Our Arborist

by Jonathan B. Ferrini

Mr. Mori awoke to a beautiful sunny morning and stared out the window of his hospice into a small, well-maintained garden with bright flowers, a California pepper tree providing shade, and a gathering place for happy, singing birds. A familiar appearing bluebird landed on the window sill, and stared into his eyes. At that moment, Mr. Mori knew it was time “to let go.” He removed the morphine catheter from his arm, and carefully taped it back so as not to alert the nursing staff that he removed it. He waived to the bluebird as it flew away, and, was his morning ritual, remembered his beloved wife and daughter, holding their framed photos to his heart. Mr. Mori was ninety years old, and his heart was failing which he believed was “broken” by the loss of his wife and daughter many decades before.
As a teenager, he remembered staring through a chain link fence out into the barren desert with only the backdrop of Mt. Whitney and the Sequoia National park in the distance. Mr. Mori imagined the tall, majestic trees of Sequoia, and remembered the tall trees he climbed as a child. He didn’t care for the barren desert. His home was the Manzanar internment camp for Japanese Americans constructed during the hysteria of World War II. His memories were interrupted by a kind nurse announcing,
“Mr. Mori, you have a visitor!”
I entered Mr. Mori’s room. It was small but pleasant, with only a hospital bed, bathroom, and a night stand upon which I saw black and white, faded, framed photographs of his parents, former wife, and deceased daughter. I approached his bed slowly, and whispered, “Mr. Mori, I’m Gabe Stein, the grandson of Abe Stein. I’ve come to say hello. My grandfather admired you and considered you a friend. He passed recently, and asked me before he died, to visit you, and tell you “goodbye.” I placed a bottle of Saki on the table beside his photographs.
“I’m hard of hearing. Please, come closer, Gabe.”
“I’m the grandson of Abe Stein who was the principal of the school who hired you to cut down a tree, and you were his neighbor and gardener for many years.”
“Abe was a very good man and my friend. What type of work do you do, Gabe?”
“I’m a surgeon, Mr. Mori.”
“Ah, you’re a tree surgeon like me?”
“No, Mr. Mori, I repair hearts.”
“Abe and your family must be very proud of you, Gabe.”
What was supposed to be a brief goodbye to an old friend of my grandfather became a lesson in life. Mr. Mori pushed the button raising the bed so as to speak to me, and became alert, as if he had found a new spark of energy as he began to tell his life story to me.
“I’m approaching my 94th birthday and bedridden in this care facility until I die. I think mostly about the past. How is our old neighborhood?”
I was saddened to report, “The old neighborhood was replaced by new homes and a shopping center.”
“Nothing remains the same, Gabe. I don’t have any family or friends left, just memories. Each memory dies eventually. When you become old like me, you’ll understand.”
Mr. Mori was my grandparent’s friend, neighbor, and gardener. During WWII, my grandparents were both educators within the LA school district, choosing to teach primary and secondary school within the impoverished neighborhoods of LA. My grandparents were progressives, idolized FDR, and were early supporters of the civil rights movement. When the Japanese were interned between 1943 and 1945, my grandparents removed the photograph of FDR hanging on the wall in the dining room. They told me to choose a profession which would enable me to “give something back” to society and “help people.”
My grandparents were able to afford a simple, but comfortable home, in the “Boyle Heights” neighborhood of LA. It was a bustling, well maintained community, consisting largely of Jews, along with Japanese Americans, and Mexican Americans. They all lived in harmony. There were kosher butcher shops, Japanese florists, Chinese laundries, and Mexican grocers. My grandparent’s combined income permitted them the luxury of hiring a gardener, and, they were fortunate to hire their neighbor, Mr. Mori, who was an expert gardener, and arborist. They’d watch Mr. Mori meticulously trim the trees, mow the lawn, and rake up the clippings as if he was tending to sacred temple grounds. The Mori family had a work ethic. Mrs. Mori took in laundry and ran a small, day care center providing mind provoking games, breakfast, lunch, and a late afternoon snack for the children of all races. Mr. Mori was their only child.
