Roots and Branches: Find and use your tools

October has been a chaotic month filled with euphoric highs, deep lows and an abundance of typical day to day experiences, including work and family responsibilities. I have learned over my 66 years to appreciate the preponderance of peaceful proceedings for they serve as a barometric reading of “normal” that helps me register the highs and lows more effectively.

This month will see the culmination of decades of work on the part of Minoru Yasui’s children Holly, Iris and Laurie, who will be visiting for the centennial events honoring their father. It is also the family’s opportunity to thank the students, leaders and community partners from their dad’s home town for their contributions in the long overdue recognition of Yasui’s advocacy for social justice and civil rights. While one might assume that the bestowing of the Presidential Medal of Freedom was the crown jewel, the family firmly believes that his real legacy lies in inspiring future generations to continue the battle he so fiercely fought. The family hopes their gift of the legacy stone will strengthen the spirit of new generations of community advocates in seeking “justice for all.” By revisiting Yasui’s heart felt values each Oct. 19, his birthday, and March 28, Oregon’s Minoru Yasui Day, interest in social justice issues will thrive. Join us on the library steps at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 19 to celebrate Yasui’s 100th birthday, his passion for justice and a brief introduction to his life work.

Birthdays have long served as celebratory events for the living as well as poignant times of remembrance for those who have passed away. My mother-in-law, Mikie Yasui, shared Min’s birthday as well as his passion for serving others. She just had different tools in her tool box — a sharp knife, rice pot, fresh fruit and vegetables, an ancient copper bottom pan for stir frying and a strong pair of chopsticks. As you might guess, I feel closest to Mikie when I am in the kitchen, reading her faded handwriting on recipe cards, and preparing multi-generational delicacies for the family. The dishes evoke the love of family, the delicious aromas bring back memories of family gatherings and homes filled with tradition and compassion for others. Mikie’s legacy was keeping the table laden with healthy foods from all ethnicities. She enticed her guests to try something new, and not to fear the unfamiliar. She was an extraordinary hostess, making lifelong friends with every guest seated at her dinner table, mastering the role of community advocate and mediator in a gentle, thoughtful way.

My dad’s day of birth was Oct. 22, 1904. Memories of orchard clean up and harvest laid to rest surround my memories of his birthday: The smell of rain and rotting fruit, piles of maple leaves and wood smoke rising from smoldering fruit tree branches. Dad wore the uniform of the 1950 farmer, a khaki cap, pants and shirt, brown lace up boots and a worn leather belt. A bright blue or red bandana peaked from his back pocket while the front right held his stick matches and knife.

In his own way, Dad was a community organizer, bringing neighbors together at the kitchen table over a steaming cup of coffee. He always cheered for the underdog like the Flying Finn, an Olympic ski jumper, or past generations of Finns who fought the giant hammer and sickle of Russia. The tools of his trade in the daylight hours always involved a pot of Hills Brothers Coffee and conversation punctuated with laughter, sarcasm and friendly but competitive banter. At night when the cloak of darkness coaxed more thoughtful conversations, especially among the men, Dad would sink into an ancient corduroy recliner, resting his weary, arthritic knees on the footrest and aching shoulder and forearms on its worn arm rests. A calloused hand coddled a shot glass of Jim Beam whiskey that he would nurse slowly throughout the evening and into the wee morning hours if a neighbor in need came by for some common sense counseling. He was most often joined by fellow Finns, several who had lost their wives to cancer. They would sit in those tired recliners for hours, pain slipping away into the night or wafting skyward on the smoke of a shared Roi Tan cigar. If you were Norm Hukari, you brought your own scotch; if you were Bill Gale it was Wild Turkey. Dad’s unique tools — a pot of hot coffee, two declining recliners positioned in front of the winter hearth, a shot glass of whiskey and a Roi Tan— passed between friends.

We were little when we lost our mother, making Dad the center of our universe. We always tried to buy him something special for his birthday, something that would ease the pain of love lost, crippling arthritis and the physical toll of farming. We always ended up asking Norm or his brother Rob to buy us a box of cigars or a bottle of whiskey, counting our pennies, nickels and dimes for weeks. Norm always knew we had to pay for the gift with our hard earned money. Memories of Norm were fresh from the memorial at the Crag Rat Hut a few weeks ago. How we loved that man. As I think back, that ritual of healing the men shared on the long winter nights in our living room should have left us with the disgusting stench of old cigar smoke and rancid liquor when we awoke in the morning. Ironically, those smells made us feel safe and loved. We treasured the paper cigar rings left beside the ashtray, pretending they were wedding bands from our future husbands. Men who would be just like our father, or his dear friends Norm, Rob, Gene or Bill.

October brought the unexpected death of Terry Lynn Fletcher, neighbor, hairdresser and humorist extraordinaire. Terry reminded me of Dad in many ways. She told it like she saw it, pulling no punches. But her conversations were always entertaining, sprinkled with sarcasm, wit and irreverence. In her own way, the tools of her trade eased the woes of many she help make beautiful, the gift of gab, a good listening ear, a comb, sharp scissors and set of hair clippers.

Neighbor Betty Johnson used the tools of her trade as well to build neighborhood, an artist’s eye for beauty, canvas, paint, brush and palette knife. She created beautiful vignettes that brought comfort to others, helping them see the world through a different set of eyes. Matriarch Margaret Gehrig passed as well. She gave me my first immunization 60 years ago with a deft hand and the talent of diverting a terrified child’s attention from the needle that seemed to come every year before the start of school. Her tools, kindness, a needle and syringe, an arm around your shoulder, a hug when you were done.

Each of us has our own tools, talents and treasures, find yours and join the Minoru Yasui quest for “Justice for All” helping make this world a better place when we leave it, than when we entered.

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