Happy 106th Birthday, Mrs. Teshima!
There is no one else on this planet like Mary Shizuko Teshima! Petite, pretty, practical, patient and extremely hard working, Mrs. Teshima is in class all by herself. Known throughout Kona as proprietor, as well as heart and soul, of Teshima’s Restaurant in Honalo, Mary has been standing behind a counter ever since she was a girl, quite a long time ago. With her sharp eye and clear mind, she still enjoys inspecting her cook’s handiwork as trays of Teshoku # 1, # 2, and # 3 are whisked through her swinging kitchen doors by her capable grandchildren to delight her hungry patrons. No one greets a long time customer with more warmth than Mrs. Teshima, and yet, at closing time, she can zip through a cash register with the speediest bank teller’s calculating skill. Her constant care has earned Teshima’s Restaurant a loyal following and a reputation as Kona’s favorite family-style Japanese restaurant.
If you live in Kona, you may already know this, but Mrs. Teshima will celebrate her 106th birthday on June 24, 2013! Not only has she broken the Century Barrier as regards her age, but she remains a vital part of her restaurant’s success. After 70 or 80 years on their feet, most women would rush to retire from restaurant management’s hustle and bustle, but not Mary. Ron Ow once described his grandmother’s management style with total admiration, “She is the iron fist in the velvet glove.” No longer as visible on the premises as in years past, when eating lunch with regular customers and checking on the sushi supply was a daily occurrence, she still keeps her finger on the restaurant’s pulse. Her home is directly behind the restaurant, just a few short steps away, and her door is always open.
. When Mrs. Teshima celebrated her 100th birthday in 2007, the restaurant closed down for regular business (something it rarely does) and invited the entire community to come to celebrate. There was a morning party and an afternoon/evening party, both of which featured enormous cakes, fabulous flower arrangements, unlimited free food, beverages, entertainment and lots of laughter. The star of the show was the birthday girl, half-buried under a mountain of flower lei, looking as fresh and lovely as a 60 year old! She had taken a brief rest between her two parties to spend time with her family and take photographs. When I saw her around 6 p.m., she was still her hospitable self; impeccably dressed, stockings in place, and her beautiful smile as gracious as ever. Any other person would have needed a massage or a stiff drink after greeting literally hundreds of people, but not Mrs. Teshima. As she toured her upstairs banquet room, asking each person if he or she had had enough to eat, she thanked everyone for coming to her party. One thing was clear: Mrs. Teshima was an unbelievably feisty 100 year old lady! Not only was she going to outlive many younger people gathered in her honor, she was going to do it in style - looking better, eating better, and feeling better than most of us!
Born on June 24, 1907, to Goichi and Kiku Hanato, Mary grew up in Honalo, one of several small rural communities strung out along Kona mauka’s agricultural belt. Her father, an industrious man who tried his hand at many jobs, milked cows for Mrs. Noenoe Wall at her ranch where he learned to make butter. He got a farm in Honalo and opened a store. He and his wife made tofu at home and delivered it by horse and wagon to their customers. Mary remembers her role in this enterprise – caring for the horse, washing and brushing it, and cutting sugarcane tops to feed it. Years later, while Mr. Hanato was out delivering tofu in his old Model T or driving his taxi, Mary took her turn behind the store counter, finding she enjoyed helping customers.
After her marriage to Fumio Teshima in 1927, she moved to Napoopoo in South Kona where she lived with her husband and his parents in their coffee land. Seeing his daughter’s talents going to waste, Goichi Hanato went to the Teshimas and said to them, “She will never make a farmer.” He asked them to let her open a store in Honalo. F. Teshima General Merchandise Store opened in 1929 when Mary was just 22 years old. While her husband worked at Captain Cook Coffee Company and earned a cash salary, Mary worked in the store and started raising their family of five children. She did sewing at night with a gas lamp to make extra cash, earning a dollar for trousers and seventy-five cents a shirt.
In an oral history interview done in 1991 for KHS by historian Nancy Piianaia, Mrs. Teshima explained how she got involved with food.
“To begin with I had the store. It was kinda boring, and I wanted to do something to keep me real busy. So, I decided …to run up to the church [when] they had classes in cooking. So, I said, oh, I must like this work. I started with an ice cream parlor at first ‘cause I had general merchandise. People, when they came to buy something, wanted to eat, and that’s how I got into food, too. I had two tables, one dozen ice cream spoons, one bamboo ice cream scoop, and the glasses….We made our own ice cream. Our ice used to come from Hilo. We bought 100 lbs. and we packed it in the coffee skins, in the box, and we made ice cream the night before after we closed the store. In the morning it was ready and we packed it in ice with salt, but there was no electricity anyway, so we did it the hard way.”
Her frosty dishes of vanilla and strawberry ice cream sold for 5 cents each. Imagine the delight of Kona’s children when they tasted something so cold and sweet in an era of little or no home refrigeration. Miyeko Miyose, a spring chicken at 93, still remembers how good that ice cream tasted. Around 1940, Mary purchased a fountain so Kona kids could have ice cream sodas as well. Although surviving was a financial struggle all through the Depression years, when World War II started, life changed. Suddenly, Kona was filled with hungry, thirsty U.S. servicemen who showed up at F. Teshima Store with money in their pockets, looking for drinks at the horse shoe bar and hot off the stove hamburgers. Mary quickly learned how to fry up ground beef patties and serve them between two slices of white bread. Soldiers were stationed all over Kona: right next door at Daifukuji Temple, in cow pastures, at Japanese language schools, and near the old sugar mill by Waiaha Stream above Kailua. Money worries stopped during those busy years. When the war was over, the family made a smart decision in 1957 to tear down the old store and build a restaurant.