“I was a tall, lanky kid with glasses, and not much of an athlete, Gabe. I was the pride and joy of my parents. They were always kind and gentle towards me, never placing expectations upon me other than “to do my best” and to be a “good man”. My parents made certain I was always properly dressed for school, wearing sweater vests, pressed trousers, and shoes shined like mirrors. My favorite subject was literature and I enjoyed the poems of Walt Whitman, imagining the beautiful scenery Whitman described. I joined the high school jazz band and took up the tenor sax. We played gigs throughout the neighborhood. I developed a crush on a beautiful Japanese girl named Akiko who played the flute in the jazz band. We exchanged admiring glances during band practice, and I was privileged to walk her home from school each day. I was working up the nerve to ask her to the Prom just before we were sent to Manzanar. I never saw Akiko again after leaving for Manzanar. After school, I delivered groceries, prescriptions, flowers, and the morning newspaper with the help of my father. We’d fold the newspapers at the crack of dawn, load them onto the truck, and deliver them on our designated route. We’d be back in time for dad to drop me at school, and pick up his gardening crew.”
My grandparents also had a work ethic. My grandfather rose through the ranks of the school system while earning both a Master’s degree and Doctorate in Education at night school. He became Principal of our neighborhood elementary school. He was now “Dr. Abraham Stein” but insisted folks refer to him as either “Abe” or “Doc.” My mother chose to continue her career in the classroom teaching mathematics. Mr. Mori was a considerate man, always mindful of leaving Passover, Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, or Chanukah cards at our doorstep. My grandparents had the good fortune of his company, including his wife and son, at a Shabbat dinner. Mr. Mori was very interested in our Jewish traditions, and my grandparents were equally interested in his Japanese heritage.
“Tell me more about your life, Mr. Mori.”
“World War II changed everything. It was 1942, and posters began to proliferate throughout Boyle Heights ordering all Japanese to report to a designated point where we would be placed on buses and transported 219 miles from Los Angeles to the desert of Inyo County where Camp Manzanar was located. Each member of the family was permitted to carry only one box of personal possessions which were rudely loaded onto an army truck for delivery to Manzanar. We boarded a bus and began our journey. My mother discretely cried, and my father, although stoic, shed a tear or two. Your grandparents promised to look after our home during our absence. The Japanese businesses built over decades throughout the neighborhood were shuttered.”
“My grandparents remembered the wonderful party you gave the neighbors before leaving for Manzanar, Mr. Mori. It was the first time they ate sushi. They told me they admired your family’s strength in the face of tragedy. I suspect it brought back vivid memories of the Jews plight in World War II Germany.”
“We revered our friends and neighbors and it was our way of thanking them for their friendship, and possibly, a final opportunity to say goodbye, Gabe.”
“What do you remember of your parents, Mr. Mori?”
“My parents were pioneers, coming to America penniless. They never mentioned any relatives here or in Japan. They were proud Americans, and never failed to fly the American flag on the Fourth, Memorial Day, or Veteran’s Day. My earliest memories were of my father’s gardening and tree trimming business. My father owned an immaculate, light blue Ford pickup truck. His tools were neatly arranged, and his route would take him into the best neighborhoods of Los Angeles. I’d accompany my father on Saturday’s and school vacations. I marveled at the tall trees, and I would climb them until my father ordered me down fearing I might fall. On those rare occasions we took a family trip, it was to the mountains to admire the trees, and enjoy a picnic lunch beneath them.
My father took pride in his work. His talent for the intricate pruning of trees, named “Niwaki”, involved keeping the tree in harmony with its surroundings. “Niwaki” practitioners received inspiration from mountains, waterfalls and rivers. They combined different techniques of trimming, clipping and pruning. The idea was to revere the “essence” of the tree because it was a living entity, no different than a human being. My father would never remove the stump after cutting down a tree because he likened it to “ripping out the heart” of a living being. He chose to leave behind a stump which he trimmed into a chair for those to enjoy. He declined jobs when the owners demanded the removal of the stump which required loud, violent, grinding machinery reminding him of murder.”
The Japanese at Manzanar formed a close knit community and thrived despite our circumstances. Education of the children was of paramount importance, and classes were formed to keep up with the school work we were missing. Clubs ranging from pottery, painting, and most importantly, civics lessons were very popular. The Japanese were determined to prove their patriotism. Our parents told us the US was a “good country”, and life would return to “normal” shortly. By the time Manzanar closed in 1945, and the Japanese returned to their homes to begin their lives over again, many young Japanese men enlisted in the military as a show of patriotism. I enlisted in the Air Force because I always marveled at the blue sky and clouds I admired from the treetops as a child. I was stationed in Tokyo. I became enamored with Japanese culture and eager to learn the language.”
