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Roots That Run Deep

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.”

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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,

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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?

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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.

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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.”

In 1942, Uyematsu was forced to move to the Pomona Assembly Center, where Japanese Americans were held before being interned at one of 10 Western relocation camps. He handed over Star Nursery to a white man, a hakujin. And he sold part of his prized inventory of camellias--300,000 plants--to Manchester Boddy, the well-heeled publisher of the Los Angeles Daily News. Boddy’s estate, Rancho del Descanso, soon would come to thrive as a camellia nursery and cut-flower operation.

in her 1992 book of poems, “30 Miles From J-Town,” Amy Uyematsu took the fragments she had gleaned about her father’s parents and penned a piece called “I’m Told” about Francis and his wife, Kuni, a woman Amy dubbed “Nursery Grandma”:

His speech was hard

and I’m told she married beneath

her class, but he knew how

to grow pink & white camellias,

hoped he could make everything grow in his hands. . . .

This is what I do know--

it was grandpa who sent postcards

from their trips back to Japan,

“love” handwritten

in his uncertain English.

But I have her thin wrists

and detect an inheritance

no distance could hide.

Clearly, though, much of the narrative was missing: What about Francis’ experiences during the war? What about the camellias he was forced to give up?

Of these things, Amy had never been told.

last year, a friend of Amy Uyematsu’s visited Manchester Boddy’s old place, a 160-acre site in La Canada Flintridge better known these days as Descanso Gardens--an oasis of roses, irises, lilacs, California native plants and, of course, camellias. The friend was curious, and she asked Amy: Was the Francis Uyematsu who was being featured there in a historical exhibit a relative?

Amy had never set foot in the gardens, a public treasure that Los Angeles County had purchased from Boddy in 1953. For a long time, there was never any particular reason to go, at least as far as a family connection was concerned.

Now Amy’s interest was piqued. Accompanied to the gardens last May by her mother and sister (her dad died three years ago), she walked through the oak grove sheltering the East Camellia Forest from the bright sun to reach what was once the Boddy family house. Past the foyer is a room whose walls are festooned with photographs. Among them is one of Francis Miyosaku Uyematsu.

A month later, Amy returned to the gardens, this time to take notes. She copied the inscription under the picture of Nursery Grandpa, clad in his suit and tie:

In 1942, as the U.S. entered World War II, many Japanese-Americans were forced to give up homes and property and enter internment camps. Mr. Uyematsu, whose Star Nursery was famous for its camellias, had to sell his stock. Boddy offered to buy the entire inventory. Tens of thousands of plants arrived at Rancho del Descanso Gardens and a camellia plantation was born.

The door to the past opened, and Amy found herself recalling certain details about Francis that had long been lost in the recesses of her memory. “It kind of brought everything back into the consciousness,” she says.

At the same time, she also became determined to dig deeper. Amy returned home from Descanso and, that night, began searching the Internet. There she pinned down another piece of her grandfather’s saga, one that would leave a particularly strong impression on her.

Many a man would have become hopelessly bitter after being run off to an internment camp, his whole life ripped away from him. Not Francis Uyematsu.

His way was beauty--a beauty rooted in soil, no matter where he happened to be.

The Manzanar War Relocation Center in Owens Valley was pallid and dusty when it opened in 1942, with the rush of ongoing construction scraping the land of vegetation as if it were a dirty plate.

Uyematsu, who was still being held in Pomona, offered to donate 1,000 cherry trees to the Manzanar center and even ship them at his own expense. Implicit in the arrangement was that he and his family would then move to Manzanar instead of being relocated to the government camp in Heart Mountain, Wyo., so far from home. In early 1943, he obtained a special military permit to travel back to Star Nursery and get the trees.

Beyond helping his family, “he really wanted to share his magical touch with plants with his community,” Amy says. “To go to that much trouble was wonderful.”

When Manzanar was closed at the end of 1945, Uyematsu was not offered his Japanese cherry trees to take back to Los Angeles. Later, some Inyo County residents transplanted them in their yards. Meanwhile, Uyematsu began giving away more trees and greenery--this time to L.A.'s parks department. By 1956, he had donated at least 18 varieties of Japanese cherry trees for planting in Bronson Canyon in Griffith Park. In 1958, Uyematsu had 17 Mt. Fuji cherry trees, grafted on American root stock, planted in Exposition Park’s rose garden. A gift of wisteria trees was also made to the parks department during those years.

Amy Uyematsu has one word to describe the discovery of her grandfather’s extraordinary generosity in the face of prejudice: “bittersweet.”

She questions why Descanso Gardens hasn’t done even more to give Francis public recognition. She is aware that Manchester Boddy took one of her granddad’s camellia seedlings and named it Berenice, for his wife. “There’s a sense that some of his seedlings still in the gardens’ possession could be given Grandpa’s name,” she says.

But there is more than one way to pay tribute to a man. Amy Uyematsu’s poetry is like an exotic hybrid, and the seed has now been planted. To uncover one’s own history “means something as a writer,” she says. “It sort of percolates. It’s in there. It will all come out eventually.”


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