. I was born in 1940, just a toddler at the start of the war. All Japanese in Alaska were first sent to the Puyallup Assembly Center and then to the Minidoka incarceration camp.
When we returned home to Juneau in 1945, my father successfully reopened his cafe with the whole family helping out.
During our three-year absence, mom’s garden was overtaken with thorny salmonberry and raspberry bushes, grass and dandelions. But there came a time when mom could escape from the cafe to spend a few hours in her garden every day during spring and summer.
Mom would take a pick axe to loosen the soil to rescue the surviving plants — buttercups and forget-me-nots. She dragged wooden planks to make pathways so her feet would not get muddy from the rain. A large outcropping rock about five feet high — she named “Fuji-san” — held a reverent position in the garden.
I dreaded it when mom would nag me to help her in the garden:
“Whatsa matta you?”
“Don’t be a buta (pig), just eat and sleep, eat and sleep.”
I couldn’t understand why mom wanted to reclaim her garden.
“How can we dig up the whole backyard by ourselves?”
Her vision was not mine.
She replied, “Chotto chotto” (little by little).
Mom was short, about four feet tall, and 60-years-old then and often scolded me.
“Don’t keri keri keri all the time (Japanese onomatopoeia for “fooling around”)!
She tied a white dishcloth over her hair, pulled back in a bun. She wore an old dress down to her ankles and an apron. I thought she looked like the picture of the old woman with a stick on the Dutch Cleanser can, chasing dirt.
One day, my pitchfork dug out some cloth strands from the ground. When I pulled it out, it looked like a rotten gunny sack.
I asked, “What is this?”
Mom laughed and replied, “Oh… that’s old potato sack! Long time ago, I worry we run out food, so I bury some here. Wartime — very shimpai suru (worry a lot).”
I looked at mom like she was crazy. I pulled out as much of the sack as I could, trying to imagine her burying the sack. I remembered how our family was ordered to pack up and leave during the war.
But I had never thought about how frightened she must have been.
Holding the remains of the sack in my fingers, I resumed digging alongside her.
I think Mother was pleased since I didn’t complain anymore.
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