My Indomitable Friend

Here is a story of how simple childhood experiences can frame our perceptions of the world.  -Marjorie Alstead Shackelford

Mary Tanaka - Age 8

Mary Tanaka in Miss Murphy’s third grade class at Capital School in Juneau, Alaska..

I met my indomitable friend, Mary Tanaka, when I was eight years old in Miss Murphy’s third grade class. However, where I really have her cemented in my memory is Junior Choir practice at the Resurrection Lutheran Church. We were altos, so we sat together during Sunday services, sang as one voice during church and giggled or whispered together during practice. One of the factors that motivated us to attend practice, without fail, was getting to wear sparkly tinsel crowns on our heads during the midnight service on Christmas Eve. From that early time spent together, a friendship grew.

The year was 1948 and I’d never really had a best friend except for my sister Karleen, but that was the year Mary was to capture my undivided attention. She was very lively and chock full of ideas. Plans on how to spend our free time just flowed out of her. She was not a force to be denied as she possessed strong opinions, especially about how to treat other people. She seemed to know everyone no matter where we wandered, and she never failed to treat each person with positive attention and respect, even the scariest looking person on the street.

Juneau was only about five thousand people in those days, and I was allowed to go downtown on errands or to the movies during the day at a fairly young age. Mary was often my companion, but I didn’t feel as eager to engage everyone in conversation as she did. Some of the people she knew were just too far out of my comfort zone. I’d hang back while she teased and laughed with a scruffy fisherman fresh off his boat or someone in a fancy suit from the Federal Building. But, frankly, she was so much fun and full of adventure that life was much more exciting when she was around. So, I swallowed my fears and obediently followed where she led.

The act that really forged our friendship was when she invited me to the City Café for lunch after church services. I was quite excited because I had never had the opportunity to go to a restaurant yet in my young life. My parents graciously gave their permission, and Mary and I walked down to the café together after services were over. As we flitted down South Franklin toward the docks and the Cold Storage, Mary again seemed to know many of the people we passed on the street. She greeted them all with enthusiasm and they, in turn, reflected her good will. Most of the time, I simply said hello and managed to squeeze out a smile or two.

When we entered the café I began to feel a little shy. It seemed like everyone at the lunch counter turned around, looked at us and smiled at Mary. They all knew her. The fishermen, drinking their coffee with their white workmen’s caps askew, greeted her with comments like, “Who’s your little friend?” and “You gonna finally have some help behind the counter?” Mary just laughed and ignored them as she sauntered into the kitchen with me by her side, feeling as comfortable in her surroundings as I felt like a foreigner. It began to dawn on me how she knew so many different people.


The City Café in 1947.

This was a totally strange place to me, full of strange sights, smells and emotions. I was excited at the newness of everything while being a little nervous at all the attention we were receiving. The two Japanese cooks used big round metal pots to cook in, a novelty to me. They seemed frantically busy chopping, stirring and yelling out their orders in a language I didn’t quite understand. They wore white aprons smudged with various foods they had cooked that day. Short white circular hats like I’d seen in black and white pictures of restaurants in my mother’s magazines perched on their heads. It was a little like being in another country for someone like me, having lived in Juneau all of my life and never having experienced exotic locales.

I followed Mary through the kitchen and into a back hallway lined with white wooden booths. The backs were so high, you couldn’t see over them. They were built with narrow pieces of lath and covered in white shiny enamel paint. Each booth looked like a solitary and private hideaway. She motioned for us to sit in one. I felt encased in a little world all our own. It seemed quite grand.

About the time I had adjusted to my surroundings, Mr. Tanaka arrived with a gigantic smile on his face. Above all, I remember that smile. He was one of the cooks I had seen working in the kitchen. He seemed so delighted to see me that my discomfort faded away. I was a visiting dignitary, a welcome guest, an honored friend in a brand new world. He bowed his head slightly to me as Mary introduced us and said he was happy to meet me. He and Mary talked in a mixture of English and Japanese that I felt I should be able to interpret but couldn’t quite grasp. It sounded like it was something about what to serve us for lunch. Then, as quickly as he appeared, he left.

Mary and I chatted awhile. I could hear slight background noises and she told me that people rented apartments upstairs. About this time a lovely Japanese lady with long skirts and a very quiet manner arrived. She smiled slowly at me as she placed silverware and napkins on our booth table. Mary introduced this lady as her mother and she too lowered her eyes and slightly bowed her head in greeting. She and Mary engaged in some animated conversation that also consisted of words in both English and Japanese. Then, with a soft smile, as quietly as she arrived, she departed.

Mr. Tanaka reappeared with two heavy oval white porcelain dishes balanced confidently on one arm. He placed one in front of me. What was sitting on the plate is very firmly set in my memory. Thick slices of turkey covered a giblet dressing nestled next to a helping of mashed potatoes topped in the center with a puddle of gravy. A pile of small canned peas (I didn’t know about any other kind) and some jellied cranberry sauce added color to the plate. A crispy roll also graced my meal. Everything looked very tasty. I was eager to dig into my lunch, but I waited for some signal from Mary. She took a bite of her turkey, then I took one.

