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What's the Cost of a Family Secret? Valley Farmer Shares the Answer.
Joe-Mathews
By Joe Mathews
Published 9 months ago on
August 10, 2023

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Is there a family trait more common than keeping secrets?

Family secrets have hidden costs. When we leave a place or person behind, we don’t know what becomes of them. We can even miss the entire life of a loved one.

Photo of Joe Mathews

Joe Mathews

Opinion

That’s one lesson of a compelling California story told by David Mas Masumoto, the Central Valley writer and farmer, in his recent memoir Secret Harvest.

At the book’s center is Shizuko Sugimoto, aunt of Masumoto’s mother.

But he didn’t know she even existed until about a decade ago, when a Fresno funeral home called to ask if Sugimoto, who appeared near death, was related. Eventually though, he pieced together some elements of the life of a Californian whose very existence had been a family secret.

Sugimoto was born in Fowler in 1919, daughter of a family of farmworkers of Japanese heritage. At age 5, she contracted meningitis, which attacked her brain and left her with an intellectual disability. She would never again complete a full sentence or thought.

Columnist Joe Mathews comes across the story of Shizuko Sugimoto—who was separated from her family during the forced relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II—in David Mas Masumoto’s memoir, Secret Harvests. Above, evacuees board a train in Los Angeles headed toward Manzanar, where the U.S. incarcerated many people of Japanese ancestry. (Photo by Clem Albers. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.)

Years Searching for Shizuko

She was 23 in 1942, when her family was ordered to evacuate to Arizona as part of the government’s incarceration of Japanese Americans. The family worried what would happen to her in a concentration camp. So, before departing, the family turned her over to a county sheriff, making her a “ward of the state.”

Masumoto learned that some relatives had spent years searching for her after World War II, and may have visited her at a facility in Porterville. They may have believed that she was doing OK there, better than she might have with relatives rebuilding their lives post-war. So they left her there, and resolved not to speak of her again.

Other family members were left to assume she had died. But she had lived, moving between institutions for decades. Masumoto learned that she spent several years at the DeWitt State Hospital near Sacramento, and at a Fresno-area facility only a few miles from his farm in Del Rey.

Sugimoto had been living at the Golden Cross Nursing Home for 13 years when Masumoto received the call about an aunt whose existence was unknown to him.

When he went to see her, she had suffered a stroke and was in bed, dying.

‘She Delivers Light to Our Dark Past’

“I am struck by her size, small and compact, folded in a fetal position. She appears comfortable, breathing gently as if asleep. She lays motionless and alone, real and authentic,” Masumoto writes. “I touch her warm hand, feel a bony shoulder, hear a soft sigh as she moves her head to one side. She embodies all that is wrong and right in the world, the sorrow and joy of life, the guilt and happiness of family. She delivers light to our dark past; she complicates and completes us.”

But that was not the end of the story. Masumoto got to know the staff that cared for Sugi, as they called his aunt. In the book, he praises them, and gives his due to the system that kept her alive into her 90s. The caregivers tell him of her feistiness, how she loves to tease and tickle them, how she adores music and dancing, how she wanders the halls, and how she drinks her morning coffee and then throws the cup behind her.

“She is a real character,” he writes. “Sugi has a home here. … Her disability is not a punishment and not a cure… She refuses to believe anything is wrong with her.”

As Masumoto and his family were making plans  for her funeral, one day, amazingly, Sugimoto woke up. She returned to moving through the halls. She playfully kicked Masumoto in the leg. “Shizuko came to life and visits us,” he writes. “She is a living ancestor, awakened to illuminate. She no longer lives in the shadows and now steps into the light of family and our history.”

When she later died, shortly before her 94th birthday, she was the oldest client at the Central Valley Regional Center. At her funeral, the family passed out plastic cups. Mourners pretended to sip coffee, and then tossed the cups blindly behind them.

Her Dedicated Bench at Fresno Fairgrounds

Sugimoto was interred in the family mausoleum, and Masumoto dedicated a bench at the Fresno Fairgrounds — she loved the Big Fresno Fair — to her and “those with disabilities and special needs who were separated from their families” during the World War II relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans.

When I spoke with Masumoto recently, he talked about Sugimoto’s story, and the roles racism and discrimination against people with disabilities played in it. But we also talked about secrets, especially in families, and all that we miss when we keep them.

“I now force myself not to look away,” he said, adding: “Memories can and should change.”

About the Author

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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