Roots and Branches: Aya Endow -- Tiny, soft-spoken, legendary

Aya Endow passed away last Wednesday, slipping softly into another place, leaving this world as she had lived in it. Unassuming, unpretentious, beautiful to the very core of her being.

I met Aya when I was 19 after been duly named the designated courier of care packages from Hood River to OSU. My brother was rooming with Terry Endow and Dennis Takasumi at Oregon State, and my frequent visits home to see Dad made me the logical mode of transport. I learned that care packages from Japanese homes were far more mysterious, odiferous and delicious than the standard jar of peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies.

While familiar with the maze of roads on the Oak Grove side of the valley where I grew up, I was at a loss once I crossed Tucker Bridge and entered the other side of the valley. I meandered up the unfamiliar roads of Odell, not wishing to admit I was a slight bit lost.

After making several false turns, I found myself on the correct cutoff, a steep gravel drive with a maze of outbuildings attached. I wasn’t sure which door to knock on, and had been forewarned by the guys not to go to “Grandma’s” house because she spoke no English.

It is funny what you fear when you are young. The door to Tei Endow’s home opened and the tiniest, most soft-spoken women I had ever seen answered. Nothing to fear here. She pointed to a large net-enclosed area, where Aya was working.

As I approached the netted enclosure I saw Aya come down the ladder, a bucket of blueberries the size of pie cherries in hand. I always thought blueberries grew on scrawny little bushes, but not in Aya’s garden. I was about to enter the world of a woman who could grow gargantuan blueberries that still tasted sweet and succulent.

She was famous for her straight daikon radishes; when grown by amateurs, they emerged from the soil gnarled and twisted like arthritic limbs. Then there were her sugar peas, soy beans, pole beans — picture perfect as the front of the seed packet.

She invited me into her home, a place seldom seen by those other than family. The porch and narrow hall were filled with Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus plants, festooned in brilliant red, fuchsia and orange blossoms. There was barely room to pass.

I know my mouth was gaping open as if awaiting a dental exam walking through this veritable jungle, foliage in all shades of green, arms trailing from half-gallon pots, some the size of a laundry basket. She set down the blueberry bucket and handed me a planter that was overflowing with buds.

“It will bloom in a few weeks and fill your dorm with laughter,” she said. (I thought the saying was odd, but came across a famous Japanese philosopher quote years later that said the same thing: Oslo “Look at flowers — for no reason. It is simply unbelievable how happy flowers are.”) In no time I was loaded with blueberries, cactus and fresh vegetables.

A well-packed bag of treats emerged, with some strange-looking ingredients and penetrating smells. A package of caramel-colored fibers had an odor so intense it penetrated the packaging. Cuttle fish to snack on as I drove back to college. Not even a mason jar, sealed tightly with the canner’s ring and wrapped in newspaper, could disguise the smell of rotting Napa cabbage — a vegetable I grew to love.

Little packages of spiced seaweed looked interesting, but the fried soy beans, “fry mame,” looked like beetles in a bag, their shell glistening in the sun.

The crowning glory was a jar of strawberry preserves, with whole strawberries inside a jam-like spread. I swear one jar of strawberry preserves had only two strawberries that filled the entire container.

My journeys back and forth to Endows’ sealed the friendship. I was the student, and Aya was the sensei on the hill. Within a year I married Flip and moved into the Dotso house on Massee Grade Road. I could look out the kitchen window to her garden on the hillside above and watch Aya working her magic.

Once in a while we would run into one another at Anzen, the Japanese market in Portland where she sold a few vegetables. She wasn’t the Aya I knew in this foreign setting: shy, eyes cast down. But I could tell which produce was hers by their perfect aroma and shape.

Aya taught me how to decorate cakes, passing on her cake-decorating books, tools and food colorings. The cake-decorating bug has been passed down to my kids and theirs. I learned how to make almond roca at her side, but it never turned out like hers: each individually wrapped in pastel foil, placed like jewels in a box for Christmas.

Lumpia was one of her specialties, and she shared both cooking tips and the recipe with me. Mine were never even a close facsimile. Always modest, she would say, “It is on the back of the lumpia package, Maija.” Follow the directions.

I overwatered and undernourished her cactus plants for years. She patiently provided me with a rejuvenated one each Thanksgiving. “Try a different window,” she would kindly say. It takes an artist like Aya to coax gorgeous blooms from these prehistoric plants.

As my life became more hectic, my visits with Aya became less frequent. Aya seemed drawn into the shadow of the hillside. When her husband Sho passed away she became one with the mountain, seldom seeing more than family.

But the last two winters we have made a pilgrimage up the mountain to introduce our grandchild Aya to her namesake. The visits were brief, but precious.

Aya came into my life almost 50 years ago, kindly sharing her wisdom and treasures with our family. Her reverence for all living things — animal, vegetable, human — is legendary. A tribute which Aya would most certainly deny.

She was the essence of wabi sabi: simplicity, imperfect beauty, humility and harmony, with the soul of an artist and the heart of an Akita.

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