My Auntie Toshie is celebrating her 90th birthday today. She’s one of my Hawaii-style “aunties,” a friend who is as much part of the family as any blood relative.
The connection goes back to an after-dinner conversation between my dad and Toshie’s brother-in-law, Mits, at our Downey house in 1961. Uncle Mits, the husband of Toshie’s younger sister Amy, and my dad were both engineers at North American Aviation in the Downey Space Division plant. Uncle Mits, an MIT grad, and my Caltech dad traded good-natured barbs about school rivalry, and even at my very young age I knew that they got along well.
According to my mother, Uncle Mits mentioned that on a drive out in “the country” of unincorporated Orange County, he and Auntie Amy came up an area they really liked. He was hoping to buy a lot and build a home there, but the lot owner would only sell a minimum of two acres. Since Uncle Mits only wanted one acre, would my dad be interested in going in with him to split the lot? When my dad heard that it was in Peralta Hills in the Santa Ana Canyon, he shocked my mother by saying “yes” on the spot, the property sight unseen.
My father, as it turned out, knew the area well, as his family farmed in Peralta Hills before the war. At that time, the property was an orange grove, and the road out there was just a one-lane dusty road, long before the twelve lanes of the Riverside Freeway ever existed. Twice a year, we’d drive out to what seemed like the end of the world to get to “the lot” when my dad met with the Sunkist representative to negotiate selling his oranges for juicing. We played in the canyon wilderness, eating my mom’s teriyaki chicken and potato salad picnic. It was all very adventurous.
Uncle Mits and Auntie Amy built their home there in 1964. They never had children, and Auntie Toshie, a young widow with a young son, moved in with them. My parents started building their home up the hill in November 1967 and we moved out there in June 1968. In the meantime, the City of Anaheim annexed Peralta Hills and North American created a new division, Autonetics, five minutes away from our new home. Somehow my dad and Uncle Mits had been way ahead of that curve.
So for fifty years, our families have been connected by this land. Food and gifts have gone back and forth between our homes constantly. Almost daily my mother dispatched one of my brothers or me to their house with something home cooked or my dad’s vegetables, saying, “Here, take this to tonari.” Although we have other neighbors, only one house was “the” neighbor tonari. Auntie Toshie always asked me how school was, and always added that she knew what a good student I was. Their mother, Mrs. Kawasaki, taught me the finer points of sewing during the summers she visited here from Hawaii. She and Auntie Amy made me the Japanese-style comforter I took to college and law school.
After Auntie Amy died of cancer when I was in college, Auntie Toshie moved out. Uncle Mits remarried, to the widow of my dad’s golfing buddy. Things changed at “tonari’s,” but my mother especially stayed close to Auntie Toshie. My dad and Uncle Mits remained pals and good neighbors, and a year ago at the scattering of my dad’s ashes, he emotionally told me how much he missed my dad. It’s hard to see Uncle Mits bent with Parkinson’s, also over ninety years old now, and I’ve missed Auntie Amy and missed having Auntie Toshie down the street. I guess that’s why in some part I appreciate how great Auntie Toshie still looks and am so glad that she is doing so well. She always writes me such nice letters at Christmas time and says how proud she is of “Akemi-chan.”
My mother and Uncle Mits will be the special guests at her birthday party, given by her son and his family. I don’t suppose that the orchids I sent her yesterday came from Hawaii, but she was happy to receive them, nonetheless. Happy birthday, Auntie Toshie!