The air force discovered my horticultural background, and assigned me to gardening duties around the base which caught the eye of the Commanding General who was an amateur “Bonsai” tree collector. He promoted me to Staff Sergeant and chief of grounds maintenance, overseeing a crew of 50. He gave me the added responsibility of maintaining his Bonsai trees and his personal garden. My crew was handpicked from Japanese civilians because no airmen wanted to work for a “Jap.” I learned to become an arborist through correspondence courses.”
I was also responsible for clearing trees for new airfields and buildings. It pained me to cut down healthy trees. I was proficient in determining the age of the fallen trees from the rings around the stump. The older the tree, the more rings, and more saddening it was to cut it down. I likened it to murder, and on many occasions, pleaded with the General, who, sympathized with me as a fellow lover of trees and gardens, but always succumbed to the “best interests of the Air Force”. It was an easy and safe gig which brought me home evenings to a raucous barracks void of intellectual stimulation, filled with cigarette smoke, card games, and inappropriate talk amongst the airmen of their female Japanese “conquests.”
I filled my evenings with a second job supplementing my air force pay with a job teaching English to Tokyo residents, and I was fortunate to meet a beautiful, Japanese woman, who I courted. She was beautiful, humble, intelligent, and we shared an interest in each other’s language and culture. Her family perished during the bombing at Hiroshima, and she was all alone. Her name was “Sakura.” She was training to be a nurse when the atom bomb fell.”
We married, and, within a year, Sakura gave birth to a beautiful daughter, we named, “Ichika," meaning “One Thousand Flowers.” My wife and daughter were inseparable, and I relished their beautiful, boundless love for each other. Sakura delighted in teaching Ichika the language and customs of both her native Japan and the United States. It was our plan to return to the United States where I would attend college on the GI Bill. My parents had secured for us a lovely guest home on the same block as our family home where my mother would provide day care for Ichika, while Sakura and I were at school and work. We looked forward to a new life in America. Sakura never mentioned it, but I knew she was eager to leave behind the pain and suffering she endured during the war.”
During a July 4th celebration at the air base, Ichika held cotton candy in one hand and a balloon on a string in her other hand. As the air force band struck up “God Bless America,” Ichika was startled, accidentally let go of the balloon which floated across the flight path of an approaching plane. She broke loose from her mother’s grip to chase the balloon, and ran into the raging propeller of the passing plane. She was killed in a grotesque fashion. I ran to Sakura as she frantically picked up the remaining pieces of Ichika’s body, whaling, and covered in blood. Airman rushed to restrain us covered with our daughter’s blood. It was a sight that myself, Sakura, and the Airman would never forget.”
Life would never be the same for us, particularly, Sakura. Our evenings together were silent, and my wife often excused herself from dinner retreating to the bedroom, closing the door, and crying herself to sleep. As my enlistment came to an end, I looked forward to taking Sakura back to Los Angeles, starting anew, and having another baby. Ichika’s death reminded her mother of the carnage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and, I believe she blamed her daughter’s death on America. Her heart became cold and empty. Our marriage evaporated.”
I returned home after work one evening to find a note waiting for me. Sakura said “goodbye to me forever,” and vanished into Japan, never to be seen or heard from again. My commanding General offered to find Sakura. I knew it was best to let her go, allow her to mourn, and live her life as she chose.”
When I was discharged and returned home to LA, I was heartbroken and lost ambition to attend college. I was severely depressed and turned to alcohol. The image of my daughter being cut to ribbons, and my blood-soaked wife gathering her daughter’s body parts, became regular nightmares. I considered suicide and read books about “Hari-kari”. One evening, I placed the knife against my abdomen, but the photos of my parents, and the suffering they would endure, changed my mind, at least, for the time being. Most nights I drank myself to sleep. Hearing laughing children play in our neighborhood, particularly little girls, caused my heart to ache. Although I enjoyed delicious home cooked meals prepared by my mother, I’d often eat quietly, excuse myself from the dinner table, and return to my bedroom to cry. I wanted to die.”
