Sue Isonaga
A Different View

Robert Shivers

A year later, Sue works as a live-in schoolgirl for the recently arrived Shivers family. Robert Shivers is special agent in charge of the FBI’s Honolulu office.

In addition to helping around the house, she spends time with Mrs. Shivers. Robert Shivers is like a father to Sue.

Her name is legally changed from Shizue Kobatake to Suzanne Shizue Kobatake. At the same time, her citizenship is changed from dual, Japanese and American, to American.

Working for the Shivers Family

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Mrs. Edwards, who was head of the department, cafeteria manager in home economics, met my mother several times and told her to send me to Honolulu to take this [food management training] program. But, I just refused because I knew they needed me at home.

Finally, after a few years, my brother said, “We’re going to send you, so you go.” So I came to Honolulu from my old country place and not knowing anyone or anything, I stayed at the family, the Jones family, up on St. Louis Heights. They had a son, Eugene. So, I went and stayed with them for a whole year.

So, my second year, when I came back, [the Jones family] had gone back to the Mainland, so I needed a place to stay.

In the meantime, the Shivers arrived from the Mainland and Mrs. Edwards somehow became friends with Mrs. Shivers and talked to her about me. “Will you please take this girl because I promised her mother that I’ll take good care of her?” Mom Shivers [Mrs. Shivers] told me that, “At first, we were kind of reluctant because we had never been close to a Japanese or Oriental like this.” But Mrs. Edwards insisted, so they took me.

So that’s how I went to live with the Shivers. And we stayed on 457 Black Point Road.

I didn’t know anything [about the Shivers family when I first met them]. I didn’t even know [Robert Shivers] was FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] until someone told me, “Eh, he’s FBI man, you know.”

Robert Shivers
Robert Shivers

I was kind of worried about going, too. But since Mrs. Edwards suggested, then I thought I’d try.

[I thought], “Well, there isn’t a thing I can do.” But it was kind of — not scary but had a big question mark. Will you last there or not? But they were very nice from the very beginning. Very, very nice.

Mr. and Mrs. Robert Shivers

They’re both from the South. But Mrs. Shivers is from Atlanta, Georgia and Mr. Shivers was born in Tennessee. So they both are very much from the South.

Robert and Corinne Shivers
Robert and Corinne Shivers

I met Mr. Shivers’ family, too because after he passed away [in 1950], I felt I need to keep in touch with them. So we became very close, family-wise. I used to go to Atlanta and then, after Atlanta, stay a week or so there and then I stop at Tennessee to the Shivers’ side of the family. Then I’d come home.

Mom Shivers’ [Mrs. Robert Shivers] side of the family, they were very, very nice when I went there, they accepted. I met Mae, the sweetest person you can ever find, her sister. That’s why my daughter was named after Mae. And Mr. Shivers’ side of the family, another down-to-earth, free-loving Southern family. Oh, they were all so nice, you know. I was “Cousin Sue” to them.

I really didn’t know anything [about their background]. All I knew was he was with the FBI in Atlanta, Georgia and that’s where he met Mrs. Shivers and they were married.

Duties

I was to clean up after the dishes and help with whatever area I can and clean the house. Not heavy ones, just touch up.

But most of the time, I think Mom Shivers and I went and did things, Mr. Shivers was always away, to Washington D.C. So she and I used to go Downtown and we’d go to see a movie and kept ourselves busy.

We went shopping and we went to movies. I remember once, we stopped at a bakery, sweet bread and she and I started tearing into that and by the time we reached home — we walked home then, because it was Kuliouou — we walked home and we had eaten the sweet bread. Just tearing it up all the way. You know, we had some fun things we did.

Mrs. Shivers did [the cooking] but I was there to help. Set the table and help her with the food.

I watched [Mrs. Shivers] do the fried chicken and that was good. Actually, it was the usual thing, lamb chops or bacon and eggs or things like that — just very American, simple food.

Mom Shivers

As far as food was concerned Mom Shivers was — I called her “Mom Shivers,” by habit, we all did — but anyway, she loved Oriental food, kim chee [Korean dish of fermented chili peppers and vegetables] and all the Oriental things. But Mr. Shivers would not touch those things, [he ate] just what he was accustomed to eating.

Once, I think someone gave me some takuan [pickled Japanese radish]. So I had put it in the refrigerator. And [Mrs. Shivers] came and said, “What is that awful smell in the refrigerator?” So, I told her what it was and then she said, “How come something that tastes so good just smells so awful?”

But kim chee, she loves kim chee. I remember making lot of kim chee when I knew she was coming up because she can use that as a salad. She loved that kim chee, mm-hmm.

