Roots and Branches: Traditions new and old

AUNT Molly Kageyama Maeda with her granddaughter, Lea Sugimura Tiernan, and great grandson, Sean.

Photo by Maija Yasui
AUNT Molly Kageyama Maeda with her granddaughter, Lea Sugimura Tiernan, and great grandson, Sean.

Our Thanksgiving table was overflowing this year with caloric dishes large and small. The turkey was the centerpiece, cooked to perfection by son Corey, who uses a fancy device called a thermometer rather than my old-fashioned method of flapping the oven door open and shut every few hours to check on the bird’s progress. If the bird looks like it is getting too dark I slap a foil tent on its noggin and let it keep cooking.

We have a vegetarian in the house, so we all tried to surprise her with some special sides. Unfortunately, many of the dishes failed the “true” vegetarian test. Memi has a fish base that I forgot about. Jell-O was off the “A” list, given that some cow sacrificed his hooves to help the salad set. And who would have known that my sister’s famous Caesar salad dressing had anchovies in it?

The vegetable dip passed muster, along with the applesauce, kale salad, squash and smashed potatoes (Ren’s name for Auntie Kim’s specialty, garlic whipped potatoes). The green bean casserole had no bacon this year, which was better for all those in a pork-induced cholesterol coma after eating too many of Auntie Kim’s other specialty, artery-buster sausages wrapped in bacon and roasted in maple syrup.

Oh! Dare I forget the traditional crescent dinner rolls, an all-time kid favorite from start to finish. Tiny tikes love whapping the container on the counter’s edge, rolling the sticky triangles into a crescent, and waiting a mere 10 minutes until they are baked and ready for consumption. Next you grab the warm roll with one hand, stabbing into its center with the opposing hand’s pointer finger. This makes the perfect pothole to fill with a dollop of huckleberry jelly fresh from the freezer. Down the hatch in one sweet move.

Of course, eating quasi-vegetarian made for more room at the dessert table. Little Aya made a pumpkin pie with gingersnap crust, Kathy made the Johnston family favorite, Uno pie, and Aunt Leslie made apple and cherry pies and threw in some cream puffs, cookies and brownies for good measure. If there is one thing this family knows how to celebrate, it is the “Dessert First” tradition etched on our late Aunt Lois Thomas’s tombstone.


AUNT Molly Kageyama Maeda.

Thanksgiving Day was also Aunt Molly’s 98th birthday. The Kageyama side of the family was celebrating in Seattle with this star senior citizen. Molly lives in a retirement home, but still walks the hilly sidewalks surrounding the complex, takes public transportation to her church and rocks the congregation with her handmade maki sushi rolls.

The day after Thanksgiving, Kim and I have traditionally donated blood at the Elks. I somehow got off the schedule by making a delayed donation at a Walmart drive this year and was ineligible. I am sure I will be hassled by John Buckley for this major holiday blunder. Thankfully, Kim was able to donate and uphold the family name.

Last year I initiated a new tradition: attending a family movie with the grandkids over the holidays. I have long been content to watch a movie months, or even years, after it opened, stretched out on the couch in a comfy robe with a bowl of popcorn riding shotgun on the side table. I think it was going out in the cold, waiting in a line, sitting in a hard seat for several hours, and cringing from the intense surround sound that kept me away from the movie theater for so many years. Over time, I have been increasingly outnumbered by family members who love the whole movie experience: the buttery popcorn, huge wrap around screen, ear drum pounding special effects and the occasional participatory experience of dressing in character costumes. They can talk movies for hours on end. As a nod to the younger generation, I have chosen to go to the theater at least once during the holidays, although the grandkids have to carefully choose a title that fits my criteria like a glove: beautiful sets or scenery, a soothing or upbeat sound track, and above all, a happy ending.

Last year, Kathy and I took the whole tribe of “young’uns” to “Kubo and the Two Strings.” It was a Japanese fairytale with majestic cinematography that told the time-honored story of good versus evil, and the role that family plays in prevailing in this battle. It hit close to home. There were many Japanese customs that our family adheres to depicted in a manner that helped the grandchildren understand why we continue these age-old traditions. I thoroughly enjoyed the grandchildren’s reaction to the origami characters, the visiting of the ancestral graves, “Hakamairi,” and the battle between good and evil. Most importantly, it had a happy ending with Kubo’s family celebrating together once again.

This year, I went with Niko’s family to the feel-good Thanksgiving movie “Coco,” the story of “The Day of The Dead, Dia de los Muertos,” a Mexican celebration very similar to Japan’s Hakamairi. The fable was told in the rich jewel tones of the Mexican holiday so intense they set the dark theater aglow, bathing little Ren’s face in a technicolor display that lent a supernatural aura to the movie going experience. Perhaps even more evocative of the movie’s captivating power was the fact that this little chatterbox was mute throughout the entire show.

The beat of mariachi music and poignant ballads immersed you in a culture so familiar as well as unique to our Mexican friends and family. A constant across all our cultures was the time-honored tale of honoring your ancestors, facing trials and tribulations and strengthening family ties. Whether Japan, Finland, England or Mexico, there is a common thread that is shared by all the family cultures. Traditions are mixed and matched on the weekend before Memorial Day. With the entire family in tow, parents retell story after story of their grandparents and great-grandparents, nieces and nephews, cousins and confidants. The grandchildren skip among the headstones, carrying water buckets filled with flowers to decorate the stones. They search for the family names: Annala, Thomas, Yasui, and Kageyama. Sixty-three stones in all. But with each passing year, the number grows in the eternal circle of life and death.

This year, Andrew put in comfy recliners at Hood River Cinemas, I am sure to draw in some of us older couch potatoes. We sat in the second row, allowing for Niko’s recently operated on leg to be propped up and protected from the onslaught of moviegoers. With one grandchild ensconced on each side, I watched in awe as the story of “Coco” transported us into a comforting world where family is celebrated, adversity is overcome, and our ancestors’ spirits are welcome at any family gathering. For this, we give thanks.

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