Interview with a Centenarian

Written by: Natalie Bennett
At 104, Ms. Tomi Kadonaga could easily pass for someone 20 or 30 years younger. Although she wears hearing aids, her only health complaint is that sometimes her legs hurt. But she is also quick to point out it is only the lower part below the knee. She uses a wheeled walker for support, but moves so fast neither the walker nor her sore legs seem much of a hindrance. In truth, Ms. Kadonaga seems to be able to take everything in stride. She described for me the major milestones in her life rather matter-of-factly, despite the sadness or the joy certain events may have caused. Humble, she spoke with gratitude about her lucky life and insisted she was not interesting apart from her great age. A charming and gracious hostess, she immediately sought to put us at ease with compliments and humorous quips that belied her age.
On one point, I beg to differ with Ms. Kadonaga – I think she has had a most interesting life indeed! She was born in 1913 in the small village of Hazelton, British Columbia, to Japanese immigrant parents. She was the fourth born in what would become a seven-child, two-adult household. Along with her family, she moved to Port Essington, but her parents were concerned that the one-room schoolhouse there did not provide a good enough education, so they soon moved again to Prince Rupert. Ms. Kadonaga remembers Prince Rupert fondly. She described it as a great place to grow up, free from the stress of a big city, with a close-knit community and an abundance of nature. Her family was undoubtedly very much a part of that community as one year her married elder sister invited a lonely young man to join them for Christmas dinner as he his only living relative lived miles away in Vancouver.
Sokichi, known as Saul to English-speakers, had been working on a tugboat with the Kelly logging company along with the sister’s husband. That Christmas, he fell in love with the young Tomi and they were married when she finished high school at 16. Ms. Kadonaga tells me with a laugh though, “I think he actually fell in love with Mom as he would sometimes say, ‘I thought you’d be more like your mother.’” Unfortunately, the couple were caught up in the politics of war and brought to Hastings Park in 1941 along with many other Japanese-Canadians living on the coast at that time. Here, Ms. Kadonaga speaks of her great luck because her godmother had already moved to Toronto years before and wrote for permission to have the Kadonagas move in with her in Ontario. She had even promised she would have a job for them.
Fortunately, permission was granted and the Kadonagas were happily surprised to find that English Toronto was actually very welcoming and accepting of them. Official rules were not as kind, however, and Mr. Kadonaga spent a lot of time and money going to Ottawa to fight first for permission to own property, and later for permission to obtain a business licence, despite legally being a Canadian citizen
Ms. Kadonaga joked that he had no money left for anything but the cheapest business licence and that is how they got into dry cleaning.
Again fortunate smiled on them. Although they knew nothing about dry cleaning, Mr. Kadonaga found a nice Jewish man to help run the place. Danforth Cleaners quickly grew to include two plants and 35 locations spread across all of Toronto. Ms. Kadonaga thinks it had a lot to do with their promise to have clothes handed over in the morning to be ready by 4 pm that same afternoon, a novel idea at the time.
I think employee loyalty also had something to do with it as the Kadonagas encouraged their employees to go to school while also working by giving them time off to do so. It does not hurt that Ms. Kadonaga also has a knack for people. She thinks it is a bit mysterious that people have always been drawn to her, but I think her next story illustrates why.
The story starts with Ms. Kadonaga getting her first outside job outside of the family business, unbelievably, at the age of 61. It was for a bank. One day, the lobby was filled with fresh graduates waiting to be interviewed. They looked nervous and they had basically been ignored for quite some time. Ms. Kadonaga saw this and greeted them with an insouciant, “Hey boys!” which immediately broke the tension. Unconcerned with the age gap, she then sat down and spoke with them for quite a while.
Incidentally, Ms. Kadonaga’s empathy for the young men led to another surprising story. One of the men, Jeff, ended up later being her co-worker and she frequently told anecdotes about their working life together at home. Ms. Kadonaga’s daughter, Mona, joked with her mother that she’d introduced her to many young men, but why not Jeff? Ms. Kadonaga finally did and the rest, they say, is history. Mona and Jeff are still happily married to this day.
When I asked Ms. Kadonaga if she had any secrets for living for so long and staying healthy, she said having good friends was the most important point. Amazingly, one of her long-time friends is now a centenarian too, but Ms. Kadonaga’s ability to make friends with people of all ages has unquestionably been a benefit to her. As the interview was wrapping up, one such younger friend arrived and told us Ms. Kadonaga had more people at her 100th birthday than she’d had at her 90th and her social circle was ever-expanding.
Ms. Kadonaga assured me that I should just eat what I wanted and not worry too much about diet. Her favourite foods growing up had been macaroni and cheese or stew. But she did say that stew back in the day was less meaty, so maybe that was a hint in disguise. She also never drove and walked to get groceries, so I believe she exercised more than she realised.
As for her mental health, again she attributed it to friendship and I don’t think she’s wrong. But her sense of gratitude for the luck she’s received in life, her desire to give back, and her readiness to take on new challenges even as a mature woman surely helped too. In fact, she even went back to work as a volunteer book-keeper at 75 and regularly flew to England to visit her daughter until reaching 100!
As I was leaving, Ms. Kadonaga again expressed surprise that anyone would be interested in her life. She surmised it must only be because she’d reached 104. I felt a bit guilty as that was indeed my initial reason. It’s a shame we don’t speak with our elders more. Everyone has a story. Let’s find them out.