So when I used to visit her in the Mainland, I’d fill up all these little containers with kim chee before I came back because she loved kim chee. I used to take the [seasoning] powder when I went up there. Before I left I made sure her refrigerator was full of kim chee and local food that I had cooked and froze, so she can have it. She loved Oriental food. She loved everything about Hawaii, the food and she was willing to try everything. Whatever she tried, she loved it.

[“Mom Shivers”] started with our son, Bob. He used to call “Mom Shivers.” And she became Mom Shivers. I was “Mommy” and she was “Mom Shivers.” So the whole neighborhood was calling her “Mom Shivers.” She’d be driving up and they’d say, “Bobby, Mom Shivers is coming up the hill.”

Once we went to a store and we were at the cashier. I knew these people and Bob kept saying, “Mommy, Mom Shivers, Mom Shivers.” So, she [cashier] looked up and said, “Where’s the connection?”

Isonaga Family and Mrs. Shivers
Isonaga Family and Corinne Shivers

I guess they felt because we’re all Oriental. But here’s this little boy that’s calling this Caucasian woman, Mom, Mom Shivers. But she was always “Mom Shivers” to all of the children. Even to us now, the “Mom” somehow it comes out.

Just Like Family

[Mr. Shivers] told me, “I would like to meet your mother.” So he said, he gave me the date he was going. “Will you please tell her to go down to Mala Wharf?” You know, the ship’s coming. So I wrote to my mother and she and one of my brothers went. They got on the little boat and went up to the wharf.

He said, “The minute I saw your mother, I knew that was your mother.” And then went and told them, “We’re Shivers and we have your daughter, Shizue. We will take very good care of her, so don’t worry.” Now, I was very impressed with that because, who would do that? To go and meet the family to tell them that they’re going to take good care of her. And they did take good care of me. And was very careful.

Even up to the very end [they wanted to adopt me]. In fact, I think, in fact, the will they left was, “Our ‘adopted’ daughter, Sue.” He always told me, “You think your mother will let me adopt you?” I said, “I don’t know.”

Even when I got married, my brother was going to walk me down. [Mr. Shivers] said, “Sharkey [Yoshiaki Kobatake] has four girls to walk down. I have none, so I’m going to walk you down.” So he gave me away in marriage.

Father Figure

[Robert Shivers] was [like a father to me] and I thought I was very fortunate to have him there because he won’t tell me what to do but whenever I have problems, we would sit and discuss it. Then, it’s up to me to make my own decision.

He was a real Southern gentleman, I guess. During the war [World War II], everyone was wearing slacks. I know one day, I was getting ready to go to town and I put on a pair of slacks. I went to say, “I’m going Downtown.” Then he said, “Are you going to town like that?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Why don’t you go in and try on a dress?” So I went in and I changed into a dress, and came back, and he said, “Now don’t you think you look more lady-like than the pants?” “Yes."

So during the war, I don’t think I ever wore pants Downtown. As long as he was there.

Name Change

[Mr. Shivers] said, “Shizue — I can’t spell, I can’t think about Shizue every time I call. You know, it’s a tongue-twister. So, you’re going to be ‘Sue’ from now on.” So that was the way it was.

Then we went down to [attorney] Masaji Marumoto’s office, and he said, he’s going to legalize that to — not Sue. “We’re going to legalize to ‘Suzanne Shizue Kobatake.’”

Expatriation

Then I was expatriated, too, at the same time. Because, see, [Mr. Shivers] asked me. I said, “Yes, I want to because I’m living in America and I want to be American citizen.” In fact, I think all of my brothers, they were all expatriated.

In fact, even my mother became a citizen of the United States. I think it was one of her proudest moments. So we were happy. She said, “Well, all of our children are working in Hawaii, so I think I should join and be a United States citizen.”

Discussions Before the War

I didn’t know a thing [about Mr. Shivers’ work before the war started] because nothing like that was discussed at home. But I remember the first few days, he would call me in the living room and sit down, and he would ask me questions. You know, about, “Did you go to Japanese[-language] school?”

I said, “Yes.” “What did they teach you there?”

So I said, “Well, more reading and maybe writing and the Golden Rule, just like the American. You do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And respect the elders and take good care of them that way. All kinds of — but never the emperor.”

He asked me, “Were you told to honor the emperor?” I said, “Who’s that? I don’t know. There’s no such thing as emperor in our Japanese school.” So I didn’t know anything about it. I know my mother had something, an altar where she put leaves, you know crotons there, but we were never asked to go over there and pray or honor him or anything.

Sue Isonaga's interview courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Herbert and Sue Isonaga.

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