Season of remembrance
|||Bon Dance Calendar 2006|
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Obon is a time to remember. But that's not easy for Noreen Kishi, because it means remembering her daughter, Jennifer, who died in 2001 at age 21.
She fans her eyes with her hands, trying to stave off the tears. She wants to get through the interview dry-eyed, but it isn't working. She waves off an offer to stop the tape recorder. While it's hard to think about Jennifer, who succumbed to a heart condition, she wants to talk about bon odori — because it's part of her daughter's story.
"Jen loved bon dancing," Noreen said.
Dad Michael tightens his jaw when he sees his wife tearing up. He can talk about a lot of things in a steady voice — the trips to UCLA for treatments to fix Jen's heart, or the day the emergency team showed up to take his daughter after she stopped breathing at home — but his voice betrays him when he talks about her bon dancing.
"I can see her up there" in the yagura (tower), he says, and as he talks, his breath catches in the crack of his voice. "I can see her, singing."
For this Pearl City family, it's more than music that swirls around the bon dance. There's also the raw emotion that comes when practicing Buddhists follow the ritual of making time to remember, time to revisit family members now gone ... no matter how many tears.
It was actually the girls who got the elder Kishis involved in the dance. Leslie, their daughter, and her younger sister, Jennifer, learned at the knee of the master: their auntie, Helen Kishi, who teaches bon dancing at temple rehearsals.
"They started going to church with me when Jen was 4 and Leslie was 7," Helen Kishi said.
They picked up everything quickly, including the bon dances. Mom and Dad would go to bon dances to watch them. Mom would dance; Dad sit and eat. Especially barbecue. Oh, and saimin.
"Normal people go down to check the food out," Michael Kishi said. "That's how we started."
Jen took up taiko drumming and later learned to sing, joining the singers in the top of the yagura. In 1988, the dancers from their temple traveled to Moloka'i for a bon dance. That marked a turning point for Dad, who was finally cajoled to join the dance.
"We're away from home," Michael recalled. "We're away from our own community. I said 'What the heck, yeah? No one knows us.' That was it. We got kind of hooked."
Now, he not only dances but introduces songs for their group.
"He's really into it," said Noreen, showing off her group's brightly colored, matching happi coats.
Hers is one of five. She even bought one for her granddaughter, Caitlin, 2, who pads around the house on the lightning-quick feet of a toddler and is already going into her third obon season.
"We can't wait till the summer," Noreen said. "I've missed class reunions, major parties ..."
"... graduations ..." interjects Michael, nodding.
"Our friends know not to call us if they're having a get-together on a bon dance night," Noreen finishes.
Leslie estimates she will attend 20 bon dances this summer.
A PUPPY TO LOVE
Obon time isn't the family's only regular religious experience. The Kishis also attend the monthly Buddhist services at Ryusenji Soto Mission in Wahiawa and they take part in the annual New Year's Eve rituals — making mochi, drinking sake and going to the temple for blessings. They even bring the dog.
Keiko, a yappy, happy Chihuahua, has a story to tell, too.
The last time the family returned from UCLA, the doctors told the Kishis there was nothing more they could do for Jennifer.
They went out and bought her a puppy.
They knew Jennifer did not have a lot of time left. At birth, doctors had given her just three months to live. She survived more than two decades. Noreen talks about this while watching her granddaughter fly around the room, squealing happy noises. Grandma is helping single-mom Leslie to raise Caitlin.
"It's so different, raising a healthy child," Noreen says, matter-of-factly.
But when the conversation segues to Jennifer's taiko skills, Noreen's tears well again in the corner of her eyes.
In the living room of their Pearl City home sits a Buddhist altar bearing pictures of Jen and her grandfather, Michael's dad, Masatsuki, who died a year and four days after Jen. They had all been there for Jen's one-year memorial service.
On the home altar sits an offering of a mango bookended by paper lanterns. Their Buddhism infuses the house as much as it informs their life.
However, Michael and Noreen worry about their religion. Leaders have been sounding messages of gloom and doom about the next generation of Hawai'i's Buddhists, saying if nothing stops the trends, the religion will die out in Hawai'i.
They see it themselves.
"We're almost seniors, but we're the young ones in our church," said Noreen, who with her husband is 59.
Christianity seems to be siphoning off the next generation, and while Buddhism is not an exclusive faith — you can be Buddhist and, say, Shinto at the same time — Christianity is. Converts are urged to reject their past beliefs.
Noreen's mother converted to Christianity late in life, partly because her son, Noreen's brother, wanted her to, and partly because she didn't want to burden her family with the Buddhist funeral rites, Noreen said.
She wishes people understood more about her religion.
"We don't flaunt our religion," she said. "We just respect people."
And their bon dance allows them to experience their heritage, as well.
"We want to continue tradition," Leslie said.