Times Past

Happy childhood in Los Osos recalled in memoir

Sunny Side School in Los Osos, 1931
Sunny Side School in Los Osos, 1931

“Let them be happy now . . . The time will come soon enough when each of the girls will have her own family, her own responsibilities, and her own worries . . . ,”Grace Eto Shibata remembers her mother saying.

Grace was born in a ranch house at the western end of the Los Osos Valley. Her warm memories of growing up in San Luis Obispo are almost idyllic.

Her mother, Take Eto, understood the realities of life as the United States entered the Great Depression. Her husband, Tameji Eto, was the acknowledged leader of the Japanese-American farming community in much of San Luis Obispo County. The family was far from rich, but the eight children never felt deprived.

Take herself had complete faith in the judgment and protection of her own parents when by herself she set sail for the United States to marry a man she had never met. Once married, Take began her workday at 4 a.m., cooking for her family and the farmhands on a wood-fired stove.

This happy childhood experience helped Grace survive the difficulties that would follow the events of Dec. 7, 1941.

Grace’s memoir, “Bend with the Wind,” has recently been completed by her daughter, Naomi Shibata Denny. It is a major contribution to the understanding of our regional history and the Japanese-American experience as a whole.

With permission from the authors, here is an excerpt:

Naomi writes, “Grace entered the first grade at Sunny Side School in 1931.” She and her sister Nancy “together with their cousins and friends walked along the uneven shoulder (of Los Osos Road), Grace sometimes jiggling a pocketful of marbles and happily anticipating a rousing game during recess.

“Other times she and Nancy carefully clutched the dimes that Mother gave them for their monthly ‘bank day’ deposits. The local bank manager paid monthly visits to the school, recorded each child’s deposit in their bank book, and gravely thanked them for their patronage.

“At 8 a.m., a lucky student was chosen by the teacher, Mrs. Gladys Forden, to ring the schoolhouse bell. The bell called the children to order . . . as six lines of students, one for each grade level, formed by the school entrance in front of the flag pole. Placing their right hands over their hearts, the students recited the Pledge of Allegiance and made their way through the narrow doors into the school.

“....the students took their seats and a ragged quiet fell over the classroom. Grace and her fellow first graders . . . listened as Mrs. Forden taught the older students. Grace skipped a grade at Sunny Side School and later explained that in a one-room school house she could not help but learn the lessons of the older students.”

After school, Grace attended lessons in the Japanese language and culture taught by the Reverend Chizo Kaku. Classes for Nisei children from the Los Osos area were held on the Eto farm in a building constructed solely for that purpose.

“The Reverend and Mrs. Kaku . . . scripted their own school plays incorporating humorous use of the Kumamoto dialect, the home dialect of many of the area’s Issei (first generation Japanese Americans). Mother's skills as a seamstress were put to good use, and she created imaginative costumes from old clothes and bleached rice sacks.

"The coarse sacks were washed until they were soft and were then dyed for the occasion. At the annual gathering of the region's language schools, the combined audiences eagerly awaited the Kaku students' performance. One year, a very reluctant Grace was coaxed into playing the lead in Pocahontas.”

Grace Eto Shibata was learning to bend with the wind of two cultures at an early age.

Naomi Shibata Denny will be speaking and signing copies of “Bend with the Wind” at the San Luis Obispo History Center, 696 Monterey Street on Friday, Nov. 7 at 5:30 p.m. as part of Art after Dark.

She will be at Coalesce Bookstore on Sunday, Nov. 9, from 1-3 p.m. at 845 Main St, Morro Bay, and (805) 772-2880. Naomi will speak on researching and writing the memoir at 2 p.m.

** Readers are invited to experience a traditional religious ceremony celebrating the Salinan Tribe’s “Day of the Dead” at California’s third oldest and most remote mission, San Antonia de Padua on Saturday Oct. 25th at 1 p.m. The mass will be the same Latin Mass celebrated on that site in 1771. John Warren and the choir with singers from St. Rose of Lima and Mission San Miguel will perform music composed at the Mission by Father Juan Bautista Sancho. Prayers in the Salinan language will be chanted by tribal elders and children. This event is free and open to the public. It will be a rare “open sky” experience in the Church with the roof temporarily removed during retrofitting.