For years, March has been one of the most celebrated months in the Yasui household thanks to multiple birthdays, including Grandpa Flip and three granddaughters, Kendra, Rayla and MacKenzie. This usually means a birthday dinner at Meema’s with a menu of the celebrant’s choosing.
It is a labor of love to find just the right gift, wrap it appropriately, then cook their favorite dinner and dessert delicacies. These accoutrements take about a day to create and less than an hour to consume. The greatest reward is having all the family gathered around the dinner table, laughing at one another’s bad jokes and following Ren as he sings yet another finale to the Happy Birthday song.
With everyone’s calendar bursting at the seams, arranging one family dinner together, let alone four, is next to impossible. We are constantly juggling work and school, sports and activities, carnivals and fundraising events. This year, our first March birthday was a celebration that came with a surprise gift that reminded us of all that we have and all that is needed.
There is no one busier than Kendra, a senior at Hood River Valley High School, an extremely dedicated honor student who will graduate in June with her high school degree and three associate’s degrees. In addition, she works long hours at G. Williker’s Toy Shoppe, house sits most weekends, is part of the high school choir, sings with Spectrum, choreographs, sings and dances in all the high school theater productions and performs with Columbia Gorge Dance Academy Company. All of these endeavors include hundreds of hours of practice and multiple performances throughout the year. And if there is ever a micro-moment of time sandwiched in between these activities, Kendra will volunteer to help other students interested in the performing arts. Punching her dance card is always a difficult endeavor.
We finally landed on a Sunday birthday brunch at Bette’s for this busy beauty. It was to be a memorable occasion for all. The cold and flu season had hit our households particularly hard, with coughing and wheezing, sniffing and sneezing being the birthday horn most often blown. We decided to let Sheri Castaneda do the cooking and reserved Bette’s back room for the party. No cooking or clean up sounded almost as enticing as the fresh, hot cinnamon roll that would serve as the birthday table center piece. Kendra arrived after a night of neighborly house sitting with only an hour to spare before she would be opening the toy shop and greeting the weekend rush of customers.
Orders were taken, in itself quite the undertaking for Sheri, who had enlisted her husband in this effort to rapidly serve a table of 15 hungry hyenas. While enthusiastic, Deputy Castaneda seemed a little out of place in his new waiter’s attire, having shed his uniform from the previous night’s patrol. What followed was a Twilight Zone moment. As family members on the south side of our birthday table gasped in disbelief, a hand slowly slid out from below the black skirting on an adjacent banquet table. Then an arm, shoulder, head, waist, legs and feet slowly emerged. Up stood a scruffy bearded man in dirty camouflage clothing, a bag in one hand, backpack in the other and a smile across his face. He seemed to be laughing at our startled expressions. We joined in the laughter.
“You must be someone very important to have this back room all to yourself,” he proclaimed. “Just a birthday party” my daughter Kim replied.
“Well, I have been listening to your top-secret conversations as I lay beneath that table over there, and for a hundred bucks I will keep your secrets under wraps.” Then out the door he scurried with a bag of pastries held high overhead, leaving us doubled over in laughter at the most entertaining exit we had ever experienced.
“Now that is what I call a birthday surprise,” chuckled Kendra. We checked under the table where several other bags of miscellaneous items were uncovered. It appeared this unexpected guest had come to the restaurant for breakfast and a warm place to stay after being ushered out this cold March morning from the warming shelter at Riverside Church. One could see why the mall was so inviting, not only was it warm, but it came with scrumptious smells and convenient bathroom facilities. Sheri confirmed that she had fed the gentleman earlier in the morning, which she was very willing to do, but she had not expected him to take up residency under the banquet table.
The rest of the morning followed in the same zany vein. As Kim and Aunika left the party and drove up Oak Street, they met two people (perhaps peers of the gentleman sleeping beneath Bette’s banquet table), running down the center of the street, a shopping cart between them. As Kim slowed the car to avoid another unanticipated incident of Twilight Zonian nature, the two began pounding on the car window and demanding money.
“Sorry, we already gave,” she replied then drove carefully around their cart as not to disturb their belongings. This was definitely a day when a simple birthday brunch carried a decidedly different punch. But it also left us feeling thankful for what we have, and our ability to share with others.
Encounters with the homeless are no longer uncommon in Hood River. We have shown we are a community with a heart. Over 10 years ago, Sheriff Matt English counseled a gathering of faith leaders who were getting ready to open the warming shelter. “You are taking on a very serious problem and attempting to address it with dignity. I commend you for that effort. I will also caution you that in taking this course, you will create other collateral issues along the way.”
This was one of the collateral issues. More services being provided by generous cooks, shop keepers, faith groups and community members. More homeless coming to the area because of the caring support. More flag fliers at the intersections. More encounters that may not be as heartwarming as you imagined. Discouraging to some, encouraging to others.
In the meantime, I think homelessness is a collateral issue our community is willing to address. As we take on these challenges, we grow as a community, as a family and as individuals. There “but for the Grace of God” goes any one of us. We believe that if you extend a supportive hand, you will leave this world a better place than when you entered.
Words spoken by many, lived by a few. Like Masuo Yasui’s legacy, etched in stone, firmly grounded on the library lawn, it signals the fervent hope that his vision will be embraced by all and passed on to future generations.