When the world is warm and wonderful, just as spring’s belly crests into summer, we celebrate matriarchs. In modern times—specifically since 1912 in the U.S.—every second Sunday in May is Mother’s Day (don’t forget).
But who is “mother” and why do we honor her?
The meaning is multifarious—biological or hanai, “mother” is a complex concept. Mother is nature and nurture. Mother can be both your most stalwart supporter and harshest admonisher. The same arms she holds akimbo when you’re in trouble are the arms that hold you tight when trouble finds you.
From womb to bosom and beyond, mother is shelter. She can be benevolence or violence—or both. The proverbial mother lion, tiger, bear. Oh my. “Mother” is so much.
For the last three years on Maui, a theater production called My Mama Monologues has explored what motherhood means by sharing moms’ most meaningful stories, as told through the narratives of their children. Solicited from novice and professional writers worldwide, the show boasts 81 cumulative monologues and counting—24 of which will be performed this year.
The show’s creator, visual artist and playwright Pat Masumoto, calls this collection of stories “milky, spicy, hot, cold, ticklish and bittersweet.” She says these are words that speak to mothers’ capacity to be wholesome yet provocative, to love and to hate, and to embrace both comedy and drama. And like moms themselves, “the stories can be erotic, beautiful, sad or ugly,” says Masumoto.
Whatever the tone, each story is written—and performed—with heartfelt emotion, by and for keiki and kupuna alike. Hundreds of monologues are submitted but only a handful are selected, and all undergo a collaborative editing process led by Masumoto, who says she keeps diversity and the show’s overall flow in mind.
Masumoto says the one overarching stipulation is that the story must be true. After all—as my own mother is fond of saying—the truth is beautiful.
Masumoto says that over the years, she learned the value of collecting and sharing “stories about mama” by exchanging “gripes with girlfriends about our mothers’ eccentricities.” And since starting the show in 2009, Masumoto says she’s found that “even if the story isn’t selected for My Mama Monologues, the act of writing it is very transformational and therapeutic for the author.”
Since its inception, the show has grown. Last year it was independently produced not only on Maui, but also in Lihue, Kauai, Colorado and Canada. Wherever it’s staged, the metamorphic blooms of the authors’ experiences easily translate from actor to audience.
Because, for better or worse, every life begins with a mother. And for Masumoto, “mother of My Mama Monologues,” the life of the show began with her mother—the famed Florence Hasegawa.
CIRCLE OF LIFE
We’re sitting in the airy house where Masumoto’s soon-to-be 103-year-old mother (widely and affectionately known as Grandma Florence) still—by her own insistence—lives alone.
Outside, it’s a looming white house with tall concrete steps flanked by banisters announcing a large lanai. Inside, the architecture is warm with a decidedly Asian aesthetic; neatly decorated with rows of framed photos and awards, a Japanese doll or two and upholstery draped with delicately crocheted throws.
“I was born in a room right back there,” Masumoto says, pointing. Her late father, judge George K. Hasegawa, built the house on a sunny corner lot. “They’re all the original families,” says Masumoto, indicating the houses across the street and caddycorner to the family home. “No one’s sold.”
Masumoto inhales a wistful smile as she tells me of her “idyllic childhood” growing up in this home, and in a long-lost Lahaina. It was a different, post-plantation time (Grandma Florence grew up at Pump Camp) when neighborhood kids would “ride our bikes all the way to Ka’anapali—before there were any hotels [and] it was only kiawe… to us, it was such a far distance it might as well have been the moon.”
The youngest daughter of Nisei (second generation Japanese), Masumoto remembers her parents as an “unusually expressive” and gregarious pair. Politically active, “my parents talked like Italians,” she laughs, sawing the air with her hands thus.
Honorable Hasegawa was a favorite pick as master of ceremonies “anytime there was a wedding or birthday or funeral or whatever.” His shtick, says Masumoto, was to begin his poignantly humorous speeches with “Confucius say…” inserting something contextually clever to the close-knit community.
So anticipated were her father’s “Confucius say” speeches that “he and my mother would prepare weeks in advance,” says Masumoto, reminiscing about her parents’ witty banter to find just the right quip.
Hearing these stories, it’s easy to see how Masumoto—owner Market Street’s Gallerie Ha, a hub of contemporary art—is Grandma Florence’s daughter. This “living treasure” has long been known for her feisty forthrightness, tempered with sweet smiles—and Masumoto is much the same.
The last time Grandma Florence graced MauiTime’s pages, contributor Ynez Tongson wrote about “a life-wizened general, barking orders to family and friends,” who tweets (yes, tweets!) under the handle @grandmaflorence. (If you’re keeping track, since that October 2009 story, her Twitter followers have jumped from 811 to 1,874, as of this writing.)
Naturally, not much has changed. This 70-pound, 4’ 10” tall woman may be petite, but her presence is not. Though “she can’t hear much” anymore, her words are shouted, big as bricks. And she reads voraciously.
If it’s coming from Grandma Florence, it’s blunt. She has her opinions, but she’s also not afraid to answer, “I don’t know!” She tells me I’m “very pretty” (possible evidence that her eyes are worse than her ears), but that doesn’t mean I’m exempt from her two favorite curse words, “dang buggah” and “god funnit.”