My father refurbished our Boyle Heights home which had been boarded up during our stay in Manzanar, and restored my boyhood bedroom to a comfortable private bedroom suitable for a grown man. My parents couldn’t console me, but my father knew it was necessary to keep me busy to alleviate my sadness, and took me on as a partner in the gardening business, hoping I would find peace amongst the trees, flowers, shrubs, and daily work. My father purchased a new light blue Ford pickup, neatly stocked it with the tools of the trade of an expert gardener, and had the doors painted, “Mori & Son.” Watching my father work was therapeutic. He was a craftsman, gentle with each plant, bush, and blade of grass. We worked six days a week from sunrise to sunset. I marveled at the tall trees, pools, and manicured grounds of the great estates we manicured for the wealthy. When I felt my sadness overwhelm me, I’d scurry up a tall tree during a lunch break, reaching the top, and stare into the blue sky with fluffy white clouds where I recited a prayer for my wife and daughter.”
“Do you remember the day my grandfather hired you to cut down the shade tree on his school campus, Mr. Mori?”
“My father was growing old, and mom was sickly. Although I had the GI bill and the opportunity to attend UCLA, I felt the responsibility to take over dad’s business. Dad died of lung cancer from smoking. Mom passed shortly thereafter, missing her beloved husband, and heartbroken about losing her beloved granddaughter. Mom was an only child and dreamed of having a granddaughter. One of mom’s caretakers at the convalescent home said mom died from a “broken heart.” With my parents deceased, and my depression deepening, I decided it was time to commit suicide. I feared Hari-kari but chose to commit suicide with a lethal combination of sedatives and alcohol which I mixed in a tall glass. I heard a knock at the door, went to answer, and it was our neighbor and family friend, your grandfather. Abe excused himself for the “intrusion” but requested a “few minutes” to discuss an important job for an arborist at the school where he was principal. I did my best to present a happy face while listening to the job assignment and glancing at the “cocktail” awaiting me. A sole, magnificent oak tree, providing the only shade for the picnic table at the urban school was ordered to be cut down to make room for a new classroom. Abe asked me for an examination of the tree and a written report he would present to the school district in hopes he could save the tree for the children. I politely declined the assignment saying, “I’m too busy but I’ll recommend another arborist.” Abe was aware of my tragedy and knew of my depression. He pleaded for my assistance, insisting, “Please do it for the underprivileged little girls and boys.” When I heard “little girls,” I decided to complete the assignment in honor of my beloved “Ichika.”
Los Angeles was a segregated city. There was a chain link fence separating Abe’s school from an upscale neighborhood. The children of this school often peered through the fence to admire the beautiful homes with manicured lawns, shrubs, and particularly the tree houses erected within some of the trees. The only minority folks in the wealthy neighborhood were Black housekeepers, Asian gardeners, and the Mexican garbage truck crew. Abe’s students played on a sweltering, cracked, asphalt playground with a single oak tree providing shade over a splintered picnic table.
The school district denied the request to save the mighty shade tree.”
The chain link fence separating the school from the beautiful neighborhood reminded me of my days at Manzanar, but the laughter, happiness, and joy of the children brought back memories of my daughter. It made me melancholy, and I’d cry out of sight of my crew when I was high atop the tree. I often contemplated releasing the hooks to my belt wrapped around the tree causing me to plunge to my death on the concrete below, ending my pain forever. My four-man crew had been with me for years, and I grew to know their families, often sharing family photos, celebrations, and happy times during our lunch breaks. I admired their work ethic which reminded me of my father and mother. I felt a responsibility to each of them and their families who depended upon my business for their livelihoods. My death would scar their lives forever, and I wouldn’t take on that responsibility.”
“Weren’t you frightened working so high up in the trees supported only by a belt wrapped around your waist and the tree trunk, Mr. Mori?”
“I considered myself a fortunate man to have a job with enabled me to climb high into the sky and nearly touch the doorway to heaven! I wasn’t alone up in the tree. I was befriended by a blue bird, squirrel, and a mouse, all living in the tree. They kept me company during my work, unafraid of the loud chain saw, and trusting my intentions to provide them with another home. I credit their companionship, and that of my crew, for convincing me not commit suicide. At times, I speculated the animals were my lost family, or possibly their messengers, urging me to carry on. I made certain the severed limbs of the tree were delivered to the arboretum to serve as trail curbs, mulch, or other useful items.”
