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Roots That Run Deep

Lee McCarthy traces the enduring spirit of poet Amy Uyematsu's Japanese grandfather, whose generosity and tenacity helped make Descanso Gardens bloom

April 30, 2006|Lee McCarthy | Lee McCarthy is a poet whose books include "Good Girl" and "Desire's Door."

Everyone has two grandfathers. Fortunate is the child who knows both.

This is especially so when the child grows up and becomes a writer, a poet whose verse is shaped in large measure by the history of her family--by its struggles intimate and epic.

In this sense, Amy Uyematsu has been half-lucky for most of her 58 years. The Los Angeles poet was close to her maternal grandfather, Jiro Morita, who lost his Pasadena grocery store during World War II and then, after his release from a government internment camp, went into the gardening business. She remembers fishing for trout with him at Lake Arrowhead and hearing stories from another world, including accounts of the prejudice he suffered as a young issei immigrant in San Francisco.

Twelve years after the war ended, Morita helped establish Mishima, Japan, as Pasadena's sister city. A memorial bearing his name is in the center of Mishima Plaza near the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, while Uyematsu has honored him in her own way: Her latest book, "Stone Bow Prayer," dedicates the poem "Desert Camouflage" to the man she knew as "Pasadena Grandpa."

Grandpa was good at persuading the others

after the official evacuation orders.

Detained at Tulare Assembly Center,

he was the voice of reason among his angry friends,

raising everyone's spirits

when he started the morning exercise class.

Some issei said Grandpa couldn't be trusted--

after all, hadn't he volunteered

to fight in World War I?

And why did he speak better English

or brag that he was already a U.S. citizen

when the government denounced them as aliens?

At Gila, when nobody was willing

to make camouflage netting the military needed,

only Grandpa could talk them into it.

How many American soldiers would ever suspect

the netting protecting them was sewn by issei

whose faces could never be camouflaged?

And yet, until last spring, Uyematsu's other grandfather--her father's father, Francis--remained something of a mystery.

Amy could summon some memories of him, to be sure--his big ears (which according to Japanese superstition are a sign of wealth), his kind smile, his penchant for mixing up concoctions of fresh fruit, grain and vitamins in a bid to live to 100. He almost made it, too, dying in 1978 at the age of 96.

But the story of Francis Miyosaku Uyematsu, unlike Morita's, was full of holes for his granddaughter. Language was the biggest culprit. Francis didn't speak English, and Amy was never taught Japanese by her nisei parents. "We couldn't converse," Amy says. Beyond that, "I just don't remember a lot of information being passed on by the Uyematsu side. The Morita side was the opposite. That grandpa had no problem telling us stories."

The result was that this woman whose writing draws so much on her own heritage, who is so deft at connecting the dots between past and present, never managed to piece together one of the most amazing family stories of all.

francis uyematsu--his first name had been given by a Catholic missionary--and Itsusuke Zaima arrived in San Francisco in 1904 on different ships. After both had moved to Los Angeles, Zaima and Uyematsu got to know each other through the Presbyterian church. Friends by 1908, the two men launched a nursery business together and proved their thumbs green in more ways than one. By selling imported Japanese plants from horse-drawn wagons in Beverly Hills and other high-end neighborhoods, they were, in less than two years, pulling in $100 a day when most laborers were making about $1.

In 1912, the friends went their separate ways, each establishing nurseries in an area later called Montebello. Uyematsu plunked down $6,000 for five acres of strawberry fields and established Star Nursery, building a two-story house on the property as well. In 1915, when the U.S. Congress placed an embargo on foreign trees, Uyematsu went on a high-end camellia-buying spree before the law went into effect. Soon he was on his way to becoming one of the leading camellia contractors in the U.S.

In the mid-1920s, Star Nursery expanded to include a 7.5-acre plot in Sierra Madre, in the foothills below Mt. Wilson. The company's six large greenhouses and lathe houses specialized in camellias and azaleas, which were snapped up by florists during Christmas and Easter. Through the 1930s, Uyematsu continued to prosper, selling his plants from a storefront at the Southern California Flower Market in downtown L.A.--his ample ears, it seemed, somehow trumping the Depression.

Uyematsu "was known to be a good grower," says Naomi Hirahara, who chronicles the history of the market in her book "A Scent of Flowers." "But he was also a savvy businessman. He had both things going for him."

As for nearly all Japanese Americans, however, the good times wouldn't last for Uyematsu. Amy's father, also named Francis, would recount years later how not long after the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, the "rumblings" began about "putting us away."

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