During the interview, Masumoto and I find we enjoy each others’ company quite a lot and end up talking for hours. Grandma Florence tires of this, and goes back to reading the newspaper. Though arthritis has curled her hands like the lunula, her penmanship is clear and narrow in the daily logbooks she’s kept “as long as I can remember,” says Masumoto.
Citing the security of routine and a page-long list penned in 1998 of every daily vitamin and supplement, Masumoto says, “My mother lives this long for a lot of reasons.”
Handing me a copy of the very first My Mama monologue titled “She Did Not Die,” Masumoto explains she wrote the piece—and began the show—as a gift for her mother’s 100th birthday in May 2009.
The most dramatic part of the monologue is a description of when Grandma Florence, at age 96, was struck by a truck. “[Her] skin peeled back like an accordion. Her scalp needed to be stapled back on. Entire right ear barely attached.” (Ironically, that’s the ear she seems to hear best with.)
This year, “She Did Not Die” is on hiatus, so I’ve been cleared for spoilers. The punch line to the story’s sad gore (because yes, it’s a comedy) builds off the premise of Grandma Florence’s consummate frugality (she’s a career bookkeeper who only recently retired as “the oldest marriage licensor in America” and who Masumoto writes is “a humanoid adding machine”). At a time when “it looked like death warmed over her,” Masumoto concludes:
“Mom’s eyes suddenly opened wide. She stared at me for about five seconds—then came the words, barely audible, “Patty. Write this down.” …What was she going to tell me? Had she left her body and gone to the other side, only to return with an important message? I pressed my ear against her mouth. She gave me Mr. Kawaguchi’s phone number! Then instructed loudly, ‘Please call him. Let him know that I won’t be coming to the Credit Union luncheon on Saturday… Ask him if I can have my five dollars back.’ I almost died laughing! Mom did not—she did not die.”
In the years following the accident, Masumoto says her relationship with her mother changed. “At a certain point, mother becomes more like daughter, daughter more like mother,” says Masumoto. But there’s no abasement in this role reversal. “It’s really special that she’s lived this long. Now, there’s more give and take, and more understanding.”
“We don’t debate like we used to,” Masumoto says. “About what? Oh, you know, politics and religion… We do talk about death. She’s very open about it.”
On a nearby side table, there’s a Reader’s Digest coffee table book titled Life Beyond Death. Grandma Florence was raised Buddhist, but Honorable Hasegawa was a devout Christian (Masumoto’s own son is a pastor on Oahu). When they discuss plans for her funeral, Grandma Florence vacillates politely, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. “She’s not thinking of herself—she’s thinking of everyone else!” laughs Masumoto.
“Patty!” Grandma Florence shouts from the kitchen. “Patty, put your soup in the pot. Put the pot in the refrigerator.”
Masumoto is off to attend to orders and I’m left to reflect on my own mother and mortality. I think about how, in the arc of the mother and child relationship, love is won and lost, and armistices are forged and broken. I think about how we might yearn for maternal approbation (or not); how mother might tolerate our insolence (or not); how this kind of love might be the most indelible of all. I think of how, when we’re freshly hatched, a mother’s love consumes us, but when we’re weaned fledglings, the bonds can strain. Everything seems clearer, we have nests of our own, and life goes on. Yet always, parent and child. And then, in some strange tender moment—should we be so lucky to live long enough to see it—round like the belly that began it all, the relationship comes full circle.
I leave hoping I’m lucky, like Pat and Grandma Florence.
SAVE THE DRAMA FOR YOUR MAMA
Lily-stepping over a courtyard pond, the Iao breeze fills Gallerie Ha like breath into a balloon. It’s Easter morning and Masumoto and My Mama Monologue’s director Lisa Teichner are hard at work. They’re reviewing scripts and preparing for one-on-one consultations with some of the nearly two-dozen performers in this year’s show.
As the cast members arrive and begin to work on their 30-second to six-minute pieces, the gallery is abuzz.
“She has such vision,” Masumoto says of Teichner as we watch her coach blocking and suggest simple staging ideas. “See what she’s doing? She’s dramatizing each piece.” Teichner’s directorial work—and her knack for identifying and accentuating key moments—is a new addition to the series and, as the rehearsals show, a valuable one.
Because, like the authors of the monologues, the people performing My Mama range from rookies to pros, young and old. And in the handful of instances when the author is performing their own work—like with Michelle Nakagawa’s “She Wears Shorts” or Meiko Hoffman’s “My Japanese Mom,” it’s helpful to have a critical eye shape a story that’s highly personal.
“Their vulnerability is courageous,” says Masumoto. “I feed off it.”
Teichner, who performed in last year’s show, nods in agreement. “While some are indeed painful,” she says, “these stories are, first of all, celebratory. It’s cathartic for everyone involved… It’s simply done, really [but] what’s great is that these are all true stories. Hopefully, it’ll inspire people to write or read a piece of their own and encourage people to talk to older generations and learn their stories.”
It’s not Broadway, but maybe it’s better. It’s a raw and passionate patchwork of real lives and real love (and, sometimes, lack thereof). They’re their stories. Our stories. And, most importantly, Mom’s stories.