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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, December 24, 2004

Merry Kurisumasu, Mama

 •  'Soldiers' of salvation

By Janet Shitabata
Special to the Advertiser

December 24, 1942, Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii. A Year after Pearl Harbor.

Keiko ignored the frown on her 6-year-old daughter's face. She reached into the muslin bag of rice stored under the kitchen sink and scooped three tin cups full of the pearly grains into the iron pot resting on its blackened bottom on the floor beside her. She hoisted the pot into the sink with a thump. Finally, she looked down at Aiko.

"Kurisumasu turee. No can. War time. Big boat no buring."

"But if we don't have a Christmas tree, Santa Claus won't come to our house tonight," Aiko shot back in perfect English.

Money bought presents, Keiko thought, switching to comfortable Japanese, not a fat, bearded man in a red suit.

She ran water into the rice.

"We talk about the turee when Papa come home."

She stirred the grains with her hand. Within seconds, weevils, their tiny bodies twitching, floated to the milky surface. "No need buy meat," she muttered. "just cook weevils with rice."

Aiko stood on her toes, eyes bright. "I wanna see."

Keiko shook her head. "Go outside."

As she watched Aiko push open the screen door, sadness warred with pride at her daughter's skill in English. Aiko was born a year after she and Hiro arrived in Honolulu. After the Pearl Harbor attack, anything and anyone "made in Japan" was evil and Keiko made no demand that their child speak her parents' language. Now Aiko's Japanese was like her mother's English — mixed up and broken.

Under the mango tree in the back yard, Aiko scuffed the dry Kaimuki dirt into coppery puffballs with her slippered foot. Don't ask Papa, she thought. He'll only say, 'War is bad,' and walk away. She knew why the lines between his eyes stayed stuck on his face. It was because he didn't wear a white shirt and tie to an office anymore. These days, he delivered bags of fee in a junkalunka truck to farmers all over the island, and when he came home, he smelled like stinky cows and pigs.

"Ai-chan," Mama shouted from the back door. "Mrs. Ferreira's here."

Aiko kicked off her slippers at the back door and ran into the house. Mrs. Ferreira lived across the street with her husband and their grown daughter, Tina, and sometimes Mrs. Ferreira brought over a big bowl of soup. She sniffed the warm air in the kitchen but detected no telltale scent of ham and cabbage. "No dancing for my stomach tonight," she thought.

Mrs. Ferreira stood in the front doorway talking to Mama. "Tina and I pau decorating our Christmas tree," she said. "Maybe your daughter like see 'em?"

Mama wrinkled her forehead. "Kurisumasu turee? How?"

"Not the kind from the Mainland," their neighbor said. "It's a Hawaiian pine. One Norfolk. Take a look."

Aiko and her mother stopped just inside the Ferreira's front door. Aiko's toes curled as she stared at the stiff branches of the fresh Norfolk that poked out from one corner of the parlor. Glass balls of every color she could name swung between the branches, and red and green lights shaped like candles glowed here and there. At the very top stood a golden-haired angel in a silky white gown. Her silver wings just missed scraping the ceiling. Aiko knew Santa would have no trouble finding a place for presents here.

As they headed back to their house, Aiko grabbed her mother's hand. "Can we get a Norfolk, too?" The quick tightening of her mother's lips gave Aiko her answer. No Hawaiian tree.

That was why Aiko's eyebrows shot up and almost met the straight bangs over her eyes when Mama said, "We make our own turee. Get my scissors in the kitchen drawer."

Scissors in hand, Aiko's mother headed for a clump of palm plants next to the sagging front gate. With narrowed eyes, she checked the thin leaves, then quickly clipped six of the longest, greenest branches. Minutes later, she dropped them into a chunky, white vase on the floor next to the rattan chair. She left the room and returned, lugging a cardboard carton.

"Come see what I have."

Aiko folded back the top and peered in. The smell of mothballs tickled her nose, and she sneezed.