In 1991, Mary told Nancy this: “Today I’m old. When I was young, I just wonder how did I take the hours, but when I look back – it was fun. I enjoyed. I don’t think my children can do that because they want their time for certain things, but my whole heart and soul is over here. ….I heard my father telling someone that he was gifted with me. With all the children, I was different. When he was sick, I worried from my heart, everything I did from my heart. I think he was right; I do things from my heart.
When I cook, I’m not thinking anything, I’m just thinking about the food. I wonder if he or she will like this, and my whole heart and soul goes into it.”
Having lived in Kona for her entire life, Mary has memories of people and places that have been long forgotten. Who else can remember the community gathering at old Akana Store (below Kona Community Hospital) during World War I to march to Kainaliu singing patriotic American songs? As Mrs. Teshima said when she told me this story many years ago, she had no idea what war was and just joined in singing:
“Oh, Kaiser beer,
Oh, we are coming,
We’ll hang you on the highest coconut tree!”
During the First World War, Mary attended Konawaena Elementary School. Her teacher was Mrs. Truckmorton whose husband was away on the battlefront, so she often shared “war news” and “current events” with her students. One morning, Mrs. Truckmorton told the class that Mr. and Mrs. W.H. Greenwell’s eldest son had died of the Spanish flu the night before. “He was the most beautiful boy,” said Mrs. Truckmorton, and young Mary Hanato never forgot that. Young Henry Alan Greenwell was my mother’s eldest brother, buried before my mother was born, one of thirteen Kona residents who died during that awful post-war epidemic. Mary Hanato knew the Greenwell name because on Sunday afternoons, the Greenwell family matriarch, elderly Mrs. E.C. Greenwell, would be driven through Kona by her son-in- law, Gerald Bryant, with his wife “Carrie” Greenwell Bryant and their daughter Marguerite perched in the back seat. Mary remembers the Bryant ladies being “pretty, good looking women.” If the Bryants waved hello as they drove by, the Hanato children would run home and tell their parents. She said they called the regular Sunday arrivals “Kinu`ai,” although Mary did not know that word meant “Greenwell” until she was much older.
I have been eating at Teshima’s Restaurant since I was a girl, which means the late 1950s and early 1960s. Eating Sunday lunch out at Teshima’s with my parents, my grandmother and four siblings was a regular treat. In 1960, Mrs. Teshima hired a fancy chef from Japan called Mr. Uchida. After his arrival, the grown-ups at our table were often dazzled by beautiful arrangements of lacey shrimp tempura and plates of rosy pink sashimi. We kids were fascinated by the exquisite decorations that accompanied each dish: deep fried long rice that looked like flash-frozen sea spray and little radishes cut into red roses. On one never-to-be forgotten-day, my father (Dr. James Mitchell) unwisely popped an entire carved radish into his mouth and swallowed it, not realizing until it was too late it was stuffed with red hot mustard! We five kids sat transfixed as our father’s face turned bright red, beads of sweat broke out on his forehead and tears started running down his cheeks. It took several glasses of iced water to quench that burning fire in his throat! Being a non-adventurous eater, my favorite lunch was a fried egg sandwich with a root beer float for dessert. Sheer heaven!
When actor Jimmy Stewart took up ranching in South Kona in the 1960s, he often stopped by for a meal and a visit with Mary Teshima. In those years, he was famous as movie star. Nowadays, it is Mary who is Kona’s homegrown celebrity. Her business has hosted regular meetings of the Mauka Kona Lion’s Club for over 60 years! When her daughter Fumie developed breast cancer, Teshima’s became the place for wonderful get-togethers to support women who also were facing the challenge of breast cancer. Although Fumie eventually lost her battle with cancer, her incredible spirit of caring for others is alive today in her family and in the restaurant she helped her mother run. Thousands of dollars have gone out Teshima’s doors to support school scholarships and local non-profits such as Kona Rotary, Kona Community Hospital, and numerous local churches. The restaurant’s new menus feature artwork by her talented grandson Jason Izumi, and her great grandchildren take part in everything from body building to coffee farming.
Kona photographer Bob Fewell caught Mary at work, her apron a sure giveaway she would soon be needed back in the kitchen. For a moment, always ready to please a customer, she sat down in one her restaurant’s comfy booths for a friendly chat. On the formica table are the remnants of a happy meal – an empty miso soup bowl, crossed chopsticks, a water glass or two, and Teshima’s trademark teapot, filled with popcorn tea. Mary is smiling and her always busy hands are clasped in front of her. Is it possible she was 80 years old in this photo!!? She is a fashion statement in that charming Chinese style dress with her shining hair and those strong and slender arms! On the eve of Mrs. Teshima’s 106th birthday, all of us at Kona Historical Society want to say - Congratulations! Thank you for being an inspiration to us all.
Aloha no, e Kona.