Pretending I had to search for a book, I wormed myself in to take a last look at my dying old friend. I sat there a few minutes all miserable, and muttered: “Dear friend, why do you have to go?”
The answer came fast: “Stop bawling! It bothers me.”
“How can anyone be so insensitive?” I said.
“Insensitive, huh? I served you very well for over fifty-six years. Think of all our beautiful moments together. I’ve already heard so many comforting prayers inside of me! I want to go in peace.”
That’s how the Old Social Hall and I began chatting, just a few days ago.
It went on:
“The last family affair you guys had here was a birthday party for Mary Hatakeyama, whose husband was the founder of my Temple. What fun! The food was so delicious and abundant. And the people! You met John Hirota, (a much better writer, sorry!), and Susan Mita’s husband.”
“When were you born…Mmm…built I mean?” I asked.
“Does it really matter? Your records say that I was built in the thirties; but then again, you keep miserable records. A group of Lutherans, the strictest of all Christian denominations, built me here, when West Covina was almost as rural as Baldwin Park. I was so happy that one of my neighbor’s property was large, with tall palms and lots of vegetation…though sometimes I got annoyed by the little pellets from the palms trees falling all over my roof.
You and your kids used to drive along Puente Avenue in search of valuable second-hand books. You wondered how many Lutherans could live in this area. Not too many, because sooner or later they had to sell me to your East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Association. Those folks were so resolute, so full of spirit! How they struggled! Henry Miyata became Campaign Chairman; and thirteen dreamers among you, risked their homes as collateral to get me. To tell you the truth, I was a little reluctant too; the Issei and Nisei were still under lots of discrimination.
But they got me. And then, Frank Yamashita, by himself—OK, OK other members of the Gardeners’ Association helped—did the landscaping and planted the beautiful black pines in my front yard. If Frank were still alive he could get at least ten-thousand grand for each tree! I miss him…and, I also miss Ted, his son, especially at persimmon time. Why has he run away? Can’t you guys call him back, tell him we miss him, and ask him to come back?”
“Oh, I remember him too well,” I said. “I miss him too.”
“‘Member when you first came to the Center, and how supportive were the Buddhist folks, right when your wife felt so despondent? You owe them a lot of gratitude. I miss the Ikeharas, so friendly; so young and lovely, especially when they danced together. Their daughters Nancy and Janette were your kids’ friends, and kept your grandkid Eddie out of trouble…I can’t forget Marvel Miyata, the Grand Lady of the Center, and Yosh Sogioka, a most formidable man. He gave so much of himself to the Center. After Frank Yamashita was gone, he built some of the toro we have outside, and every Akimatsuri, he brought at least four more small toro to help the Leisure Club raise its funds. Yosh and Beans Sogioka, always shared abundant sashimi—hmmm—with all you folks…but not even a crumb fell to my floor! And Beverly, Tak Oki’s wife always so good to Lil’ Ed! Oh, your memories must be loaded with treasured moments about so many beautiful people.”
“You’ve hosted so many of our activity groups,” I added.
“I like them all a lot. But I tell you, I’m very partial to the Leisure Club, particularly to May Sakoda who has taught you so many ways to create beautiful things. I am also very fond of my Temple friends; I miss Rinban Ito whom everybody loved, and Rev. Paul Imahara, the first champion of the idea of replacing me with a better facility…and Past President Richard Nakawatase, who engineered the first ‘feasibility project’ to explore the chances of actually rebuilding me! And I’m so proud of those gorgeous kids of the YBA…How I wish every American child were as gentle, compassionate, and full of positive ideas to help others as they are. I’ve loved each of MY Princesses and Queens. But listen, the Gakuen kids and their teachers; the children who have chosen me for their dojo; all of them are MY kids too. I played tricks with the kendo kids; my low ceiling is a pain in the neck in kendo practice; and yet they go out and win tournaments. My walls have had their share of excitement and happily reflected the shouts of ‘Bin-GOOOO,’ and the fun of ‘Casino Nights;’…and the pride of those who set shop at my southwest end after enslaving themselves for entire nights to create the most delicious goodies you ever enjoyed at Obon and Akimatsuri…But very especially, the quiet moments of zazen, that helped free you from your fears and attachments, are among my best treasures.”
“Well, if so,” I said, “don’t you feel sad to be replaced?”
“Why should I? I am cancerous; termites and dry rot have taken their toll of all my limbs. Built when safety wasn’t the most important consideration, my walls are unsafe. How would I feel if an earthquake sent me reeling down when my weak insides were full of MY people? You can’t go back in time. Face reality! I’m happy to be gone. You love the old structure so much? Each one of my old bricks is loaded with the sounds of Christian and Buddhist prayers; with the romantic Old American favorites; with the soothing chants of Hawaii, and the lively gaiety of Okinawan music. As my walls come down, grab one brick, label it ‘A Relic from the Ole’ Center,’ and give the Center, for it a hefty donation for your new home. Remember what you taught me: ‘Mottai nai.’
Hustle up and build me anew; with full comfort facilities for your old and handicapped members. After all not many of you are getting any younger. Create the space my prized Gakuen students need. Your kids deserve the best! Form a great modern library where your kids and theirs, and non-Japanese members of the community can come and learn a lot about the magnificent culture of your parents and grandparents. Space…safe space…you need safe, safe space! My days are over and no amount of pity, orneriness, or wishful thinking can resurrect me…My spirit, the spirit of those who brought me to life to serve you, is always with you, in your minds, your hearts, in your comfort, and I hope in your records too. Saraba tomo!”
The walls went silent. I was wordless too…I felt something slip out from the corner of my eyes, and somehow my handkerchief felt wet…Oh, it must have been simple perspiration; after all summer has been so hot, lately.
Cry no longer, my friend, my friend! The New Hall is now a delightful reality. It has been operating already for several years, and has become a very active part of the entire East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center (ESGVJCC). The Center is run by a pair of super-dynamic youngsters: Pearl Omiya, as Director, and Brandon Leong, as Operations Manager. Take a look at its beautiful home page at http://esgvjcc.org/ to learn where any of its activities may help you or your family.
* This article was originally published in the East San Gabriel Valley’s Japanese Community Center’s “Newsette” in November 2007.