Aloha, Grandma Florence
In her final years, “Grandma Florence” became one of the island’s most beloved social media personalities.
But over Florence Shizuko Hasegawa’s long life, she also overcame childhood poverty and early widowhood, lived out Lahaina’s version of a Cinderella story, and reinvented herself as an entrepreneur and world traveler.
Hasegawa died March 14 in Lahaina, at age 105.
Daughter Pat Masumoto says she thinks the secret of her mother’s resilience was her fighting spirit and passion for life.
“Mom was tough,” Masumoto says. “She just always managed to get what she wanted. She would not give in, and she never settled.”
Hasegawa was born May 20, 1908, in Lahaina.
She came from a poor family, and when her mother became ill, she left school and took a job as a nurse’s aide at the Lahaina Dispensary to help support herself. She was 11 years old.
Although she loved caring for people and was fascinated – not frightened – by some of the horrific injuries treated at the dispensary, Florence was never able to pursue a career as a doctor or nurse because she was so poor. Instead, she got married and started her family. She gave birth to four children, three of whom survived early childhood. Not long after, her husband died.
As a widow with three children, Florence became nearly destitute, and took a job as a cleaning woman at a hotel in Lahaina to scrape enough money together to support her family.
That’s where she met George Hasegawa. A successful lawyer, Hasegawa wore fancy suits, drove a Model-T Ford and liked to enjoy the occasional drink with his well-heeled friends in the hotel bar. Hasegawa was immediately smitten with the spirited Florence, but the town was scandalized by their romance.
“My mother was scrubbing the floor, sweating. She was just a poor woman, and my father was a rich guy in town, and he fell in love with her,” Masumoto says. “My father’s family was really upset.”
Hasegawa was also recently widowed, with a young son. The two eloped to Honolulu, but it wasn’t easy blending their two families. Florence worked hard to fit in.
“Mom was tough,” Masumoto says. “My father was proud to be with her, because she was attractive and tasteful, and learned to be a fine woman. It was sort of like Pygmalion.”
Masumoto was the only child of their union.
Under the rules of primogeniture, Florence’s former father-in-law had received custody of her oldest son, and the boy was now living in poverty. She and her new husband had to buy him back with gifts of food and sake. Hasegawa grew to love his wife’s children, and eventually even his parents accepted her.
“The family became a family,” Masumoto says. “After a while, everybody got together, and it turned out OK. But it was very hard on Mom.”
George Hasegawa went on to become a judge. When he started officiating at weddings, he suggested that his wife become certified to issue marriage licenses. Young Patricia joined the wedding business, playing the piano.
“I played ‘Here Comes the Bride’ and ‘The Wedding March,'” Masumoto recalls. “He would marry people right there on our porch. It was like a family affair. People loved it.”
Her encounters with couples from around the world left her fascinated with travel. She collected maps from National Geographic, marking the small towns and big cities where her wedding guests lived. Later in life she founded a small travel agency, and used her new career to travel the world with her husband, journeying as far as Europe, India and Japan.
Although Florence Hasegawa became known for being feisty and “a character” later in life, Masumoto says she always had a sharp wit, and was more assertive and outspoken than the typical Japanese wife.
“My mother was very clever,” she recalls. “One time, my father was going to Japan with his cronies, and everybody knew that the guys go to Japan and have sake with the geishas. So before he went, she told him, ‘Go! Go! I’m so happy that you’re going! I’m so excited to have fun by myself!’ So my father got very nervous, and he ended up taking her with him.”
She says her parents were both fiery, animated people, who were well-matched.
“They had their ups and downs, but they never talked about leaving each other,” she says. “They were very passionately in love.”
Her mother applied her indomitable spirit to other family members as well. When she needed a new refrigerator, Masumoto helped move it in. As she watched her daughter setting up the condiments in the new appliance, Florence Hasegawa apparently was dissatisfied with the arrangement.
“Mom sat there watching me do it all, and then she said, ‘You’re not asking me the way I want it, you’re doing it your own way,'” she recalls. “She said, ‘You know what you’re doing? This is called elder abuse.'”
Her mother’s antics inspired Masumoto to write a one-woman play, “My Mama Monologues,” which she has performed around Maui and beyond.
“She can be really feisty,” Masumoto says. “She had no trouble expressing herself, and she does it with a degree of anger and bitchiness, so she gets her way because she’s so small. You would never expect my mother to say something like that.”
Toward the end of her life, Florence Hasegawa became known for her posts on the social networking site Twitter. Masumoto says her mother initially joined the site at age 100 to keep track of grandchildren, nieces and nephews, but her dry witticisms and humorous observations on life and aging soon drew an audience of more than 2,100 followers.
“Alberta says if I don’t stimulate my eardrums, I will go completely deaf,” she posted on Aug. 3, 2010. “If I shout to myself, I can hear my own voice. Will that do?”
Two weeks later she shared: “I’m a good example of someone who eats bananas to be happy. I’m happy eating them in bed when I’m hungry & too lazy to go to the kitchen.”
“In no time at all, she became really popular,” Masumoto recalls. “She doesn’t think she’s funny. She’s serious, but her seriousness is funny. She would say something completely off the cuff and so serious that it would be hilarious.”
Masumoto says her mother continued to live in good health until a few weeks before her death, and passed away peacefully at home.
She is also survived by seven grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren.
* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.