A recent family reunion drew nearly all of the surviving descendants of Matsuzo and Umeto Yogi to Las Vegas. The last time we all gathered in Vegas was in 2005, celebrating my grandmother’s 100th birthday. My father, having predeceased his mother, did not make it to either party.
Daddy passed away in December 1999, at home, with my mother, my son and me at his side. Obaban Umeto was living there too, but we had kept her from seeing her son for the last few weeks of his life.
Obaban had had dementia for years, and while she easily recognized each of us, her short-term memory was shot. Near the end of Daddy’s fight with pancreatic cancer, mornings in our household became a tragic version of the movie “Groundhog Day.” Every day upon waking, Obaban would push her walker down the hall to see if my father was up (family members sleeping in had long been a pet peeve of hers). Her initial irritation at seeing him still in bed would quickly dissipate into fear and concern over his emaciated state. It was obvious to her that her son was seriously ill, but she’d forget as soon as he was out of sight. The anguish on her face each morning as she was confronted with reality was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.
After a week of watching her go through this painful daily ritual of shock, we decided to keep his bedroom door closed whenever she was up and around. “He’s already gone to work,” we’d tell her, and she’d smile with satisfaction at the knowledge that her son wasn’t a lazy sleepyhead.
Obaban continued to live with my mother for several years after my father’s death, and when she’d ask about him, usually at the dinner table, Mom would say he was working late or on a business trip. Even as Alzheimer’s disease claimed more and more of her memory, Obaban knew who her constant companion was. Occasionally, she would thank Mom for being a good daughter-in-law.
At last week’s reunion, three generations of Yogis shared favorite memories of Obaban while the fourth generation could only smile and nod at our stories. My Mainland cousins had great tales to tell of when Obaban, in her 60s, lived with my aunts and uncles in California, babysitting their kids while they worked. She did live to see several great-great-grandchildren born, but not long enough for them to get to know her directly. Sadly, only my aunts and uncles had clear recollections of my grandfather, as he passed away in 1961 at the age of 54.
Matsuzo Yogi was actually my grandmother’s second husband. She came to Hawaii as a young bride for a man whose last name was Nakasone. We don’t know the details, but she gave birth to a son and a daughter before her husband left her here on Maui and returned to Okinawa with their children. She never saw her first-born son again, as he was killed during World War II.
Many years later, she did get reacquainted with her daughter and met her eldest granddaughter when they visited Hawaii. The relationship was tenuous, though, as Obaban never forgave her first husband, and Auntie Yoshie couldn’t bear listening to her mother bad-mouth her father.
The silver lining in the cloud of Alzheimer’s that enveloped Obaban was the eventual peace of mind she finally enjoyed. As my father used to remark, “the disease took the ‘bad’ part of her brain — the negativity and pessimism.” Indeed, by the time we celebrated her centennial with the first of our Las Vegas reunions, Obaban was carefree and contented. She happily held court with her dozens of descendants, singing songs and clapping her hands whenever one of the kids would do something cute or funny. After the reunion dinner, we took her to the casino and introduced her to the slot machines. She didn’t win any money, but the flashing lights and ringing bells delighted her.
As much fun as it was to reunite in Las Vegas, my cousins and I agreed, our next family reunion should take place here on Maui, with excursions to the old family homes in Pauwela and Haiku. No video poker or slots, but we’re sure to hit a jackpot of good times and great memories.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.