Roots and Branches: Continued traditions of support and of justice

Annala families, North Dakota, 1908.

August has been a month of reconnections, recollections and celebration.

Throughout our lives, we have been truly blessed to have an extensive circle of family, neighbors and friends who have lifted one another up in times of loss and hardships. Our support network is extensive, allowing us the ability to face and eventually prevail over injustice, inequality, and oppression. It serves as a beacon of light at the end of a long tunnel of darkness. We know we are privileged in that respect and must commit our lives to working with others whose network is less substantial or nonexistent. Our celebrations, while joyous and uplifting, are tempered by the knowledge of the suffering of others.

We were able to reconnect and celebrate life with the Yasui and Kageyama sides of the family last month while in the Seattle area. These are the west coast aging patriarch and matriarchs of our Asian network: Homer and Miyuki Yasui in their early 90s and Molly Maeda in her late 90s. They have served others for almost a century and must now rely on their own support networks. This is a difficult transition for them to make in the twilight of their lives. We assured them they are providing us the highest level of service by sharing their own life stories, making us the recipient of their wisdom and inspiring new ways to face barriers in our own lives and those around us.

Homer served his Portland community for the first 40 years as a surgeon and the last 30 years documenting the history of the Japanese immigrant and later the Japanese American citizens across the Pacific Northwest. He began focusing on the issue of internment along with his brother, Minoru Yasui, in the 1970s, then shifted to the Yasui family history in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In the last few years, his personal history and its relevancy to issues facing immigrants in today’s political environment has been his primary focus. He has been an avid spokesperson in elementary schools and universities, assisted in the development of historic exhibits in the U.S. and Japan, and provided his unique perspective in numerous magazines and newspapers utilizing other media forms such as film, television, radio and social media. Homer is a force to be reckoned with even in his 90s.

Miyuki Yasui and Molly Maeda take a more personal approach, serving others through their churches, retirement villages and the network of their activist children and grandchildren. They keep the Japanese traditions and culture alive by introducing others to the art and edibles of all things Japanese. From sushi to ikebana, taiko drumming to origami, they ease prejudice through interpersonal relationships one person at a time. The beat of their drum is slow and steady but exemplifies the importance of creating a strong base built on relationships that allows others to change systems, laws and the political environment. These gentle, quiet women let their actions speak for them, but in the process have created an enormous circle of admirers who continue to “pay it forward.”

About 40 of the Yasui side of the family converged on our home two weeks ago. This was an impromptu gathering to make sure that connections were strong with our aging family members as well as a time to celebrate our success in overcoming injustice as a family and at the state and national level. Three documentary film makers across several generations converged, each working through film, education, legal and historic documentation to energize efforts that highlight inequity in the legal, immigration and health systems. They continue to support local system change efforts (a documentary is in the making) while facilitating change at the national and international level.

The Annala side of our family gathered in Portland on Saturday. We celebrated the lives of our aging patriarch and matriarchs as well. Wayne Annala shared a story about my father, Sulo, that underscored the strength of family across international boundaries. He told me that my father offered to serve in Finland’s fight against Russian dominance in the 1930s. Although born in the United States, Sulo remembered the prejudice his parents had faced as new immigrants to America and his experience when his father and two uncles relocated all their families to the Hood River Valley. Finnish immigrants were held in low regard, much like their Japanese neighbors in the first half of the 20th century in this valley, a sentiment to which many immigrant families were subjected.

We recounted some of our ancestors’ life stories, reveled in the strength of family, laughed, hugged and renewed old friendships. We reconnected with the branch of the Annala family that remained in Finland and were excited to welcome the newest Finnish immigrants to Oregon, Timo Huusari and wife Elina, our second cousins once removed.

Timo’s mother, Raija, granddaughter of the Annala branch who remained in Finland, was my overseas pen pal 60 years ago. Thank goodness she was fluent in English for I had no Finnish language skills. We lost contact after exchanging only a handful of letters when her mother passed away and she was sent to live with her grandparents. Facebook reconnected the Finland and American branches 50 years later. Raija wrote a book about her Finland family and we shared five generations of Jacob, our father’s father, and his two brothers, John and Zachery Annala, with her to complete the American Annala chapter.

Now Raija’s son, Timo, will raise his family in Oregon just as the three Annala brothers did over a century ago. Chain immigration? Absolutely. Perhaps the chain was broken for a few generations, but the sense of family and belonging has linked us to one another across the century, the continent and politics.

Our family celebration is tempered. We know that some of the older generation may not be with us the next time we meet. We must make the best of the time we have together, gathering their memories to add to our own and those of the generations that follow. We must not forget what our forefathers have accomplished, nor the need to continue to build support networks for our family, neighbors and friends. We must pay attention to those who are most vulnerable and support them in building their own networks to ease their journey and ultimately bring relief from prejudice and discriminatory behaviors.

Sadly, each generation must continue the fight, now and into the foreseeable future. With the help of an invincible network of support, “justice for all” will ultimately prevail.

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