When I was growing up, every neighborhood had someone like Mrs. Matayoshi. If there were someone living near you who had all kinds of fruit trees and was always sharing with you, then you know the kind of person I’m talking about. Besides always giving us lycee, mangoes, and avocados, Mrs. M was famous for her generosity when it came to goodies of every kind.
Some of her specialties were soft, chewy, oatmeal cookies, crisp peanut butter cookies with ever so slightly burnt bottoms, and crunchy cornflake cookies. She also made blueberry cheesecake, apple pie, super chocolatey brownies, and the moistest banana bread I’ve ever had. In addition to baked goods, she would share plates of sushi, jars of pickled mango, and the two I loved most of all, her holiday specialties, prune mui and mochi.
I could eat myself sick on Mrs. Matayoshi’s prune mui for Christmas and her mochi for New Years. It was not unusual, in fact, that if I happened to be the only one home when she dropped off each of those holiday treats, that I would finish off whatever she’d given us long before my parents or my sister returned, far too late to partake of them. I can’t remember now, but I might have been so good at scarfing them down, that my family may not have even been aware that we received those two treats from Mrs. M.
As I grew older and my parents passed on, my sister long ago having moved first to New York and then to England, Mrs. Matayoshi, never appearing much older than she was when her family first moved into the neighborhood, continued to gift me with her extraordinary culinary delights. She could still deliver them too. The spring in her step never wavered, nor did the sunshine in her smile.
After her husband passed away, her children all having married and moved on, Mrs. M, like I, lived alone. With no one to help her with her yard anymore, the trees grew scraggly and, with the exception of the mango tree, no longer bore fruit.
It had a feeling that long after she stopped giving goodies to the other neighbors, Mrs. Matayoshi continued to provide them to me. I think it was because she felt sorry for me, living in the solitude of my confirmed bachelorhood. From time to time she’d ask me, “So when you going get married?” I would always smile sheeplishly and say something like, “Well I haven’t given up hope yet.”
As time passed, she would bring me containers of soup or spaghetti, undoubtedly believing that I might need help with cooking. I didn’t, but I always appreciated her very good food, so much better than what I could whip up in the kitchen.
While these occasional meals continued to come my way, Mrs. Matayoshi baking gradually ceased. The cookies, cakes, pies, and breads were no more, but the two mainstays, prune mui for Christmas and mochi for New Year’s Day, still kept coming.
One Christmas Eve there was a knock on my door. I was surprised to see that it was Violet, Mrs. Matayoshi’s oldest daughter. She had a brown paper bag in her hand, which she offered to me.
“Merry Christmas.” She held out the bag to me.
I took it from her. “Thank you, Violet,” I said, surprised. “Is your mom okay?
“We don’t know,” Violet said, wiping away tears. “We had to take her to the emergency room yesterday. We’re still waiting to hear.”
“I’m so sorry to hear this, Violet. Please give her my best wishes for a quick recovery.”
Violet thanked me. “When I was over today, I saw this batch of prune mui. I think she only made it for you anymore. I wanted to bring it by.”
“You don’t care for it?” I asked.
“Oh no, you know, we all grew up eating so much of it, I think my brothers and sisters pretty much got tired of it. She only made a small batch each year for you.”
I thanked Violet. It was actually a mayonnaise quart jar’s worth of this Christmas snack gold, and that night I sat down to watch TV, bottle of prune mui before me on the coffee table, prepared to eat myself sick on it. I’m a bit ashamed to admit it, but even before digging in with some thanks for the prune mui, in the back of my mind I was saddened by the prospect of Mrs. Matayoshi not being well enough to make mochi for New Year’s.
As I munched and sucked my way slowly into the bottle, I noticed with great pleasure, that Mrs. M had added more whiskey to the mix than usual. That was one of the ingredients I liked most in her style of prune mui. Not that others didn’t do the same. It’s just that there was never holding back on the Jack Daniel’s, or whatever brand she used. It was what made her prune mui stand out above any other I’ve ever tried. You could eat it and get slightly high at the same time. Also, she cut her prunes and apricots in half, so the flavor always got into all the nooks and crannies.
Many prunes and apricot slices, and sweet li hing muis, and lemon peel tidbits into the bottle, I happened upon one very tough piece. After trying to bite into it several times with no success, and after probing it with my tongue and so determining it was definitely not a li hing mui seed, I decided it had to be a rogue prune or apricot that had somehow gone into the mix a bit too hard to begin with, so that the amount of soaking that had sufficed for the rest of the fruit, had not been enough to soften this one sufficiently.
I removed the hard thing from my mouth and switched on the end table lamp. Turning it over between my fingers, you can imagine my surprise when I saw that it was the neatly severed tip of a well-manicured finger. Dropping it on the floor, I ran to the bathroom and regurgitated all the prune mui I’d enjoyed to that point. After flushing the toilet, I went to the sink and washed out my mouth for several minutes, then gargled with Listerine for several more.
Finally composed enough to go back to the couch, using a Kleenex, I picked up the fingertip. I couldn’t tell what finger it might be for sure, but it concluded it was neither the thumb not the pinky.
Oh poor Mrs. Matayoshi, I thought. No wonder she ended up in the emergency room.
That night I tossed and turned. Visions of Mrs. M, no doubt well into her 80s at this point, cutting off her fingertip in order make me a batch of prune mui. It was a nightmare unlike most I have had over the course of my lifetime.
The next day, as I was tossing the fingertip and the rest of prune mui into the trash bin outside my garage, I was surprised to her Violet hail me as she walked toward my house. It a desperate moment of worry, I hope she was not there to ask me how much I’d liked her dear mother’s prune mui.
“I wanted to let you know that my mom passed away last night. I know how much she cared about you. She always told us how she enjoyed bringing you food since you probably didn’t cook much since it would be just for yourself.”
I must have turned pale, because Violet gave me a strange look. “Are you all right?” she asked.
“Yes, yes, I’m okay,” I said. “I just, I had this terrible vision of your mother bleeding.”
“Oh my,” said Violet, “that would be terrible. I’m glad that didn’t happen.”
“It didn’t?” I asked.
“Oh no,” said Violet. “My mom had a heart attack. She passed away in her sleep.”
I didn’t ask about the fingertip. Whose it was, or how it might have made its way into my prune mui. I’m still wondering about that to this day.