Her father beamed down at us. I took another bite, this time of the dressing, and told him how delicious it was. Mr. Tanaka continued to smile and disappeared again. As it turned out, I found it all delicious. To crown the meal, he soon arrived with two slices of apple pie. I was pretty full, but I managed to eat every crumb of it. After all, I didn’t want to disappoint him. It seemed very important that I enjoy everything he placed in front of me.

When it was time to leave, I thanked Mr. Tanaka and Mary profusely. I looked for Mrs. Tanaka, but she had disappeared somewhere in the building and I didn’t have enough confidence to poke around and look for her. Mary escorted me to the front door of the café where I smiled gratefully at the cooks and customers and then walked up Franklin Street to my home at Fifth and Gold and excitedly told my family all about my special lunch at the City Café.

Food seems to dominate these early memories of friendship. When going to the movies, Mr. Tanaka would send a brown paper bag stained with oil and stuffed with tempura for Mary and me to munch on during the show, which we did with gusto. At Christmas there was a special sushi Mrs. Tanaka made that, at first view, I wasn’t sure I wanted to try. It took me awhile to appreciate the pungent taste of the seaweed covering the sushi, but I grew to love it. In high school, I tossed my tiresome baloney sandwich into the garbage when I saw that Mary had brought a lunch assembled at the café to share. It contained sandwiches filled with big slabs of roast beef, mandarin oranges and some crunchy and hot orange crackers.

Not to be outdone, I eventually took her to my grandma Alstead’s house on Starr Hill where she secretly left her lunch in its paper sack leaning up against the back door so she could feast on Norwegian coffee cake and lefsa in my grandma’s warm inviting kitchen. At our house, my mother baked a pie once while Mary was visiting and put sugar and cinnamon on the remnants of dough which she baked in the oven and gave to us to devour, and we did. Another time she stayed overnight and while cooking breakfast, my father showed her how he added water to the fried eggs and covered them so you didn’t have to turn them over to firm up the whites. I had never noticed his strategy with the eggs before, but Mary was mesmerized and my father smiled at her enthusiasm.

Over time, I discovered the mysterious Buddha on the windowsill at the Tanaka’s home, her mother’s meticulously designed rock garden with its Japanese influence around their house and how to say thank you in Japanese. She in turn improved her sewing skills with my mother’s guidance, enjoyed the strange accents, tastes and sights at my grandparents’ home and learned how to say thank you in Norwegian.

It turns out that we didn’t have to leave Juneau to learn about or appreciate other cultures. Our families quietly existed side by side in our small and remote Alaskan town. They shared many similar beliefs. Both believed in the value of hard work and the dignity of the individual and conversely frowned on any behavior that smacked of bragging or self-pity. Each patriarch had come to Alaska from another country to make a new life for themselves and their family. They were willing to make the sacrifices and take the risks that move demanded of them.

With the innocence of young children, we delighted in discovering the varied details of each of these unique worlds and found them fascinating. I think the key to that exploration lay in both of our families’ warm acceptance of each of us with no seeming reservations. And sometimes, when Mary and I are involved in a new adventure that feels a little risky, I like to think that they are looking down on us still and smiling.

Margie Alstead - Age 8 001

Marjorie Alstead in Miss Murphy’s third grade Class at Capital School.

*At the time I met Mary, her family had been in Juneau for two years following their three year internment at Minidoka and had been very busy rebuilding their lives again. The City Café had been in existence for 35 years before they were evacuated. She, nor either of her parents, ever spoke to me about that humiliating time while we were growing up in Juneau. I found out about it quite by accident after we were out of college, but conversations of any depth had to wait for three more decades. All of which adds up to how indomitable Mary and her family really were.

Margie and Mary today.

Margie and Mary today.

If you have a another story to share about the City Café, the Juneau Laundry, or some friend who was affected by the internment, it would certainly be welcome here. Just contact me at


The Empty Chair Tagged as Overcoming Obstacles

A wooden chair from the 30's or 40's

A wooden chair from the 30’s or 40’s

For those of you who missed the latest Empty Chair publicity, here’s a recap of the Juneau Empire Dec. 29 article “Valuable lessons Learned” by Neighbors Editor Melissa Griffiths. She prefaced it with the following statement:

“It’s the end of the year and, though there won’t be a test, I thought it would be nice to review what we’ve learned this year. Juneau is full of people bursting with love, passion and knowledge, much of which gets shared in stories each week. Some common themes for Neighbors include family, home, food, passion, overcoming obstacles and love.”

In the section titled “Overcoming obstacles” Melissa wrote, “This year we also heard updates on the Empty Chair Project and a story from Alice Tanaka about how the Juneau community helped her family deal with and recover from being sent to internment camps during World War II. The group has made great progress with fundraising and was awarded a grant for $80,000 from the National Park Service. It is expected that we’ll have this memorial for the Japanese Americans sent to internment camps from Juneau in the coming year.”

The Empty Chair Committee is grateful to the Juneau community, the National Park Service and friends at large for their rapid and generous response to our fundraising efforts during the last year. We also look forward with anticipation to the placing of the memorial in Capital School Park this summer. So it is with hope and enthusiasm that we celebrate the new year and the fruition of so many of our plans. It’s all been miraculous and we could never thank all of our supporters enough! But we’ll try….THANK YOU!