“Mr. Mori, my grandfather told me he watched you from his office window respectfully dismembering the tree. He fondly spoke of your crew of four, dedicated Mexican American workers who worked together like a surgical team. You thanked my grandfather for the business, shook hands, and he never saw you again. My grandfather became embroiled in the school desegregation of the time, and running the busy school. He often wondered about you, knowing you didn’t have a successor to take over the business, and no family. Before passing, he asked me to visit “Mr. Mori” one day. So, I’ve honored his request, Mr. Mori.”
“Gabe, your grandfather always had the best intentions of his students in mind. He pointed out another tree on the school campus which long since died and wasn’t a nuisance. I thought that I might attempt to bring it back to life and provide needed shade for the students. I confirmed the tree was hopelessly dead but sturdy. Although it would never provide shade for the children, I had another “idea in mind” for the children. I phoned your grandfather with my idea.
With your grandfather’s permission, I turned my attention to the lifeless tree without leaves. My examination concluded the tree was perfect for a tree house for the children. I spent my weekends purchasing lumber, nails, roofing shingles, and I finished a structurally sound, elaborate tree house, which looked like it was torn from a page of “Architectural Digest.” My depression was replaced with happiness. I declined your grandfather’s gracious offer of a fee.”
I noticed the children from the “privileged” neighborhood on the other side of the fence watched me and our students complete the tree house. It wasn’t long before the privileged children scaled the fence and joined the students of our school in building the tree house. Although the tree house wouldn’t remain forever, lasting friendships were forged amongst children from different ethnic groups and religious backgrounds. It was beautiful to behold. I carved the initials “M+S” within the base of the tree”
I was mindful to provide a bird house for my friend the blue bird, and bored a small “apartment” for the squirrel, and mouse, high inside the trunk of the tree. Upon completing the tree house, I purchased gallons of red, white, and blue paint, charging the students with the job of painting the tree house.”
I’d sit out of sight of the children and watch them paint the tree house. It became a red, white, and blue mosaic of America, depicting the love, struggles, and dreams for an America of the future these children desired. I retired shortly thereafter, selling the business to my crew for a bargain price. In my honor, they kept the trade name, “Mori & Son.”
I’m weary, Gabe. Fatigue is flowing over me like a wave. I can’t resist the need to close my eyes. If I do, I fear it will be the final time. I must say “Sayonara” to you before it’s too late.” Mr. Mori shook my hand with a weak, shaking grip.
I glanced at my watch and knew I was due back at the hospital for my surgical rounds. As I looked up from my watch and towards Mr. Mori, I knew he passed. His eyes were half open and a lovely grin suggested he was happy to have told his story, and to meet the grandson of an old neighbor, friend, and client. I checked his pulse, respiration, and confirmed his death. I summoned the caregivers to the room. It was my privilege to make the formal pronouncement of death, and execute the death certificate. Since Mr. Mori had no relatives, I told the staff that I would consult with the Coroner, the American Legion who would provide a military service at no charge, and a Japanese temple regarding his religious services.
It was a beautiful, sunny morning, memorial service with an air force color guard, including a Shinto priest. A Shinto tablet marked Mr. Mori’s grave which was placed beneath a tall, shady oak tree. Two additional Shinto tablets were placed adjacent to Mr. Mori, one for his beloved wife, Sakura, and the other for his loving daughter, Ichika. His parents were buried not far away from the memorials to their son, granddaughter, and daughter-in-law.
They don’t make people like Mr. Mori anymore. His kindness, generosity, and humanity in the face of tragedy and bigotry, left a positive impression upon me which I wouldn’t forget. Before leaving the memorial service, I bowed, and said, “Sayonara” to the Mori family. I was grateful to Mr. Mori for revealing memories of my grandparents. I admired their dedication to teaching the underprivileged and choosing to live within a diverse neighborhood. In their honor, I recited the Jewish prayer for the dead, “The Mourner’s Kaddish.” The Kaddish helps keep the memory of a loved one alive.

Jonathan Ferrini is a published author who resides in San Diego. He received his MFA in motion picture and television production from UCLA.