One by one, Mama lifted three cardboard boxes, each wrapped in newspaper, and placed them on the low table in front of the couch. "When you two years old," she said, "Mrs. Ferreira come over and show me how to decorate a turee and fill a stocking from Kurisumasu Ebu." She uncovered the first box. "That was first time we had Kurisumasu tree."

Aiko clapped her hands when she saw the glass balls. They hadn't had a tree last Christmas, and she had forgotten they even had decorations.

"What about lights?"

"No lights. They pull the branches down." Mama placed an ornament in Aiko's hand.

"But if we don't hang lights, will Santa know this is a Christmas tree?" She hooked the red ball on a low, curving branch.

"Of course," said mama in her take-charge voice. "Santa do this years and years. Not everyone in the world decorate a turee in same way."

The knot in Aiko's stomach came untied. After Mrs. Lindsey, her teacher at school, Mama was the smartest lady in the world.

"What's this?"

Papa. Aiko turned to smile at him. "It's a Christmas tree."

He had come in through the kitchen and he stood, shoulders slumped, in the doorway that led into the parlor. Half-moons of wet had turned the underarms of his gray shirt black, and dried mud spotted the wrinkled shirt front.

"We need a place to hang my stocking," she said, willing Papa's lips to turn up and the lines around his eyes to crinkle in the old way.

Her father stared hard at the green fronds that dragged on the floor, then shifted his gaze to Mama kneeling beside the Christmas tree. "Hot water for the furo ready?" His words tumbled out hard and flat as he pulled his shirt from the waist band of his denim pants.

Mama pushed herself up and followed Papa into the kitchen and closed the door. Aiko knew her parents would talk in low voices about what he had heard at Mr. Tanaka's feed store about the war.

Just before bedtime, she took one last peek at the pink sock she'd tacked up on the wall, and wished she hadn't. It looked so lonely.

Two walnuts and five pieces of peppermint candy wrapped in red paper were all that Keiko needed to fill the small sock. There was plenty left in the two bags in her hands to welcome the New Year.

"Santa Claus," Hiro said from behind her, the now familiar edge in his voice. "Silly, make-believe hero."

Keiko clutched the bags to her chest and turned. "He's real to Aiko. Is it so wrong to give our daughter another year of childhood?"

Hiro snorted. "Putting nuts and candy in a sock will do that?"

"If it gives her one more happy memory." She brushed past him and he followed her into the kitchen. She stuffed the bags into an empty gallon jar and, mindful of the roaches, ants and mice that claimed her house as theirs, screwed the cover tight and placed the jar under the sink.

"And that thing you called a Kurisumasu tree," he said. "I supposed that's another happy memory?"

Her heart thudding, she faced him. "The child clapped because of 'that thing'." Her voice softened. "Please, Hiro, the war has robbed us of so much — your job, family, friends, our church. We walk with our heads down. We talk in whispers. I want something better for our daughter." When he shrugged and walked away, heat flooded her cheeks and she called out after him, each word a knife cut. "You're right. War is bad. It's made you forget how to be a father."

"Mama! Papa!" Aiko's high-pitched voice pierced the closed wooden door of her parents' bedroom. "Wake up!"

Keiko glanced at the clock next to the futon that she and her husband shared. Six o'clock. She rolled off the thick mattress, careful not to wake Hiro. She opened the door a crack.

Aiko grabbed her hand and pulled her into the lighted parlor She pointed to a spot next to the tree. "Look!"

The pink stocking was gone. In its place, hung three gray socks — the kind worn by working men who wore boots with thick soles. The socks bulged and sagged against the wall. Keiko blinked hard and took a deep breath.

"Santa found our tree!," Aiko said, her voice triumphant. "And he brought walnuts and candy for everybody." She grinned at Keiko. "Merry Kurisumasu, Mama." She looked over her mother's shoulder and her lips stretched wider. "Merry Kurisumasu, Papa."